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James Bernard is determined that his latest foray into political activism not end like his first. In 1984, a young Bernard volunteered for Jesse Jackson's first presidential run. Though Jackson had little chance of winning, he created a tremendous buzz among the progressive youth. But after volunteering for Jackson again in '88, Bernard was disappointed by the unfulfilled potential. "The problem with both campaigns was a lack of follow-up," says Bernard. "In '84, we had a computer record of all the donors of the Jackson campaign on tape." After that election, "the only copy was sitting on a friend of mine's desk collecting dust."
In the interest of kicking up dust instead of collecting it, Bernard and dozens of activists from around the country are coming to Newark this month for the first National Hip-Hop Political Convention. Representatives of a variety of progressive groups, including the ACLU, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, will participate in the four-day conference. The events, which begin June 16, include a concert, a film festival, and workshops like "Taking My Life to the Next Level."
The convention's stated mission is to develop leadership and an agenda for the hip-hop generation. But more to the point, says convention co-chair Baye Wilson, the activists will be searching for ways to convince policy makers to see the world from the perspective of the under-40 crowd. "We want the issues framed in a way that addresses young people," says Wilson. "When people talk about health care, they talk about prescription drugs, not about young people who are uninsured. When they talk education, they talk about public schools or vouchers, because they're talking to parents with kids. But they aren't talking about rising tuition and student loans."
There are very tangible reasons why politicians tend to shy away from the sub-geriatric crowd. While organizing young people is a frequent refrain for everyone from the NAACP to MTV, the hip-hop generation has yet to make Washington look up and take note. According to a report from the Youth Vote Coalition, young people between the ages of 18 and 24 have the nation's lowest voting rateat 32 percentand are half as likely to vote as people over the age of 65. You don't have to be a psychic to read those tea leaves.
Consequently, among hip-hop activists there has been a strong push to get young people to register and vote, in hopes of demonstrating their power. Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) is attempting to use entertainers to entice people to the polls. The idea is that if the whippersnappers see Nas or Eminem saying it's cool to vote, they'll follow suit.
The convention organizers appreciate any effort that strengthens the hand of young voters. But they are not sold on the idea of artists as the vanguard of a political movement. Bakari Kitwana, co-founder of the convention, says he was inspired to hold the gathering, in part, after Simmons invited him and several other activists to participate in an HSAN rally at Reverend Al Sharpton's headquarters. "I told him it doesn't make any sense to do anything if you aren't going to get activists involved," says Kitwana. "So he did, and we got together a good group of people who showed up at Sharpton's headquarters. What ended up happening is what HSAN does now. It ended up being a rally where the hip-hop artists were allowed to speak, and we were in the audience. A lot of people left angry."
What came out of that anger was the convention's own philosophy of the hip-hop generationthat its agenda should be shaped and driven not so much by big names but by ordinary people of the same age group with similar concerns. Kitwana says the two approaches should ultimately complement each other.
"I think that Russell is important for a number of reasons. He has popularized the idea of hip-hop activism and made it fashionable. If he doesn't do anything else, he's done a great service by doing that," says Kitwana. "Our message primarily appeals to people who are young and have political leanings. Russ is reaching a mass audience, people who may watch MTV and may never pick up a book. Those are, nine times out of 10, not the people that are coming to our convention."
As opposed to aiming for mass appeal, the convention has set its sights on linking the individual activists who are already working at the local level on everything from environmental justice to sentencing reform. Organizers also hope this approach will cure an ailment that has plagued black leadersnamely, the cult of personality. It's hard to imagine the Million Man March without Louis Farrakhan, the National Action Network without Al Sharpton, or HSAN without Simmons.
The convention, on the other hand, would run on a principle of firsts among equals, as opposed to a hierarchy of firsts, seconds, and nobodies. "In the past, the problem has always been that we've only had one leader of our organizations," says Bernard. "We're trying to create a whole generation of leaders. I'm doing this 24-7 myself. But you won't see us jumping in front a camera. I don't need a million people knowing who I am."