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Wednesday, July 12, 2006 01:28 pm

Its bigger than hip-hop

Chicago convention continues effort to give form to a movement

When it comes to putting out music that makes a statement, rap has ebbed and flowed. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, hip-hop’s mantra was “black power,” and its uniform was a (Malcolm) X baseball cap and Africa medallion. The Stop the Violence Movement’s “Self Destruction” and West Coast Rap All Stars’ “We’re All in the Same Gang” — hip-hop’s answers to “We Are the World” — served as calls to end black-on-black crime. The emergence of so-called gangsta rap created a peculiar paradox for hip-hop. At the same time gangsta rappers were thumbing their noses at the establishment, they were also glorifying dope dealing and making money. Case in point: NWA’s debut album Straight Outta Compton, which featured the tracks “F—k tha police” and “Dopeman.”
Enter the age of bling and coke rap — and that’s where everything went wrong.
Hip-hop, provided a vehicle for creative and political expression by MCs (rappers), DJs, break-dancers, and graffiti artists. All an MC needed was a blank sheet of paper, something to write with, and a crowd to move — and nobody could tell him that, at that instant, he wasn’t the president of the United States. ¬†Still, despite the enormous effect of hip-hop on language, fashion, and the economy, attempts to turn the vitality of hip-hop culture into sustained political action have ended up a lot like an alchemist’s futile effort to transmute lead into gold. Recent efforts such as the Hip-Hop Action Summit and 2004’s Vote or Die campaign, led by moguls Russell Simmons and Sean Combs, respectively, haven’t done much more than create buzz among the mainstream media. Certainly this year’s midterm elections will be as important as the presidential race of two years ago, but hip-hop’s leaders have been disappointingly noiseless. One problem, as hip-hop journalist and writer Touré has noted, is that the “hip-hop nation” has no recognizable organizational structure, no head of state, no singular leader. Hip-hop artists seem as interested in public service as they are in trading in their Benzes and Escalades for Toyota Priuses. The organizers of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, which takes place every other year and gets under way next week in Chicago, hope to change that. Sure, there’ll be concerts: Afrika Bambaataa, the X-Clan, the Poor Righteous Teachers, Dead Prez, and Chicago native SB are among the scheduled performers, each part of a tradition of socially conscious — if not straight up political — hip-hop artists/activists. However, the focus of the conference is political empowerment and grassroots activism. “We want people to walk away and go out and change the world and do it through hip-hop,” says La’Keisha Gray-Sewell, one of the event’s organizers. Gray-Sewell acknowledges that the conference will draw a “very narrow segment” of attendees — definitely not folks who are into bling.
Chloé A. Hilliard, news editor of The Source magazine, believes that a delicate balance must be achieved to make such events successful. On one hand, there’s the risk of preaching to the choir, which will likely be the case with NHHPC. At the same time, events such as Tavis Smiley’s State of Black America conference, which features prominent African-American intellectuals, tend to fly over the heads of younger hip-hop fans, who grew up with fewer of what Hilliard calls “jewels” — positive, uplifting, and empowering rap songs. “If I’m a 16-year-old girl and I like Nelly, am I going to go to Tavis Smiley’s State of Black America conference or Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit, and I know Nelly is going to be there?” Hilliard asks.
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