Headlines, North America

POLITICS-US: Hip-Hop Stars Tap Potentially Huge Youth Vote

Bankole Thompson

DETROIT, Michigan, Oct 1 2008 (IPS) - In 2004, hip-hop mogul Sean P. Combs, known as "Puff Daddy", accompanied by R&B megastar Mary J. Blige and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, told thousands of students at Wayne State University in Detroit it was time to elect a new president.

Puff Daddy speaking at Wayne State University in 2004.  Credit: Bankole Thompson/IPS

Puff Daddy speaking at Wayne State University in 2004. Credit: Bankole Thompson/IPS

"Vote or Die: Citizens for Change" was Puff Daddy's national voter registration campaign mantra for young voters to back then Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, boldly declaring "I'm not a candidate running for office, but I am a citizen running for change. The revolution has begun."

In 2008, with a historic presidential election just weeks away, and a few days before the Oct. 6 voter registration deadline in Michigan, another international hip-hop icon, Jay-Z, will bring a similar message with an open concert at Detroit's Cobo Convention Centre to help Sen. Barack Obama win Michigan.

"Jay-Z will perform for thousands of Michigan voters for free," Obama's Michigan campaign said in a release about Saturday evening's event. "Jay-Z will promote voter registration and encourage young people to get involved with the campaign."

This latest unveiling of star power by the Obama camp, dubbed "Operation Registration", not only shows how liberal Hollywood has lined up behind the Democrats, but also underscores the nexus between hip-hop and politics.

Over the years, hip-hop has evolved not only as a musical genre but a political voice for young people who feel disenfranchised by the political system. As a mainstay in black politics, prominent black elected officials and activists have often used hip-hop artists to convey their protest messages to the government for ills faced by poor blacks in urban centres across the United States.

"There is a lot of excitement this time [in the hip-hop community] because of who is running for president and their desire to see change," said Nadir Omowale, cultural critic and MTV News correspondent. "Hip-hop is a natural way to get out the vote because it speaks to people. It speaks to that demographic because of their desire to see change."

Omowale said the Democrats understand that if they can get everyone out in Detroit to vote, together with southeast Michigan, that would counter the rest of the Republican counties in the state.

"Michigan still in some areas has a legacy of the Ku Klux Klan [racist militia] and right-wing groups," Omowale said. "That is the reason we see Obama here so much."

Artists like Jay-Z are organising people within their realm of influence, he said, citing the Saturday concert as an example.

The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) is a leading organisation in the country dedicated to the exclusive mission of using hip-hop as a "catalyst for education advocacy and an enormously influential agent for social change which must be responsibly and proactively utilised to fight the war on poverty and injustice."

Founded by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and led by former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, HSAN hosts the annual "Get Your Money Right" summit that brings hip-hop stars to major cities and universities across the country to address young people about their financial savings and credit.

This year, HSAN, the Hip-Hop Research and Education Fund and PowerPAC launched the "National Hip-Hop Team Vote 2008 Campaign" to get the hip-hop generation to register to vote. It is estimated that the 18- to 29-year-old segment of that generation will reach 50 million this year, representing one-third of the electorate.

"The truth is, four years ago in the last national election we witnessed the largest youth voter turnout in American history. We know beyond the shadow of any doubt the evolution of hip-hop culture helped to create that reality," Chavis said.

"We are already witnessing now in 2008 how young voters are building and expanding on the foundation laid four years ago. Civic engagement is a part of what it means to be a responsible citizen."

Chavis added, "And in defiance of some of the myths about the responsibility of the hip-hop generation, it is in fact a significant testimony that the youth of today are not only rising to the occasion of responsibility, they are taking charge and will make the biggest difference in the outcome of the 2008 presidential election."

Corey Ealons, director of African American media for Obama, told IPS in an interview that the campaign is excited about recruiting the seven-time Grammy Award-winning artist to get out the vote.

"Jay-Z is one of the most popular artists in the world. We are very excited that he is coming to Michigan," Ealons said. "As a hip-hop artist he has the ability to reach not just African Americans, but young people across the country who appreciate not only his talent as an artist but his entrepreneurial spirit as well. When it comes to motivating young people to vote, Jay-Z is one of the best in the business."

Obama has shown that he has a soft spot for hip-hop music, a genre that has produced artists who sometimes engaged in misogyny, using the N-word and glorifying "thuggery".

At the beginning of this year, after meeting Jay-Z and Kanye West, Obama acknowledged the negatives of hip-hop to Black Entertainment Television.

"There are times, even on the artists I've named, the artists that I love, that there is a message that's sometimes degrading to women, uses the N-word a little too frequently. But also something that I'm really concerned about is [they're] always talking about material things, about how I can get something: more money, more cars," Obama said.

In April, the campaign confirmed in a Washington Post article that the candidate did have some Jay-Z songs downloaded on his iPod.

Before Obama gave his acceptance speech at the Aug. 28 Democratic National Convention in Denver, he and delegates were entertained by Motown legend Stevie Wonder, and Will.I.Am, lead singer for the rap group Black Eyed Peas at the Invesco Field at Mile High. Later that evening R&B singer John Legend performed at a post-nomination party for delegates and guests.

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