With the Republican and Democratic national conventions around the corner and the presidential election looming on the horizon, members of an oft-ignored and profoundly disaffected demographic reared their perpetually nodding heads to a markedly different beat. The inaugural National Hip-Hop Political Convention was the forum. The members of the hip-hop generation were the unsuspecting agents.
Held from June 16 to 19 in Newark, New Jersey, a little more than an arm’s length from hip-hop’s birthplace and present capital, the convention valiantly attempted to engage the hip-hop generation and move its issues from margin to center. Delegates from local organizing committees around the country, hip-hop artists, political activists, representatives from the ever-growing hip-hop industry and interested participants convened to discuss their lives and their country.
Rooted in an eight-point social justice platform, more than twice removed from the mainstream political conversation, this hard-to-pin-down but growing constituency pushed for the inclusion of the dismantling of the prison industrial complex, healthy living and eating, and the eradication of stereotypical and criminalizing images of hip-hop, among other pressing issues into the national political agenda.
In the conference program, co-chair Baye Adofo-Wilson communicated clearly the numbers — the hip-hop generation makes up thirty-three percent of the American electorate. But he and the conference organizers stop short of actually identifying this constituency, in explaining how their interests are mutual, and in demonstrating why hip-hop emerged as the defining link or overarching umbrella for many communities. By the looks of panelists and participants, the hip-hop generation, though predominated by blacks and Latinos and those under age thirty, encompasses all races and most ages.
Dynamic and spirited workshops, the cornerstone of the four-day convention, hosted information sharing, intimate dialogues, and strategizing sessions on a variety of issues. A last-minute addition to the “Violence Against Women & Children” panel, I found myself addressing a small but passionate group of women on an issue that plagues hip-hop and complicates any justice-loving person’s relationship to the revolutionary culture.
Along with Malika Redmond of the National Center for Human Rights Education, a fellow panelist and powerful activist, I sought to communicate the ancient and mammoth causes of violence against women of color. We reminded participants that it’s not arrogant hip-hop artists but white privilege, male privilege and poverty — societal ills that predated hip-hop — that cause violence against black and Latina women. But before Nelly and his “tip drilling” crew could exhale a sigh of relief, we asserted that rappers can never be divulged of responsibility for unapologetically trading and profiting in misogyny.
It was hard to avoid bemoaning the current circumstances — Nelly and R. Kelly’s transgressions in particular — and shift toward identifying solutions. But experienced activist Lori Robinson, author of I Will Survive: The African American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse, sagely shifted the workshop’s conversation from heavy-hearted condemnations of Nelly and his mind-bogglingly crass and women-hating “Tip Drill” video to mobilizing for transformational change.
The fifteen formerly outspoken women in the room, including two dynamic bay-area high school activists, found their tongues paralyzed by the task. Many minutes of darting eyes and cracking knuckles later, tentative suggestions started to drip from the lips of the well-intentioned women. Publicized protests of problematic albums, Web sites with information on artists and corporations that produce material harmful to women and children, resources providing information on artists that eschew misogynistic content, and organizations dedicated to developing female emcees and deejays emerged as the most practical plans of attack.
Time and the occasional burst of misdirected energy popped up in other workshops, the town hall meeting and NHHPC efforts to develop and endorse a political agenda. Delegates, members of local organizing committees who registered at least fifty voters, wrestled with the proposed amendments at the convention’s close. Despite opposing political views, generation gaps and the swiftly moving clock, they developed and endorsed a political agenda.
In the politically active shadow of the groundbreaking convention, organizers may be basking in their recent success or they could be setting their sites on the second convention, set for 2006 in Chicago. But the dust kicked up by this convention has yet to settle. At this stage, the lives of the convention’s constituency remain unchanged by a political scroll with the hip-hop seal of approval. Glaringly absent were structured efforts to harness the energy and novel ideas of the convention’s workshops into concrete initiatives. That could have addressed the difficult realities of hip-hoppers outside of the scope of Washington’s power brokers.
It remains to be seen if and how the maligned and championed, subversive and co-opted culture of hip-hop can support a political agenda, but the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, not to be confused with the Russell Simmons’s feel-good Hip Hop Summit Action Network, proved to be a movement by a culture for the people.