NEWARK, New Jersey — It's safe to say neither the Republican nor Democratic conventions this summer will look anything like the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, which brought an estimated 4,000 members of the "hip-hop generation" to Newark, New Jersey, between Wednesday and Saturday. And that's exactly why the hip-hop convention was organized.
The primary goal of the convention, according to national co-chair Baye Adolfo-Wilson, was to plan ways to channel hip-hop's cultural dominance — in music, movies, clothing and language — into a unified political voice that can influence elected officials at the local and national level. Among the artists who turned out to perform and show support at the event were Wyclef Jean, Slick Rick, Doug E. Fresh, Black Moon, Akon and MC Lyte.
After attending many of the convention's 50-plus workshops and discussion sessions — topics included inner-city education, the legacy of Tupac Shakur, the prison-industrial complex, environmental degradation, and navigating today's job market — 700 local representatives met first by state (representing 16 states and Washington, D.C.), then en masse to hammer out and vote on an agenda that articulated the position of the hip-hop community on the political issues it sees as most pressing. The delegates — all of whom qualified to participate by having registered at least 50 voters in their home communities — began a dialogue they hope will lead to concrete results both in the 2004 election and in the future.
"The most important thing that has changed," delegate Brandon Terry, 20, said, "is that there are people with education and that there are people with money" who are recognizing the potential for hip-hop to become a political force. "Now that we know what's wrong, what is the concrete policy proposal that we want, and how can we implement that?"
For Terry, who is a Harvard University student, AIDS activist and rapper, "what's wrong" isn't just an academic question. He came of age in a working-class Baltimore neighborhood that was racially diverse when he was born, but had virtually no white faces by the time he reached middle school because of "white flight." Two older brothers, who grew up in a crime-ridden inner-city neighborhood, have spent much of their lives in prison for drug convictions. And he's watched friends — kids on the honor roll, with parents on the PTA — get caught up in selling drugs because they think that's the fastest route to cars and bling.
Whether or not the convention's agenda — which calls for changes in the nation's educational and economic policy, criminal justice and health-care systems, and proposes a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine human-rights violations committed by the U.S. government throughout its history — will influence the Democratic and Republican platforms remains to be seen. But with delegates registering 5,000 voters just in Ohio, widely expected to be a pivotal swing state in the 2004 presidential election, the potential for hip-hop to take a seat at the political table is obvious. As conference participant and DJ Davey D put it, "To see a 20-something-year-old cat with his hat backwards and a throwback on, sitting there in intense conversation ... really trying to engage the issues — this has never been done before."