Movement or fan club?

Getting the vibe at this year’s National Hip-Hop Political Convention

Rosa Clemente, National Hip-Hop Political Convention co-founder and 2008 vice-presidential candidate for the Green Party, answers questions during the convention.
Photo: Jacob Kepler

A line forms behind a circle of people flanking a table where ex-Black Panther Dhoruba Bin Wahad waxes pseudo-philosophic on the inherent evil of the U.S. political system. “President Bush should’ve been stopped a long time ago, but no one’s been willing to incur the wrath of the empire,” Wahad says of this unseen, Bush-empowering cabal.

Wahad’s distrust of the government is rooted in history: spies tailing Marcus Garvey in the 1920s; the FBI monitoring Martin Luther King Jr.; informants infiltrating the Black Panthers; his own false imprisonment. Wahad (formerly Richard Moore) served 19 years in prison for attempting to kill two cops. A New York judge released him in 1990 after discovering the FBI suppressed evidence that could’ve exonerated him. Wahad is convinced that the empire would render President Barack Obama politically impotent.

“He’ll be a figurehead,” Wahad tells the opening-day crowd at last weekend’s National Hip-Hop Political Convention at UNLV, the event’s first time in Las Vegas. In fact, he says, an Obama presidency could neuter the black vote.


“If he wins, we’ll think we’ve made it and stop fighting,” he says. “For example: David Paterson, a black man, is governor of New York. I know him. He’s a cool guy. Progressive. He could grant pardons; really use his power for change. But he’s tiptoeing around issues. We’ve got to force these local politicians who control our immediate environments to be accountable, because we can influence them.”

The all-politics-is-local approach competes with a handful of disparate political ideologies at the biennial convention. There are Obama surrogates and Green Party candidates. Academics touting high-minded approaches and grassroots activists ready to roll up their sleeves. Hip-hop elders preaching patience and youths thirsty for change.

Troy Nkrumah considers it a victory that they even came. The head of the convention’s Las Vegas organizing committee figured the economy and the city’s reputation—former sheriff Bill Young attempted to ban gangsta rap on the Strip after a series of violent incidents; Metro police have been accused of tailing celebrity rappers—would impact attendance. It did. Fewer than 500 attended. The inaugural convention in 2004 drew 6,000 to New Jersey. Still, Nkrumah says, “People seem appreciative.”

Since its inaugural political foray during the 2004 presidential election—remember P. Diddy’s marginally effective “Vote or Die” campaign?—the hip-hop community has been trying to find its political footing. A surfeit of groups with identical-sounding names (Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. Hip-Hop Political Action Committee, Hip-Hop Congress, etc.) and eerily similar missions exist today. Fox News contributor and Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill, who spoke on creating a hip-hop election agenda as part of a panel discussion, says the proliferation of these groups is a political strength, even if there’s only surface collaboration.

“I attend the other conventions because we’re all fighting for the same things—improving education, making our communities safer, creating jobs,” Hill says. “That’s why Obama’s campaign has been so inspiring for the hip-hop generation. He reflects the change we seek. But if we put him in office and then don’t do anything to help him facilitate change, then all we’ve done is develop the world’s biggest fan club.”

Other attendees carp about Obama distancing himself from platinum-selling Atlanta rapper Ludacris, whose “Obama is Here” song disparages Bush, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. A few folks say they wouldn’t vote for Obama, and might not even vote at all—which seems to defeat the purpose of attending such an event.

Jeff Carroll plans on voting for Obama in November. In the interim, the self-described relationship coach wants to teach the hip-hop community how to date and fall in love.

“I want to teach people in hip-hop how to date. We can’t talk about lobbying the government for resources to deal with misogyny or gender-discrimination issues if our house isn’t in order. I want people in hip-hop to have the most important piece of bling.”

At this, he flashes his wedding ring. “I registered 3,000 people in 1988 for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. I’ve coordinated 36 political marches. I worked on Al Sharpton’s presidential campaign. I’m an Obama supporter. He’s just one part of the strategy for regime change. But we’ve also got to start expressing love in hip-hop. I agree with much of what these conspiracy theorists say about the government, but who says the New World Order is invincible? Who says we can’t challenge the powers that be?”

E. Mandisa is bummed. She arrived on Sunday, a day after she was to have participated in a presentation on hip-hop and spirituality. Amid the post-convention bustle in the lobby, Mandisa exudes a unique calm; she seems at peace. The hip-hop community needs to be spiritually grounded. “You have to have self-awareness. That’s your foundation. You have to know who you are, where you come from and not compromise your values to achieve justice and equality.”

Green Party presidential nominee Cynthia McKinney’s closing speech on Sunday begins slowly. Best known for implicating Bush in the 9/11 attacks and striking a Capitol Hill officer in 2006, McKinney relates the story of a pastor who challenges his congregation to become radical. “It takes being radical to get what you deserve.”


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