Rap the Vote

by Caleb Zigas on August 17, 2004

In the 2000 election, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), 9.9 million youth voters between the ages of 18 and 25 voted out of a potential 26.9 million. That’s only a little over 42 percent. In a presidential election that was decided on less than 1000 votes in one state, the numbers begin to add up. But motivating the youth vote has never been easy; CIRCLE reports that youth voting has never exceeded 60 percent even at its height.

In one of the most polarized elections in memory, efforts are being made across the country to bring out the vote, and many of those efforts focus specifically on the youth vote. In an effort that’s one part Def Poetry Jam and one part MoveOn.org’s controversial advertisement campaign, Slam Bush features a celebrity panel of hip-hop personalities and a nation-wide competition to find a voice against President George W. Bush.

Hip-Hop and Political Activism

The last couple of years have seen an explosion in the attempts of the hip-hop community to affect the political sphere. Russel Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) has set the standard for other organizations with their nation-wide summits and their significant impact on New York City policy-makers. Their non-partisan approach attempts to simply encourage members of the hip-hop community to become politically involved.

Non-partisanship, in fact, seems a prerequisite for many of the hip-hoppers involving themselves in the political process. Simmons’ website repeatedly mentions their neutrality, though their goals and mission statements often seem to lean towards the left, as have their concentrated political demands.

P. Diddy has also gotten into the politics game, famously cavorting with Ben Affleck in a reunion of J. Lo exes at this year’s Democratic convention. Diddy’s effort on MTV, Citizen Change, is his attempt to “make politics sexy.” His program will focus on both candidates in an effort to “make them both squirm.” He also states a non-partisan approach, though his show does rely on the consulting of liberal-minded James Carville. Diddy’s Vote or Die effort emphasizes his industry weight in bringing attention to the coming election, though it’s unclear whether the public is ready for his politics, let alone his music.

And while one might assume that the left might have some sort of advantage in the hip-hop voice of politics arena, one of the few voices not claiming non-partisanship is Dana Mozie, the Howard-educated and self-annoited “ambassador to the hip-hop culture.” To the Republican Party. Mr. Mozie emphasizes that working with a party does not necessarily imply agreement with their policy agenda, but it would seem as if the Republican party has been listening to Al Sharpton when he says that, “I am convinced the swing vote of the 2004 election is the hip-hop generation.”

Slam Bush

Davey D and Biko, both important parts of Slam Bush and independently important internet figures for hip-hop at www.daveyd.com and www.contrabandit.com respectively, have been listening too. The Slam Bush effort appeals to what Russel Simmons brought mainstream with his HBO and Broadway based shows Def Poetry Jam. In local contests across the country aspiring MCs and poets will battle each other in an effort to speak out against Bush the loudest, and both Biko and Davey D hope that the hip-hop generation is listening.

“SLAM BUSH is about bringing a little street knowledge into the political sphere,” Biko said. “Bush’s policies – his war, his criminal justice record, his tax cuts for the rich and service cuts for the poor – these things disproportionately hurt young, urban Americans. If respected rappers and slam poets have the chance to explain that reality with language the Hip Hop generation understands, there’s no doubt that regime change will come to Washington.”

While plans for the Bay Area slam are still in the works, two slams are already set in Southern California, and several more are blossoming across the country. Whereas most political hip-hop movements cling thinly to a veneer of non-partisanship, Slam Bush holds no such pretext. Their website, in fact, features a section of Bush ammo where Biko and Davey D have outlined the injustices they see as inadmissible that came from the Bush administration. All the aspiring poet or political activist needs to do is find the best way to make that clear to a voting public.

Vote or Die

The question remains whether or not Slam Bush can not only motivate those who already have something to say about Bush but also if they can reach the crucial voting demographic they need to actually affect the election. The irony of so much of hip-hop’s political activism, of course, is that much of the effort often seems directed at the choir.

Much like hip-hop music in general, hip-hop politics reach a largely white audience, though their intentions are often to broaden the voting base using a medium that speaks in a way that traditional channels don’t. The potential power of Slam Bush lies in its ability to reach a broad audience and then to galvanize those audience members into an effective political unit.

Davey D, responding to the lack of voter participation in Black and Latino communities notes, “voting is one of many tools at our disposal that affords us the opportunity to effect change. The question of whether or not we should vote implies that the situation we face is so dire and the system is so corrupt that we would do better by not voting. That leaves us with the choice of either taking up arms or having some sort of massive demonstrations that disrupts the system and shuts everything down.” He goes on to say that in the current political situation the equivalent of picking up arms is the movement to vote. Slam Bush then serves as a call to arms and it is a ceremony coming to a city near you.

Filed under: Archive