Outside City Hall, around the sidewalk stage, things get crazy very early on. Like right after school lets out. Kids cram the streets, tens of thousands crowding every inch of pavement for blocks. Onstage, there is Big Tigger, from BET's "Tha Bassment," pleading, "PLEASE DO NOT PUSH. You've got to take a baby step back. Please help us help y'all." Not that the pleading does any good.
There are gaggles of girls, drunk on heat and hormones and the prospect of seeing a favorite rap star: Jay-Z. P. Diddy. LL Cool J. Common. Noreaga. RZA, from Wu-Tang Clan. And so they shove and push, and heave and squeeze, until the barricades come crashing down.
Sure, they're here to protest school budget cuts, but on this first Tuesday in June, at least, the vibe is more rap concert than City Hall demonstration.
Big Cap is on the turntable. Tigger's on the mic. A hundred or so of New York's finest are on alert. Jumbotrons dot the street. "Backstage" -- a squared-off cordon of concrete -- hip-hop's hottest, from Rah Digga to Alicia Keys and Foxy Brown, to Chuck D and Erykah Badu, to Rev. Run and Raekwon, are snaking through the crush of fans, teachers, City Council members, union reps, activists and wannabes hellbent on snaring a record deal. They're here, as Noreaga puts it, "to support the cause." And because rap mogul Russell Simmons of Def Jam Records, the rally organizer, asked them to be here.
"If you want education!
Put your hands up!
Put your hands up!
Lemme hear you say YEAAAAAAAAH!!!!"
This is what hip-hop, approaching its 30th year, looks like as it comes of age politically. Flush with cash and the power of rap's international appeal to young people, some in the hip-hop community are starting to imagine the possibilities inherent in lassoing the energy of millions of record-buying fans.
Of course, activism and hip-hop -- the culture that sprang out of rap music -- have always danced together. They've been partners ever since rap's earliest beginnings in the Bronx, when Afrika Bambaataa and his Universal Zulu Nation abandoned gangbanging for rapping and grass-roots organizing in the 1970s. But Simmons's rally in Manhattan earlier this month reflects a ratcheting-up of an investment in the three Ps: politics, philanthropy and protest. It's even got a nickname -- raptivism.
On the electoral front, spoken-word artist and school administrator Ras Baraka just completed his third run for office in Newark; City Council contender George Martinez, aka Rithm says he's the first MC to run for elected office in New York; and self-proclaimed "hip-hop minister" Conrad Muhammad, formerly of the Nation of Islam, is mulling over challenging Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) -- on the Republican ticket.
On the philanthropy side, there is Simmons, whose newly formed Hip-Hop Summit Action Network funds literacy programs, arts education and political candidates. And then there are Mos Def and Talib Kweli, outspoken artist-activists who organized other rappers to produce "Hip-Hop for Respect," a maxi-single decrying police brutality; proceeds benefited a nonprofit organization that encourages entertainers to play leadership roles.
P. Diddy founded Daddy's House, a charity that provides money to underprivileged children in Harlem for computer camps and trips to Africa. In Los Angeles last month, Boots Riley of the Coup, Blackilicious, Dilated Peoples, Mystic, spoken-word artist Saul Williams and Ozomatli performed for free in "Not in Our Name," the first large-scale benefit concert to protest the Bush administration's war on terrorism.
Not the hip-hop you usually see bouncing around on your TV screen. Where's the bling-bling, the music that embraces the glamorous life, the live-now-I-got-mine attitude found in countless hits, and in flashy videos where hootchy mamas bounce their backsides and Busta Rhymes exhorts, "Pass the Courvoisier"? Therein are the two faces of hip-hop. While Busta extols a brand of cognac, Nas is declining a lucrative deal with Coors beer because he says he doesn't want to peddle alcohol to African Americans. The "conscious" side of hip-hop is what prompted Public Enemy frontman Chuck D to dub rap the "CNN of the ghetto" in the late '80s, the side where political, social and cultural issues are hashed out in verse.
Some see it as a war for the soul of hip-hop.
One small battle in this war has been playing out between Old School and New School heads. MC battles are nothing new; millions are made with warring rappers trading disses on digital. And maybe the latest one between Nelly and KRS-One is just more big publicity stunt. Still, the symbolism is hard to miss. Nelly denounced KRS-One on a remix as a has-been, the "first old man to get a rapper's pension." KRS-One, who sees rap as "edutainment," responded by comparing Nelly's music to an " 'N Sync commercial," and calling for fans of "real hip-hop" to boycott Nelly's new album.
