By Mark Guarino
Tianna Weena, 20, of Chicago had all the reasons she needed for getting up early Saturday morning and heading to the UIC Pavilion. “All the stars are going to be here,” she said.
But unlike most concerts she’d been to in the past, she was forced to make one extra step before her ticket would be granted.
She had to register to vote.
Using star power to lure young people to the polls was the motivation for the Chicago Hip-Hop Summit, a three-hour rally at the UIC Pavilion Saturday that featured today’s hottest rap artists touting themes of personal and political self-empowerment instead of their latest CDs.
The summit was staged by the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, a non-profit coalition of music artists, entertainment executives and civil rights leaders designed to get young Americans involved in the political process. Since its inception three years ago, 1.5 voters have been registered. With an election year well underway, the summits have increased. This year, Houston and L.A. gatherings have claimed tens of thousands of voters — in Chicago, over 8,000 attendees were signed up or at least were confirmed they were registered.
The marriage of popular music and politics is hardly new, but what is significant is the current activist role the hip-hop community is playing, which overshadows its counterparts in other genres, like rock or country.
The reason is in the numbers. Last October, all ten of the top ten songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart were by hip-hop artists, affirming its ascent as the dominant force in the music industry and culture at large. The album of the year at this year’s Grammys was by OutKast. For a music celebrated for crisscrossing cultures, its audience is just as mixed as whites account for 70 percent of the record buyers today.
“The fact is, rappers are speaking about the struggle of all Americans,” said coalition co-founder Russell Simmons. Simmons co-founded Def Jam Records in the mid-‘80s, making hip-hop mainstream with artists like Public Enemy, L.L. Cool J and the Beastie Boys before selling the company and becoming a philanthropist, activist and fashion mogul. “Kids in Beverly Hills are riding around listening to records by people in Compton and are getting sensitized. The new hip-hop generation shows a great deal of promise … by seeing that common thread of humanity.”
The summit centered on a panel of artists and executives including Simmons, Ludacris, Damon Dash, Kanye West, Common, Twista and others, taking questions from the audience ranging from the importance of getting involved in the political process to the cultural damage created by negative images in hip-hop videos. But there were bumps along the way. The discussion was often hijacked by hangers-on allowed to crowd the stage, answers tended to turn into rhetoric and R. Kelly, the afternoon’s most publicized star, was a no-show.
None of that stopped the unanimously upbeat reception for speed rapper Twista and producer-turned-rapper West, both Chicagoans who are currently enjoying albums in the top ten of Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. “The more successful you get, the more responsibility you have to come back and try to do things to help the community,” West said.
Common, another Chicago native, admitted he never voted before, but said he is registered this year. “This is a resurrection for me,” he said.
Audience questions persisted in asking what political candidates the panel endorsed. Simmons vowed the summit was non-partisan, although Democratic Senate hopeful Barack Obama was seen making the rounds in the pavilion concourse.
“We don’t want any one party to take us for granted,” Simmons said, before adding they were for “the one who cares about the wars on poverty and ignorance.”
Despite the lure of star sightings, fans showed up ready for a political and culture debate. Maria Thomas, 20, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, was one of 100 college students from all over her state who traveled to the summit by a bus rented by Iowa’s secretary of state’s office. Before now, she said she was never politically conscious. “I think it’s time I started,” she said. “There are issues affecting me now like more health insurance and education.”
Teacher Makesha McLaurin, 27, of Chicago, said she was motivated because “this is what my kids like,” she said. “I want to relate to them or else I’ll be like that old cat telling them they can’t listen to rock and roll. I came to support the intellectual aspect of hip-hop. If we can use this as a vehicle to raise issues, we’re raising the consciousness not of black people, but of people worldwide.”