Checks and Balances

It is a Friday afternoon and hundreds of eager, sweaty teens swarm outside of South Beach club Mansion. They have all but overtaken the sidewalks between Twelfth and Thirteenth streets on Washington Avenue and are trading demos, cracking jokes, and exchanging rumors of celebrity sightings. Two girls immediately blocking my path get all giddy when someone mentions spotting Mike Jones, while a group of boys prepares to solicit Russell Simmons and Dame Dash for a record deal (good luck!).

And though the celebrity worship seems par for the course, this isn't Mansion's normal party set. These are teens from Overtown and Liberty City who've been shipped here by the Urban League of Greater Miami. For one day only, South Beach's poshest club has been transformed into the world's most expensive and decadent high school auditorium for the Miami Hip-Hop Summit on Financial Empowerment.

This summit is the latest gathering of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN). If you only remotely follow the ins and outs of modern music, you probably imagine that the words hip-hop and nonprofit don't belong in the same paragraph together. But HSAN is the real deal: a coalition of hip-hop artists, entertainment industry leaders, education advocates, civil rights proponents, and youth leaders that uses the music and the celebrity which surrounds it as a launching pad for a progressive and practical youth outreach program.

For this summit, hip-hop illuminati such as Russell Simmons, Dame Dash, Juelz Santana, Mike Jones, Memphis Bleek, Joe Budden, and Trina are scheduled to appear. Although the HSAN's mission statement and star roster are admirable, the actual execution is suspect.

"Are you guys ready to make a million dollars in the next year?" old-school legend Doug E. Fresh, MC for the event, screams to a jubilant audience.

Sure, I think to myself, wondering if the beatbox maestro knows something about my first raise that I don't. I look around at the various sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds surrounding me [the "press section" has been overrun by them] and wonder if their prospects for making seven figures in the next year are any better than mine.

Benjamin Chavis takes the stage. The crowd barely welcomes the former leader of the NAACP, now president and chairman of HSAN, but it also hides its disappointment when Chavis announces that Simmons, Dash, Santana, Jones, and Bleek are no-shows. According to Chavis, they were all on the same plane that was grounded because of "hydraulic problems."

Of the remaining celebrities (Budden, Jo Jo from Dipset, and Neef from Young Gunz) and assorted black entrepreneurs, Miami native Trina is the biggest draw for this crowd. Being a frequent inhabitant of hip-hop clubs and studios, I'm used to the kind of bass that provokes seismic tremors. But the trebly squeal that emanates from a fifteen-year-old behind me -- "TRIIIIINAAAAA!" -- nearly shatters my eardrums. I look around as the guys in the room sulk, disappointed Miami's cutest rapper didn't mosey up to the committee table ass-first.

Russell Simmons does make a guest appearance, kinda. A cell phone call from the executive is piped in through Mansion's speakers. As the crowd leans forward and strains to hear Simmons's gravelly voice through the crackling reception, I get the feeling the summit has reached its nadir.

But really, the celebrities are dessert before the meal, the cheese over the broccoli. And the main course, though a bit bland, is nonetheless nutritious. The summit's cadre of businessmen do provide useful suggestions: Get your credit record straight, don't live beyond your means, save, and so on and so forth. It isn't exactly revelatory, but it makes its point.

And so what if the summit is a classic case of bait and switch? Nobody got hurt, and this is an example of stars using their wattage for a good cause. Though it's doubtful anyone in the room will ever earn seven figures, at least not in a year, there's nothing wrong with dreaming. And when you wake up, you might want to know how to balance a checkbook.


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