Even those who proclaim their "raptivist" credibility also realize their commercial appeal. They know the power of hype.
The City Hall protest, for example, was part theater, part marketing op, part grass-roots organizing that produced a rare coalition of labor and hip-hop. Kids, teachers, rappers and labor activists came to protest Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed $358 million cut in funding for public schools, in part of a week-long series of demonstrations. (Cynthia Nixon, star of HBO's "Sex and the City," was the first celebrity arrested that week.) But the hip-hop rally was the biggest yet, a huge celeb fest organized by Simmons, a yoga devotee who these days says he's gotten more serious about political activity. This much he knows: If you pick up the phone, they will come.
"Hip-hop has always had bravado and style," says political commentator Farai Chideya, author of "The Color of Our Future," a book about the future of race relations through the eyes of young Americans. "Now it has money and power and access. Hip-hop people don't have to beg for a seat at the table. They can make the table happen."
Being performers, they come to the table with a flair for the dramatic. Rapper and singer Wyclef Jean will arrive late to the rally, and when police refuse to let him onstage, he will lie facedown in the street in a theatrical gesture, and the cops will cart him away. The kids will watch his arrest, and they will not like it. Some will run after the cops, screaming "Free Wyclef!" and they will throw things. Still, those who participate will see possibilities in a growing sense of hip-hop political power.
Says New York City Council member Charles Barron, backstage at the rally: "This is an awesome, awesome revolutionary moment. [Hip-hop] can indeed transform a nation."
"This reminds me of how hip-hop started," says rap veteran Fab Five Freddy as he surveys the crowd. "We're using entertainment as a way to focus on the political issues. That's where hip-hop came from. It started as an adolescent activity and now it's the most dominant form of youth culture in the world."
A Little Help From 'Rush' We are the senators and the congressmen of our communities. We come from communities that don't have nobody to speak for them. . . . We represent them. And they need to know that we really represent them. Not when it's just a romantic notion or a paycheck attached to it.
-- Mos Def
In the parking lot of a weary Newark strip mall, the "Baraka car" sits idly. Its sides are emblazoned with election slogans, its seats stuffed to the windows with box upon box of election fliers and posters. The Baraka-mobile is, to put it bluntly, a "hoopty," a raggedy affair you don't dare drive more than a block. The irony of its origins is not lost on its owner, Ras Baraka, who is running for an at-large position on the Newark City Council: In another life, the Baraka car was a cop car; now it belongs to a candidate who challenges police brutality.
Outside his exceedingly battered election headquarters, a large poster is plastered to the window: In it, Russell Simmons and Baraka sit together under a banner headline that proclaims, "Rush Is Rolling With Ras for Councilman-at-Large in 2002."
It helps, Baraka says, to have a hip-hop kingmaker like Simmons throw his support behind him. A young voter might not have heard of him, but more than likely, he says, that voter will know "Rush."
Baraka says Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit Action Network contributed $1,000 to his campaign. He is grateful, he says, "but I wish he'd thrown me a fundraiser," like he did for Hillary." (According to Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, it was Simmons's political action committee, the NUAmericaPAC, that contributed to Baraka's campaign. The committee has also contributed to Maryland Del. Mark K. Shriver's campaign for Congress.)
At 33, Baraka, the son of famed poet, playwright and activist Amiri Baraka, considers himself both an activist and a member of the hip-hop community: A published poet who co-edited "In the Tradition: An Anthology of Young Black Writers," the vice principal of a Newark public school appears on Lauryn Hill's CD "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill."
Baraka is one of the earliest electoral candidates to identify with the hip-hop generation, and sees hip-hop as a tool to galvanize youth. His words tumble out, a rush of politics and passion, liberally peppered with quotes from his dad as well as Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon and Mos Def. He is running for office, he says, because his generation has to step up. As he sees it, the black political establishment isn't interested in welcoming young folks into the fold.
"It's like young people are the enemy," he says.
This isn't his first time on the election ballot: In 1994, at 24, Baraka ran for mayor of Newark. In '98, he ran for councilman-at-large, losing in the runoff. The same thing will happen this time around; he will lose the June 11 runoff by a handful of votes.
But today, at least, in the campaign office, spirits are optimistic. His campaign crew is, like him, young: teachers and activists, most under 35. Rap is the soundtrack to their lives.
Observes Baraka's campaign manager, Dave Muhammad, 35: "When you see a community dying, you have to open your eyes to that. . . . Hip-hop is the sleeping giant. Imagine if Jay-Z had a concert in Madison Square Garden. And if on every seat he had a voter registration card. Now that would be some serious political leverage."
