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Can Hip-Hop Change The Style Of Politics?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a moment, my weekly Can I Just Tell You commentary. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we have been talking about the influence of Martin Luther King, Jr. on politics and human rights struggles around the world. But now I want to switch gears and talk about the influence of another powerful 20th century phenomenon: hip-hop.

That hip-hop even has an impact on politics might seem ridiculous to some. To others, it's a no brainer, as it connects young voters to cause and activism. Now, one of our regular contributors has taken up this question in his book, "Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-Hop and Black Politics." Lester Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. He's also a regular contributor to our Barber Shop segment and he's with us once again.

Welcome back, Lester. Thanks for joining us.

LESTER SPENCE: Thank you for having me.

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.

MARTIN: Okay. Just to refresh people's memories, this is 1989's "Just a Friend." This is DJ Biz Markie. This is not the moment where Kilpatrick took over the mic, but this is the song that he was rapping over.


BIZ MARKIE: (Singing) You - you got what I need, but you say he's just a friend and you say he's just a friend. Oh, baby, you got what I need, but you say he's just a friend. But you say he's just a friend. Oh, baby, you got what I need.

MARTIN: Give an example, if you would, or what's your evidence for where hip-hop is in synch with and stimulates and supports the political activism of those for whom it is its primary musical form. I mean, obviously, people remember certain moments, like during the presidential campaign when Barack Obama's first running for president and he's having a tough go of it - in the primary particularly - and he kind of brushes his shoulder off, which is a gesture that a lot of people associate with hip-hop. I mean, a lot of people do it. They brush off the hairs, so there's that. And it is true that younger people, by and large, did prefer him to his rival in the 2008 campaign, John McCain. But do you attribute that to hip-hop?

SPENCE: Well, let me answer that question in a different way. So what I tried to do with "Stare in the Darkness" is apply the traditional tools I have as a political scientist to this question, right? So what I did was I both collected survey data and I analyzed preexisting survey data.

The National Black Politics study is something that is a survey that we've been using for the last almost 20 years to analyze black attitudes. And what I found, that people who consumed rap were much more likely than people who didn't to engage in what we call nontraditional political behavior. That is protest behavior, right? And then there are a number of other attitudinal connections that we can see between people who listen to rap or prefer rap to other types of attitudes.

MARTIN: The second piece that you found was perhaps more involvement in what you call non-traditional political behavior, but less sense of efficacy around traditional politics. What about that and why might that be?

SPENCE: Yeah. So this is where the black politics part of it comes in. This book is about black attitudes, about a black art forum; I'm not really dealing with race or racism much in that book. What I find is that the kids that are most likely to express those attitudes are the kids that are most likely to be left out, not just by white politicians; they are also, I'd argue, are the ones that are most likely left out by black politicians. They're the ones most likely to be left out or discriminated in certain ways by black teachers, right? And I think that that causes them to feel less efficacious in that particular...

MARTIN: Well, might the metaphor for that be the person we started our conversation with, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who famously pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, was forced to resign as mayor in 2008 after a very sordid scandal involving his former chief of staff. Is that part of it? Is that kind of the right metaphor here, which is that this is in a way they're reflecting the failure of black leadership, particularly in major urban areas where the rise of black leadership was greeted with so much hope?

SPENCE: Yeah, so it's a few factors. So they're seeing black elected officials are performing certain ways. And then they're also seeing their interaction with politics on the ground is almost all negative. So it's not just that they're seeing political officials who end up doing things wrong and then that makes them feel less efficacious, it's that there are no institutions that they're naturally involved in that indicate at all that they are worth listening to politically, that they are worth working with politically, that they are worth being treated as citizens.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with scholar and author Lester Spence. He's assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. You hear him frequently on Fridays in our Barbershop roundtable. We're talking about his new book, "Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-Hop and Black Politics."

So what are we left with, Professor Spence? You know, really taken as a whole your book is actually very sad. Or am I misreading it?

SPENCE: No. No, you're not. I mean the subtitle or title's "The Limits of Hip-Hop and Black Politics," right? So hip-hop is the most powerful musical artform that's been created the last quarter of the 20th century and it's culturally revolutionary in a number of different ways. But it just hasn't made, it's not a political revolutionary force. And there are a number of things that constrain the ability of rap to perform that function in the United States.

