Politics & Policy

Fight The Power?

Hip-hop has a new activism and the same old targets.

If hip-hop’s parade of social pathologies has made you wonder why the genre’s stars can’t find something else to rhyme about, you’re getting your wish. But unless your favorite weekend activity involves breaking out the “Bush = Hitler” sign and breathing the scent of patchouli as you shout down The Man, the lines that several of hip-hop’s biggest names are now spouting will be just as disheartening.

Cash-obsessed icons like Jay-Z and P. Diddy have been transformed, protesting war in Iraq and threats to teachers unions. Moguls Damon Dash and Jermaine Dupri, multimillionaires who run two of hip-hop’s most successful labels, are demanding justice or else. Even Mariah Carey, whose own political agenda remained cleverly concealed until recently, has joined her hip-hop pals in storming the barricades.

Hip-hop has been a vehicle for protest since its early days, but never in such an organized fashion. This new wave of activism owes something to the advancing age of the hip-hop generation, which now includes plenty of thirty- and even fortysomethings in positions of power. And no one is wielding that influence more effectively than Russell Simmons of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network.

Simmons is the brother of Run-DMC’s Rev. Run, and the impresario behind TV’s Def Comedy Jam and the clothing line Phat Farm, among other business ventures. After chairing a national hip-hop summit in the summer of 2001, Simmons formed HSAN–the most ambitious effort yet to mobilize the political clout of the music’s stars, and their millions of fans, “to fight the war on poverty and injustice.”

But the soldiers HSAN has allied itself with show that despite the new name, this is really just (extreme left-wing) politics as usual. The organization’s president is Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, the former head of the NAACP, who got his pink slip in 1994 after charges of sexual harassment and financial irregularities, as well as widespread discomfort among the membership over his ties to Louis Farrakhan. Congressional, professional wackos like Maxine Waters and Cynthia McKinney have been honored guests at HSAN’s summits, and the group’s tactics are drawn straight from the Jesse Jackson/Al Sharpton playbook of race-baiting and corporate shakedowns.

That M.O. wasn’t enough to achieve the group’s goal of preventing war in Iraq, as you might have noticed, but HSAN already owns several scalps. It helped force New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to restore $300 million to the city’s education budget in 2002. Then the group squeezed millions from Pepsi earlier this year, threatening a boycott after the rapper Ludacris was dumped as a soft-drink pitchman (due to the efforts of commentator Bill O’Reilly, whose overzealous attack on the relatively benign Ludacris handed HSAN another gimme).

The group’s greatest victory came this summer, as part of a coalition opposing New York’s Rockefeller drug laws. Joining forces with failed gubernatorial candidates Andrew Cuomo and Tom Golisano, HSAN declared “war” on Gov. George Pataki, who had for years been proposing ways to reform the laws and their mandatory sentencing requirements. Pataki’s latest effort, recently presented to the Democratic state legislature, is a long way from the repeal hardcore activists wanted–but it’s a slam dunk for Simmons, who got instant credibility through his efforts.

History and demographics suggest that Simmons’s dream of expanding HSAN’s influence nationwide is still a longshot. But the organization has already proven it can succeed in major urban areas, usually the strongholds of Democrats and fake Republicans who crumble at the first chant of “No Justice, No Peace.” And undoubtedly, Simmons will someday have the chance to turn his influence into elective office, if he chooses.

What should be frustrating to conservatives is that Simmons’s estimation of hip-hop’s power for change isn’t mistaken. Public Enemy frontman Chuck D’s oft-cited claim that hip-hop is black America’s CNN is perhaps truer than ever; to many listeners it seems just as credible as other alternative forms of media now proliferating, and it’s been around longer. So it’s hard not to imagine the shockwaves that could ensue if the music was used to fight a different, more destructive, power. Just imagine a Jay-Z or a P. Diddy joining forces with protesters for school choice. Or what might happen if such artists told the world that affirmative action (which didn’t help them sell a single album, after all) has gone on long enough.

The good news is, as hip-hop continues to expand and diversify, those pipedreams are more and more likely to become a reality. Until then, hip-hop’s same old song might actually be preferable to the alternative.

Dan LeRoy is a freelance writer who has contributed to Vibe , the Hartford Courant and Alternative Press.

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