This article in the Final Call reports on a recent panel that included the voices of insightful writers and activists involved in the hip-hop community.
The panel included author and scholar Michael Eric Dyson, Tonja Styles of Politicalswagger.com, Pamela Woodson of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, and BET's Jeff Johnson.
One would think that this was a a panel assembled by independent grassroots activists; folks with a long history in the base of hip-hop itself. But no, this was a forum sponsored by the Democratic Party during its convention in Denver! Sponsored by College Democrats of America, the forum was entitled "Hip-Hop: Be the Change."
The forum represented all the contradictory aspects of the time we are in right now. Hip-hop's potential to play a role in real social change was hit upon repeatedly during the night. Dyson commented that between Will.I.Am and Nas, hip-hop's "radical political potential" was being unleashed. Yet the heavy atmosphere of "Vote" seemed to loom the entire night. Johnson spent time flashing back to "Vote or Die" during the 2004 elections.
The contradiction was perhaps best represented in the words of actress Tatyana Ali, daughter of the legendary Muhammad Ali, who spoke about what had motivated this flocking of heads into the Obama campaign: “I think young people have showed up in great numbers during the primary and I think they are going to do it again because the issues that are really important in this election are really important to young people—like bringing our friends and loved ones back home from Iraq and taking care of them once they are back. Like education and making sure it is affordable health care and the environment.”
Therein lies the crux. Barack Obama's recent words and actions seem to raise serious questions about whether he will do any of those things. From his sabre-rattling against Pakistan to his insistence on targeting Black fathers as "irresponsible," Obama has shown a willingness to be part and parcel of the same Democratic Party that has betrayed us time and again.
There's no doubt that the Obama campaign has inspired young people and artists to become involved in not just the election, but activism in general. The idea of "hope" is a lot more palpable now than it has been for a long time. Yet one thing that seemed make itself known during the night was that hip-hop itself has a much bigger potential than just elections. In many ways, that potential bucks everything that the Democrats, and Obama, ultimately stand for.
Even in Nas' "Black President," talked about throughout the night, the rapper questions whether Obama is for real or not. Many other artists who have thrown themselves into the campaign have still tempered their gusto with a healthy dose of skepticism. That's a skepticism clearly rooted in the long history of disappointments from the Democrats.
Which is where hip-hop's true soul shows its face. Later in the night, Dyson made clear that there have been plenty of politicians who sought to use the music for their own gain. Yet ultimately, the music holds a "political energy that cannot be controlled."
That's an energy--and indeed a power--that will explode forth with the rise of a real movement for social change that goes well beyond the scope of any election. The question isn't whether Obama will win, but whether this enthusiasm will be nurtured and fostered past November by our own activism.
Ironically, the best statement quoted in the article came from a representative of BET: "I’m more concerned about these young people rallying tomorrow about police brutality, and lack of resources in their communities than I am about them voting in the November. Because if they’re not willing to fight for the issues in their communities now, it doesn’t matter if Barack Obama, John McCain or Jesus is in the White House, because at the end of the day, if we aren’t fighting for our own communities nobody is going to do it.”
Bob Johnson must be shaking his head right now.