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Bigger Than Hip Hop (cont’d)

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“There is a generational divide, but it’s not the primary problem,” agrees Troy Nkrumah. A lawyer under 30, he assists political prisoners and radical youth organizations in Las Vegas, after doing similar work in the San Francisco Bay area. From Nkrumah’s perspective, it is the political timidity of established black leaders that has led to the current generational tensions. “The civil rights folks got into comfortable positions,” said Nkrumah. “In their minds, they thought they were still down with the movement, but they resisted the radicalism of the young.”

If the cutoff date for the hip-hop generation is a birthday in 1964, then a majority of black people now belong to it, Nkrumah told me. “Hip hop grows every year,” he continues. “Until it dies out, it will grow. Hip hop is not just music, dancing, graffiti–it’s activism.”

Angela Woodson, the 36-year-old co-chair of the Newark convention, presents a starker view of the youth cultural scene. “There are three worlds of hip hop. There’s the corporate world, the political world–and the stupid world.”

That “stupid world” grew out of the gangsta rap genre that corporate record labels have been pushing since the early ’90s. The corporatization and segmentation of black music has been crucial in driving a wedge between generations.

“Me and my parents listened to the same radio station: WBLS-FM–that was the campfire,” says New York native and Bay Area radio personality Davey D, who is not yet 40. “Now the same company uses one station to target one age group, another station to target the other. If you look at the types of venues where wisdom was dispersed, you don’t have elders talking to younger people.”

This generation lives in a different media world than their elders–one stripped of relevance. The content of corporate-owned stations is dumbed down and apolitical. During the mass demonstrations for immigrant rights in Los Angeles, KKBT-FM (“The Beat”) completely ignored one million people in the streets. “It was similar to the Million Man March right on their doorstep, yet to KKBT and its listeners, it didn’t exist,” says Davey D.

So, culture, class issues, consumerism and varying degrees of complacency all divide African Americans, as much if not more than generational differences.

In fact, to reduce the fragmentation of black politics into a generation gap is to play into the hands of the right. Republicans have shown that it can play the youth game as well as the left–better, because they have more money.

Take the victory of Newark’s new African-American mayor, Cory Booker, who was an obscure, 33-year-old, one-term Newark city councilman when he starred at a power luncheon at the Manhattan Institute, the right-wing outfit that specializes in media influence, in 2000. Booker had earlier hooked up with the Bradley and Walton Family (Wal-Mart) Foundations, to become a director of their political invention, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO)–a pro-school vouchers group. After losing the 2002 election, Booker raised $6.1 million for another run, garnering universal corporate media endorsements. He based his campaign on the need for “new blood” and criticisms of the “tired civil-rights generation.”

All together now

Seeking change, young and old came together at both the 2004 NHHPC and the one that took place this year in Chicago’s historic Bronzeville neighborhood.

The oldest speaker at the first day’s Intergenerational Dialogue, Illinois Secretary of Human Services Dr. Carol Adams, was possibly the most militant of “The Movement Continues” panel participants. “To think that we have to begin our revolution again every generation is sad, indeed,” said the sixtyish black civil servant. The crowd exploded in cheers.

NHHPC activists were quick to distinguish themselves from the rich entrepreneurs and poseurs who claim to be the voice of a younger generation.

“I don’t know that I need Fat Joe [an Afro-Puerto Rican/Bronx rapper] to be the next black leader, the next Malcolm X,” said Cedric Shine, a recent graduate from Temple University who works for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C. “I don’t think me and P-Diddy are going to have similar goals in life.”

Twenty-seven-year-old Adrienne Marie Brown was a key player in the 2004 NHHPC as well as an operative in that year’s Democratic election campaign. Brown trained voter organizations and created voter guides in Ohio, and also worked through the League of Pissed Off Voters, whose “mission is to engage pissed off 17 to 35-year-olds in the democratic process to build a progressive governing majority in our lifetime.”

Brown believes the younger black demographics are grouped in three political sections: youth activists in the civil rights movement, a hip-hop movement heavily influenced by “angry” black music, and the young middle class.

Young civil rights activists working in traditional organizations are blocked from taking power by an entrenched leadership, says Brown. The group she calls the “young middle class” are comfortable and complacent. “Most black middle-class young people–a huge arena–don’t identify as hip hop or as civil rights. They just want to boogie. They don’t want to mess anything up.” Black leadership, for this cohort, is whatever power and media say it is. “They look at black leadership and see people like Condoleezza Rice. We in the hip-hop movement don’t see Condoleezza Rice as evidence of progress,” Brown says.

Brown is now executive director of the Ruckus Society, which “provides environmental, human rights, and social justice organizers with the tools, training, and support needed to achieve their goals.” Her mission? To spark a mass movement.

Limitations in the movement

But can hip-hop politics provide a new way in the face of corporatization and complacency? Reviews are mixed.

Some were not happy with the organizers of this year’s NHHPC. The 2004 Newark document set forth practical, progressive positions on education, economic justice, criminal justice, health and wellness, and human rights, but “somehow, in 2004, gender issues were not on the agenda,” said Nkrumah, the Las Vegas-based human rights lawyer. Organizers in Chicago rushed to gather suggestions for positions on “womanism,” the environment, gentrification, media, and a broader stance on “all forms of economic oppression, local or global.”

However, it remained unclear what force the old or newly-adopted items would have since, as 2004 organizer Rosa Clemente pointed out, “We have not decided what type of organization we want to be.” She is not optimistic that her cohort can repair the damage that has been done. “There was a complete failure of black leadership, and there’s only so much the hip-hop generation can do.”

NHHPC chairman Crawford conceded the amorphous nature of the organization–the undefined relationships between the national steering committee, the local organizing committees, and the 14 separate organizations to which many of the key organizers belong. “This agenda expresses the political ambition of the hip-hop community,” says Crawford.

A few attendees offered innovative approaches. Nimco Ahmad, an organizer from Milwaukee who was among the ‘04 convention leadership, uses sophisticated surveys to identify supporters of progressive candidates based on previous voting patterns. Volunteers are developed from these areas, and then further outreach work is conducted among groups of “disenfranchised communities” that tend to vote less frequently. “Those are your new base,” says Ahmad.

Campaign Against Violence organizer C.J. Jenkins uses similar techniques to stop inner-city violence. “First, we create a grid showing the most violent neighborhoods” says Jenkins. Then they elicit neighborhood opinions about the sources of violence, and designate block captains to keep watch on local activities. Jenkins urged would-be organizers to “set up tables at barber shops and nightclubs. Hit every community event that you can. Work with black radio and print media to achieve high visibility. The people must know who you are, and that you are with and among them.”

Listening to such speakers, it becomes plain that little has changed over the decades except that the rightist and racist enemy has regrouped and become more powerful, while progressive forces have often failed to do the basics of political organizing.

The fragmentation of black politics spells disaster, not just for African Americans, but for progressives of all hues. Last year, the Bay Area Center for Voting Research found that the nation’s most “liberal” cities by voting patterns are also the blackest. The “left” lives in Detroit, Gary, Washington D.C., Oakland, Newark–all the major African-American urban centers.

The hip-hop activists who have been set in motion are a conscious extension of the movement that came before. Their fate is to work on the unfinished business of the previous struggle–plus the mounting threats of gentrification, mass black incarceration and raging imperialism. It’s a task that is indeed “bigger than hip hop.”

Glen Ford is executive editor of He is also the former owner and host of Rap It Up, the first nationally syndicated radio Hip Hop music show.

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