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Politics Mondays: At This Hip-Hop Convention Politicians Will Get An Earful by Jeffery C. Mays

Leaning against a light pole on Broad Street in Newark, a few feet from piles of hip-hop mixtapes and speakers blasting the latest hit from his mobile sales cart, Fuquan Brown, 28, nodded his head to the music.

"They said hip-hop was just a fad, but it's not a fad. It's a culture and it's not going away," he said. When two Rutgers University students approached Brown about registering to vote and becoming part of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, he signed on the dotted line.

Music has power, he said.

Thousands of hip-hop music lovers from across the nation are expected to converge in Newark from June 16-19 to create a hip-hop political agenda that they want candidates to address.

Hip-hop music, which is used to sell everything from cell phones to couture, is a common bond for a multi-ethnic generation between the ages 18 and 35. Organizers are betting the hip-hop generation is ready to begin organizing, raising money and making candidates address their concerns.

"Rather than let someone else create what we should care about, let us decide what our priorities are and what's relevant," said Charles Hill, 29, the New Jersey coordinator for the convention, a project of the National Black United Fund.

"If you are going to talk about gay marriage and steroids, let's talk about mandatory minimum prison sentences and student loans," Hill said. "If you talk about Social Security, let's talk about jobs for young people."

The convention, which will be held at Rutgers-Newark, hopes to draw 2,000 delegates from 20 other states, including California, Illinois, Ohio and New York, Hill said. To become a delegate, a person must first register 50 voters.

Both major political parties said they are ready to listen to what comes out of the convention.

"Our agenda speaks to people of this generation -- health care reform, jobs, spending," said Heather Layman, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. "It's an excellent idea."

Tony Welch, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said the Democratic Party already counts P. Diddy, rapper Big Boi of OutKast and singer Ginuwine among its supporters.

"There are a lot of folks upset about the direction of the country and they are realizing political power comes from action," Welch said. "We are actually counting on young people to not just become voters, but (to be) an active part of the party."

Ras Baraka, a Newark educator and poet and convention co-chairman, said he sees this summer's gathering as the beginning of sustained movement.

"We want to build a national organization with a national agenda of using hip-hop to organize people around the issues that affect their lives," said Baraka, a former mayoral candidate who has appeared on HBO's "Def Poetry Jam," and on rap artist and singer Lauryn Hill's debut album.

"We are going to endorse people on how they respond to our agenda."

Newark was chosen to host the convention because of its history of political activism. In the late 1960s, after the riots and corruption scandals at City Hall, the Black and Puerto Rican Convention nominated Kenneth Gibson for mayor of Newark. Gibson became Newark's first black mayor in 1970 and the first black mayor of a major Northeastern city.

More than three decades later, hip-hop music is dominating the sales charts and exerting a global influence.

P. Diddy raises money for New York City schools by running a marathon. Russell Simmons, who started from Def Jam records and now presides over one of hip-hop's most successful business enterprises, is part of a campaign trying to register 20 million voters by 2008.

"Hip-hop culture is evolving," said Ben Chavis, chairman of Simmons' Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. "It has not only penetrated the American mainstream, it has become the new mainstream. The utilization of hip-hop to engage people to be good citizens and participate in the political process and engage the community shows its powerful impact."

From the beginning, hip-hop music has been political. Early groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and then Public Enemy and X Clan talked about the social conditions in the ghettos of America, poverty, racism and police brutality.

Today, many commercially popular hip-hop artists are more likely to talk about their platinum and diamond bracelets, parties and their cars. Becoming politically active can counteract the negative criticism, activists hope.

"For a lot of artists, this shows that they are more diverse and not just about their rims, ice or money," said nationally-syndicated radio personality Doug Banks, who has registered more than 30,000 people to vote on his Web site.

Bakari Kitwana, author of "The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture," said that such a movement is a natural evolution from the political activism of the Civil Rights era.

"Many of us who are in the post-civil rights generation are interested in changing the conditions in our lives," Kitwana said. "We are looking back at past movements and seeing how they did it."

Baye Wilson, director of a Newark nonprofit organization and a co-chairman of the national convention, said the first priority is registering voters. To help with that, the National Hip-Hop Political Convention has formed an alliance with Rock the Vote/Rap the Vote. Since September 2003, the group has registered 25,000 young voters in New Jersey, said Maya Enista, East Coast coordinator.

The pool of potential, unregistered voters across the country is large. According to the U.S. Census, only half of the 23.9 million eligible voters ages 18 to 24 are registered. Of the 32.2 million eligible voters ages 25 to 34, about 40 percent are not registered.

But Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan think tank, said he doesn't see hip-hop or rock movements bringing more young people to the polls. Only 36 percent of eligible 18-to-24-year-olds voted in the 2000 presidential election, the lowest rate of any age group, he said.

"There will be a moderate increase in voter turnout, but it's because George W. Bush's policies are a lightning rod that have divided the country," Gans said. "People don't vote because a rock star or rap star tells you to vote."

Jeffery C. Mays covers Newark for The Star-Ledger where this article first appeared. He can be reached at

Copyright 2004 The Star-Ledger

Monday, March 29, 2004

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