MARTIN: Well, maybe you're asking too much of a musical or a cultural form. I mean nobody would say that, you know, the spirituals or the folk music of the civil rights movement transformed the country. It may have been the soundtrack of a movement, but I don't think anybody would say it was the songs that changed the country, right? Are you attributing too much to hip-hop?

SPENCE: Well, it's not me in this case, right? So I wrote this book as a way to understand and test a number of empirical claims that other people made about the music, right? Other people argued that it was this really revolutionary force. I didn't make those claims. I tested them.

MARTIN: Can I just ask this, Professor Spence, if you don't mind, is that your politics are, I don't think you're making any secret of this, very left of center.

SPENCE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: So does hip-hop have anything to say or is there a conservative strain of hip-hop?

SPENCE: I actually think that hip-hop is nationalist. And given that it's black nationalists in the specific time, I think hip-hop actually does actually tend to be conservative. Hip-hop...

MARTIN: And when you say conservative, what you mean by that?

SPENCE: I mean it tends to be pro-business. It tends to be neoliberal. It tends to frown upon certain aspects of the welfare state. I analyzed over 500 lyrics from 1989 to 2004, and they go in on welfare recipients - hard. They might as well be Newt Gingrich in blackface in some cases.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting that you, 'cause people associate hip-hop with being very left, but you're saying it isn't.

SPENCE: No. It's pro-black. And we make this casualist link between being pro-black and being on the left.

MARTIN: Being on the left as it's defined more broadly...

SPENCE: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: But you're saying it's just not true.

SPENCE: No. It's just not true. It's just not true. I mean so take something like the Million Man March, 1995, where Minister Farrakhan calls a million black men to come to the seat of government and says, we don't want nothing. Now, people go to lobby to D. C. every day for millions and billions of dollars, but in that moment Minister Farrakhan brings us all - 'cause I was there too - he says no, we're not coming for a handout for the government, we want to do for self. That is a message that's both Black Nationalist, but extremely conservative. It's that type of combination that I see in hip-hop.

MARTIN: You know, and finally, before we let you go, in other countries - like, for example, Wyclef Jean made an attempt to run for the president of Haiti. He did not succeed. He didn't even make it on the ballot. But another music star, Sweet Micky Martelly did prevail and now is the president of Haiti. In Senegal, Youssou N'Dour, tremendously influential Senegalese artist, is now running for the presidency of Senegal. Do you envision a time, I'm asking you to predict, and I know that's unfair, but do you envision a scenario in which people connected to hip-hop in the United States might rise to a level of political influence?

SPENCE: Well, people are ready doing that, right? So you've got a guy like Rymefest in Chicago who ran and he actually didn't win, but he's not going anywhere and I can easily see him and other people like him running for and attaining political office. And I think that as we get older we have to remember the hip-hop generation, we still treat the hip-hop generation as if they're children, when in reality hip-hop generation - of which I'm a member - we're now middle-aged. So we're going to see naturally a number of people from within the field, within the industry, run for and win political office.

I think the question for me though is what will be the political content of their efforts, right? So I can easily imagine somebody running for office under a hip-hop platform and connecting that platform to anti-tax policies. I can easily see them running and attaching hip-hop to the type of problematic security initiatives that we're now seeing. So the question isn't whether they'll get political influence, the question for me is - and this is my activist side coming out, to what extent will those policies, will those political practices be transformative?

MARTIN: Professor Spence, since it is Martin Luther King Day, it's the day when we commemorate the contributions of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the country, I did want to ask, and I've been asking our previous guests what civil rights means today, I thought I would like to ask you that question.

SPENCE: What it means today is reaching back and kind of reclaiming the public, making people understand that government actually can and is supposed to work for the people. And it starts in black communities – well, those are communities I care most about, and then taking those movements and building them outward. So actually today I'm going to be working with the folks at Occupy Baltimore to occupy a site where they're talking about building a jail for youth who were charged as adults. And you know, later on in the week I'm going to be working with the Baltimore Mixtape Project to help further connect civil rights on the ground to hip-hop.

MARTIN: Lester Spence is assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. He is also a regular contributor to our Friday Barbershop roundtable. His new book is called "Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-Hop and Black Politics." And he joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you for joining us. Thank you for joining us on this Martin Luther King Day, Lester Spence.

SPENCE: Thanks for having me. It's been great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.