Music » Interview

Voter Rapathy

Hip-hop will make its voice heard on November 2. Unless it doesn't.


Rosa Parks set it off.

She wasn't the first or the last freedom fighter, but when the Alabama seamstress refused to relinquish her public-transit perch, it was the ah, hell naw heard 'round the world.

Fuse. Spark. Explosion.

Then Martin Luther King marched on Washington. Malcolm X maligned Plymouth Rock. The Black Panthers threw a (Molotov) cocktail party. Attack dogs were unleashed. Fire hoses discharged. Billy clubs loosed. And the fissures of injustice splintered, shuddered and began to crumble.

But activism needs energy these days. It needs new warriors, fresh heroes and prescient poets capable of ascending the flanks of history, looking America in her eyes and whispering:

You ain't got [a gun], nigga, you betta run/Now I'm in the back getting' head from my hunz/While she goin' down, I'm breakin down what I done/She smokin' my blunt, sayin' she ain't havin' fun/Bitch, give it back now; you don't get none.

And so rapper J-Kwon's immortal words -- preserved for eternity in the hit single "Tipsy" -- resonate on behalf of young citizens whose votes can sway one of the most precarious presidential elections in U.S. history.

But J-Kwon is merely another pinky-ringed cog in the ambitious machine known as the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. The organization -- the board members of which include rap moguls Russell Simmons, Damon Dash and P Diddy -- is a noble, unprecedented attempt to enchant the disenchanted.

Can it succeed? The only way to find out was to see the Action Network in action.

9:30 a.m., Penn Valley Community College

Alerted to the imminent arrival of the HSAN buses that have been crisscrossing the nation with J-Kwon and "other celebrities" -- rumored to mean Nelly -- in tow, I rush to Penn Valley. The press release had touted the whirlwind tour as "the biggest get out the vote campaign in Kansas City history."

Apparently, that wasn't a particularly lofty benchmark. I arrived at the community college to find fewer than a dozen people in a mostly vacant lecture hall. None of them was J-Kwon.

Only a handful of spectators -- and probably a few freshmen mistaking the event for Trigonometry I -- were seated when the rally began with Ranford Fleming striding to the podium.

Fleming -- HSAN event organizer, Hip-Hop Express publisher and purveyor of body products that include fragrances such as "Bump-N-Grind" and "Lick Me All Over" -- took the stage, thanked everyone for coming and then explained that J-Kwon had missed his flight.

"I can't apologize enough," Fleming said. "I try to run a tight ship. This isn't a good example to show young kids you're trying to motivate."

But there was a consolation prize. Fleming and a panel of local hip-hop artists were on hand to discuss the importance of the electoral process. It wasn't long before Fleming had worked himself into a lather.

"There was a time when we could not vote," he thundered. "If you aren't going to make your voice heard, don't say nothing! You can't complain if you don't vote!"

The audience had expanded sizably by the time Benjamin Chavis, executive director of the HSAN and the former head of the NAACP, arrived. Fleming introduced Chavis as "a man I thank God for" and "a product of the movement" that had worked with MLK, Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. Then Fleming abdicated the microphone.

"Most young people know me from the movie Belly," Chavis began. "It's a Hype Williams joint ... DMX holds a gun to my head."

We shall overcome, indeed.

Chavis went on to apologize for J-Kwon's absence and said that Nelly's bus had suffered a "misdirection" in Oklahoma. He added that both would be making appearances later in the day. He explained the goals of his organization and praised hip-hop as a positive "cultural phenomenon" before allowing the panelists to discuss their political concerns.

The speakers opined about health care, minimum-wage increases, job outsourcing, corporate welfare and the war in Iraq but they stuck mainly to topics they were passionate about. Namely, themselves.

"My name is X-Dash," X-Dash told the crowd. "You might remember me from the Jason Whitlock radio show theme song or the Kansas City Royals theme song."

Or not.

But Dash and other local artists, such as Darrell "The Saint" Thomas of Verbal Contact, did offer some political insights, when they weren't performing a capella or discussing making it in the rap industry. Most of the pertinent discourse came from the audience as they conversed about unemployment, public education and the "Up South" nature of Missouri in a way that suggested Cross Burning 101 was meeting down the hall.

Whenever the talk devolved into anti-Bush rhetoric, Chavis carefully steered the argument back to the middle with the assertion that the HSAN was (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) nonpartisan.

"They say Missouri is a swing state," Chavis explained. "We just want to make sure Missouri swings to hip-hop."

1 p.m., Southeast High School

It's hard to attract voters if you don't let them in the building.

Four uniformed security guards stood between me, a dozen kids and the door to the Southeast field house. We were told we didn't have clearance for what had been touted as a public event.

"But I'm 18," one girl protested. "We in high school. We can vote."

She was rebuffed as Chavis and the HSAN team -- minus J-Kwon -- were escorted into the building. Eventually, we were allowed inside, where Councilman Terry Riley was hyping the teens packed into the bleachers.

"Who we?" Riley shouted.


"Who we?"


"All right."

Riley introduced Chavis as someone who "walked with King." An organizer of the Million Man March. A veteran of the battle for civil rights. Then he handed Chavis the microphone.

"How many of you saw the movie Belly?" Chavis began. "Remember at the end of the movie when DMX ... "

And the crowd goes wild.

But the excitement was temporary. The students were excited to see someone, but it wasn't Chavis. And it wasn't long before his message was interrupted by the excited murmuring of the audience.

"He's coming. He's coming," Chavis reassured them. "Be patient. He'll be here in just a few minutes."

In the meantime, the second stringers held court.

"You may remember me from the Jason Whitlock radio show," X-Dash began before launching into his blue-collar anthem "Workaholic." The microphone cut out halfway, but Dash soldiered on.

