“Take Me to Your Leader:” A Critical Analysis of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network

Rob "biko"

The predominantly college-aged crowd is growing more starstruck each time Hip-Hop Summit Action Network's Dr. Benjamin Chavis Muhammad introduces another rap icon. It's NBA 2004 All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles, and summit organizers have recruited some of Hip-Hop’s biggest names to USC's Bovard Auditorium. Even in Tinsel Town, the seemingly endless parade of Hip-Hop luminaries including Crooked I, Kayne West, Tamia and Snoop Dogg offers stargazers a chance of a lifetime. Ironically, the stars are on hand not to perform but to help spread the summit's message of civic responsibility and voter registration.

Not everyone that has made the journey to the prestigious campus has come seeking autographs. At least one person on hand is focused not on the stars but on developing real strategies for improving Southern California's war-torn urban communities.  "We're ready to move. What are you waiting for?" bluntly questions Aqeela Sherillis shortly after the Summit's start. The veteran gang intervention specialist from neighboring Watts apparently feels that most of the high-profile panelists are talking loud but not really saying anything significant.  Sherillis, a street soldier whose own teenage son was murdered in January 2004, holds strong underneath the star power present—waiting eagerly for an answer with substance.

It instantly becomes apparent that Sherillis is not alone. His fiery comments appear to immediately resonate with the numerous other hood activists in attendance—many of whom are making their first trip past the ivy-covered security gates that separate USC from its South Central neighborhood.  "There might be a lot of y’all that feel like this brother. That's understandable," diplomatically states Bad Boy recording artist Loon. The Harlem native puts on a brave face for the crowd despite that fact the he has just posted bond on attempted murder charges after an alleged altercation with a Hollywood nightclub bouncer earlier that week.

However, Loon's peacekeeping attempts are undermined by LA Summit co-chair and Roc-A-Fella CEO Dame Dash.  "Take that question outside the culture. Never do that here ever," harshly says Dash pointing at Sherillis.  Clearly the HSAN moderator has sensed that the once well-manicured event is quickly becoming a public spectacle ready to be devoured by the hordes of mainstream media on hand.

Even though Dash's infamous outbursts may have proven effective in running his own successful multi-media company, they do not intimidate the hood-savvy Sherillis or the homies that have accompanied him from his notorious South Los Angeles neighborhood.

With his foot already in his mouth, Roc-A-Fella's H.N.I.C. quickly learns the consequences of berating a respected community leader in front of his constituents, as a handful of audience members ready for confrontation pounce to the front of the stage in defense of Sherillis. It appears that today's well-meaning event will end on a negative note.

Power to the People?

Since 2001 the nation has seen the Russell Simmons-led Hip-Hop Summit Action Network grow from a private meeting of select rap stars into a burgeoning political movement. Capitalizing on the Hip-Hop generation's growing clout with elected officials, summit organizers have packed arenas throughout the country and claim to have registered over 100,000 new voters.

Yet, while the organization has successfully attempted to engage America's urban youth in the political process, there is growing concern from critics that the HSAN lacks the necessary "hood first" strategy needed to truly empower the Hip-Hop generation.  "How can you really know what's going on in the hood, if you live in a million-dollar house in the suburbs?" poses Rosa Clemente member of the New York-based Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. Obviously, Clemente's question is a thinly veiled barb directed toward HSAN chair Russell Simmons. However, the same could be asked of a number of the organization's superstar panel members. Clemente's concern is tied to her belief that the important work of grassroots organizers is being ignored because of the media's growing love affair with Simmons. However, Clemente is quick to note that the newspaper headlines mean little when you’re doing advocacy work in America's ghettos.

Clemente also points out that while Simmons has certainly become a wildly successful businessman and entrepreneur, when it comes to political endeavors he should defer to those with more experience. "He has to be careful that his own agenda doesn't overshadow the movement, because he's new to activism," Clemente says specifically in reference to Simmons' efforts to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws. (Many of those close to the reform campaign have recently criticized Simmons. In fact the New York State Lobbying Commission has even argued that Simmons has broken state laws, and some activists are concerned that this hip-hop mogul’s actions could jeopardize the entire grassroots campaign.)

