CONSIDER THE POOR, maltreated vote. During simpler times, it was merely cast, then counted. But these days, that's no longer good enough. A profusion of voter-registration organizations now scold us in their 501(c)3, purportedly nonpartisan way that we need to "Rock the Vote," "Dunk the Vote," or even, in the case of pro wrestling fans, "Smackdown the Vote." It is enough to make you pine for the healing balm of apathy. And it is no doubt 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 has cited the latter as being his favorite rap artist. Even though he couldn't name any of his songs, Kucinich claimed he admired the late Mr. Shakur's thug-life ethos, 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, masspoliticalnews.com, which sub-specializes in policing the intersection between political and hip-hop cultures. Mercifully, it's not a very busy intersection. Until now, the second day of the Democratic Convention, or rather the day of 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 recognize a small percentage of the photos on the program. 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, 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 been 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 as 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." Which is to say, they set up conferences across the country where rappers get 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 the MTV reality show Making the Band, in which 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 the 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." Was he complicit in the Twin Towers going down? "I think he had a part in it," she says. "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 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 "the total elimination of racism...hatred and bigotry" and "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. "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 that I am a godlike man, but I don't put that in my promotional literature and pretend it's going to happen.
Simmons has made hundreds of millions not only by starting pioneer rap label Def Jam in the 1980s, but by pretty much cornering the phat/def-centric market. He has branched 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, the custodians of hip-hop culture also need 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 nonpartisan organization," Run says.
Over in another corner, Puffy's protégé and former Jeeves, Farnsworth Bentley, stands immaculately tailored in a bold-stripe suit, his cap-toed kicks shining like lightbulbs, and an umbrella--from his new line--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 another corner, Wyclef Jean--the man who gained political renown when Howard Dean named "Jaspora" his favorite song--seems to have a pick for president: himself. Wyclef wears a "Wyclef for President" T-shirt, which nicely complements 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, 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 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-glo bedecked dancers who groove like banshees to a sound-system-shattering megamix, 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 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, it seems as if he might have 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 gentlemen. I'm gonna keep it all the way real with you, all right?" 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, "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, like calling his oeuvre "gangster music." He prefers to brand 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 designer goods, too.
When Banks appears 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--nonprofit status be damned--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, Bone Crusher says he probably won't have a job in two or three, presumably because the White House will see to it that jobs writing rhymes like his own "Gettin' It (Get Dat Money)" will be outsourced to India. But Simmons wants to make clear that they are not naked partisans. They even invited George W. Bush to share the stage with the likes of Mr. Crusher. For some reason, Bush didn't respond.
The spirit of the afternoon is perhaps best summed up by Loon, who proves, yet again, that he is unfairly monikered. "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 take his 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 9 years old.
Such is the problem with appealing to youth. The 18- to 24-year-old demographic stays 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 be a weakness 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.
After the summit concludes I stop at the back of the arena at the voter registration kiosk. Manning it is Michael Chinetti of Boston's Election Department. I ask him if potential new voters flocked to him in droves. "Most of them can't," he says. "They're not old enough." Instead, 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 Woman for Super Heroes Committee. When I ask how many people legitimately registered to vote during the five-hour summit, Chinetti says, "Let's check." He pulls the afternoon's take out of an envelope. Out of the roughly 4,000 people filling the arena, he says, there were "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 all right. They're selling their CD for five dollars a pop. How many units have they moved? Science pages through a stack of bills, "Ummmmm, about 25 to 30."
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.