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By Chuck Strouse
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We want to say fuck Bush and fuck Kerry!” Stic.man, one-half of dead prez, cried out to scattered applause. It was Saturday afternoon, June 19, the fourth and final day of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention (NHHPC), and most of the delegates — mainly college-age students from around the nation who qualified as delegates by registering 50 voters or more — along with a few hundred attendees, had decamped to the Essex County College gymnasium in Newark, New Jersey. Among the speakers before a long and drawn-out ratification process for the first-ever national hip-hop political platform: self-styled rappers and revolutionaries dead prez.
“This ain’t no rap fest,” M-1 added during dead prez’s fifteen-minute performance. “We know you have a lot of important work to do.” He and Stic.man then launched into their hit “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop.” They chanted: “It’s bigger than hip-hop, it’s bigger than hip-hop,” as the crowd bounced around, pumping fists.
A lot of luminaries spoke that day, but dead prez epitomized the spirit of the convention. They are major-label artists on Columbia Records (a label M-1 once disparaged to this reporter as “the plantation”) with considerable clout in the hip-hop recording industry, and they perform shows around the world for grassroots audiences at little or no cost. They consider themselves to be the descendants of the Black Panthers and other Sixties radicals, conducting themselves with a discipline and austerity that would shock their ancestors. They hold no faith in the electoral system or conventional politics, yet constantly exhort their listeners to be aware of the effect politicians, governments (national and local), and police officers have on them.
After their performance, the dead prez duo were swamped by radio, print, and Internet journalists. A DJ hit up M-1 for a “shout out” he could broadcast on his mix show, while one of the convention’s organizers, the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, tried to hustle them out of the gymnasium and down the hallway to a separate press room so they could be interviewed by Davey D, Oakland journalist and host of KPFA-FM’s Hard Knock Radio. Meanwhile Stic.man was asked why he wasn’t voting for President George W. Bush or John Kerry in the upcoming presidential election.
“Neither one of those candidates is supporting what our community needs, so they can’t represent us,” he said. “We don’t have a candidate that represents the revolutionary changes that we need in our community.”
Dead prez’s sentiments were only one indication of how left the conversation veered during the first NHHPC, which ran from Wednesday, June 16, to Saturday, June 19. The panel discussions and symposiums addressed a panoply of topics, from “Living Wages and the New Labor Movement” to “Gang Education and Outreach”; nighttime concerts featured artists such as Wyclef Jean, Rah Digga, and MC Lyte. Many of the discussions, particularly a Friday panel on “Dismantling Stereotypes and the Criminalization of Hip Hop,” invariably led to debates between the image of mainstream rap — unrepentantly capitalist, money-driven, obsessed with sex and violence — and its origins as an urban, community-based, and positive artistic culture for youth. But there seemed to be a disconnect between electoral politics (or educating people on how to vote for their preferred issues or candidates in the upcoming general election) and progressive issues that advocated for changing the system altogether.
Jeff Chang, a Bay Area journalist and a member of the convention’s platform and protocol committee, argued that the convention’s goal was to make its attendees, which numbered around 4000, more aware of how governmental and social agencies play a role in their everyday lives.
“It wasn’t the sole goal of the convention to convert people to the Democratic Party or to become Republican Party activists,” said Chang. “The idea was that people should come feeling like they should be engaged in the political process, and how they do it depends on them.”
As for the lack of diverse political views? National co-chair Baye Adofo Wilson rightly pointed out that progressive activists, from Afrika Bambaataa in the mid-Seventies and Chuck D. in the early Nineties to Newark deputy mayor Ras Baraka and political journalist Bakari Kitwana today, have usually framed political discourse within the hip-hop community. “The progressive hip-hop cultural community are the ones who came out to the convention,” he noted, “and they’re also the ones who really value the culture.”
But there are also moderates such as Def Jam founder and entrepreneur Russell Simmons, conservatives such as comedian Chris Rock, and gadflies such as Eminem who are equal participants in hip-hop culture. A convention that doesn’t incorporate a wide range of views beyond liberal or progressive inevitably limits its own impact. Which may have been why, save for Newark officials Baraka and Mayor Sharpe James, New York City Councilman Charles Barron, and perhaps a few others, no elected officials or other political figures made appearances at the convention.
“I don’t understand why [there aren’t more politicians] here,” said Barron, who plans to run for mayor of New York City in 2005. He added that by uniting activists under a common cause, the convention could have an impact on the November elections, especially those in the tri-state area. “I think it can definitely have an impact in New York and definitely in Newark,” he explained. “More important than the presidential elections are the local elections. That’s what I’m really hoping to pick up on — the school boards, the city council seats, and the assembly seats.”
The NHHPC was modeled after the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. Chaired by legendary poet Amiri Baraka, the convention has been cited as a key moment in the civil rights movement’s evolution — from campaigning for legal rights to winning state and local offices for African Americans. The hip-hop convention was the result of a conversation between Baraka’s son Ras, who also works as vice principal at Weequahic High School, and Bakari Kitwana, author of The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture. During the national agenda discussion and vote on Saturday, Amiri Baraka made an appearance that reprised his role at the 1972 event. He exhorted the audience to vote against Bush in November. “If you’re not registered to vote, then you’re a fool,” he told the crowd, dismissing dead prez’s “pox on both houses” remark. “Bush is killing us with fascism.”
However much the hip-hop generation likes to portray itself as a revolutionary force, the obstacles it faces — or doesn’t even encounter — are very different from the civil rights generation. The original National Black Political Convention convened at a crucial turning point in history, when young radicals were killed and jailed by the hundreds; when vanguard organizations like the Black Panther Party were being torn asunder by egoism, drug use, and FBI infiltration; and when older, more conservative activists were increasingly marginalized for a refusal to embrace a radical, antigovernment agenda.
The gathering itself was a contentious one that represented a range of political backgrounds, from a then-black nationalist Rev. Jesse Jackson to President Nixon aide Robert Brown, and was attended by 8000 people. Despite several walkouts, though, the convention was able to ratify a national black agenda known as the Gary Declaration.
In contrast, the NHHPC’s adoption of a national agenda was a relatively bloodless debate attended by only a few hundred people. Roughly 350 delegates from fourteen states (some of whom didn’t attend the final vote) worked out an agenda that addressed five major areas: education, economic justice, criminal justice, health, and human rights. Among other things, the agenda specifically calls for free admission to all public colleges and universities; “reparations for black Americans, including funding to support institutions destroyed by slavery, Jim Crow, and eroded by centuries of institutional racism”; free “universal holistic healthcare”; creation of a truth and reconciliation commission that would investigate human-rights violations “committed by the United States government throughout its history”; and an end to “U.S. imperialism,” beginning with troop withdrawals from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Puerto Rico.
Co-chair Baye Adofo Wilson says he and others hope to present the agenda at the Democratic and Republican national conventions this summer. “We haven’t spoken to many people at the higher echelons of the Democratic Party, but we have spoken to people who feel like they can help us negotiate some time for a presentation of our political agenda,” he says, adding that he hasn’t yet discussed it with anyone from the Republican Party. The next National Hip-Hop Political Convention is scheduled for 2006 in Chicago.