HIP-HOP, once a vibrant political culture, may be irredeemably corrupted by its own success. But there is still hope for the hip-hop generation, the young Americans who grew up during the culture’s more inspiring years and those who came of age in its ostentatious aftermath.
On one hand, the hip-hop generation—Black, white, Asian and Latino—reversed years of regressive racial politics by embracing a common lifestyle that celebrated Blackness. The hip-hop audience, in part because of the culture’s influence, became America’s first multicultural generation. On the other hand, the hip-hop generation has not stepped out in a meaningful, organized way on any of the significant issues of our day—not Iraq, not Katrina, not healthcare, not the environment.
Harnessing the political potential of the hip-hop generation has been a consternation for many activists and a preoccupation for
a few writers, including Bakari Kitwana and Jeff Chang. Enter Keli Goff, a former campaign manager and political communications strategist, now a periodic pundit for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Goff’s new book, Party Crashing: How The Hip-Hop Generation Declared Political Independence (Basic Civitas), attempts to present our current situation as a golden opportunity for young Black voters and the politicians who would court them, but it actually winds up being yet another reminder of this generation’s political atrophy.
Goff assembles an admirable synthesis of the many complex factors influencing the Black vote—culture, class, age and religion among them—and draws quotes from prominent players like Al Sharpton, Russell Simmons and Colin Powell. She can be clever and concise. But Goff ultimately squelches her own voice in an endless parade of sound bites from politicians and their advisors, and behind a single telephone poll gussied up as groundbreaking research.
At the heart of Goff’s book is a survey of 400 young Black people conducted in conjunction with the Suffolk University Political Research Center. The results aren’t exactly a revelation: young Black Americans are becoming less partisan, less beholden to the leaders of the Civil Rights generation and more nuanced in their views of race and class. Nor is the conclusion she draws from her survey—that young Black voters, unlike their loyal Democratic parents, are now fair game for either party—particularly newsworthy.
If Goff’s goal is to show the current establishment how to tap (or trap) the young Black vote, then her book is a mercenary endeavor indeed. “Can the party of Lincoln,” Goff writes, “become the party of 50 Cent?” Please. Party Crashing ultimately fails because you can’t use the limited language of political punditry to dream a new world.
To that end, Goff misses (or dismisses) the power of multicultural connections entirely, the kind that have—for better and for worse—lofted Barack Obama to the fore of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. For sure, many of Obama’s disciples are wide-eyed whites for whom Black excellence may be some kind of novelty. But many are the genuine product of a cultural experience that made Black people, Black expression and Black excellence a part of their daily lives. By buying into Kitwana’s limited definition of the hip-hop generation (solely Black people born after 1965), Goff repeats the peddling parochialism of the previous generation she derides.
Goff has also written a book on hip-hop politics without seeking out the voices of the few true grassroots hip-hop generation organizers. These folks might tell her that the spirit of hip-hop is ultimately anti-establishment: Who gives a f**k about a goddamn Grammy, so to speak. Neither the Democrats nor Republicans have ever been a home for people of any generation or any origin seeking true change. So if wealthy Black folks ultimately get comfy voting Republican because they resonate with the party’s rap about rugged individualism, that doesn’t mean they’ve declared political independence. It just means that they’ve become as willfully blind and selfish as everyone else. That’s not liberty. That’s death.
Dan Charnas is the author of the forthcoming book The Big Payback: How Hip-Hop Became Global Pop (New American Library/Penguin).