The rise of hip-hop culture has given a worldwide platform to the creative products of Black American rap artists. In the past 30 years, many rap artists have provided important insights into the desires, aspirations and obstacles faced by young Black Americans. Yet, while hip-hop culture gave rap artists the agency to publicly critique their world, the larger hip-hop generation has not benefited politically from this powerful voice. The hip-hop generation is distinct from hip-hop culture. Regrettably the millions of 18 to 40 year olds who comprise the hip-hop generation are too often conflated with the music and activities of a handful of rap artists.
This sloppy connection has in effect made invisible young Black activists who prefer community-based organizing to the bling-bling and rhetoric of hip-hop activism. Regardless of hip-hop culture’s merits, these activists realize that it cannot be the driving force of hip-hop generation political activism. In this year’s presidential election, it is the civil rights generation, and not the hip-hop generation, that candidates will court. In spite of their advanced age and perhaps outdated agenda, civil rights leaders are fierce and vocal advocates for Black Americans. They can also be counted on to get their constituents to the polls. In contrast, legislators will ignore the hip-hop generation because on political matters this group is largely silent and consistently fails to vote. It is no longer sufficient to cite youth and immaturity as the cause of this generation’s political inertia. A large portion of the hip-hop generation now consists of adults in their late 20s and 30s who are responsible for maintaining jobs, families and households.
Politically, the hip-hop generation seems to have stalled somewhere between talk and action. We have been bamboozled and hoodwinked into discarding traditional grassroots organizing with the false belief that rappin’ and breakin’ about problems is enough to facilitate systemic change. Even more disturbing, we have become comfortable hanging on the words of self-appointed, celebrity hip-hop “leaders” who have yet to demonstrate that they have any political expertise, strategic plan or record of success to fall back on. On the other hand, most of us would not give an unglamorous but effective activist the time of day.
For all of its hype, hip-hop activism has not yet proven to be an effective means of politically engaging young Black Americans. Irrespective of all of the well-meaning benefit concerts and CDs, protests and voter registration drives that have been produced, hip-hop activism has failed to develop into a hip-hop generation political movement. In more than 15 years, hip-hop activism has not radically increased the number of young Black voters, nor has it formulated agenda(s) to be addressed by elected officials or by Black Americans themselves. Furthermore, rather than creating new Black leaders, hip-hop activism has instead helped to launch new Black spokesmen. The difference between the two is that a leader creates strategies to solve problems while a spokesman is content to simply rant about them in the media.
A call for a hip-hop generation movement is a recognition of the need for new organizations and networks to address the issues of importance to this new generation, particularly criminal justice, police misconduct, education reform, health care and affordable housing. Without negating the great work of community organizations already attacking these subjects, national hip-hop generation organizations have to be created, as well as coalitions composed of local and regional hip-hop-generation–led groups. It is also crucial to our collective future that the hip-hop generation establishes itself as a political constituency that can demand the attention of election officials. Since politicians only understand money and votes, a hip-hop generation political initiative has to cultivate new voters (as opposed to registrants) and new campaign contributors. These new structures would have the increased capacity to influence legislators about the various issues that are of interest to Black Americans. They would also provide the means for Black Americans to formulate and meet their own self-help goals. These organizations will not need the imprimatur of hip-hop personalities to gain media attention, raise funds or attract volunteers. The results of their work will be enough.
Yvonne Bynoe is president of Urban Think Tank Institute (www.urbanthinktank.org) and author of the book Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip-hop Culture, (Softskull Press).