NPR asks an interesting question. One that seems to come up every election season with increasing alacrity. Can Hip-Hop Change The Style Of Politics?
I have to say that my suspicion is no. Hip hop, like many other things with a following and with celebrity backing, can have an impact on changing public opinion. Sure, it’s been crucial at raising awareness of many issues and probably has made a few people start thinking about things in a particularly different manner. However, it cannot do it alone.
To get a better sense of the issues, NPR interviewed Lester Spence, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. They had him to discuss his book: Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics.
The audio interview is 12 minutes if you can spare it. Otherwise, there’s also a transcript that will let you scan the interview. It’s actually a fascinating piece, and if you have the time I strongly suggest you take a read/listen. Here’s a snippet.
MARTIN: So the idea that hip-hop is a core sort of truth teller, its primary purpose is to say sort of uncomfortable truth. Has that always been a part of its history?
SPENCE: Yes, it has. Hip-hop starts and rap starts as a way, as a vehicle for working class, black and Latino youth to express themselves and, although there is this boastful element to it, where you have MCs talking about how dope they are, etc., etc., people have always made the attempt, at least, to connect them to everyday reality.
MARTIN: What is not in dispute is that hip-hop is associated with a certain generation, or the rise of a certain generation with its own kind of preferences around music and style and a beat and so forth. And it doesn’t seem illogical to think that a generation that grew up with hip-hop as its primary musical form would also kind of take it into the voting booth, you know, as it were, or take it into the world of political activism.
Here’s a moment that crystallizes this for you very clearly, which you talk about in the book. The former Detroit mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, elected in 2001 at the age of 31 – of course, he comes from a political family. His mother, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, was the long time congressional representative from the Detroit area.
And you describe one of his inaugural events where he enters the room, but rather than silencing the crowd in the traditional manner to speak, he – finish telling us about that scene and tell us why you found it particularly powerful.
SPENCE: Yeah. I mean, so I was there. There were a number of DJs spinning house hip-hop all night long and he comes in while Biz Markie is DJing and Biz Markie is an old school MC who’s transitioned into being a DJ. And around the time the mayor walks in, Biz starts spinning his own stuff, like "You Got What I Need." Right.
And Kwame comes in and, instead of calming everybody down, you know, he takes up the mic and he starts singing with Biz Markie in the song. And then we all start singing with him. And I remember saying, like, man, this was the most charged political moment of my life. It was like, finally, there was somebody like us in office.