Hip-hop had a higher political profile than ever before in the buildup to the 2008 election. Megastars like Kanye West, N.E.R.D., and Wyclef Jean performed at the Democratic National Convention. The Pharcyde, Mos Def, and Atmosphere performed at the Service Employees International Union’s Labor Day celebration. Last July, Barack Obama was forced to issue a denunciation of rapper Ludacris after the rapper released a track that dissed Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
Obama himself is now the standard of black leadership for the hip-hop generation, shouted out by everyone from Jay-Z (“It’s the hood’s Barack”) to Talib Kweli (“[I] speak to the people like Barack Obama”). Even the typically apolitical Young Jeezy came out for universal health care after paying out of pocket for a surgical procedure for his mother. Not since the 1980s heyday of groups like Public Enemy have rappers made so many references to mainstream politics.
Hip-hop has combined a black perspective with poignant social commentary from the beginning, but it has failed to become a major influence on party politics. Ideally, hip-hop would be a cultural-political force akin to the Christian right, focusing on a set of core issues that reflect the concerns of its urban, mostly (but not exclusively) black constituency: the drug war, voting rights, affordable housing, education, and economic opportunity.
But in a political context, hip-hop faces a strange paradox. It is now considered mainstream because its more superficial values—even those it is most often criticized for—are fundamentally American. The reason why frat boys can bump Lil’ Wayne as hard as an aspiring emcee in Brooklyn is that Lil’ Wayne’s core values are pretty conservative. His music is about entrepreneurship, upward mobility, masculine potency, and a binary understanding of power and authority. As Obama told Vibe magazine in 2005, his problem with hip-hop was that “the underlying values are so square. It’s about bling. It’s entirely cynical, entirely materialistic . . . [it] doesn’t challenge the social order at all.” In other words, what makes hip-hop widely accessible as entertainment is the same thing that holds it back from being a political force.
Hip-hop has to learn to push its issues out of the margins and into the center while still retaining its broad fan base. What makes politicians distance themselves from rappers even as they quietly accept their campaign donations (and allows hip-hop to remain attractive to youth) is the fact that this critical but openly honest embrace of the American dream and its underside is expressed with a black aesthetic that remains revolutionary. Hip-hop’s popularity thus undercuts itself; to be politically viable it has to be somewhat mainstream, but to maintain its vitality, it must remain fresh—and revolutionary. It has to have a vision of society as it would like it to be, which is terribly difficult for an art form whose most poignant and effective moments have focused on how America falls short of its ideals.
Hip-hop-based movements have had success in organizing around individual issues, but becoming a movement requires a broad-based agenda that grows out of those local victories. In the book Party Crashing: How the Hip-Hop Generation Declared Political Independence, Alexis McGill, the former political director for hip-hop entrepreneur and activist Russell Simmons’ campaign to reform the draconian Rockefeller drug laws in New York state, tells author Keli Goff, “I don’t think it’s effective to organize around being black. I think it’s effective to organize around class, education, criminal justice—things that affect us disproportionately because we are black.”
Simmons’ campaign was at least partially successful. The League of Young Voters has chapters in nine states and has lobbied on the local level for everything from re-enfranchising ex-felons in Pittsburgh to preventing cops in New Mexico from wearing guns on school campuses. The Hip Hop Caucus, which lobbies directly on Capitol Hill, received an award from the Institute for Policy Studies for its work on issues related to Hurricane Katrina.
Hip-hop can “help people come to consciousness,” says Rob “Biko” Baker of the League of Young Voters. He points out that the Christian right is supported by a bevy of powerful, well-financed groups, and adds that, for a movement based on hip-hop to be effective as more than just a funnel for social discontent, “we need strong institutions . . . we’re talking about jobs, schools. We’re not trying to throw rocks at tanks.”
Reprinted from the American Prospect(Oct. 2008), “an authoritative magazine of liberal ideas, committed to a just society, an enriched democracy, and effective liberal politics”; www.prospect.org.