Other candidates have not shied from trying to use hip-hop's leverage to garner votes. In his failed bid for mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, a 32-year-old Rhodes scholar, drew the support of hip-hop luminary Queen Latifah in his attempt to unseat incumbent Sharpe James.
Conrad Muhammad, formerly of the Nation of Islam and founder and director of A Movement for Conscious Hip-Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment (CHHANGE), has taken hip-hop to task for its commercialism, misogyny and glorification of the gangsta life. Now the Harvard Divinity student (he's currently on leave) is considering taking on veteran Rep. Rangel, the Harlem politico who in 1970 was the young upstart who unseated the ailing Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
Muhammad figures that if rappers can sell a million records, then they have the wherewithal to snare the votes needed to become a city council member. But electoral success, he argues, will also require thinking outside the box: Forget about a single-minded embrace of the Democratic Party. Ergo Muhammad, a registered Democrat, is negotiating with the Republican Party to run on the GOP ticket.
"There's an unprecedented role for the youth and brilliance to have an active role in politics," says Muhammad, 37.
Does that mean that he thinks he is young and brilliant?
"If I do say so myself."
Hip-hop, after all, is all about bravado.
The Two Faces of Rap Rap has always been two things: party music and party music. Rap music is rebel music, whether its adherents are rebelling against the system like the Coup's Boots Riley and his "Ghetto Manifesto," or rebelling against the notion that it's not their God-given right to pump up the volume.
From the very beginning, hip-hop was different. The beat dominated everything, obliterating melody, eviscerating eardrums, propelling rumps to shake and heads to nod. As with other youth-driven forms of music before it, some heard it and heard danger.
The rhythms of rap sprang up out of the harsh environs of the Bronx River housing project where the streets were indeed mean and the Notorious Black Spades ran things. But somewhere around the early to mid-'70s, a Jamaican named Kool DJ Herc, the father of hip-hop, started mixing improvised raps to reggae beats, and the focus on gangbanging shifted. Instead of gang wars, some folks started having MC battles, rhyming contests where rappers got to show off their verbal prowess.
Always, the two faces of rap were present: like the "hotel, motel, Holiday Inn" playfulness of the first crossover rap hit, "Rappers Delight," and a nascent political pulse hovering underneath the beat, like the 1982 hit "The Message," an unsparing look at ghetto life, where Grandmaster Flash intoned again and again, "Don't push me / 'Cause I'm close to the edge."
Hip-hop, the culture that includes rapping, DJ-ing, graffiti art and breakdancing, provided a forum for African American and Latino kids who felt they had no voice.
Rap has long since been embraced by young people everywhere, becoming part of the ghetto romanticizations and rebellion of young whites and a powerful form of expression worldwide.
But as hip-hop godfather Afrika Bambaataa said, "When we made hip-hop, we made it hoping it would be about peace, love, unity and having fun so that people could get away from the negativity that was plaguing our streets."
Now it is those roots that activists of color cling to as they try to turn words into social consciousness and action.
Organizers vs. Entertainers I'll take a slug for the cause like Huey P
while all you fake niggas try to copy Master P . . .
-- Dead Prez, "Police State"
There is a romanticism of movements past, a glancing backward at the successes of the black-power and civil rights movements, even while acknowledging that those movements fail to speak to today's youth.
Still, the problems facing members of the hip-hop generation -- brown and black 18-to-40-year-olds -- are no less pressing, activists will tell you: high incarceration rates, unemployment and underemployment, deteriorating schools,, police brutality and racism that has mutated but not disappeared.
"The hip-hop generation is in a unique position to create a mass political movement in our lifetime," says Bakari Kitwana, author of "The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture." "We stand on the success of the civil rights movement. . . . I think we can create a movement as successful as the civil rights movement. We can surpass it."
At the moment, however, without a single clear issue on which to focus, such as voting rights or Jim Crow, activism is to be found in pockets around the country. There is the District of Columbia's Local Initiative, Support, Training and Education Network (LISTEN), founded by the late Lisa Sullivan, who saw hip-hop as having untapped potential for grass-roots organizing. LISTEN describes itself as a "youth leadership incubator" and works with other grass-roots groups to identify and nurture young activists.
In San Francisco, Van Jones runs the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, taking on police brutality and prison reform. The group lobbied hard against California's Proposition 21, which would, among other things, have made it easier for prosecutors to try juveniles as adults. Activists staged guerrilla hip-hop shows, the beat booming as rappers on flatbed trucks rhymed against Prop 21. Though the measure won statewide, it was defeated in the Bay Area.