However, if there is one person who is no stranger to activism, it is HSAN CEO Dr. Benjamin Muhammad. As a Civil Rights Movement veteran and former head of the NAACP, the ordained minister has spent the last 40 years fighting for the improvement of America's Black and Brown communities and has repeatedly proven effective in mobilizing the masses.

But despite his own impressive record, Muhammad's current organization has an expanding list of detractors. Many of these fear that the HSAN isn't doing enough to include grassroots organizers.

"You can't just go in these communities and register thousands of people to vote the day of an event," says Dr. Muhammad. The experienced leader insists that his organization has built strong coalitions with activists, and points to their successful voter registration campaign as proof, notably claims of having registered 60,000 youth at the Los Angeles summit. "We've only been able sign up so many people because we have built strategic alliances with organizations doing good work in these communities."

Yet, these awe-inspiring statistics have come under fire, as there are indications that the numbers have been artificially inflated.  "Our organization has registered 60,000 during the entire four years it has been in existence," says an unnamed organizer with the African-American Voter Registration and Education Project (AAVREP), a Los Angeles-based community group that worked closely with the HSAN during All Star Weekend. "I don't see where they are getting those numbers from; at best there were 1000 people at the Los Angeles summit."

Other local Los Angeles activists who work on voter registration campaigns have also cried foul and insist that the HSAN's Los Angeles 2004 numbers are either completely made up, or a product of "jumping into databases," whereby an affiliated group, such as the HSAN, absorbs the voter registration numbers of its partner organizations to augment its own.  Yet, spokespeople for the HSAN insist that they registered 60,000 during the All Star weekend, despite evidence that states otherwise.

For Sherillis, one of the principal architects of peace treaties that united Los Angeles' divided neighborhoods during the early 90s, the HSAN's limited focus on voter registration is calling attention away from other pressing issues that affect the Hip-Hop generation.  "I truly appreciate their effort," says Sherillis, "but right now our people are dying at alarming rates."  Sherillis also believes that more work needs to be done to have the voice of activists heard at HSAN events.  "We are the ones that are going to be doing the work after the elections—not the politicians, not the rappers."

Chicago's Chairman Fred Hampton Jr., current head of the Prisoners of Consciousness Committee agrees with Sherillis.  "If you truly want to help, then get behind the people," says the son of the slain Black Panther.  Hampton, who served on the panel for March's Hip-Hop summit in Chicago after receiving a belated invitation, feels that opportunity offered him an up-close view of the HSAN's shortcomings. He firmly believes that any leadership for the Hip-Hop movement should come not from rappers or executives but from those actually in the streets. "We've got the front lines, we just need the sand bags."

A Change Is Gonna Come

Although the audience at USC is momentarily prepared for the worst, only a short shoving match ensues.  Dr. Muhammad manages to calm the handful of disgruntled activists and the event goes on as planned. Yet, it is clear from the brief commotion that many within the Hip-Hop generation are ready for a strategy that includes them.

Of course, any young political organization the magnitude of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network is ripe for criticism.  But maybe individuals should be pointing to the potential of the organization, as the budding power of the summit is something that even the HSAN's harshest critics firmly acknowledge.  Just look at the growing political consciousness of many of the summit’s participating celebrities.  "I never even thought that voting was important," says successful rapper and actor Fredro Starr while getting ready to take to stage in LA. "The Summit has given me an opportunity to get involved."  The LA summit also offered West Coast rap artist Knocturnal some political consciousness. "I can't even vote," says the ex-con, who remains disenfranchised because of California laws that prevent ex-felons on parole from going to the voting booths. "But if I can inspire fifteen or twenty kids, then I'm doing my thing."

It's this kind of growing politicization that excites Muhammad. "Remember we are only a three-year-old movement," says Muhammad at the festivities in Los Angeles. "But I really see a convergence coming together with rappers and their communities."

Muhammad is also aware of the concerns that led to today's disruption. And while the HSAN has been successful in motivating a handful of entertainers, it has yet to prove that it can mobilize large numbers of America's youth beyond registering to vote. Of course, this November's presidential election will ultimately show whether HSAN's voter registration strategy can be effective in shaping American politics.  Even Dame Dash insists that there is a lot of work that needs to be done beyond the Summits, "We're new to this," says Dash while surrounded by bodyguards during his abrupt departure from USC campus. "We're learning. Give us a chance."