CONSIDER the poor, maltreated vote. During simpler times, it was merely cast, then counted. But these days, that's no longer good enough. Due to the profusion of voter-registration organizations, scolding us in their 501(c)3, purportedly nonpartisan way that we need to vote at risk of moral failure or spiritual damnation, they stop at nothing to bring the vote to heel. They "Rock the Vote." They "Dunk the Vote." Or, in the case of WWE fans, they even "Smackdown The Vote." It is enough to make you pine for the healing balm of apathy. For it is only a matter of time before someone Garrotes or Defenestrates or Disembowels the Vote.
But of all of these, the most curious are those who insist on Rapping The Vote. For politics and hip-hop go together like chocolate and anchovies, or like Dennis Kucinich and Tupac Shakur, the former of whom recently cited the latter as being his favorite rap artist. Even though he couldn't name a song, Kucinich claimed he admired the late Shakur's thug-life ethos by saying "he had an elegant dissatisfaction with the situation."
"It's corny," says Darius Mitchell, and Darius should know. He is a towering black man and hip-hop head who edits an online newsletter called masspoliticalnews.com, which sub-specializes in policing the intersection between political and hip-hop cultures. Mercifully, it's not a very busy intersection. But on this day, unfolding in the shadow of the Democratic Convention, is the Hip-Hop Summit, which for Darius, is sort of like Christmas, and Mardi Gras and Oscar-Night all rolled into one.
At the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center at Roxbury Community College, I make his acquaintance in a backstage bullpen, where we are waiting to secure interviews with the talent. Though I like to keep up with what the kids are listening to, I can only make a small percentage of their photos as I look over a bill that depicts the expected attendees. So I turn to Darius for guidance.
Remy Martin is on the list. I joke to Darius that I know him, he makes a fine cognac. "She" he corrects.
"That guy is Lloyd Banks," he says, "his single right now is on fire." "It's pretty, hot, huh?" I counter, trying to speak the language. "No, no," he says with a pitying glance, "That's the name of the single: 'On Fire.'" "Oh," I say, now feeling as though my press pass should read "Whitey W. Whitebread."
"There's Jadakiss," he says, pointing out the rapper who recently suggested in rhyme that George W. Bush felled the World Trade Center. "What about this Benzino fella?" I ask Darius. A look of concern crosses his face. "I hope he's not here," he says, "because him and Jadakiss don't get along. Benzino's crew got stabbed-up a while back." That would be bad, I agree, though I'm secretly pleased, since the Democratic Convention has already proven on the dull side, and it is highly improbable that anyone's crew will get stabbed-up at The National Conference of Democratic Mayors luncheon.
Founded in 2001 by Russell Simmons and former NAACP director Benjamin Chavis, The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, if you want to get wordy about their mission as their promotional literature does, "is dedicated to harnessing the cultural relevance of hip-hop music to serve as a catalyst for education advocacy and other societal concerns fundamental to the well-being of at-risk youth throughout the United States." In reality, they afford rappers, at conferences staged throughout the country a chance to pop off about politics, all in the hopes of turning out 2 million additional young voters in this election, under the prom-theme, "Taking Back Responsibility."
Reporters are herded into a hallway where we fall on the musicians. I make a beeline for Babs, a diminutive female rapper with a straight-razor delivery. Babs was most recently a star of MTV reality show "Making the Band," in which music impresario Sean "Puffy" Combs put together a murderer's row of unknown rappers in the hope of making them into a super-group, called "Da Band." When they proved stubbornly whiny, incessantly fought with each other, and failed to show up for gigs, Puffy, in keeping with today's theme, had to take responsibility back, putting a kibosh on the whole project. I ask Babs if Puffy's had any second thoughts. "Da Band is a wrap," she says with finality. Still, even without job security, she felt she had to be here since "it's a big thing--it's more for the kids." I don't take Babs for a current-events buff, but she has seen Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." "Woowwwww!!!" is her reaction to it. I ask her what she holds Bush responsible for. "Everything," she replies, "The war, the World Trade Center, just everything." Asked if Bush was complicit in the Twin Towers going down, she responds, "I think he had a part in it. There was a lot of people that was involved, but he knew it was going to happen."
With people like Babs in charge of voter education, one could deduce that the voters are in trouble. Indeed, anyone who reads the Hip-Hop Summit's "National Agenda: What We Want" might be left thinking these political strategists are amateurs. In addition to the demands for reparations, an end to three-strikes drug laws, and the "progressive transformation" of society into a "Nu America," presumably one that spells phonetically, they also advance pragmatic objectives such as, "we want the total elimination of racism...hatred and bigotry," or "we want the total elimination of poverty."
Spying organizer Russell Simmons pinned against a soda machine in the cramped hallway, I ask him if he isn't being a tad naive about his stated goals. "Keep your vision on something that's high. Do your best, then go to sleep," he says defensively. "I don't eat animals, but I wear leather shoes. You know, I do my best. The elimination of poverty--that's what we want." And I want Penelope Cruz to give me nightly backrubs while she tells me in English and Spanish why I am a godlike man, but I don't put that in my promotional literature and pretend that it's going to happen.
