John Kerry can claim to be “fascinated” by hip-hop. He can say he hopes to succeed Bill Clinton as our second “black president.” But despite the naked pandering, Kerry has failed to connect with voters in the hip-hop generation–that is, according to the guy who invented the term. Author and activist Bakari Kitwana’s take on Kerry’s candidacy should be a sobering one for Democrats: Not only does it suggest a loss in November, it also forecasts the defection of young black voters from the party they believe has long taken them for granted.
”Historically, just watching the constant and repeated disrespect that the Democratic party has offered us… I just don’t think they’re serious,” says Kitwana, who also predicts that a “shift is coming” in black voting trends.
Kitwana’s opinion isn’t offered in a vacuum. This week, he’ll preside over the first National Hip-Hop Political Convention in Newark, N.J. The planned gathering of more than 15,000 delegates, organized by Kitwana and several partners, seems unlikely to endorse the “anyone but Bush” theory that advises holding your nose and, if you must, voting for Kerry.
“There are people who are so disgusted with Bush that they’ll do that,” says Kitwana. “I’m not one of those people.”
But Kitwana is also no conservative. A former editor at the hip-hop periodical The Source and author of the 2002 book, The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture–which gave a name to the group of 18 to 40 year olds who grew up as hip-hop culture took over the world, and which also provided the inspiration for this week’s convention–he voted for Ralph Nader four years ago and endorses a radical agenda that includes “living wage” jobs, more government-subsidized college tuition, and opposition to globalization. Meanwhile, several of his scheduled convention guests–including members of the Black Panther revivalist acts Dead Prez and The Coup–offer verses from Chairman Mao’s little red lyric book.
Yet Kitwana’s is an influential voice arguing that black voters shouldn’t toss their support to Democrats for tradition’s sake. “We get nothing back when we do that,” he says. “Most young people think that’s a waste of time, and would rather sit on the sidelines.” And if that means helping steer enough votes to Nader to insure a Bush victory, Kitwana won’t be heartbroken. “Both of these guys,” he says of Bush and Kerry, “there’s very little difference between them.”
Conservatives would undoubtedly challenge that assertion, as would some other scheduled guests at the convention. Pioneering rap legend Kurtis Blow takes the old, pragmatic line, right down to the assumption that every hip-hop voter belongs to the donkey party.
“Kerry is a better candidate than Bush, and we have an obligation as Democrats to support him,” says Blow, who at age 44 is an elder statesmen of the convention lineup. “We don’t know what Kerry’s gonna be like, but he deserves a chance. Bush has already had his chance, and we’ve seen what he did. We didn’t vote that guy in in the first place.”
But Kitwana, several years Blow’s junior, doesn’t share those Democratic allegiances. Kitwana is less interested in 2004 and more focused on developing local candidates to implement progressive ideas, as well as registering voters who actually plan to vote. He applauds the registration efforts of groups like Russell Simmons’s Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, which claims to have signed up 12 million new voters, though he takes a cynical view of the numbers.
“When you register these people at random…it’s almost like a drive-by,” he says with a chuckle. “You sign these people up and never see them again.”
If the convention outcome mirrors Kitwana’s thinking, Democratic fears about Nader’s November impact could get a fresh boost. But Kitwana is also one of the lone black leaders willing to voice one of the party’s worst nightmares: that Republicans will eventually succeed in wooing enough young black voters to break a decades-old Democratic stranglehold.
“I think there’s a shift coming,” he says. “And I would be surprised if Democrats get it before the Republicans do. Republicans tend to be a little bit more savvy when it comes to bringing new groups in and recognizing new groups.”
Right now, that seems as much a fantasy as imagining John Kerry parsing Tupac’s lyrics for deeper meaning, in the rumpus room of his Beacon Hill manse. But first things first: If enough hip-hop voters support Nader in a tight election, Kerry might have the free time to actually listen to the music he allegedly loves.
–Dan LeRoy might be the only conservative hip-hop writer in America. He lives in Connecticut.