Black Music and Identity
6 April 2004
Mixing Politics with Hip-hop
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-
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
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
“-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
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 many derogatory terms for women and homosexuals and the
hip-hop community has been highly criticized for supporting him financially
by buying his records, and not just buying them, making them top the
Billboard charts, album after album. In their defense, hip-hop says that
rap is story of what they know.
The FCC fined two radio stations $7,000
each for playing Eminem’s “The real Slim Shady” although it was later
discredited. The talk of guns and gangs is only talk of what they see on a
daily basis. It is not to encourage listeners to participate in any
illegal activity, only to seek out that trademark empathy with listeners
who have also been there. This First Amendment fight is a battle that is
still ongoing and one that is in the forefront of the political agenda for
hip-hop fans nationally.
One of the other main issues hip-hop leaders are addressing is
education. Not only is education not equal in inner-city schools where it
is seemingly needed more, they are also bringing higher education costs to
the attention of politicians. Cost of higher education has also been a
constant battle in America but a newly adopted issue for hip-hop. More
than ever before, with idols like Sean Combs, Russell Simmons, and other
moguls of this generation there is an urge to get rich. Listeners of hip-
hop are more driven than ever to be successful and in our society this most
often requires a college education. The inner-city blacks and latinos
connect once again with the middle-class white families who have been
struggling with this for decades.
Beyond education and censorship, there is a battle with law
enforcement that plagues youths more than any other group. The hip-hop
audience has come together on the goal of re-evaluating the state and
federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s.
In some instances, drug offenders have been put behind bars for longer than
rapists and murderers for small amounts of drugs and usually these are 18-
24 year olds (Potter 131).
So they come out of jail 15 years later and
they’re criminals, surely not to have much a future seeing as they’re been
sitting in a cement block for the greater part of their life. This also
means a percentage of their voting power is in jail, so hip-hop is fighting
to give convicts who have paid their debt to society and served their time
to resume voting privileges, and automatically- not through burdensome
During the 2000 Presidential campaign, Simmons announced he was
beginning a campaign to bring more political awareness to youth stating
“With issues like racial profiling and police brutality taking center stage
in this year’s elections, the hip-hop community needs to mobilize, move as
an army, and make their voice heard. (Kitwana 175)” His campaign, Hip-hop
Summit Action Network and also RaptheVote, aim to bring the issues of the
hip-hop audience before the nation and encourage the cynical, apathetic 18-
24 year old voters a reason to go to the polls.
And not just to get them
to the polls, but to get them involved so much in the political process
that they can participate in it actively and firmly support a candidate not
only because Russell Simmons told them to. After conquering nearly
everything else there was in business, it seemed only natural for Simmons
to turn to politics. Simmons wasn’t the first, however. Since the mid-
1990s The Souce magazine has reported on rap’s youth sociopolitical issues
directly linked to hip-hop’s cultural movement (Kitwana 176). Similar
magazines have followed as well. Simmons has a degree of “street credit”
with the hip-hop community because of his Def Jam label and VIP list of
friends. With that in mind, Simmons felt he had the power, along with
those VIPs, to get their audience out to the polls or at least aware of
their political power.
This was yet another risk taken by Simmons. To mix
hip-hop, something projected to youths as a rebellious form of music to
find accompaniment in your strife and adolescent struggle, with the thought
that being involved in politics is the cool thing to do and all their
favorite celebrities are doing it, is partially risking the future of hip-
hop. If it loses even an ounce of its rebellious nature, it has the
possibility of diffusing like grunge rock. And it’s true, very few pop
movements ever do last, no matter how much staying power they seem to have.
But Simmons has been highly criticized of late because of his strong
support of Hilary Clinton for New York Senator.
