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Discussing hip-hop and politics

Journalist Jeff Johnson (background), Bucknell University professor James Peterson (center) and hip-hop activist Rosa Clemente (foreground) participated in a passionate discussion about the hip-hop generation, race and politics on March 25.

Hip-hop is a movement and tool that should not be taken lightly as a political force. These were the words of Calvin John Smiley, president of Lehigh’s Black Student Union, but it was also the clear message that resonated from an esteemed panel of hip-hop activists, scholars, and artists who joined members of the Lehigh community on March 25 for “Hip-Hop & the 2008 Presidential Election.”

Part of a national tour called Rap Sessions, the evening allowed for a highly interactive and at times highly passionate discussion about the hip-hop generation, race, politics, economic disparities within the hip-hop industry, and the responsibility of America’s youth to participate in civil activism.

“Hip-hop was created in the 1970s in the South Bronx as a voice to those living in poverty, as a critique and outlet speaking about the political, economic, and social structures around them,” said Smiley. “Groups like Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five’s song ‘The Message’ were highly critical of the times, and gave voice to the voiceless. It is no wonder why hip-hop would start to go back to its roots as our country starts to show resemblance of years past.”

“This is a natural fit for this generation,” said Yaba Blay, academic director of Lehigh’s
Joint Multicultural Program and and affiliate faculty member in Africana Studies and Women’s Studies. “People don’t give credence to this medium and this message. This is important for Lehigh. As an institution of higher education, I’d hate to see us wait until November to discuss the presidential election.”

The speakers converged at Lehigh at a time when Pennsylvania is immersed in a hotly contested primary race. Local media is reporting that the Pennsylvania Department of State registered 19,639 new voters between March 10 and 17 alone. Speaking at colleges and high schools across the state, democratic candidates are trying to galvanize the youth vote in anticipation of the April 22 primary.

“We thought coming to Pennsylvania was critical because Pennsylvania has become increasingly important,” said Bakari Kitwana, executive director of Rap Sessions, who moderated the session. “So many young people are coming out and having a voice.”

Discussing the election

Rosa Clemente (foreground), co-founder of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, makes a point, while Maya Rockeymoore (background) listens intently.

Kitwana said he and the five other guest panelists—activist Rosa Clemente, journalist Jeff Johnson, professors Maya Rockeymoore and James Peterson, and hip-hop artist M1—were not there to represent an individual candidate, but the conversations inevitably turned to Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton and John McCain.

Pressed on whether Obama represents the type of candidate that can speak for today’s hip-hop generation, Maya Rockeymoore called him a “mixed bag.” But Rockeymoore, President and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, said that Obama’s work as a community activist and a civil rights lawyer—essentially making decisions against his own economic interests—appealed to her.

“Young people are attracted to messages of difference and change,” said Rockeymoore, who authored The Political Action Handbook: A How to Guide for the Hip-Hop Generation and is the former Chief of Staff to Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY). “Is he real or is he a front? That remains to be seen.”

“I’m riding with Obama until the wheels fall off. Not because he’s black, but because listen to what he is saying,” said panelist James Peterson, professor of English and Africana Studies at Bucknell University.

Blay, a New Orleans native, told the panel that after watching her hometown float away during Hurricane Katrina, she questions if voting is even important.

“If more folks had come out in 2000, we wouldn’t have had George Bush,” Rockeymoore quickly responded to Blay. “It’s like being a modern-day slave if you don’t get to vote.”

But Rosa Clemente, co-founder of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, who was often applauded for her honest critique of today’s political climate, pointed out that politics is not just about voting.

A progressive hip-hop activist, Clemente underscored many of the issues she believes the hip-hop generation needs to heed including a livable wage, access to free education, prison and death penalty abolition, gentrification and sub-prime mortgage crisis. Like Clemente, the other panelists highlighted the importance of being well informed of the American political system, but stressed that voting is not the only means of having a voice.

“Colleges and universities used to be a bastion for activism,” said Peterson. “We lost that. You must volunteer. You must redistribute your human resources into the community. You don’t need training. We can be some of the change we need to see,” said Peterson.

M1, half of the rap duo dead prez, added, “That’s as good as a vote.”

--Tricia Long

Photos by Douglas Benedict

Posted on Friday, March 28, 2008

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