It is these members of the hip-hop generation -- not entertainers -- whom Yvonne Bynoe, founder of the New York-based Urban Think Tank, argues should be front and center. Community organizing, she says, should be left in the hands of people who know how to do it.
"I don't need to know what Puffy thinks on certain issues," says Bynoe of Simmons's rally. "It is the chic thing to do, a PR stunt, 'I have a record coming out, let me show my face.' "
Hip-hop journalist and historian Davey D sees it differently.
"Russell is reaching out to Pookie and Sha-Sha, high school dropouts. Russell is reaching the 'hood," he says. "There's no denying Russell has firepower because people know who he is. You can't have just one approach. You've got to have a multitude of approaches."
Both agree that the old models of black political empowerment don't work. This generation is more individualistic, she says, less prone to jump on a single-party bandwagon and disaffected by the older generation's politics. Today's youth are pragmatists, not so concerned about seeking redress from the government, but looking to themselves and family as vehicles for advancement. Money, not legislation, is seen as the way out.
Not that there isn't room for radical politics, the romanticization of the past, or the germination of something new.
Rappers like Riley, and Ozomatli's Raul Pacheco, who see themselves as both artists and activists, often form alliances with Old School activists, like the former Black Panthers, particularly in the Bay Area. Former Panthers David Hilliard and Elaine Brown have both worked with Riley, himself the son of a '70s activist. Fred Hampton Jr., the son of the slain Chicago Panther, is organizing his own political group, of which the rappers Dead Prez are members. Hampton, freshly released from prison on an arson conviction, shows up at hip-hop conferences dressed in camouflage and spouting rhetoric.
"I think voting is the lowest form of political action that you can do," Riley says. "A lot of times it keeps people from doing stronger things. We're told, 'If you want to change the world, vote.' And really, if you want to change the world, there's a lot more things that you can do."
Riley and Ozomatli were among those performing at the "Not in Our Name" concert last month. Who knows where a peace movement in a post-Sept. 11 world might lead?
Money Men Russell Simmons, he's a billionaire. If he's a billionaire, he should donate some of what he's got to the schools.
-- Sameyah Mitchell,
New York City public school student
You can debate about rap and politics, but rap's selling power is a given. Corporations use it to sell sneakers and soda. And moguls like Simmons and Master P have amassed great fortunes on the backs of hip-hoppers. Some like Bynoe and Kitwana wonder if Simmons's interest in politics is nothing more than self-interest, particularly when he testified before a Senate committee about free speech and offered to put a parental advisory label on CDs containing offensive lyrics.
As Donald Trump, Barry Diller, David Geffen and others have shown, a millionaire's fancy often can turn to politics.
Simmons has poured more than $100,000 into his year-old organization (several record labels, along with the Recording Industry Association of America, have contributed to the group as well), which shares office space with Source magazine and is run by civil rights era warhorse Ben Chavis Muhammad, who left his leadership post at the NAACP in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal and has since worked for the Nation of Islam.
Since the demonstrations, Mayor Bloomberg has reinstated $298 million of the proposed school budget cuts and signed a new contract for New York teachers.
"The restoration of that big a figure back into the budget was a result of our mobilization," Benjamin Muhammad says.
Next month, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network will launch a literacy program as part of a joint effort between the HHSAN, Def Jam Records and the Urban League. The group will also work with the NAACP to relaunch Rap the Vote. Mary J. Blige, P. Diddy and LL Cool J have already taped public service announcements encouraging young people to register to vote.
Simmons decribes himself as "very, very committed. We did the Hip-Hop Summit and made a lot of promises, we are mentoring kids, we do have a think tank, we do have a Def Jam literacy program, and it's not easy."
"We are committed to forming an alliance with those organizations that young people felt connected with. . . . People have been disconnected from the civil rights movement and we're working really hard to connect those dots."
As others already know and Simmons seems to be learning, connecting the dots is not an easy task. Though there were probably historic alliances outside City Hall that day -- hip-hop and organized labor -- not even all the troops seemed clear about the mission.
Just before the rally, Jay-Z took to the airwaves, urging kids to participate. But when asked what role he saw entertainers like himself playing in politics, he shrugged and threw up his hands.
"I'm just Jay-Z," he drawled.
Does that mean he doesn't think rappers should play politics?
"I didn't say that," he sputtered. "Don't start something."
Right now, raptivism may be more the promise of something new rather than its fulfillment.