Live, from Newark: The National Hip Hop Political Convention

“When you really understand what hip hop is, you know it’s not a label at all,” declared a participant at a women’s-only conclave on a rainy Friday in Newark, New Jersey.  The depth of this wise assessment was plumbed during the first National Hip Hop Political Convention held in Newark from Wednesday June 16 through Saturday June 19, 2004, which is also “Juneteenth” (the day the last of enslaved Africans in Texas learned they had been freed two years before).  “Voices, Unity, Power,” the convention theme, is another translation for today’s hip hop, crystallized into an eight-point social justice platform by neophytes and their mentors who created this forum to prepare a new generation of political activists and leadership.  Historically, “Newark has played a role in progressive movements,” explained Hector M. Corchado, Council Member.  “The Black and Puerto Rican Convention held in Newark in 1968 set the stage for the 1970 election of the City’s first black mayor, Kenneth Gibson.”  These events led subsequently to the seminal 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana.

Chaired by Ras Baraka, Deputy Mayor of Newark and son of socialist poet Amiri Baraka, the Convention is the brainchild of 44 founding members, steering committee members and staff, about a third of them women, from across the country.  They decided that specific “social principles” would drive the hip hop generation from the trough of the entertainment industry to the mountaintop of politicized goals.  These principles, following, formed the Convention framework for activities and workshops, a few of which are noted:

1. Criminal Justice, featuring many takes on the prison industrial complex and a workshop entitled, “Is Drug Policy the New Jim Crow?”

2. Economic Justice (Money Matters).

3. Educational Empowerment, including a workshop on Affirmative Action vis-à-vis hip hop

4. Equality—GO TV—”Let’s Get Out the Vote Training”

5. Global issues.

6. Health (Environment & Welfare), with a special seminar by three urban boyhood friends who vowed to become MDs and together wrote The Pact.

7. Media Regulation.

8. Organizing the Organizers:  Workshops covered voter registration and all-day leadership training featuring Michael Moore’s “How To Get Stupid White Men Out of Office.”

In addition, the actual proceedings included an opening event that was a summit for youth ages 14-21, featuring MC Lyte, Doug E. Fresh, Steph Lover, Maya Entista and Ras Baraka as panelists.  Former NAACP youth director “Cousin Jeff” Johnson moderated.  An ongoing marketplace ringed the free music concerts and showcases, held in or near the NJPAC and elsewhere, on each night of the Convention.  Celebrities such as Rah Digga and Wyclef Jean hosted after-parties, while daytime activities included the town hall meeting on intergenerational dialogue moderated by Gus Heningburg, Farai Chideya, Cedric Muhammad, Rev. William Howard and David Jefferson.  Over 20 panelists were on the program, from holistic healer Queen Afua to Ron Daniels of the Center for Constitutional Rights to Frederica Bey of the Newark-based Women in Support of the Million Man March to Haki Madhubuti of Third World Press.

The film festival, produced by the Hip Hop Association, featured a panel discussion and screening of “Chisholm ’72,” by Shola Lynch, chronicling Shirley Chisholm’s sojourn to Congress; “Every Mother’s Son,” by Tami Gold and Kelly Anderson, which retells the Amadou Diallo, Anthony Baez, Gary Busch stories and how they caused social change; “Farmingville,” by Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini, about one Long Island town’s confrontation with Mexican day laborers; “R.P.D.: Badges of Dishonor, Corruption and Murder,” by Davy V, which deconstructs the police murder of a Rochester, NY, 14-year-old; and a five-minute anti-police-violence PSA, “You have the right to break the silence,” by Sister II Sister, a collective out of Bushwick, NY.

The event was not all New York-focused.  Delegates were culled from remnants of Local Organizing Committees still in operation since the Million Man March, and participating LOCs had to have at least 20 members to be eligible for consideration.  Full delegations came from California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia; while individual or two-person delegations traveled from Alabama, Massachusetts, Michigan, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

The Convention, billed as a project of the National Black United Fund (based in Newark), organized approximately 1,000 youth and activist chaperones to converge on the city.  They fairly blanketed the Robert Treat Hotel and venues at Rutgers University, Essex County College, New Jersey Institute of Technology, New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Metropolitan Baptist Church—a fitting site for the intergenerational confab held Thursday.  Sponsors included Prudential Financial, Nathan Cummings, Third Way and Sheirah Foundations, The Avenue, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Jonathan Lewis, Music Choice, H2O, SEIU and the City of Newark.  The Convention was free-of-charge to the public, and pre-registration was possible online or by mail.  (The website, www.hiphopconvention.org is a valuable resource for the broad political agenda and schedule of the event as well as for hip hop information and perspectives on current news.   Yet the eight principles were not posted; nor was the overarching goal of the Convention—to present a comprehensive platform to this year’s Republican and Democratic Conventions—directly stated.)

