This Ain't No Party
By Jeff Chang, AlterNet. Posted June 25, 2004.
The first National Hip-Hop Political Convention was
inspired, passionate, energizing -- and a great
leap forward into activism.
On June 11th, more than two dozen young people hopped on
a bus in Minneapolis, headed for the historic National
Hip-Hop Political Convention set to begin five days
later in Newark, New Jersey. Some were activists hoping
to inspire political engagement among their peers, some
were rappers looking for a break and some were just
trying to get out of town. Other than a love of hip-hop
culture, they thought they had little in common.
The convention was an unprecedented effort to mobilize a
sleeping giant -- a generation of tens of millions for
whom "politics" is but a profanity -- to leverage its
cultural power toward political power. Delegates would
qualify by registering 50 people to vote, and would
fashion the hip-hop generation's first national
The bus ride, organized by St. Paul-based Nimco Ahmed, a
petite 22-year-old Somali American firebrand, was
designed to take this motley crew of youngsters -- 80
percent of whom were aspiring rappers, according to one
rider -- through the 'hoods of the upper Midwest and
Northeast to register 4,000 people to vote, which would
mean 80 delegate seats at the Convention.
But the trip didn't quite go as planned.
A 23-year-old rapper named Kenneth Earl Crump, Jr.,
better known as "Neo", got on the bus when it reached
the southside of Chicago, hoping to get to New York to
meet some industry players and further his budding
career. "Honestly, I was using it as a free trip to get
to the east coast," he says candidly. "But by the time I
got to New York I forgot to take care of my personal
business. I got so wrapped up in the whole atmosphere."
While registering people to vote at the housing projects
in the northside of Kalamazoo, Neo was stunned to find
the same conditions he saw at home: "Gentrification,
gang violence, no trust for the police departments, no
order, no law, and no respect anymore."
In Cincinnati, the bus pulled into the Over-The-Rhine
neighborhood that had erupted in rioting in April of
2001 after the police shooting of black resident Timothy
Thomas. There, things took a strange turn. "The pastor
who was supposed to walk us through the neighborhood got
scared and left us," Neo recalls. "It was wild. One of
my Somali brothers, they tried to rob him, take his
watch and his chains. A white guy who was with us, they
came at him like nine, ten deep, just talking about,
'This ain't the place for you to be.' One of the 14-
year-old guys, somebody pulled a knife on him, just for
asking him to register to vote."
But the experience didn't scare these political
neophytes. Instead, says Nicholas Cortez Al'Aziz
Muhammad, a 26-year-old rapper from St. Paul who became
the Minnesota delegation's chair, "They had seen the
extreme of what could happen if you don't use your
political voice. They actually got to see what this
political process could do to our people at its worst.
"That's the point at which people started forgetting
their music and started thinking about how they could
help people in that type of condition," he adds.
For Neo, the ride was a revelation. It made made him
believe that political activism -- and unity -- might be
a powerful thing. "The same problems they were talking
about in Cincinnati, we heard the same problems in
Kalamazoo, we heard the same problems in Pittsburgh, we
heard the same problems in Chicago, same problems in
Harlem, same problems in Newark,' he says. "So I'm just
gonna take the leap."
THE SKEPTICAL GENERATION
For many, the National Hip-Hop Political Convention was
certainly a leap.
Pundits point to declining voter registration and
participation numbers, especially in the 18-35 age
bracket. Since Bill Clinton's 1992 election turned out a
record number of young people to vote, politicians have
ignored the concerns of young voters. "During our
lifetime, the political system hasn't often shown and
proved it can be a viable force for change," says James
Bernard, executive director of the Hip Hop Civic
Engagement Project, an organization that has registered
tens of thousands of voters in 13 states. "That's what
we're working against and what we have to overcome with
Unlike the civil rights generation, the hip-hop
generation came of age during a time of reversal.
Schools were closed, services reduced, safety nets
shredded. Deindustrialization was followed by
disinvestment. The federal government reduced its powers
-- and its budget -- to restore and cure, and delegated
budgets and powers back to the states and the cities.
These were the politics of abandonment.
Also during the 80s, government began to actively turn
against the young, barring them from public spaces
through curfews, sweeps, and anti-loitering ordinances.
They were profiled and transformed into fodder for gang
databases. Juvenile justice turned from rehabilitation
to retribution. Three-strikes and other tough-on-crime
laws proliferated. Incarceration rates soared. These
were the politics of containment.
Hip-hop culture was part of the response to the politics
of abandonment and containment, as the new generation
shifted much of its energy toward cultural production.
It was partial, though, because it did not attempt a
broad analysis of how society had changed. Hip-hop spoke
to the 'hood-view, the gaze from the corner, the rhythm
of the street.
When hip-hop activism emerged out of the generational
strife of the mid-90s, it too remained locally focused.
At the end of the century, as movements against the
prison-industrial complex and police brutality emerged
simultaneous to movements against corporate
globalization, many young hip-hop activists begin to see
the need for national organizing.
Two of the founders of the National Hip-Hop Political
Convention, Bakari Kitwana, author of the seminal 2000
book The Hip-Hop Generation, and Ras Baraka, the son of
famed poet Amiri Baraka and deputy mayor of Newark,
looked to the 1972 National Black Political Assembly in
Gary, Indiana, as a model of empowerment. (Ras' father
played a central role in that event.) That convention
gathered an explosive mix of elected officials,
Democratic Party activists, and black-power organizers
and resulted in a doubling of the number of black
elected officials. But a precipitous weakening of
national African-American institutions followed. Hip-hop
activism has been, in no small part, a reaction to the
lack of leadership development by those institutions.
