Russell Simmons and William "Upski" Wimsatt couldn't be more different. As the cofounder and principal force behind Def Jam, one of the most recognizable brands in the music industry, the 45-year-old Simmons is part businessman, part celebrity; the Village Voice recently called him "president-for-life of hip-hop America." The 31-year-old Wimsatt isn't nearly as famous, but his two books, 1994's Bomb the Suburbs and 1999's No More Prisons, are cult classics deftly reflecting the hip-hop generation's maturation and tackling social issues such as the incarceration of people of color in disproportionate numbers.
A long-time contributor to Democratic causes, Simmons formed his own advocacy group, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, in 2001. In April 2003, HSAN created a voter registration project, Hip-Hop Team Vote, and enlisted celebrities such as Jay-Z, Ice Cube, Kanye West, and Eminem to appear at a series of "hip-hop summits," where Simmons claims to have registered more than a million young people.
In a lengthy interview, Simmons said that the efforts of celebrities such as P. Diddy, Eminem, and Will Smith to encourage young people to vote made a "big difference" in the 2004 general election. He cited an MTV exit poll (which drew its information from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Development) that showed 51.6 percent of citizens between 18 and 29 voting in this election, nearly 10 percent more young people than voted in the 2000 election. "I know that Will Smith's work in Philadelphia had everything to do with [state representative] Bob Freeman getting back in office," he said. "Freeman attributed his victory to Will Smith and HSAN."
Meanwhile, Wimsatt's League of Pissed-Off Voters, an organization he and several others founded in March 2003, developed 115 slates recommending candidates in elections across the country. The slates were part of its long-term goal to develop a progressive voting bloc by influencing local and regional races as well as state and national ones.
At the time of this interview, Wimsatt didn't yet know how many candidates on the League's slates won races. He did, however, point to two victories: state representative John Eder in Maine and public regulation commissioner Jason Marks in New Mexico. He said that it was the League's support that helped these two candidates win their offices.
The League's pick for president on all of its slates was Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who, of course, lost to President George W. Bush. The Democrats suffered a series of defeats during the November 2 general election, giving up four Senate seats and four House seats to the Republican Party.
"I think we were all devastated," said Wimsatt of the League's reaction. "We knew from the beginning it wasn't just about Bush versus Kerry. It was about the Republicans creating one-party rule, which radically alters what we think of as a democracy with checks and balances. We no longer have a system with checks and balances in this country. We have an extreme, Republican, one-party rule that can do anything it damn well pleases."
In the wake of the Democrats' collapse, media commentators immediately portended a war for the soul of the party between the far left (or, as ABC correspondent Cokie Roberts termed them on election night, "the Michael Moore faction") and the centrists, led by former President Bill Clinton, who had considerable influence on Kerry's unsuccessful campaign. If there is, indeed, an ideological war brewing in the Democratic Party, it could simply boil down to a case of enfranchisement: How much political power, if any, should the Democrats give to the progressive movement that the League represents?
Simmons, for his part, does not see himself as part of what he calls "the angry left," and said he is ready to work with the Bush administration. One of his new projects is UniRush, which will promote economic empowerment. "I'm going to use the funding from the UniRush campaigns to travel this country and develop a financial services company that promotes financial literacy," he said. It's a plan he believes can draw support from the Republican Party. "[Bush's] administration has discussed many ways to uplift [poor] people, and I want to hold them accountable for it," he said.
While Simmons wants to change the current political system from the inside, Wimsatt embraces his outsider status. "We're warriors. We're not going to compromise our values for the Democrats or the Republicans," he said.
"Close to 40 years ago, when Barry Goldwater lost the presidency [in 1964 to Lyndon Johnson] -- he got demolished -- the first thing the right wing came out and said was, öBullshit we lost. This was a victory. We had more people voting for an explicitly right-wing candidate than ever before,'" he continued. "In this election, we had more people vote against a sitting president than ever before, more people vote for an explicitly liberal senator from Massachusetts than anyone could have ever expected. We've seen the hugest turn out of young people, we've seen the hip-hop generation finally get politicized in a sophisticated way."
Despite this group's growing political savvy, Kerry kept them at arm's length. He participated in several photo opportunities and rallies with rock stars such as Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, Green Day, and Bruce Springsteen, but turned down requests from HSAN to meet. "We had 26 hip-hop summits, and this motherfucker didn't come to one," said Simmons. Was it a matter of racism? Did Kerry balk at taking a photo with a rap star for fear of how he would look in the media?
Simmons will only say, "John Kerry's not a racist. His campaign is just stupid." He will acknowledge, however, that the Democratic Party is increasingly out of touch with its electorate. "They're fighting for, in theory, a lot of good things for people who are struggling. They just don't know any people who are struggling," he said. "When you go to a party for a big supporter of Democrats, there are no black people anywhere in sight," he added. "I know all of the big funders of the Democratic Party. But I'm one of their only black friends."
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While the Democratic Party is devaluing Americans of color at a huge cost, the progressive movement, a nascent coalition of leftist organizations whose ideological origins can be traced to the infamous mass protests against the World Trade Organization's Seattle meetings in December of 1996, is slowly being transformed by the hip-hop generation.
Among these groups, Wimsatt's League of Pissed-Off Voters is a relatively small player. It is more grassroots and hands-on than, for example, MoveOn.org, whose political action committee spent millions of dollars organizing against the Republican Party this year. Wimsatt downplays his role as the director of the League; he clings to his status as an everyday community activist, even though he is rapidly turning into a national leader.
"The old people that voted for Bush are going to die out. People of color are going to become a majority, and we have a long-term strategy to take this country back," said Wimsatt. "We've been proving our model for winning small elections. This is what the right did -- they took on school boards and city council races, and they built up from there."
Even though Wimsatt sounded hopelessly optimistic when comparing the progressive movement to Goldwater's conservatives, it is clear that the Democratic Party will have to change its tactics dramatically if it wants to reclaim America's legislative and executive branches. As Wimsatt put it, "the 2008 election starts today."