Hip Hop on the Hill

Nia-Malika Henderson, Politico, May 19, 2009

Buoyed by Barack Obama’s election as president, a group of hip-hop artists and other activists is taking to Capitol Hill–trying to harness the wave of support for Obama among young voters into an ongoing political force.

The group, the Hip Hop Caucus, has a nine-member Washington office–but its real reach comes from its ability to harness the power of hip-hop artists to put a famous face on issues and draw in their young, multicultural fans.

In the next few weeks, the caucus will see a bill it fashioned with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) be introduced–calling for funding for a one-day voter registration drive and lessons on the Constitution in high schools across the country.

Organizers are working with Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to gather support for legislation fighting climate change–and singers Solange Knowles and Keyshia Cole have both signed on to help, through the Green the Block campaign.

And the group also reached out to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to get support for prisoner re-entry legislation that would help former inmates transition back into society.

To the group’s executive director, Lennox Yearwood Jr., the link between politics and hip-hop is a natural one–as a way to make politics more accessible to young voters, more like sports than study hall.

“If you have a flier that says something about the economic stimulus package, versus one that has ‘Hip-Hop Town Hall, find out how you get yours’ on it, what’s going to get a bigger draw?” Yearwood said. “That’s the power of hip-hop.”

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Rappers have campaigned for candidates before, but the hip-hop community hasn’t been able to sustain the interest or the momentum when the election was over. Obama’s election has led some in the industry to say it’s time for the political side of hip-hop to get more serious.

And already there are signs that hip-hop artists seem to be sticking around this time. The HHC harnessed that creative interest into a get-out-the-vote campaign and used artists like Young Jeezy, T.I., Rick Ross, Busta Rhymes, Fantasia, Brandy and Big Boi to get voters to the polls.

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First formed in 2004 as an offshoot of P. Diddy’s New York-based “Vote or Die” campaign and Russell Simmons’ Hip Hop Summit Action Network, the HHC sprung out of the disappointment from that election cycle.

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Yet politics and hip-hop haven’t always been an easy mix. While the roots of the music and the culture have political undertones–Grand Master Flash’s 1982 hit “The Message” was a searing indictment of the decades-long neglect of urban areas–hip-hop has often been on the outside of politics, looking in.

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These days, Yearwood, 39, who often sports a Green the Block baseball cap, Hip Hop Caucus pin and clergy collar, is up on the Hill three to four times a week, meeting with elected officials and sitting in on hearings.

Their agenda is a progressive one, centered on health care, education, climate change and livable cities. Yearwood submitted a memo to Obama’s transition team, has reached out to the EPA and the public liaison’s office and is looking to work with the White House Office of Urban Affairs to push its agenda.

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Members of the Congressional Black Caucus served as early mentors for the organization, back when the Hip Hop Caucus was still being confused with a rap group.

Now, 21 members of the CBC are on the advisory panel to the Caucus, which has field teams in 48 cities.

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Hip-hop “opened doors to build friendships between African-Americans and Latinos and whites,” he said. “America became comfortable with the idea of a black executive because of all the hip-hop moguls.”

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