Bigger than hip-hop

“I love hip-hop,” exclaims 27-year-old San Antonio educator Lupita Leos. The mother of three has voted in every presidential election since she turned 18, and like many members of the hip-hop generation is eager to make her presence felt in this year’s historic race. “I definitely back Obama,” says Leos. “Things need to get better. You can just tell every time the Republicans are in office the economy goes to shit. It affects education, after-school programs, definitely single moms, just people trying to make it. There’s no money out there for social programs. So I think with Obama, he’ll bring a change there.”

In 2004, the National Hip-Hop Political Convention convened for the first time in Newark, New Jersey. Hip-hop activists, artists, journalists, community members, and scholars gathered to organize, connect, and set a platform for the hip-hop nation. Along with efforts by the League of Young Voters, Citizen Change Campaign, and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, the convention helped mobilize the young nation. Among the key figures to emerge in Newark were hip-hop activist and 2008 Green Party Vice-Presidential candidate Rosa Clemente and American Book Award recipient Jeff Chang.

“Hip-hop activists have produced the conditions for literally millions of new young voters to come to the polls,” says Chang. “They have begun setting the policy platform. “The green-jobs part of Obama’s platform comes directly from hip-hop activists in Oakland led by Van Jones who first launched a pilot program here in Oakland. And they’ve begun running for office at city, county, state, and national levels in notable numbers.”

“But in the largest sense, I’d say that Obama’s candidacy could not have even been imagined were it not for hip-hop,” adds Chang. “Hip-hop has desegregated the popular culture and produced many images of successful people of color. It’s a world away now from 1988, when Jesse Jackson ran and was sunk in large part by racialized attacks from both enemies and allies.”

Despite the inroads made by the hip-hop generation toward political mobilization, Clemente says, many of these organizations focus solely on getting out the vote and fall short of providing the information necessary to empower the

“I have a problem with those types of campaigns that don’t even educate their own voters about all the options that are out there,” explains Clemente. “If you look at Vote or Die, Respect My Vote!, Rock the Vote, Campus Progress, they’re targeting young people. Who are young people most likely to register to vote for? Most likely Democratic. There’s never any mention of third parties in a lot of these rallies, and I’ve been to them. They’re supposed to be nonpartisan, so when they talk about Obama and they talk about McCain, they need to be talking about the other four candidates who are running for president. That is voter education. They’re not doing that, and that’s just getting votes out to get somebody into office that’s never going to respond to your needs.”

Major-label hip-hop artists continue to flock to Senator Obama and have been inspired to produce some stellar results along the way. is now credited with kick-starting a movement with his “Yes We Can” anthem. Nas’s “Black President” is one of his strongest songs in recent memory. The Beastie Boys scheduled a swing-state pro-Obama tour for the days leading up to the election, and even mash-up pioneer DJ Z-Trip has jumped into the fray with an Obama-inspired mix distributed free on the internet. Being a hip-hop artist, however, does not necessarily make one a spokesperson for the hip-hop generation. Following a trend of artists making political endorsements without really being conscious of the candidates and issues, mainstream artist Young Jeezy was caught in a pro-McCain stutter-step before joining the likes of Common, Bun-B, Ice Cube, Mike Jones, and the Game in endorsing Obama.

“I never thought that all hip-hop artists were necessarily the smartest people in the world,” says Clemente. “Kanye, Pharrell, Jay-Z — I don’t look to these dudes no more. They have no idea, especially at this time, of what the majority of their own demographic is going through. They’re millionaires, and they’re not that politically astute in the first place. I think it would be nice if the artists who call themselves hip-hop artists would recognize someone running from their generation. But in the same vein, they shouldn’t just be voting for me because I say I’m hip-hop.” Clemente stresses the need to educate the electorate about all the available options and issues, rather than pushing a partisan agenda on voters, in particular on members of the hip-hop generation who have historically been disenfranchised.

“I think it’s huge,” says Chang about Clemente’s VP nod. “The Green Party has been stereotyped as being a party of nice, older, white people in Birkenstocks and Patagonia, but they made a huge leap this year into the future. The other parties have put forth women candidates and candidates of color, but the Greens chose two unapologetic women of color for the top of the ticket. Rosa was an important choice because her ability to bring together urban issues and green causes represents a potential paradigm shift for both the Green Party and the progressive movement as a whole. In the past, environmentalists and racial-justice activists have often found it difficult to speak to each other. I think Rosa could potentially forge a powerful bridge.”

Rosa describes her vision for America as one based on social justice. Everyone would have a living wage, affordable housing, and free health care. All immigrants would be granted amnesty. There would be no death penalty, and prisons would no longer be built. While some may argue that is a utopian vision of the future, Clemente, through 15 years of community organizing, says she knows how to transform these ideas into reality. Clemente and McKinney’s campaign represents the first all-women-of-color ticket in U.S. politics, yet she says the silence regarding their landmark nomination and the outright criticism of their progressive policies is disheartening.

“I don’t think there’s an issue that the hip-hop generation puts out there, that we’re not supporting,” states Clemente. “We support the right to gay marriage, unlike Senator Obama and Senator McCain who have come out against that. … That’s why Cynthia McKinney brought me in. I’m committed to every issue that we’ve been talking about for the last 10 years as critically important to our generation.”

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