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Rap fans are harnessing their political power to take on the issues they care about

Newspapers are buzzing about recent attempts to harness the potential political power of hip-hop. Here's Bill Clinton chatting up OutKast at a fund-raiser in Washington, D.C. There's the Rev. Al Sharpton reaching out to Russell Simmons, P. Diddy, and Jay-Z at a club in New York. But some members of the hip-hop crowd refuse to get caught in the Democratic web.

"It's [politicians] getting the vote so that they can put the people that they want in office, so they can get the things that they want to get done," says Bakari Kitwana, author of last year's "The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture."

Enter the National Hip Hop Political Convention, a collective of 20 20- and 30-something activists, students, journalists, and academics formed in March to get the things done it thinks its community needs. That means wielding its influence to encourage leaders to tackle low wages, high incarceration rates among Latinos and blacks, and poorly funded public schools. Without engaging in partisan politics. Without relying on high-profile rappers or civil rights generation leaders. Without incorporating the top-down management styles of traditional organizations.

Here's how it works: Delegates representing grass-roots organizations across the country will descend on Newark, N.J., next June 10-12 armed with a slate of social problems they feel are hampering the progress of urban areas. For three days, they will gather for debates, prioritizing the problems on a national level. Then they'll go home and use the agenda created to decide which politicians to endorse or what issues to tackle.

Convention organizers include Kitwana; rapper Chuck D; Ras Baraka, deputy mayor of Newark; and Billy Wimsatt, founder of the League of Independent Voters. They already have a website: Local committees, which will select delegates and decide what issues need national attention, now exist in 25 cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. The Boston chapter held its first informational meetings at Harvard University and MIT in October. The goal is to give the cynical, apathetic hip-hop generation a reason to go to the polls. Like Rock the Vote and the recently announced Declare Yourself, the convention contains a voter registration component. But the organizers also add a healthy dose of voter education to teach their peers why and how to use their political power.

"You can't just tell people to vote and leave it at that," says Kitwana. "People have to feel that going out and voting is going to bring about substantive changes in their lives."

No statistics exist to give a face to the hip-hop generation, but the music capped a decadeslong growth in popularity in October by capturing the top 10 slots of Billboard's pop singles chart. Its listeners are Latino, Asian-American, African-American, and white. Suburban and urban. Poor, middle class, and rich. They're the teens and 20-somethings who grew up listening to Ja Rule or Mos Def and the people in their 30s and 40s who have grooved to the music since its birth in the 1970s.

They're united by a culture that sounded the alarm about troubled inner cities long before politicians or national leaders noticed what was happening there. NWA and Ice-T's bold raps about police brutality were controversial in the early 1990s and seemed prescient a few years later. Biggie Small's chilling tales about thug life and crack dealing vividly showed the limited options for young men living in the ghetto. Now instead of passively listening to the litany of ills, the hip-hop generation is trying to resolve the problems.

"We've grown up seeing our peers incarcerated," says Kitwana. "We've grown up seeing our peers have these substandard minimum wage jobs, dealing with these housing crises because we don't have jobs that pay a living wage. We don't want to see this happen to our children."

A new movement Think of the convention as another sign of the political maturation of hip-hop. P. Diddy completed New York's marathon last month to raise $2 million for city schools. Earlier this year, Simmons powwowed with New York politicians in a failed attempt to reform New York's tough drug laws, which throw a disproportionate number of people of color in jail. Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (run by former NAACP head Benjamin Chavis) showed the power of hip-hop by getting Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, and their myriad fans to protest declining public school funding last year.

But convention organizers want to push young, grass-roots activists to the forefront, not celebrities or leaders from generations past. The lofty intent is to create a movement as groundbreaking as civil rights, by throwing aside old-school ideas of top-down leadership and embracing new-school ideas of collective decision making.

"My sense and probably a lot of people's sense in our generation is we need new models," says Geoff Ward, 31, an assistant professor at Northeastern University's College of Criminal Justice, who sits on the convention's national committee and is forming the Boston chapter. "Not at all to discount the contributions [civil rights] organizations have made historically, but [as] a recognition that we're in a new place today."