A look at the national co-chairs of the Hip-Hop
convention is illustrative of this point: Baye Adofo-
Wilson is a community organizer working on economic
development issues in Newark, and one of the forces
behind Black August, an effort to educate rappers about
global politics through high-profile summer tours to
Cuba and South Africa; Angela Woodson has spearheaded
the grass-roots efforts to register more than 5,000
voters in the crucial swing state of Ohio. Both come out
of sturdy local networks of hip-hop activists --
including radio personalities, rap artists, nightclub
owners, student activists, community organizers, gang
trucemakers, journalists, zine publishers, voting rights
advocates -- and work on issues like education, the
prison-industrial complex, juvenile justice, education,
health, environmental justice, racism, and sexism. The
Hip-Hop Convention meant to activate these networks on a
The Convention organizers set the opening date as June
16th, Tupac's birthday, and scheduled the vote on the
national agenda for June 19th, Juneteenth. Some 6,000
attendees arrived from 25 states and 10 countries,
including Holland, France, Colombia, Mexico and
Australia. More than 600 delegates from 20 states were
counted before the Convention opened (about 400 showed),
representing 30,000 new "hip-hop voters.'
There has probably never been another Convention like
this. In the hallways outside crowded workshops, radio
personalities and rappers like the Diplomats' Jim Jones
mingled with basketball jersey-sporting b-boys,
headwrapped sisters with baby carriages, Discman-
carrying high school students and iPod-wearing
businessmen. All week in Newark, freestyle ciphers
spilled out onto the sidewalks. Thousands attended the
free all-night park jams under a huge concert canopy,
featuring performers like dead prez, Doug E. Fresh,
Slick Rick, Wyclef Jean, Rah Digga, Busta Rhymes, Kurtis
Blow, Floetry, and Black Moon.
Ras Baraka stated the obvious in a speech on Saturday:
"This Convention is not a construct of the Republican or
Democratic Party." Neither Party could ever party like
WE GOT ISSUES
A key spur for the hip-hop activism movement came in
1994, when C. Delores Tucker told a Senate panel that
the hip-hop generation, "coaxed by gangster rap,' would
"trigger a crime wave of epidemic proportions that we
have never seen the likes of." She added, "Regardless of
the number of jails built, it will not be enough."
Recognizing the centrality of generational conflict in
hip-hop gen politics, a whole day of the Convention was
devoted to "Intergenerational Dialogue.' Nisa Galeta, a
21-year old delegate from D.C., summed up the issue,
"There are leaders who pass the baton, and then there
are leaders who die in their grave holding on to the
baton. The first thing that people are going to pick
apart is what they think is division in your midst. So
the hip-hop generation is trying to empower older people
to learn from young people and young people to respect
By turns the townhall meeting was rowdy, unfocused, and
threatening to spiral out of control, but it still
produced moments of clarity. Harlem-based Reverend
Calvin Butts, once a Tucker ally known for bulldozing
hip-hop CDs, came seeking a kind of concordance, and
described the dialogue as "one of the most important
things to happen to our community in 20 years." The
On Friday night, delegates from 14 states met in
caucuses to set statewide agendas consisting of five
issues. These caucuses became especially heated as many
hip-hop activists struggled for the first time, across
race, gender, class, and sexuality, to establish a
common process and language. Larger delegations -- New
Jersey, Ohio, California -- deliberated for hours in
setting their issue agendas. State representatives then
joined the National organizers in a marathon meeting to
determine the Convention's agenda.
By Saturday afternoon, in the Essex County College gym,
with dead prez's chant ringing in their ears -- "It's
bigger than hip-hop!" -- the delegates gathered to
consider the national agenda, covering five issues:
education, economic justice, criminal justice, health,
and human rights. Platform planks included demands for
free education from kindergarten to post-graduate,
rollbacks of the tax cuts for the wealthy, reparations
for African-Americans and Native Americans, universal
health care, protection of women's reproductive health,
an end to the War on Youth, a repeal of Patriot Act I
and II, and an end to U.S. militarization and
With more than 40 proposed amendments to consider, there
was an urgency to the meeting. At 8 p.m. after four
hours of deliberation, they had gone through half of the
amendments and were being told they had to leave the
gym. The process was anything but tidy. In an unusual
twist, a subgenerational conflict threatened to flare
between hip-hop activists under 25 and those over 25. As
voting meetings dragged on Friday and Saturday, some of
the younger activists left in frustration. Galeta
disagreed with their decision. "If you're walking out on
this, it's like you're walking out on your generation,"
she told them.
Organizers later conceded that they had underestimated
the amount of time it would take to pass an agenda. But
they pointed to the historic nature of the event. "We
brought a number of people from across the country. We
had a process that was democratic and inclusive and a
vote of this magnitude had never been done before in our
generation," says Adofo-Wilson. "Developing a language
and a process was time-consuming."
Reconvening in the gathering darkness in the plaza of
the Essex County College, delegates voted to ratify the
rest of the agenda, and determined a process to consider
the remaining amendments. Although a final night of
concerts was just beginning a few blocks away, many
lingered, discussing how to push the agenda with the
Democratic and Republican parties, setting up meetings
to advance their newly minted state agendas, and
beginning to make plans for the followup conference set
for Chicago in 2006.
They were interrupted by Kofi, the chair of the Ohio
state delegation, who had jumped up onto a ten-foot high
wall and, with his arms outstretched, to scream, "We
changed the world!" Then he led the crowd in dead prez's
chant, a final shout-out to the thing that had brought
them all together, the thing that had given them the
juice to make their historic statement: "Hip-hop!"
Jeff Chang is the author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A
History of the Hip-Hop Generation (St. Martins Press,
February 2005). He is an organizer of the National Hip-
Hop Political Convention.