Inside, the arena is surprisingly devoid of corporate sponsorship propaganda and is standing-room-only. BET's Big Tigger stands at the podium, running the show. At his immediate right sits U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, who is followed down the line by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jermaine Dupri, Russell Simmons, Reverend Run, Layzie Bone, Damon Dash, Chingy, and Talib Kweli. To his left sits U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson, followed by actor Boris Kodjoe, David Banner, Erykah Badu, and Master P. The politicians and hip-hop heavyweights have gathered on the Saturday before the biggest American sports - and pop-culture - event of the year to discuss a range of topics affecting Black America: education, the prison industry, reparations, the AIDS crisis, and the ongoing wars on drugs and terrorism.
From his seat, Simmons, the founder of Def Jam Records, calmly fields a question by a young sister regarding artist accountability in terms of lyrical content. His response is diplomatic and eloquent: "The language of hip-hop is coded, and if you're not from the culture, it can often be misunderstood. I believe rap is God's soundtrack. If it's good, then it speaks the truth. There is a lot of truth. Some of it is frustrating and angry, but you have to choose what's good for you."
Over the course of the day, luminaries like Beyoncé, Ice Cube, Scarface, Doug E. Fresh, Kanye West, Kid Capri, and Nick Cannon make appearances, helping to push the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network's (HSAN) weeklong voting initiative to more than 20,000 new voters. Aside from Beyoncé, Maxine Waters receives the most cheers courtesy of her rousing challenge: "When I heard about the summit, I decided that I should come over here because you represent all of the potential power in America. But you've got to stop bullshitting. It's time to kick George Bush's behind."
HSAN was founded in 2001 by Simmons and Dr. Benjamin Chavis, former executive director of the NAACP. According to its mission statement, the organization "is dedicated to harnessing the cultural relevance of hip-hop music to serve as a catalyst for education advocacy and other societal concerns fundamental to the well-being of at-risk youth throughout the United States." The network consists of a non-profit national coalition of "hip-hop artists, entertainment industry leaders, education advocates, civil rights proponents, and youth leaders" determined to see hip-hop utilize its potential to influence social change.
Since its inception, HSAN has sought to inject politics and activism into hip-hop culture. In the organization's earliest incarnation, Kwame Ture and Minister Louis Farrakhan brought together Simmons, Sean Combs and a handful of other prominent hip-hop figures to squash the mid-'90s Ease Coast/West Coast feud that took the lives of Tupac Shakur and Cristopher Wallace.
More recently, HSAN joined with the Alliance for Quality Education to mobilize 100,000 New York City public school students in a City Hall protest rally that resulted in Mayor Michael Bloomberg restoring $300 million in proposed cuts to the New York City public school budget. The organization also coordinated a public awareness campaign against New York's draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws culminating in a public rally that drew more than 60,000 people. Such actions, coupled with HSAN's "One Mind, One Vote" campaign, which seeks to register two-million voters over the next nine months and 20 million in the next five years, have led many pundits to conveniently refer to hip-hop as the new civil rights.
In his recent book,The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop, Todd Boyd argues against this notion: "Civil rights was a struggle, and it remains on ongoing struggle for all disenfranchised people of color to pursue their civil rights. But many in the civil rights era have far too long gloated in sanctimonious fashion, assuming their day would never come to an end. This arrogant posture did little to inspire a new generation but went a long way toward alienating them. The posture of civil rights was such that it made future generations uncomfortable having to wear such restraints as they attempted to represent themselves. Hip-hop has allowed them to throw off those shackles, and though it is far from perfect, it does attempt to navigate the world in a different way."
During Super Bowl weekend, hip-hop's inherent contradictions were on display. Politics repeatedly butted heads with commerce. Samples of Simmons' new soft drink were prominent, and summit after-parties commanded outrageous price tags. These contradictions have led many to question whether Simmons is the ideal candidate to bring politics to the people. Activists including author Bakari Kitwana (The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture) have publicly challenged Simmons and the hip-hop nation to be self-critical and look inward for true progressive change. Despite the contradictions, few can argue the importance of hip-hop culture in contemporary society, articulated by Boyd in his dense conclusion: "Hip-hop is a testament to overcoming the obstacles that American life often imposes on its Black and Latino subjects, and in this, it is a model of what 'we shall overcome' means in the modern world." •