No hip-hop was playing that afternoon, but the church gym was packed anyway. Young people who had come from as far away as San Francisco and as near as the projects across the street filled the folding chairs. Dozens more lined the walls, waiting to query a panel of activists about how to get the hip-hop generation interested in politics.
At the first National Hip-Hop Political Convention, held here last month, the 2,000 or so attendees came armed with ideas for registering young voters and ready to draft a national political agenda to present to the presidential candidates at their conventions. Yes, music was part of it. Big-name hip-hop artists such as Wyclef Jean and Busta Rhymes played four straight nights. But for four straight days, what everyone kept talking about was making politics hip for the hip-hop generation.
"What's exciting is that more than half of the attendees were under 25 years old," said Bakari Kitwana, one of the convention organizers. "Those are the people we're really trying to reach."
With the war in Iraq, the economy, rising tuition costs and iffy job prospects all weighing heavily on young folks, the youngest voters are ready to engage, polls suggest. A March poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics found that 62 percent of college students definitely planned to vote in November, compared with 50 percent of those polled in April 2000. The candidates have responded. Last Tuesday, for example, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) outlined a plan for helping minority and poor students pay for college. But with college students making up only one-third of young potential voters, groups targeting that demographic group are not taking any chances.
The stakes are enormous. Campaign strategists believe that if mobilized, the 24 million young people eligible to vote could turn the election for either major candidate. But young people, the conventional wisdom goes, don't do politics. In 2000, only 36 percent of eligible voters ages 18 to 24 voted, the lowest percentage of any age group and a new low for that age group. And as young people have been tuning out politics, politics has been tuning out young people.
"Young people have been disengaged because the politicians and politics have neglected them," said Ivan Frishberg, a spokesman for the New Voters Project in Washington.
But this year, people keep saying, things are going to be different. They already are.
More organizations are working to engage and register young voters than ever, running the gamut from long-established groups such as the League of Women Voters and the NAACP to groups created specifically for young voters, such as Rock the Vote, formed in 1990, and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, in 2001. The newest groups, such as Punk Voter, the League of Independent Voters -- more commonly known as the League of Pissed Off Voters -- and Plea for Peace, were formed by young people themselves, who chose the attention-getting names. Most of the groups say they are nonpartisan, and by law none can tell anyone to register with a particular party. While conservative groups are certainly involved in targeting young voters, there seems to be an especially energetic response by the left.
Voter registration and mobilization is a common goal of all these groups, and the main one for many. But some are setting their sights higher, trying to create a new generation of activists. They are hoping to get young people to not only vote, but to campaign, organize, even run for office.
"Our tag line is 'building a progressive governing majority in our lifetime,' " said Naina Khanna, program director for the League of Independent Voters, which will hold a voter organizing convention July 16 to 18 in Columbus, Ohio. "In the beginning, it's taking people from 17 to 35 who feel disempowered, who don't really know what to do to change things, and take them to the stage of becoming voter organizers."
For get-out-the-vote groups the goal is to try to reach millions of people. The New Voters Project, a collaboration of the Public Interest Research Groups and the George Washington Graduate School of Political Management, plans to register and mobilize more than 265,000 young people in the swing states of Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin, in part by talking to a million young people, peer to peer.
Both major parties are also courting young voters, with the GOP making an especially splashy effort. Republicans are rolling around the country with Reggie the Registration Rig, an 18-wheeler making stops at NASCAR races, ballgames and college campuses to register 3 million new voters by Election Day. Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie has gone on MTV's "Total Request Live" to appeal to young conservatives.
Redeem the Vote, which is focused on registering about 250,000 young voters, has enlisted Christian rock groups and music stations. A few of the group's leaders were at the Gospel Music Association's annual festival in April in Nashville to enlist support for their voter-registration drive. The group's founder, Alabama physician Randy Brinson, says he has raised about one-third of his $1.8 million goal.
Music mogul Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, which says it has helped register 12 million voters ages 18 to 35 in the past three years (including 11,000 in one day in Philadelphia), has set a goal of registering 20 million voters by 2008.
Many of the groups are working together. The hip-hop summit has teamed with Rock the Vote, World Wrestling Entertainment's Smackdown Your Vote and others in an effort aimed at getting 20 million young voters, ages 18 to 30, to the polls. Before that, they want to register 1 million voters. (More than 300,000 voters have been registered since January.)
"I think we're going to have the largest youth voter turnout in American history," said Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, the former president of the NAACP and a Nation of Islam leader who presides over the hip-hop summit. The group registers young people at summit concerts and plans to follow through with e-mails and phone calls to get out the vote, Muhammad said.
Are the campaigns paying attention? "Suffice it to say," Muhammad said, "that all the major candidates have called." Rock the Vote is trying the latest in campaign weaponry, partnering with Motorola to use text messaging to remind young people to vote and to tell them how and where. The campaign takes its cue from recent international campaigns such as one in South Africa, where nearly 200,000 people used text messaging to register to vote. In Iran, candidates fought for votes in parliamentary election campaigns with competing text-message ads.
"The one thing that every young person owns is a cell phone," said Jehmu Greene, Rock the Vote's president. "We're also using it to poll people. And the most important thing as we get closer to the election is using it to tell people where they go to the polls. This is where the cell phone has revolutionized politics."
The League of Independent Voters (best known for its book, "How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office") is spending time at clubs, pubs, concerts, cafes -- wherever young people congregate. "Phone banking and door-to-door canvassing doesn't work with young people," Khanna said. "Young people are transient and don't keep regular hours." The League, which was started last year, has 25 chapters, with more forming. "People are so ready to get involved right now; I would say for the most part, we don't have to sell anything at all. We just sit here, and people come to us and say, 'What can I do?' "
That was the rallying cry at the National Hip-Hop Political Convention. The conference was organized by 40 political activists, academics, writers and artists from across the country who met in March 2003 in Chicago to figure out how to mobilize disenfranchised young people. The convention aimed to get them to start thinking about getting involved in issues in their communities. Participants in workshops kept asking how they could make a difference or change the way things work. The collective answer: organize and begin at home.
"This is creating a formal network for young people to take home," Kitwana said. He is the author of "The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture," and he helped popularize the term "hip-hop generation," which he loosely defined as African Americans 18 to 35 years old who have turned rap music, fashion and language into a cultural phenomenon. He has since broadened the definition to include young people of different ethnic backgrounds, reflected by the participants in the conference.
Angela Woodson, a Cleveland political organizer who co-chaired the hip-hop convention, said that the aim was to create locally active citizens. "There are a lot of home-grown concerns," she said. "So when people say, 'it doesn't matter who gets elected,' we say, it matters for your local council races; it matters for judicial races. We tell them look at the totality of what you're voting for and how judicial elections can affect your society."
Political researcher Brian Faler in Washington contributed to this report.