Hilary Clinton has yet to
commit herself to any of the issues central on the hip-hop political
agenda, or rather Simmons’ agenda. Simmons’ response is that he backed the
lesser of two evils, but is that what voting is about? Simmons also backed
Al Gore’s campaign yet his running mate Joe Lieberman and Gore’s wife
Tipper have led campaigns against what they consider offensive music
lyrics, including some on the Def Jam label (Roberts).
But with growing
popularity, and the increasing appearances of hip-hop stars like 50 Cent,
Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah and Snoop Dogg joining the force, it has been
looking increasingly positive that a hip-hop voting bloc may just happen in
time for the generation that started all the madness to witness it.
“RaptheVote generated a great deal of excitement among politically minded
youth in search of an organizational model that defines our issues and our
time. Simmons’ effort may be the best thing we’ve seen to date but it is
by no means the best we can expect. (Bakari 189)”
“The hip hop generation- a vastly broad, multiracial segment of young
America- is coming of political age” (Roberts) and as this coming of age
happens politicians everywhere are taking notice. This is a huge force of
today’s youth and with a growing emphasis on earning to votes of the
youngest voting bracket, politicians are paying more and more attention to
the needs and demands of this group. Consequently, with hip-hop being the
huge influence of this group, hip-hop is getting its voice heard more than
ever before. Being an election year, 2004 has been a great year for hip-
hop and its political agendas.
Many of the hip-hop community have backed
Democrat John Kerry, not simply because he is a Democrat, but he seems to
be taking their issues to heart and has plans to do something about them.
MTV, Russell Simmons, and celebrities within and outside of hip-hop have
teamed up for “20 Million Loud.” An effort to get 20 million 18-24 year
old registered to vote and to the voting booths for this years election.
With the controversy of last election and the close count between Al Gore
and President Bush, youths are feeling their voice is important and if they
team up with other youths their age, they can really get their issues
Russell Simmons created Def jam and created the beginning of an era.
But the same was said of Kurt Cobain and 10 years later his influence is
only ripples left in society. So will Hip-hop and have the same fate? And
if so, how can youths rally around it, if it is only to soon become
something of the past. To mix hip-hop, something projected to youths as a
rebellious form of music to find accompaniment in your strife and
adolescent struggle, with the thought that being involved in politics is
the cool thing to do and all their favorite celebrities are doing it, is
partially risking the future of hip-hop. If it loses even an ounce of its
rebellious nature, it has the possibility of diffusing like grunge rock.
And it’s true, very few pop movements ever do last, no matter how much
staying power they seem to have.
But even with these questions of its
staying power, the facts of now are very apparent. Hip-hop is a driving
force in today’s youth and that youth is coming to an age where they are
able to take power. In past decades there has been no huger coming
together of youths than the hippy movement in the 1960s and 1970s but hip-
hop has the power to completely destroy the magnitude of that movement.
And with the First Amendment, education, and law enforcement issues all
deeply rooted in the hip-hop community, it is only time before we see a
change in our nation.
Hip-hop, the music that was supposed to be the
detriment of todays youth, is now bringing them together in record numbers
and fighting for rights that have been issues for centuries, and they might
just have the power to do it. And Russell Simmons, once again, just might
have been the person who saw the opportunity that everyone else saw but was
the first one to actually try to do something with it. Hip-hop and Russell
Simmons with go hand-in-hand with each other for years to come, as they’ve
made each other famous. And with making each other famous, they’ve made
each other politicians.
Jones, Vanessa E. “Hip-hop’s Next move Rap Fans Are harnessing Their
To Take On Issues They Care About.” The Boston Globe 3 Dec. 2003,
Third ed., sec. C. LexisNexis. 06 Apr. 2004
Kitwana, Bakari. The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in
American Culture. New York: BasicCivitas Books, 2002.
Potter, Russell A. Hip-Hop and the Politics of Post-Modernism. Albany:
University of New York P, 1995
Roberts, Johnnie L. “Mr. Rap Goes Washington.” Newsweek. 04 Sept. 2000: 22.
EBSCOhost. 06 Apr. 2004