The new model includes "hip-hop politicians." There's Baraka, 34, appointed in September, and Kwame Kilpatrick, 33, voted the mayor of Detroit in 2000. Both earn the tag by flaunting their ties to the hip-hop community: Kilpatrick won his nonpartisan election with a 40 percent increase in voters aged 18 to 40 by emphasizing his roots in the 'hood and his love of the culture. Baraka, son of the activist/author Amiri Baraka, is the teacher's voice heard on the multiplatinum CD "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill."

It's no coincidence that Baraka is also an Independent. He comes from a generation of African-Americans who refuse to follow the political path of their parents, who were taught to vote Democrat, says Angela Woodson, 35, a member of the national committee and Cleveland's five-year-old political action committee BUILD (Blacks United in Local Democracy), which helped two candidates with youth appeal get elected to the city council in 2001.

"A lot of this generation is not affiliated with the Democrats and not affiliated with the Republicans," says Woodson. "They've been looking at it like, `I'm still looking at boarded-up buildings, the garbage is getting picked up late . . . unemployment is still high. I just don't see what either party is doing about any of those things.' "

Everybody's issues Their complaints illustrate the convention's biggest challenge: how to make issues primarily affecting blacks and Latinos appeal to hip-hop's diverse audience. Brandon Terry, 19, a Harvard junior who attended the informational meeting at his school, believes it won't be a difficult sell.

"You should be involved in this because it's right," he says. "White people need to know about the things that are being used to oppress some of them. There's others who need to know about how they're tacitly consenting to a system of oppression and how they can change that. We're going to need everybody's help."

Boston showed it can generate that wide swath of support. At Harvard, 14 members of the Black Students Association; Fuerza Latina; and the group Terry heads, the Black Men's Forum, listened to the convention's pitch. The next day, 24 people showed up at MIT, representing a mixture of student groups, academic departments, and community organizations, including the American Friends Service Committee's Critical Breakdown, Lawrence Community Works, Social Justice Education, and the hip-hop magazine The Ave.

Murmurs of disappointment erupted over the paltry turnout of community groups, but Erik Wissa, director of Critical Breakdown, liked what he heard. "It's not folks from the outside," he says, "or the experts or politicians, coming in and saying, `This is what you need to be concerned with.' "

The convention allows people living in embattled communities to make the choices, says Terry, who arrived at Harvard from Baltimore's tough streets with firsthand experience of urban troubles. Some of his family members are incarcerated. Others must attend underperforming schools.

But you don't have to live in poverty-plagued neighborhoods to want to combat these problems. Meghan Fennelly, 25, attended the MIT meeting as a part of her urban politics class. She views the convention as "a powerful medium for all kinds of people to come together through the music to have a political voice."

The polls and beyond Local groups are already planning ways to contribute. Wissa estimates that Critical Breakdown could register 200 to 400 attendees at its monthly open-mike events at the Jorge Hernandez Cultural Center in the South End. Terry will help organize a February conference to give area student groups voter registration training and what Terry calls "antioppression training." As he explains, "People conceptualize racism as a white person calling a black person a name, whereas it gets so much deeper than that: institutionalized racism with jail sentencing, redlining certain neighborhoods, environmental racism, all of these things people don't think about."

Political training will also have to take place in city neighborhoods, since it's what's said after voter registration that inspires the apathetic to vote, says Woodson. "Some people don't know they elect their municipal judges," continues Woodson, who participated in a pre-election voter education drive in Cleveland. "They weren't sure if they elected council people. Someone said, `Would you call them ignorant?' I said, `No, I don't think it's ignorance.' I think when it came to government, it just probably wasn't clarified how it all works."

The partisan focus of civil rights groups makes the political situation particularly painful for African-American communities, says Terry. "You need people on the inside, but it's problematic when you're so indebted to one political party. . . . [Bush] won't even talk to the civil rights leaders. When you think about it, why should he? Black people gave him 9 percent of the vote, so he's going to give you 9 percent love."

That love could blossom if the hip-hop community becomes a political force. But before this group becomes the 21st-century version of the soccer moms politicians courted in the 1990s, local organizing committees must develop, and community organizations have to participate.

"For all of this to work," says Ward, "we need people to show up."

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