He was followed by Lil' Rob, a 14-year-old from Grandview touted as one of Kansas City's "next young stars" and a model student with a 4.0 grade-point average. The golden child then broke into a verse about scoring with a 21-year-old woman.

Nothing like statutory rape to get the sociopolitical juices flowing.

But the crowd was captivated when the supremely self-confident Walter "The Popper" Edwin prowled the floor in a throwback Nate Archibald jersey reciting "I Do," his hit party jam of last summer. The kids stood, danced and sang along. The enthusiasm soon faded, though, and there was still no sign of the star attraction. Nearly an hour had passed.

"We just got the call," Chavis said finally. "J-Kwon will be here in about eight minutes. They're just a few blocks away."

Moans. Groans. Mumbles. Grumbles.

"Don't y'all get excited. Everything's going to be OK," Chavis pleaded. "Just calm down. Don't playa hate."

Chavis played a song from the HSAN-sponsored album Wake Up Everybody: Vote. Then Ranford Fleming stood up to speak again.

"I'm so tired of young black kids sitting and pointing the fingers at everybody else," Fleming said. "I can tell you who you should blame: you. The opportunity is here. If you don't take control, who will?"

My money wasn't on J-Kwon.

Fleming's impassioned speech soon became a tirade about how lucky these students were, how kids in Africa sit on mud floors in school and love every minute of it.

The momentum had all but died. Finally, the high school students were told to head for the exit quickly and quietly.

"Man," one boy said, shaking his head. "We just got juiced, y'all."

The junior high students were allowed to stay, which meant that the only students left to hear the get-out-the-vote message wouldn't necessarily be old enough to vote even in the next presidential election. Then a black limousine pulled in front of the field house. J-Kwon, surrounded by bodyguards, sauntered through a side door but was halfway across the gym before anyone noticed. Then they all noticed.

Students surged out of the bleachers and swarmed J-Kwon, shouting and clutching at the rapper. Bodyguards, truant officers and teachers flailed helplessly to turn back the students, like matadors standing their ground in the streets of Pamplona as the herd comes thundering around the corner. J-Kwon was finally pulled away from the throng and the kids corralled back to their seats.

"Waddup y'all," J-Kwon cooed. "How y'all doin'?"


"My album's in stores right now, so y'all need ta cop dat ...


" ... I'm hurr to talk on some real stuff ... "


"Get out and vote," J-Kwon continued. "Y'all too young to be having sex, but if you do, use protection ... stay in school ... I love y'all ... I gotta go now. Thas wassup, a'ight?"

Bing. Bang. Boom. Gone in 60 seconds.

But first, J-Kwon graciously dispensed hugs and autographs to students, teachers, local rappers and the kitchen staff, who had wandered out of the cafeteria still clad in aprons and hairnets to fawn. Order quickly dissipated. Shrieking girls ran through the bleachers looking for scraps of paper for the rapper to sign. And the swarm only grew more hysterical as authorities tried to escort the scrum out the door.

Kids were hysterical. Teachers were flustered. And J-Kwon was in the middle. J-Kwon. A man with one song. The HSAN was on to something. If J-Kwon could hold this much sway, what could Jay-Z do with the organization's message?

Assuming, of course, somebody would hear it. 3 p.m., the University of Missouri-Kansas City

The last event of the day was in a cramped room at the African-American History Cultural House. It wasn't so much a rally as a press conference. Three television cameras jostled for position as Riley, Chavis and J-Kwon were greeted with applause as they took their seats at a conference table.

"We're here for one reason," Chavis said into the cameras. "The largest youth [voting] turnout in history."

He did not mention Belly. Instead he offered up the party line about the importance of voting and the surging groundswell of hip-hop activism before deferring to J-Kwon.

Brace yourself.

"Da 'ole reas'n we on dis tur is ta get yun people to vote hurr," Kwon said. "Das wah wurr hurr ta-day and shit."

Sniff. Dat wurr boot-e-full.

The conversation then shifted into tedium about notaries, absentee ballots, punch cards and election monitoring, but all three men -- Riley, Chavis and J-Kwon -- seemed to be drifting on autopilot. Riley talked around questions, Chavis fell into droning "Voting is fundamental in a Democracy" sound bites, and J-Kwon nodded absently. I could imagine what they were thinking:

Riley: Smile into the camera, big smile, good posture, back straight, keep smiling.

Chavis: I walked with King. I worked with Malcolm. I hung with DMX. Look at me now. What the hell happened?

J-Kwon: Please don't make me say nuthin' else...nod like you know what this muthafucka is talkin' 'bout ... I wonder if we have any Henny in the limo...that girl in the front row has some nice titties ...mmmm, I could go for some pancakes.

"I'm going to give the last word to my man J-Kwon," Chavis said finally.

"I ain't sayin' nothin' that they ain't already said," Kwon sputtered. "They got the celebrities out here to get y'all to vote ... it's like dat serious. I'm doin' it. We doin' it. You need to do it."

Not the best -- or worst -- plea for social consciousness ever made, but maybe it was enough to resonate.

As Chavis, Riley and J-Kwon slowly worked their way out of the building, I noticed Loretta Tuberbille standing nearby. Tuberbille, a 37-year-old criminal-justice major at Penn Valley, was also at the first rally. She had acknowledged her frustration with the electoral process and admitted that she had lived through 11 presidential elections but had never bothered -- or even registered -- to vote.

Until now, that is.

"A lot of people don't care," Tuberbille said. "They don't think their vote matters. It took the hip-hop stuff to make me realize that my vote does count. It has opened my eyes to a lot of things."

Add a comment