Crossing Borders

Change It All: Hip-Hop Activism Arrives

June 29, 2006

We've been talking for the past couple of weeks about how hip-hop changed the images of young people of color represented in the media. Underlying this is the certainty that hip-hop culture has become something of value in the marketplace, a commodity that can leverage other commodities, and transform identities and cultures around the world.

But now, let's return to this fact: hip-hop didn't begin as a commodity, it began as a way for young people in abandoned neighborhoods of the U.S. to have fun and express themselves. It was a neighborhood thing — specific to certain places, the Bronx, Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, Queens, Staten Island, Compton and Watts, Southside Chicago, Houston's Fifth Ward, the list goes on. And via commercialization, hip-hop went on to influence young people in other places around the world.

As the hip-hop generation has aged, it's become natural for this form of expression to be used to mobilize young people around politics. The cultural movement has become a political movement. This is an idea that authors like Bakari Kitwana and S. Craig Watkins, among many others, explore in their books, as I do in mine.

It makes perfect sense for hip-hop activism to exist.

Hip-hop is hardly the sum of the images you see on video shows or the sounds you hear on commercial radio stations. The truth is: at its most elemental, hip-hop remains a lived, local culture. It's not just a CD or DVD being hawked by well-dressed folks posing in a magazine. It's a culture practiced — and evolved — daily by millions of young people all around the world.

So it makes perfect sense that the young woman or man who goes to the poetry slam, the b-boy/b-girl competition, the turntablist exhibition, or is just hanging in the park playing the latest jams on the weekend, would on Monday be angry with the way their school has been turned into a series of security checkpoints, the way the plant next to their house is spewing toxic fumes, or the fact they have no place to gather in their city without harassment from authorities. Hip-hop provides a way for young people to express not only joy and a love of life, but pain and a desire for change.

The election year of 2004 was a landmark in hip-hop history, a year when hip-hop activism crystallized.

Russell Simmons, with his Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, and Diddy, with Citizen Change's "Vote or Die" campaign, were the most prominent voter registration campaigns, because of their celebrity-studded lineups and ubiquitous marketing.

But intensive grassroots efforts led by people participating in the National Hip-Hop Political Convention and the League of Pissed-Off Voters (AKA the League of Young Voters or the League of Independent Voters) were also crucial to setting national and local political agendas for the very first time in a generation. (Full disclosure: I was an organizer of the 2004 convention and serve on the board of the League's Education Fund.)

The day after the elections, the buzz amongst mainstream media was about how young voters didn't turn out to vote. It was clear that they didn't, pundits said, because Kerry lost. But the pundits couldn't have been more wrong.

Here are the facts: 4.3 million more voters between 18 and 29 came to the polls than in 2000, a surge unseen in decades. Over half of those new voters were African American or Hispanic. (Asian Americans and Native Americans weren't estimated.) More surprisingly, turnout rates for young African Americans and Hispanics were higher than they were for young whites. In other words, the young voting bloc more accurately reflected its actual racial diversity.

In other words, the 2004 election marked an historic moment, the electoral emergence of the hip-hop generation.

It's important to note that Karl Rove and the Republican Party didn't make this happen. Nor did the Democratic Party. Nor did the emerging so-called netroots. An uncoordinated but converging push of mass grassroots efforts and high-profile celebrity campaigns brought the hip-hop generation constituency to the polls.

This isn't to suggest either that electoral politics are the only form of politics that are practiced by the hip-hop generation. Indeed, the most reputable studies — such as the UCLA Freshman Survey — have shown that the hip-hop generation's rate of participation in voluntarism, in political protest and in activism on a wide range of issues is much higher than that of the baby boomer generation during their youth.

The myth of an apathetic generation — one even upheld by some of our youngest public intellectuals — is one of the most baseless and insidious lies of our era.

In my final entries here at Border Talk, we'll be bringing in Cristina Veran, an old-schooler from New York City who now works with indigenous youth around the world about how these native young people are using hip-hop to preserve and transform traditional cultures. We'll also be speaking with T.J. Crawford, an organizer with this summer's National Hip-Hop Political Convention, to be held next month in Chicago.

Stay tuned.

Older: An Interview with John Jay of Wieden + Kennedy, Part 2 Newer: Native Tongues: An Interview with Cristina Verán

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Robert Siataga wrote on July 16, 2006 12:33 AM:

sorry bro...

... but I'm just not buying into your truth that the fantasy of living the hiphop lifestyle of choice is actually part of an evolving culture practised by young people the world over

to each their own though...

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