Hip-hop’s growing influence on social issues

From street poetry to straight politics: hip-hop’s growing influence on social issues

Allissa Hosten

Kanye West and Twista have taken to the stage in their hometown of Chicago to perform their hit Slow Jamz. The screams from the crowd are deafening, but it’s no ordinary concert.

It’s the 19th stop of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) in a nationwide campaign to register 20 million new voters, ages 18 to 35, in the next five years. And, just as hip-hop is prone to remixing, HSAN isn’t just offering one version of its social awareness message. It’s saying “Yes, register to vote!”–but it’s also commanding youth of today to combat the social ills in their communities–together.

Could it be that hip-hop’s authoritative rhythm has gone from the beat box to the ballot box? Has the nearing 30-year-old music genre traded rapping in ciphers to rapping about suffrage and social ills?

If so, the power and influence of hip-hop certainly has been brewing for some time.

It’s been 15 years since Public Enemy bum-rushed radio airwaves with the neo-Black pride hit, Fight the Power, in 1989. Back then, hip-hop in the form of political activism was nothing more than an optimistic frenzied chant, clad in Malcolm X caps and Africa medallions.

At the height of hip-hop as a call-to-arms political movement in the early ’90s, urban America finally had an outlet through which to vent its frustrations.

But as the mid-90s arrived, hip-hop made a tough transition.

It went from being the voice of affirmative Black nationalism to the widely criticized and oft-misunderstood problem within urban America, rather than the solution to what ailed it.

Enter a new hip-hop movement, headed by the president-for-life of ‘all things hip-hop, Russell Simmons. The man who made a fortune from his Def Jam music empire, and made stars of Run-DMC and LL Cool J, formed the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network in 2001. And he has been challenging youth everywhere to join the hip-hop-inspired movement ever since.

The HSAN started out as a New York gathering of popular rap recording artists and concerned community activists, Simmons told JET in a recent telephone interview.

“We’ve always seen that hip-hop had a tremendous power over young people,” he said. “For example, Public Enemy changed the entire consciousness of the hip-hop community for a number of years.”

Simmons set out to recreate that energy when he gathered more than 300 hip-hop monarchs at the first summit. Among those present were Simmons’ brother Reverend Run (formerly of Run-DMC), Jay-Z, LL Cool J, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Jermaine Dupri and a host of other artists, hip-hop executives, politicians, and civil rights and spiritual leaders such as NAACP President and CEO Kweisi Mfume and the famed Dr. Cornel West.

The union of activists both old and new got Simmons thinking that hip-hop could be harnessed to flex real political muscle.

“The hip-hop summit is so effective because it moves culture,” he said. “Moving a few minds is difficult, but when everybody is doing something as [a popular culture] it becomes a movement.”

Simmons cultivated this philosophy to form HSAN, became its chairman and passed the proverbial mic to Dr. Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, who became Executive Director and CEO of HSAN.

As an organizer of the Million Man March and a former executive director of the NAACP, Muhammad was no stranger to wielding hip-hop as a social modifier; he partnered with Run-DMC and Sister Souljah in the NAACP’s 1993 voter registration drive and had a cameo in the hip-hop cult film favorite, Belly.

Muhammad told JET, “[The HSAN] bridges the so-called ‘generation gap’ between activists, because within hip-hop today, you have several generations,” he said. Muhammad made it a point to partner with the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for this reason.

Although the HSAN is aligned with these older, more conventional groups, it is perhaps more accessible to youth because, “in the hip-hop generation, the movement has been built from the grassroots up,” he said. “Traditional movements have been built from the top down, with a Board of Directors making decisions.”

The HSAN may be a grass-roots movement, but its impact is undeniably powerful Since its inception, 19 summits have been held in major cities such as Houston, Detroit and Los Angeles. The price of admission? Voter registration of course.

The concert-for-consciousness modus operandi garnered 30,000 new voters, aged 18 to 35, during the six weeks leading up to the Chicago Summit, throughout Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio and Indiana.

And over the last year alone, the HSAN registered 2 million new voters within this demographic, through successful partnerships with nearly 20 other like-minded groups such as MTV’s Rock the Vote and BET, Muhammad said.

Public Enemy’s front-man Chuck D, a self-proclaimed “raptivist,” told JET he is pleased to see the youth involvement HSAN inspires. “To me, politics always meant who runs the streets as opposed to who is running in the streets,” he said. “This is long overdue.”

Indeed, youth affiliated with HSAN are also doing more than dimpling chads; they are protesting. In June of 2002, 100,000 New York City public school students rallied against a $300 million NYC Public School proposed budget cut, in front of City Hall (JET, June 24, 2002). At the time, it was the largest demonstration Mayor Michael Bloomberg had faced during his term in office.

After the rumblings of the youth–in conjunction with those of the United Federation of Teachers, the Alliance for Quality Education, and stars such as Erykah Badu, Alicia Keys, and Foxy Brown-Bloomberg settled the 18-month standoff by restoring $298 million to the education budget proposal he presented to the NYC Council and offered city union teachers a 16 percent raise.

Kevin Liles, president of Simmons’ Def Jam and HSAN Board member, said the success of HSAN is largely due to the popularity of hip-hop stars. “We’re very influential to pop culture. So not only should we use that power to sell records–we should use that power to affect positive change.”

Liles’ message was echoed at the Chicago summit, when the thought-provoking rapper Common, who co-hosted the event, said, “Hip-hop is about truth-telling, and the truth is there’s still too much poverty. There’s a wealth of creative talent in our communities that should take more leadership in the struggle to eliminate poverty.”

One of those leaders, besides Simmons, is Ludacris, who heads the Ludacris Foundation in his home state of Georgia. As a panelist at the Chicago Summit he told the youth, “It’s time for all of us to stand up and show the power of our votes so that the interests of our communities get represented.”

He later told JET that he feels honored to be part of something as forward-looking and influential as HSAN. “I was definitely getting behind somebody who I know is very powerful and trying to do a lot of good,” Ludacris said. “Russell Simmons is one of those people trying to do a lot of good in the hip-hop community.”

The ever-humble Simmons summarizes his vision to form HSAN quite simply:

“Everyone is a giver,” he said. “Those who are effectively giving and filling a void for others can create their own happiness. Everybody is here to serve.”

COPYRIGHT 2004 Johnson Publishing Co.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group