When superstar lyricist Nas declared, "Hip-hop is dead!" in 2006, he reignited a long-running debate among artists and observers in the rap community. While the money-guns-girls wing of commercial rap is certainly here to stay, many fans insist that hip hop's political roots are rotting. But on the eve of an election in which a presidential candidate is a professed Jay-Z fan who brushes off his shoulders in speeches and fist-bumps his wife, it appears that the political soul of hip hop is primed for a reawakening.
It's no secret that the most widely covered news stories involving hip hop in the last few years have been less than flattering. Rapper Ludacris recently made headlines with a pro-Obama song he released in July. On "Politics as Usual," he rhymes in support of Obama about Sen. John McCain and Sen. Hillary Clinton: "Hillary hated on you, so that bitch is irrelevant; McCain don't belong in any chair unless he's paralyzed." The lyrics prompted an Obama campaign spokesman to condemn the song as "outrageously offensive." Then there was Don Imus's referral to the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hoes" last April. What followed was a national backlash that pinpointed commercial rap as the source of the kind of misogyny many felt he had aimed at a group of young black women. The Imus comment, and the anti-rap fallout, became such a big deal that Oprah devoted a show to the subject of misogyny in rap music. Hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons and rapper Common appeared on the show, defending rap artists as poets who simply paint pictures of the world as they see it.
It wasn't the first time Simmons was called upon to defend the culture of rap. In 2001, he founded the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), a non-partisan organization dedicated to fighting poverty and injustice through voter education and other programs. With commercials on MTV and through initiatives such as Hip Hop Team and "Vote For It '08," HSAN is making voter registration and political education as easy as poking friends on Facebook. (In March 2008, Simmons stepped down from his leadership role to publicly endorse Obama, who he said "represents the best candidate to suit the ideas that matter most to me—eradicating poverty, conflict resolution, the environment and foreign policy.")
Another hip-hop political organization, The Hip Hop Caucus, founded by the Rev. Lennox Yearwood in 2004, has recruited artists like T.I. to evangelize. Voting is a particularly personal issue for T.I. who will not be allowed to pull the lever for any candidate on Nov. 4, because of a prior felony conviction for gun possession. So T.I. (born Clifford Joseph Harris Jr.) has joined forces with the Caucus as the spokesman for its "Respect My Vote" campaign. "If I can't vote, the least I can do is to make up for my minus-one by urging others to vote," he says.
Perhaps the best evidence that hip hop's political consciousness is still simmering just beneath the surface is the success of the annual Rock the Bells Festival. Now in its tenth year, Rock the Bells has become the Lollapalooza of hip hop, bringing together some of the most prolific, and politically conscious artists of the last 30 years, selling out stadiums in the process. This year's lineup included A Tribe Called Quest, Nas and De La Soul as well as more polemical rap-activists—Dead Prez and Immortal Technique. In backstage interviews, reactions to politics and the presidential election varied from full support of Obama from rap artists Rakim and Redman to frustration and disillusionment from Ghostface and Method Man. Rakim remarked, "Get out and vote for who you think is going to make a difference. For me, I think Barack is that candidate." Pioneering female rapper MC Lyte encourages her fellow artists to take the responsibility that comes with their influence seriously. She wants luminaries of the hip-hop community to be "extremely certain in whatever it is [they] do."
Back among the crowd, concertgoer Priscilla Simon, a Howard University senior, said, "I'm so excited to be voting for the first time and the words of these prolific artists have only encouraged me to have my voice heard."
Hip hop's adults aren't merely urging kids to vote—they're running for Congress. Kevin Powell, a cast-member of MTV's first season of "Real World" and a founding editor of Vibe magazine, ran in the Democratic primary for a seat in the 10th District of New York this month. (Powell, who was unsuccessful in his bid, says he will run again in 2010.) At a fundraiser in New York City in July, Powell said, "The time is now to take back our communities! As a son of the hip-hop generation, it is my duty to speak for my disenfranchised brothers and sisters. Change is coming to Washington!" Obama supporters are hoping it's the "change we need."