Simmons has made hundreds of millions not only by starting pioneer rap label Def Jam in the 1980s, but has pretty much cornered the phat/def-centric market by branching out into everything from television comedy (HBO's "Def Comedy Jam) to books (Life and Def is his biography) to fashion lines (Phat Farm, Baby Phat, Phat Farm Boys and Baby Phat Girlz). Still, in Simmons's thinking, it is necessary for the custodians of hip-hop culture to weigh in on matters of national importance, and to use their influence to get people to vote. "It's the right thing to do," says Simmons. "People respect Puffy more than they do George Bush. That's for sure. Certainly worldwide, you can't argue that."
Not that he's endorsing John Kerry. Simmons's brother Reverend Run, of Run DMC fame, who has found religion and who now wears a clerical collar along with his trademark fedora, stands beside him. Ever mindful of the legalities prohibiting nonprofits from endorsing specific candidates, Run struggles not to laugh when Simmons says he can't comment on who the hip-hop generation's going to vote for. "We're a non-partisan organization," Run says.
Over in another corner, Puffy's protégé and former Jeeves, Farnsworth Bentley, stands immaculately tailored, crisply appointed in a bold-stripe suit, his cap-toed kicks shining like light bulbs, and an umbrella--from his new line of umbrellas--hooked over his arm. Bentley likens the voter-registration seeds being planted to his own umbrella entrepreneurship. "They're not going to understand until they see the umbrella fly out, like okay, this is serious. This man really started something. He made using umbrellas indoors a not-bad look." Not voting he says, is exhibiting bad taste, "like walking around without a pocket square." But he won't say who he'll vote for. He's waiting for the debates--"I want to hear people talking smart."
In yet another corner, Wyclef Jean--the man who gained political infamy when Howard Dean named Wyclef's "Jaspora" his favorite song--seems to have a pick for president - himself. Wyclef wears a "Wyclef for President," t-shirt, which nicely compliments his new single "If I Was President." No warm-up city council or alderman gigs for him. Wyclef's ready for the top job. He holds forth on how he'd make a decent president of Haiti, and how he hopes to meet with Kofi Annan to talk over problems in his homeland. A reporter riles Wyclef, when asking if it isn't hypocritical that voter-registration cheerleaders like Simmons have admitted skipping plenty of elections themselves ("Well he's going to vote this year," offers Wyclef). But as he defends Simmons, I'm distracted by his diamond-encrusted lion's-head pendant. It's as big as a trailer hitch. I ask him if it has any significance, what it means. "It means I'll eat yo' ass up," he clarifies. In an indoor track arena filled with about 4,000 people, the summit begins. First up are day-glow bedecked dancers who groove like banshees to a sound-system shattering mega-mix, not on the stage, but right on the floor amidst the chairs. Hundreds flee their seats, pressing around to get a better view. It feels like the makings of a British football riot. As I'm nearly stampeded, I flash to how tough a time my minister will have eulogizing me with a straight face, as he tells the story of how I was cut down before my time while taking notes on a hip-hop dance troupe.
Next up is a local spoken-word artist who makes an oddball selection, speak-singing his own "Losing Hip-Hop." He really does seem to be interested in taking back responsibility, blaming the rap world for promoting everything from unfettered materialism to licentiousness to violence. As he goes on for a spell, it seems as if he might have had the wrong arena. This mostly young crowd hadn't come to hear how their idols were debauched hooligans. They'd come to see the Ying Yang Twins.
As the various hip-hoppers are introduced to maddening cheers, moderator Benjamin Chavis starts off with a tough one, asking each person to explain how they got where they are, to reveal their secrets of success. Farnsworth Bentley says, "First of all, I have to say, you have to vote for yourselves ladies and gentleman. I'm gonna keep it all the way real with you, alright?" Wyclef follows suit, saying "The most important thing in life is to believe in yourself."
Downwind in the echo chamber, Simmons opines that the audience needs to "put God first." A few seconds later, he contradicts himself, saying "put yourself first" (a first-place tie presumably goes to God). Rapper Loon splits the difference, saying, "that's the most important thing in the world, knowing God and knowing yourself." Displaying the kind of original thinking that's become synonymous with the Hip-Hop Summit, BET's Big Tigga states that, "I agree with what everybody before me said." But he wants to further explore something that Loon touched upon: "It's important to love yourself. You are the only you you're ever going to have," says Tigga.
Lloyd Banks seems to have little problem knowing or loving himself. In his song "Warrior," he even raps "I'm smooth as the Isleys/ Sometimes I surprise me." But one thing he doesn't love is hurtful labels being put on him, which call his oeuvre "gangster music." He prefers to rebrand it "conscious music--because I'm conscious of what I'm sayin' the whole time."
