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Hip-hop generation gets the ear of political suitors

New constituency may have a chance to widen debate

NEW YORK -- Wearing his trademark three-piece suit, Al Sharpton proudly stood in the 40/40 Club between music impresario P. Diddy and the club's famous owner/rapper, Jay-Z. As if having two of rap's biggest stars at his birthday bash wasn't enough, Sharpton's host was Russell Simmons, the godfather of hip-hop.

But Sharpton's evening with three of hip-hop's leading stars this month was far more than a calculated photo opportunity by a presidential candidate. Sharpton has vowed to use flashy hip-hop figures to engage young people of all races to vote in 2004.

"I am convinced the swing vote of 2004 is the hip-hop generation," he said during a recent interview.

As political analysts warn that the young vote is up for grabs next year -- and as hip-hop music continues to be embraced by youth of every race -- Sharpton is not the only politician betting on hip-hop's political potential. Democratic presidential candidates from Howard Dean of Vermont to John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri have made pilgrimages to New York City to visit Simmons, according to Jody Miller, Simmons's spokeswoman.

Next year, Boston will be the host city for a large hip-hop summit prior to the Democratic National Convention, according to Benjamin Chavis, former NAACP president and CEO of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. The exact time and place are still in the works, said Chavis, adding that the summits were a way to register the hip-hop generation to vote.

And tomorrow, former President Bill Clinton will host a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser at a popular Washington, D. C., club featuring a number of hip-hop stars. DNC officials hope to attract 3,000 young professionals to attend the $50-a-plate event.

"I don't think anyone knows its potential," said DNC spokesman Tony Welch of hip-hop's political influence. "I don't think it's been tapped before. It continues to reach every neighborhood in this country."

Welch said most young people are uncommitted to any political party, so the DNC, like other groups, is trying to find a way to attract them. A survey by Harvard University's Institute of Politics said 38 percent of college students identify themselves as Independent, 31 percent as Republican, and 27 percent as Democrat. The students said they would take part in politics if they were asked.

"The fund-raiser is one of the things we know we have to do to reach young people in the ways we haven't done before," Welch said.

Still, it is uncertain if hip-hop culture will carry over to politics.

About 80 percent of hip-hop listeners are white, but that doesn't mean they are not interested in issues affecting the poor and minorities, Simmons said in an e-mail exchange.

"All people of good will feel all our issues, especially hip-hop kids who have been sensitized to the plight of the poor," he said.

"The reason why the style of Al Sharpton is not that startling to a hip-hop generation, white kid, is because I am conservative compared to many of these hip-hop artists," Sharpton said.

Robert Johnson, founder and CEO of Black Entertainment Television, says that hip-hop can be influential politically, but that its leaders must be more accessible to mainstream political leaders, too.

"I think it's probably going to take more focus and more leadership on the part of certain people within the hip-hop community, and not just targeted around elections or people around certain personalities," Johnson said. "I mean it's great to deal with the Reverend Al, Ben Chavis, and Russell, but that group does not automatically find a place in the camp of some of the more established elected officials or established organizations."

Johnson spent $250,000 recently to fund a voter registration drive featuring hip-hop stars including Big Boi of OutKast and Ginuwine. BET committed $1 million in advertising to run public service announcements for the drive.

Chavis said his organization, which was founded by Simmons, has registered 11,000 voters in Philadelphia alone. He hopes to register 4 million young people every year.

"There is a great expanding social consciousness about poverty, about injustice, and about equality," Chavis said. "And there you see hip-hop artists weighing in on issues like affirmative action, like reparations, like getting great health care, because their communities have no access to health care or are devastated by AIDS."

Dan Glickman, director of Harvard University's Institute of Politics, which published the study on young people and politics, said music and entertainment are only a lure for young people.

"What it does is get them in the door," Glickman said. "I think anything we can do to acculturate politicians and young people to join each other is positive."

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