A snapshot of two threads, the female in hip hop and the African roots of the genre, give a sense of the Convention’s spirit.  Women’s input into hip hop’s success and the possibility of its political muscle was flexed and in some venues preponderant.  “We Got Issues,” a performance and civic participation project of The Next Wave of Women & Power, urged women to “rant” and many complied:

Women haven’t had the vote for 100 years… Black women have only had it for 50 years … The editors-in-chief of several hip hop magazines are women.  This shows we have power.  In Venezuela, they tried to insert conservative messages into the soap operas—in protest, the women stopped watching the shows and they Could Not Win!…

Instead of the typical raising our daughters and loving our sons, we need to love our daughters, teach them how to be respected… What’s missing is the intergenerational connection.  There’s still the plantation mentality.   We need to start talking amongst each other… We’re just beginning to have hip hop children…Like Lil Kim, we have to own our sexuality, we should be able to do that without feeling guilty about it… A hip hop woman in power with the right politics and ideals will be formidable… We have to make demands of ourselves… When you really understand what hip hop is, you know it’s not a label at all.

Ranting spring-loaded the artistry in the audience, and one by one the women got up and expressed themselves.  One sang a ranting, mutilated-family version of “Summertime.”  Another reprised the Dick & Jane storybook with a wrenching domestic violence message—”See Jane cry.  Why Jane, why?”  A third delivered her “church in the hood” ministry in staccato breaths praising Christ; she shared later that as a black lesbian and itinerant Christian preacher she would continue to lift as she sojourned.  This engaging group included Ruth Nicole Brown and Angie Beatty, University of Michigan doctoral candidates studying hip hop and, in Ms. Beatty’s case, the female presence in gangsta rap.

In addition, an African presence made itself felt through the weekend.  As the father of rappers Chuck D formerly of Public Enemy pointed out, hip hop is a sub-culture of black culture, just as jazz or blues is.  No one mentioned that black culture did not always include African features, and here these features were taken for granted.  Whether it appeared in the African drum roll and welcome dances that preceded plenary events; in the closing ritual of hand-holding circles such as at the “We Got Issues” event, where each woman pledged to keep connecting with other women; or in the “Ahgo?” “Ameh!” Ghanaian call and response technique for quieting the room down to take care of business—it was clear this was an identity-conscious and proud crowd.  Communal sensitivity was high throughout the event.  Cultural identity politics were played by men and women who wore African, Islamic, Moorish and Native American dress (especially headgear), including the sister who proudly wore her Puerto Rico flag t-shirt and outfit while voicing a strong stand for more progressive immigration language to be inserted into the Agenda document.

The best-attended workshop, “Criminal Justice 301: Gang Education and Outreach,” featured former Bloods and Crips and was moderated by a youth minister from the New Black Panther Party and veteran nationalists like Khalid Samad of the Task Force for Community Mobilization in Cleveland, who broke down reality for “playas” and “haters” still in the game.  Later, Samad pointed out that his group was so effective that “in every city the [anti-gang] movement got into in the ’90s, the homicide rate dropped 25%.  This was due to our work,” not to anything white mayors did, though several gladly took responsibility for it.  Attendees also recognized that socio-economic change effected politically must be accompanied by the individual work, which is needed to vocalize hip-hop’s deepest aspirations.

Chuck D also said, “32-years old is not youth, y’all.  It’s about truth versus hype!”  Sol Prophett said, “People came to debate but I came to learn.  This is about political philosophy past and future.”  In fact, each workshop was numbered, as if it were a College course.  At the end of a seminar-packed Friday, Jonathan Kidd, Connecticut-based film director and sociologist, declared, “This was like church.  I came here and got a boost.  Most people were already politically conscious—that’s why they came here.”  National Co-Chair Angela Woodson bluntly stated, “We are more than apathetic, lazy, superficial youth.  This is our moment and opportunity to build a determined, fearless, grassroots movement that is at its core about delivering the resources that we desperately need.”  How to do this begins with one point on which all agreed: remove George W. Bush.  Amiri Baraka exhorted, “F**k Bush, and f**k Kerry! You must beat Bush!  Like Malcolm X told me one month before he died, and like Martin Luther King told me one week before he died, ‘We must have a united front!’  You must beat fascism—naked rule by force—or you won’t be alive to fight Kerry!”

