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Hip-Hop Fridays: Can Two Cultural Geniuses Spark A Political Revolution?


The moment I learned late last week that Vince McMahon and Russell Simmons - the arguable "godfathers" of the industries of professional wrestling and hip-hop - were forming a partnership to persuade two million 18-30 year olds to register to vote and cast ballots in the 2004 Presidential election; I immediately began to think of the implications if such an undertaking were to be successful. The news of the collaboration also caused something to crystallize in my mind that I had "felt" for years about the influence of professional wrestling and hip-hop, among my generation, but which I had not articulated - verbally or in writing.

So, already with an open-mind, attitude of receptivity and a "hunch", I was among those in attendance at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. to hear what the Chairman of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, Russell Simmons (HSAN); and the Chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Vince McMahon had to say.

Cleverly, Vince McMahon summed up what was probably the uninformed establishment view of the undertaking when he remarked, "Wow! The WWE and Hip-Hop together. There goes the neighborhood", in a moment of feigned self-deprecating humor.

Mr. McMahon and Mr. Simmons gave general opening remarks, and to varying degrees and nuance, their presentation of the premise, motive and objective for the effort, referred to as, the "Two Million More in 2004" campaign, was supported by others speaking after them.

An official release sums it all up:

Russell Simmon's Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) today announced that its Hip-Hop Team Vote is joining with World Wrestling Entertainment's Smackdown Your Vote! effort to undertake a non-partisan "Two Million More in 2004" campaign. The objective is to get two million more 18-to-30-year-olds to register and cast their votes in the 2004 Presidential election than did in the Presidential election of 2000. The effort includes the stretch objective to register 4 million new "Generation E" voters by November 2004.

The announcement was made by Russell Simmons, Chairman of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, and Vince McMahon, Chairman of WWE, at a news conference this morning at the National Press Club. Also participating in the news conference were Honorary Smackdown Your Vote! Co-chair and WWE Superstar Bradshaw, WWE Superstar Maven, Rev. Run of Run-DMC, Youth Vote Coalition Executive Director Veronica Delagarza, Hip-Hop Summit Action Network President and CEO Benjamin Chavis, and WWE's Smackdown Your Vote! Executive Director Gary Davis.

McMahon said WWE's introduction of Smackdown Your Vote! at the national political conventions in 2000 caught the attention of potential younger voters, more than 150,000 of whom registered to vote after the campaign kicked-off in July 2000. "Both WWE and Hip-Hop appeal to a broad cross-section of young Americans I can only imagine what the combination of sports entertainment and Hip-Hop will do to attract the interest of younger voters in the 2004 elections now that we have several months in which to reach them," McMahon said. "Who will these young people vote for? I would urge all the political parties and candidates to take the 18-to-30-year-old vote seriously in 2004."


After the remarks were made, I posed a layered question to the two principals, and received an answer. Here is that exchange:

Cedric Muhammad: I wanted to ask Mr. McMahon or Russell a question. What I see happen a lot of times with get-out-the-vote efforts, is that even though they are directed at the youth, they are very top-down oriented. But I think that both of you have the ability to build something (more comprehensive) from the ground-up. So I wanted to know are there plans for outreach to third parties and local political activity, as well as your engaging the institutions of initiative and referendum all across the country, and then, finally, are there plans for a big conference or a convention where you can synthesize all of the issues that the youth in America and all around the world may have and wish to entrust to you two?

Russell Simmons: Ben Chavis and I work everyday on educating young people and getting together with grassroots organizations. There is going to be a booklet passed out of over 500 "Hip-Hop" organizations that are activist organizations. We want to engage as many of them as possible and get their support. We already have Puffy and Snoop and a number of other people who have cut PSAs (public service announcements) - so we have visuals. And the Radio One network is committed, MTV is committed and BET. So there are a lot of resources involved that are both in the air and at the ground level to support this.

Dr. Benjamin Chavis: In addition we will utilize all of our street teams. Russell Simmons is known as the godfather of Hip-Hop because he has provided so many opportunities to people who have been very successful, in the recording industry, movie industry, and other industries. And all of our allied companies have street teams. Vince and the WWE have over 200 events and reach over 20 million people, a week. So we are linking up our street teams with their events, and our ad campaigns and websites on the Internet, as of today. And everyone can download there official voter registration form no matter what state they are in, at www.hsan.org, so, we are organized.