Things are getting pretty heavy, and are made only more so when a spokesman from one of the summit's corporate sponsors takes the mike. The sponsors are PlayStation 2 and Anheuser-Busch, representing two young-people favorites: video games and beer. That however, doesn't stop the Anheuser Busch executive from saying, "I'd like to take a crack at the purpose of life..." The mood lightens considerably however when rapper Bone Crusher, who looks to be pushing 300 lbs, arrives late, goes up to center stage upon his introduction, lifts up his shirt and waves his big jelly belly at the audience. They scream like they've just had a leg caught in a trap. It's not clear if Bone Crusher has energized the electorate for November. But surely, it's a healthy start.
Message-wise, the summiteers have difficulty focusing. Russell Simmons speaks about the importance of going to the library. He pronounces it "liberry." Three times. When congresswoman Maxine Waters comes out, she vows to fight for freedom of speech, because "we're not afraid of young people singing and rapping their minds, okay?" When Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, known as the "hip-hop mayor" is introduced, he takes several shots at Newt Gingrich's "Contract on America," a very timely talking point, back in 1995. Other rappers decry Nike's high prices, trying to persuade the crowd to buy brands like Puffy's Sean Jean or Simmons's Phat Farm. After all, black people can make overpriced clothing, too.
At the Summit, awards are given out like candy. Female Rapper Free gets one just for being from Boston. Wyclef Jean gets one "for always being there" (and indeed, he seems to be, since he just picked up a coveted Hip-Hop Summit National Heroes Award last year). There are distractions aplenty, too. When Lloyd Banks has to leave early, he interrupts the panel discussion to break into a few stanzas of his hit single "On Fire" causing a crush of pandemonium-wrecking bodies around the stage (When I stand up to take notes, then try to sit back down without looking, I feel as though I'm falling into a marshamallow wall, because a giant, gyrating woman has jumped up on my seat to spy a better view).
When Banks, who had left, reappears at the rear of the arena to do a television interview, a good fifth of the crowd, ignoring the panel discussion, simply charges from their seats to surround him. A despondent Ben Chavis implores them to return as he says something a grown man hopes never has to be spoken, "Okay, if you wanna see the Ying Yang Twins, they're going to be up here!"
There is of course, the requisite amount of subtle Bush-bashing, such as when Bone Crusher says "It don't matter where you from, we are all one people, black white green whatever color it is, we have to get George Bush out of office." If Bush is president for four more years, says BC, he probably won't have a job in two or three, presumably because Bush will see to it that jobs writing rhymes like his own "Getting' It (Get Dat Money)" will be outsourced to India. But Simmons, again observing the letter of the law, if not the spirit, makes clear that they are not naked partisans. They even invited George Bush to share the stage with the likes of Mr. Crusher. For some reason, Bush didn't respond.
But the purpose of the afternoon is perhaps best summed up by Loon, who proves, yet again, that he is perhaps unfairly moniker-ed. "Y'all know how to pick the best videos. Y'all know how to pick the best artists. Y'all know how to pick the real artists from the fake artists. Y'all got the best radar you could possibly have. And what I urge you all to do is take the same initiative and do the same homework that you do when you listen to these artists. I need you to read about these candidates." Despite Loon's words of wisdom, I can't be certain the audience will takes those words to heart. When I ask the girl next to me, wearing a "Mandela" summer-camp shirt who she'll vote for, she doesn't have an answer. And for good reason--she probably doesn't even know the candidates, because she's nine-years-old.
Such is the problem with appealing to youth. The 18-24 year-old demographic stay home in droves every election. And the below 18-year-olds are even worse, seeing as how they're not allowed to vote. This would seem to undermine the point of a Hip-Hop Summit, where half the audience is unable to participate in the process that is being championed, and the issue that most animates them is whether Twista or Jadakiss is dreamier.
As a matter of fact, after the Summit concludes with a prayer from Reverend Run, I'm in for a surprise when I stop at the back of the arena at the voter registration kiosk. Manning it is the elections department's Michael Chinetti. I ask him if these potential new voters flocked to him in droves. "Most of them can't," he says, "They're not old enough." When they did, he gave them a mock-up ballot just to let them go through the exercise. Youngsters were able to cast a vote for Bullwinkle J. Moose for Board of Cartoon characters, or Wonder Women for Super Heroes Committee. When I ask how many people legitimately registered to vote during the five-hour summit, Chinetti says, "I don't know, let's check." He walks over to a table and pulls the afternoon's take out of an envelope. Out of an arena-full of roughly 4,000 people, he says there was "about 25 to 30."
Outside of the arena, the Ying Yang Twins of tomorrow peddle their wares. At one card table sits a group named "Simply Hood." I strike up a conversation with two of its members, Science and Exclusive. A boombox plays a single, "Hey Playa!," from their debut album, "As the Hood Turns." The bustle of commerce commences as Science, or maybe it's Exclusive, sings "Smoke some reefa/ Gonna get a bite to eat." I ask Science if it's been tough going today, what with everyone inside the arena concentrating on civic involvement. "No," he says. They've done alright. They're selling their CD for five dollars a pop. When asked how many units they've moved, Science pages though a stack of bills "Ummmmm, about 25 to 30."
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.