Baraka’s charge fit the urgency of the moment, as the activity shifted from talk to delineating then voting on the “National Agenda and Vote.”  Only delegates were allowed seating in the 700 chairs arranged in the center of the Essex County College gymnasium.  Spectators sat in the bleachers.  Recalling the furious due diligence that fixed the National Black Political Convention in Gary permanently in black civil rights memory; Newark’s 400-plus hip hop participants worked until pre-dawn hours (many had partied prior), and by late Saturday had a 3-page document, a distillation of four centuries of poor and dark Americans’ dreams and aspirations.  Unlike in Gary, these hip hop generators of a new “Black Manifesto” included Asians, whites, Latinos and First Peoples.  To a person delegates said it was an arduous, exhilarating, at times frightening and necessary process.  Now the task was to vote on each of the main points and their sub-categories, within three hours.  Impossible.  One had exactly 2 minutes, then only 1 minute, and finally that was shortened to 30 seconds in which to present one’s amendment.  The body starting nixing discussion of proposed amendments left and right.  Straight to voting—Yes we want it or No we don’t.  A few people stormed out, protesting delays and perceived slights.  Three-thirty became eight PM, the Essex County College gymnasium had to be closed down, and the Convention had to be taken to a quad outdoors.  The sun went down and the moon rose.  Ras Baraka, standing on a ledge overlooking the quad, reiterated that the delegates had to honor the process. The mechanism of convening groups and individuals representing states required that procedures be followed to craft a document truly reflective of the hip hop generation.

The nationalist term “operational unity” was never uttered, but the experience offered a sense of precisely that to those stalwarts who persevered.  The group amended two of the five points and finally agreed that the last three should be fine-tuned by a policy committee comprised of one delegate from each of the 50 states and two members of the National Hip Hop Political Convention board (founding members and steering committee).  Finally, the  “5-Point Agenda” and national platform—” a living document” as Baraka called it—was voted on with all necessary amendments.  It was 9:35 PM.  The straggling 50 or so conveners were so tired they barely said goodbye (except to Baraka, who as chairman deserved congratulations), much less group- hugged or circled-to-close, as a finale to this consummate action.

The original, unamended Agenda, which follows this article, contains the essence and demands of a highly charged, critical mass of young people who are not typically recognized for political aplomb.  It is the product of 24 hours of state and national, hip hop delegation work.  It bespeaks not only “where they at” philosophically, but also who they are.  A few “old heads” from the ’60s may have participated as delegates for some states, but they were not the leaders.  Whatever their ages and identities, these “creators and conveyors of a cultural revolution,” as National Co-Chair Baye Adofo-Wilson put it in his Convention letter to participants, actually succeeded in facilitating “the maturation of hip-hop politics” and a “funneling” of their “political and cultural power… into mainstream public policy activities.”

Whether this maturation will translate into a progressive political environment remains to be seen.  The environment will be re-charged, if this event was any indication.  It has been claimed that African-American, Asian and Latino hip-hop young people – a more tolerant, liberal and open-minded community than older generations – comprise 43% of the electorate.  The percentage seems overstated but if understood like the readership versus circulation figures that periodicals use to sell ad pages, this high number, reflecting almost half of the citizenry, may be quite accurate.  All young people across the U.S. are affected by this culture.

Actualizing young women’s power alone since more black women vote than men (six out of every ten) will be critical, especially for local political change.  Thus the youthful, hip hop nation, “if organized, could radically alter the political landscape across America,” promises Adofo-Wilson.  And it’s all because hip hop culture has offered young people a chance to express themselves freely.  This was the quest in the ‘60s, and it is a quest that progressives related to hip hop youth ought to understand.  But “no political organization has effectively channeled our generation’s energy, creativity, ingenuity and independent spirit into the mainstream political activities,” says Adofo-Wilson, which is why the National Hip-Hop Political Convention wanted “to usher us into a new political era.”  The Convention certainly was a beginning.  And should the hip hop youth, ‘60s activists and nationalists sustain the process that the Convention brought forward, perhaps the new political era has the possibility of being realized.

