The Ballot or the Booklet | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Ballot or the Booklet 

Hip hop attempts to keep its edge through literature



In Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's 1982 hip-hop classic "The Message," the chorus pleads, "Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge." Twenty years later, many wonder whether hip hop has lost its edge -- specifically its political edge.


Some say hip hop never had a political edge; that, besides running Eric B. for president, angry voices is all it ever was. Well, the voices ain't even angry anymore. And if the typical hip-hop generationer ain't angry today -- with all the President Bush-and-GOP anti-youth and anti-poverty policies in place -- then something's wrong with "The Message."


While political discourse in rap music -- whether people politics or electoral politics -- has indeed plummeted in the past 10 years, hip hop as a cultural force retains its political edge, to a very significant degree, in the media and literature it has produced.


Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Source magazine, sub-titled The Magazine of Hip-Hop Music, Culture & Politics. That last ingredient is important because few other hip-hop mags have made politics an integral component. The defunct Stress and the two-issues-old The Ave certainly play up politics, but most other hip-hop mags focus on the personalities of artists and the products they are pushing.


The first 20 or so pages of editorial of every Source issue usually contain stories speaking to the political concerns of black and Latino youth -- concerns such as minimum mandatory sentencing that disproportionately hits minorities, the COINTELPRO-like hip-hop task forces many city police squads operate, and the often-criminal representation of urban youth and hip-hop artists in mainstream media. In the current issue, there's a section called "Politically Incorrect" in which hip hop's evolution in political activism is appraised, featuring an interview with U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and a story on the recent Hip Hop Political Convention (see CP's Sept. 24 news feature "Hip Hop Bloc Party") and Russell Simmons' Hip Hop Summit Action Network (which Source co-sponsored before a disagreement that led to their disassociation).


But while Source continues raising awareness, there was still no hip-hop-specific political agenda to organize around, until now.


Bakari Kitwana, former executive and national-affairs editor for Source, recently wrote The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture (BasicCivitas Books). It has become for hip hop what Mao Tse-Tung's Little Red Book was for the Black Panther Party: a blueprint for how to mobilize a critical like-minded mass for activism and empowerment.


"Does voter apathy mean that we are without a political agenda?" asks Kitwana in the book. Between 1984 and 1996, black voter participation decreased from 54 to 46 percent, the book reports. "If not, what exactly is the political agenda of young blacks in their twenties and thirties?"


Much of that was answered at this summer's Hip Hop Political Convention, where delegates countrywide came together in a congressional-type setting and produced a five-point platform dealing with education, economic justice, criminal justice, health care and human rights. At the convention, Kitwana's book was heavily quoted and referenced.


One major current in Kitwana's book is the declaration of independent political thinking among this hip-hop crop, beholden to neither Democratic nor Republican wishes. "The new generation," writes Kitwana, "is characterized by the rise of conservatism and increased tolerance of alternative political views ... not as predictable in their political or ideological persuasions ..."


In a recent poll by the international nonpartisan Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, only 54 percent of blacks aged 18 to 25 identified themselves as Democrats -- scary if you're Kerry, but not exactly plush if you're Bush. Most of these non-Dems profiled themselves as independent, with no significant percentage announcing Republican identification.


California Bay Area political activist and media pillar Davey D. signals in neon that Democrats gotta step up their game if they want to stay relevant. This hip-hop radio and Internet host joins Kitwana in assessing Democratic outreach to the hip-hop generation as weak. Davey D., in fact, points to the Republican party as a model for the kind of "meet the people where they're at" approach that all candidates ought to employ -- but without endorsing their party.


In the book How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office (Soft Skull Press), Davey D. is one of about 20 grassroots activists across the country who propose the best way to "get out the vote" -- particularly from the perspective of those least likely to occupy a state or nationwide elected office: people of color.


"You want to know how to beat Bush, watch the army [sic]," says Davey D. in the book. "They bring hummers [sic]. They do freestyle battles. Go to any basketball game, see if the army ain't there. ... They got models, they got everything."


There's a certain way to make voter-registration and -education efforts attractive, Davey D. postulates. It worked for Malia Lazu, organizer of Boston Vote, a voter-empowerment organization that successfully pushed into office Felix Arroyo, the first Latino elected to city council in Boston.


Lazu says she was getting away from "the Saul Alinsky model of organizing, that '70s model that says you have to knock on every door and talk to people seven times." Instead she utilized "the sexy model of organizing" where "We weren't fucking voters. We were making love with voters" -- meaning joining in on the ciphers where rhymes or blunts were being passed around and informing cats on how those very activities could be outlawed based on their lack of voting participation.


How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office was enough to inspire Pittsburgh-area political activist Daniel Lavelle, 27, a regional field director for the mega-527 group America Coming Together. He passes copies out to as many people as he can reach. Once an assistant to city Councilor Sala Udin, Lavelle says he recognizes how many of his peers are introduced to politics by older, civil-rights-generation politicians who've done things a certain way, sometimes with no appeal to the hip-hop generation.


But Lavelle realizes that his generation has to do more also, both as artists and as everyday constituents.


"Just doing a rap song about the issues isn't going to carry us at the end of the day," says Lavelle. "There's a difference between rapping about what's going on and actually going in and affecting the process."


Other worthy books for checking out hip hop's political frame of reference: Nelson George's Hip Hop America (Penguin); That's the Joint! The Hip Hop Studies Reader (Routledge), edited by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal; Tricia Rose's Black Noise (Wesleyan University Press); and Farai Chideya's The Color of Our Future (William Morrow & Co.) and Don't Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Mis-information About African Americans (Plume Books).



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