Mixing Politics with Hip-hop

Black Music and Identity

6 April 2004

He began much like the music that made him famous- in a run down part of New York City, surrounded by drug dealing and poverty, and with seemingly no future. Now his success story mirrors that of the same music- he’s conquering the world, if he hasn’t already. Russell Simmons didn’t invent hip-hop, but he is, perhaps more than any other individual, directly responsible for its success. Simmons helped put hip-hop on the map, and hip hop returned the favor. He has conquered the music industry with his label Def Jam, which signed some of the biggest names in hip hop like Beastie boys, Public Enemy and LL Cool J. He’s conquered the fashion world with his line Phat Fashions making almost $615 million annually (Roberts). He is even partially to credit for the addition of a new word to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary with the word that dons his clothes- phat. That’s enough to make any millionaire jealous. Now he is set to conquer Washington with his Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. The organization, completely funded by him, is promoting political awareness, civic activism, and voter registration among the 18-24 year old group. So how has hip-hop come from its modest beginnings to have a political force? Does Russell Simmons or anyone for that matter have the power to harness this force and bring it to politics and is the audience even interested in the political game? And finally, what are the issues the hip-hop community has to fight for?

Hip-hop was supposed to be a fad. Starting on the streets of the South Bronx, New York amongst inner city teens, it was simply a means of expression. In 1979 after “Rappers Delight” by the SugarHill Gang was released, hip-hop quickly gained a lot of attention (Toop). In the 90’s when gangsta rap came on the scene, hip-hop really began to harness a massive audience. But unlike the grunge rock of the 90’s, hip-hop wasn’t just a fad, it was a movement. Hip-hop, with its music, fashion, attitude, style and language, is now one of the highest grossing forms of music and one of the most visually influential. On billboards, magazines and TV you don’t often see country music stars or rockers, you’re most likely to see rappers and other hip-hop stars. With such a huge audience at its fingertips, it was only a matter of time before someone realized how much power this group could have and just how much power they already had. There are no statistics to give a face to this “hip-hop generation,” but it has the attention of everyone. Latinos, whites, Asian-Americans, African-Americans. Poor, middle-class, rich. Suburban, urban. They’re teens, 20-somethings who grew up listening to Ja Rule and LL Cool J and even people in their 30s and 40s who have grooved to the music since its birth in the 1970s (Jones).

With such a large and incredibly diverse audience, hip-hop is sure to have its share of issues for politicians. In their songs you hear a lot of the same themes- poor education, economic structure in Urban communities, youth poverty and disease. Consider a quote from Nas’ song “I Want to Talk to You,”

“-Mr. Mayor, Imagine this was your backyard

-Mr. Governor, Imagine it’s your kids that starve

-Imagine your kids gotta sling crack to survive

-Swing Mac to Be Alive”

In a great majority of lyrics, as shown by Nas, hip-hop artists make clear their issues with politicians and with the audience tuning in with a degree of empathy, these issues spread like wildfire in the hip-hop community. But the problem is, with a growing white audience, how do you get them involved in politics for issues that generally involve blacks and latinos? Though few whites are actually in this group of oppressed, they seem to find the connection to support each other politically on other levels (Potter 136).

Any fan of hip-hop whether black, white, red or orange is angered by the strong call for censorship by politicians and critics especially in the 90s gangsta era with the talk of guns, murder, rape, and anger against the police. This issue has been brought up again on a large scale with Eminem. His lyrics contain