National Hip Hop Political Convention5-Point Agenda

1. Education

1 .1: We call for state constitutional amendments and/or federal legislation mandating equal funding and resources. We call for parity spending in all public school districts—suburban, urban, and rural alike. We call for the restoration and preservation of community control of schools. We demand monies be used for the recruitment and training of teachers that are residents of the district. We reject the idea that vouchers are a viable solution to the disparities in education.

1 .2: We call for implementation of curriculum that is socially practical, culturally relevant, comprehensive, developmental, and specific in nature, including but not limited to vocational training, based upon engaging students from a variety of learning styles, interests, and skills.

1 .3: We call for funding and legislation to develop programs toward the eradication of illiteracy of all people, including those that have English as a Second Language.

1 .4: We demand free education at all state and federally owned and operated post-secondary institutions, including trade schools and technical schools and the direct recruitment and retention of students of color. We oppose all attacks on affirmative action programs at all levels of higher education.
Action: All delegates should go back to their states and hold an education summit that would include parents, parent organizers, educators, community groups, elected officials and students for the purpose of speaking to and elaborating on the four platform issues in specific and general.

2. Economic Justice

2.1: We demand fair taxation with representation, including a rollback of tax cuts for wealthy and corporate interests, and advocacy for DC statehood.

2.2: We stand against gentrification in, disinvestment from, and displacement of our communities. We oppose the destruction of publicly funded and affordable housing. We call for mandatory investments in underdeveloped neighborhoods, through programs such as empowerment zones, small business administration, and/or tax abatements, subject to that community’s review. In addition, opportunities must be created to expand business opportunities for underrepresented minority businesses in urban areas.

2.3: We demand reparations for Black Americans, including funding to support institutions destroyed by slavery, Jim Crow, and eroded by centuries of institutional racism.

2.4: We demand full employment at living wages that help develop and empower our communities and individuals.

3. Criminal Justice

3.1: We demand the reinstatement and protection of all civil and human rights, including voting, employment, education, and economic opportunities for all individuals who have been accused and/or convicted through the criminal justice system. We call for the permanent and complete separation of all individuals under 18 from the adult prison system.

3.2: We demand the eradication of all mandatory minimum sentences.

3.3: We demand the formation of civilian review boards with subpoena power and an independent prosecutor at all levels of the justice system including federal, state, local, and military.

3.4: We demand the end to the targeted persecution, prosecution and incarceration of youth, drug users, and political activists.

4. Health

4.1: We demand federal legislation that would institute free universal holistic healthcare, including affordable prescription drugs and equal access to hospitals for indigent communities.

4.2: We demand federal legislation that funds mental and emotional health awareness, research, and treatment.

4.3: We demand federal legislation that would increase funding for research, awareness, prevention, and treatment of HIV/AIDS, heart disease, cancer, drug abuse, and other public health issues.

4.4: We demand federal legislation to ensure women’s reproductive health, including safe and legal access to reproductive choices, and education and awareness about reproductive issues.

5. Human Rights

5.1: We call for the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that will investigate, research, and report human rights violations committed by the United States government throughout its history. The findings of this commission shall be institutionalized within public records and educational textbooks and disseminated via all available forms of media and communication. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission shall be convened by members of the National Hip Hop Political Convention and within one year of our first gathering.

5.2: We call for the drafting, promotion, and presentation to local, state, federal legislators, and public policy makers the People of Color (African, Latino/a, Asian, Native Indigenous Peoples) Anti-Terrorism Bill. The passing of this bill will immediately abolish terrorism in all areas of human activity, including, but not limited to, areas of sex, law, war, education, entertainment, economics, politics, labor and religion. The People of Color Anti-Terrorism Bill will be drafted by members of the National Hip Hop Political Convention with special attention paid to inhuman conditions within the penal system, land grabs in the form of eminent domain and gentrification, and chemical and biological warfare.

5.3: We demand an end to militarization. We call for an end to the recruitment of our youth into the armed forces in public schools and other public institutions. We call for the immediate repeal of the Patriot ACT I and II and a redefinition of “homeland security” for people of color. The National Political Hip Hop Convention strongly opposes any entity—corporate, media, entertainment, or other—which attempts to use Hip-Hop culture to support the potential drafting of our youth into the military.

5.4: We demand the ending of U.S. Imperialism, beginning by pulling our youth out of occupied territories like Iraq, Afghanistan and Puerto Rico. We demand the relief of previously colonized and enslaved Third World Countries from debt, structural adjustment programs, and forced austerity measures imposed on them by international lending institutions. We call for the end of military intimidation and monetary manipulation by these U.S.-led entities.

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