But I was smiling when you asked your question Cedric, because we are not planning one big convention because it is not possible to bring the two million or three million people together in one place. But our convention day is going to be Election Day 2004. That is when we are going to have the masses to turn out, early, on Election Day. All of the people who do tracking and exit polling are going to see a difference on Election Day 2004, because that two million or more will be there and they will be voting strong.


****

While there may be some observers within the establishment who may be dismissive of the effort, the power of the "tag team" partnership has already been recognized by others in that group - with a bipartisan show of support for the effort in the corridors of the U.S. Congress. Congressman John Conyers (D-Michigan), the "dean" of the Congressional Black Caucus attended the press conference and publicly offered his support of the effort, joking that it was "the most physical voter registration drive" he had ever taken part in.

And Congressman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who co-authored the "Help America Vote Act', sent a representative of his to the announcement and issued a statement of support for the voter drive which mentions, "Our young people are our future and it is so important that they become engaged early on in our democratic process. The Help America Vote Act establishes a federal entity, The Help America Vote Foundation, to engage high school youth through opportunities such as working at the voting pools on Election Day. I believe it is vital that private organizations and political institutions reach out to the youth of America. That is why I'm very pleased to support private initiatives, such as Smackdown Your Vote, as well as other initiatives we are exploring with the country music industry, NFL, and NBA, that seek to do just that."

At the end of the press conference I spoke with WWE Superstar, Bradshaw, an author and Wall St. investor who is serving as honorary co-chair of Smackdown Your Vote!; and 26-year old WWE Superstar, Maven, about their view of the strategy being executed in the combined effort. Bradshaw told me, "I think this is the right way to do it. You cast a big net, as wide as possible, so that everyone is involved. Then, I think you listen and you bring the issues in. If you put the issues in first, I don't think you will produce the participation you want from everybody." Maven added, "I can tell you from the age group that I represent that people feel left out of the political process and they believe that it doesn't speak to themor for them. With what we are trying to do, I think that can change and I am convinced that a key to this whole thing is going to be the summits and youth debates that may develop, where we can listen to one another and the candidates and leaders and hear the issues that matter most to us."

Regarding political issues, Maven brings up an interesting dynamic and one that has already been factored in by the Youth Vote Coalition. According to a youth vote fact sheet; there are 42,834,082 citizens in the U.S. of age 18-30, and 64% of them are registered. A Youth Vote Coalition nationwide survey of 18-24 year olds revealed that the issues that concern that age group the most are 1) Terrorism 2) Jobs/Economy and 3) Crime. Of course, it will be interesting to see the nuances and different views, held by youth, of the problems and solutions surrounding these issues, particularly as they are broken down among hip-hop and pro wrestling fans. It is not hard to imagine that for every major point of agreement, there will be areas where segments of the age group are diametrically opposed to one another.

As I left the press conference I approached an obviously tired Vince McMahon, along with Gary Davis, the WWE's Vice President of Corporate Communications. We greeted each other, shook hands and I told Mr. McMahon that I thought he was a genius. He thanked me, put his head down and with laughter politely deflected my compliment by extending it to Russell Simmons. "I'm not, but I was standing next to one at the podium today". Seeking to persuade him that my comment was not an exercise in flattery, I briefly added that my use of the word grew out of my recognition of his creative mind and sensitivity to culture, popular sentiment, and emotion, and, I added, that it will probabaly be decades before people really understand the intricate grasp of human nature and understanding of emotions that he has demonstrated in evolving professional wrestling as a "sports entertainment" art form. I indicated that it is that power - that he and Russell Simmons share - which has given them credibility with youth, that can make for the great success of this undertaking. However, I said, "Because so many individuals and groups have already watered down and cheapened the Get-Out-The-Vote-Process where youth are concerned, if you all fail..." And before I could complete my statement, Vince McMahon confidently and firmly stated, "It won't."

Time will tell. But with a goal so clear, and a timeline so public; it won't be that long - only a little over 13 months from now.



Coming Monday, October 27, 2003: An Open Letter Of Advice To Russell Simmons and Vince McMahon Re: "Two Million More In 2004"


Cedric Muhammad

Friday, September 26, 2003

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