Wordsworth says he doesn't like politics. Much of the Brooklyn MC's career has been devoted to noncommercial hip-hop culture through his recordings with partner Punchline; memorable moments on A Tribe Called Quest's The Love Movement and Mos Def and Talib Kweli's Black Star album; and his involvement in creating the critically acclaimed but short-lived MTV comedy sketch series, Lyricist Lounge.
But, like most Americans, Wordsworth's attitude began to change after the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. "I used to work in the towers," he explains in a brief telephone interview, adding that he worked for Pagenet in 2000 programming pagers. "When [the first explosion] happened, and then the [second explosion] happened, I was like, Wow, I was just working there a year ago."
Wordsworth says he initially supported President George W. Bush's subsequent war against Iraq in 2003. "When this whole thing as far as finding nuclear weapons came about, that's when I was, like, öOkay, if he's going to go over to find these nuclear weapons, and if he says he feels strongly about it, then, you know, go over there and check for them,'" he says. "And then he didn't find nothing and we still went to war. You know what I'm saying? It was kind of crazy. So I was, like, I don't know how much I can trust this guy."
So when Slam Bush, a political action committee created by the League of Pissed-Off Voters, reached out to Wordsworth in July and asked him to participate in a video for their campaign, he readily assented. "I wanted to do it because my whole intent was to get people involved in registering to vote, and wanting to do something instead of complaining," says Wordsworth, who released his solo debut, Mirror Music, earlier this month. He admits that, despite being a longtime registered voter, he hasn't voted in a national election before. But he "most certainly" plans to do so this year.
"A lot of people in the inner city and the hip-hop population observe what's going on. They may even say stuff about it, like öForget Bush.' But then, they never go to the polls," he says. "Being that people listen to my music and listen to me doing other things in general, I just felt like I should use my voice to help as much as possible."
In a short clip designed by Louis Fox at Free Range Graphics, a graphic design firm that often works with nonprofit and activist groups, Wordsworth stands at a podium beside a virtual image of President Bush. To be sure, it wasn't fair battle, since Fox dug up a clip of a smirking, fluorescent Bush stuttering, "I'm asking for your vote. I-I want you to be on my team."
Then, the "moderator" solemnly turns to Wordsworth and instructs him, "Mr. Wordsworth, you have one minute to respond for the hip-hop generation." As the rapper collects himself, a banging hip-hop beat is suddenly turned on, and Bush nervously smiles as Wordsworth launches into a freestyle. It's a cheesy effect, but it works, thanks to the genuine outrage Wordsworth expresses.
"Non-humane/Iraq, Saddam Hussein/Didn't find weapons, still went and bombed with planes/Arms are aimed/Children and moms are maimed/C4 killing soldiers when the car's detained," Wordsworth raps. "Believe me, it's way worse than it looks/So let's vote, and stop beating around the bush." He then slams down the mike in frustration.
Slam Bush's campaign is meant to have the same cathartic effect as Wordsworth's "mock debate." His video is being used as an instructional tool for MCs and slam poets who are "battling" Bush, who is sometimes represented by a CD recording of his most asinine comments, other times by a "Bush clown" with a mask on, at slam events the organization has been hosting around the nation.
"There's an interview in [the book How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office!, edited by William Upski Wimsatt and Adrienne Browne] with Davey D, and he was complaining that progressives and democrats haven't been able to penetrate into the hip-hop market," says Tate Hausman, a graphic designer and "director of strategy " for Free Range Graphics. When asked for a solution, the Bay Area hip-hop activist proposed throwing MC battles around the country that would both register voters and allow hip-hoppers to vent their frustration about the political system.
"We heard about that, and started putting feelers out," says Hausman. A political action committee, Slam Bush, was quickly assembled. It consists of a grassroots organizing component led by Robert "Biko" Baker, a webmaster (www.contrabandit.com) and journalist; the League of Pissed-Off Voters; and Free Range Graphics, which produced the web site and video and provides "overall support."
Since July, twelve events have been held in cities in nine "swing" states, including Miami, Florida, with each winner earning a trip here for a national championship set to take place on September 29 -- the night before the first presidential debate between President Bush and Senator John Kerry at the University of Miami in Coral Gables. There also have been numerous unofficial events, which Hausman termed "street battles."
The championship, which will be at Mansion on South Beach, is a careful blend of politics and entertainment. The first half of the evening will be devoted to the slam competition; the Miami representative is scheduled to be Wanda Darden, a.k.a. Phantom Knoet. The winner will be awarded $5000.
The second half will be a showcase for a new hip-hop label, South Beat Records, with MTV MC Battle II champion Wrekonize, Mayday, and Algorithm scheduled to perform. The night climaxes with a performance from the Roots, a band well known among progressives for appearing charity and political events such as this one.
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"The idea is to activate the hip-hop community," says Hausman, who points out that the hip-hop generation usually skews Democratic. "In the 2000 election, that population voted at a pathetically low rate of 24 percent. But we know that most of the people, when they're going to vote, are going to vote Democrat. So the concept behind it was, how can we convince hip-hoppers to actually get out to the polls in a real partisan way?"
But why vote for Kerry? "It's the lesser of two evils," says Soulflower. On September 29, she'll be one of two female judges (the other is L.A. rapper Medusa) on a star-studded panel that includes Public Enemy front man Chuck D., and one of two Miami reps on the panel, the other being acclaimed spoken-word artist Will Da Real One.
Despite her extensive credentials as a progressive musician, Soulflower says she's concerned about "national security." "You definitely want someone to stand up as a fearless warrior to lead you," she says, pointing out Kerry's Vietnam experience. "But you want someone who's compassionate, too. And I'm sure that, once he gets elected, we'll learn a lot more about him than we know now that we might not like."
Soulflower acknowledges that Kerry may not the perfect candidate for the hip-hop generation. "Politicians always have a hidden agenda," she says.