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‘Rap the Vote’

‘Rap the Vote’

Hip-Hop artists are encouraging young people to vote, but will their efforts actually move them to the polls?

Damien Robinson is 30 years old but has never voted in an election nor has he even registered to vote, until now. Publicity surrounding rap impresarios like Sean “Puffy” Combs aka P. Diddy and Russell Simmons encouraging young people to vote in the upcoming elections gave Robinson the extra push to get off the sofa and sign up, he said. But more importantly, Robinson added, he’s concerned about present conditions of the country and public school systems.
“Honestly, it’s a very big movement going on, and I never took the time before. I was always so busy with football, now I’m taking the time,” said Robinson, a free safety with the Seattle Seahawks, while filling out paperwork at the South-Paw Music Hip-Hop Voter Registration Drive and free concert in Dallas last month.
Research shows that among the 42 million young adults ages 18 to 35, there are an equal number of non-voting Republicans as there are non-voting Democrats and non-voting Independents, said Dr. Mary Dixson, assistant director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation. The institute was established at The University of Texas at Austin in 2000 to respond to growing political cynicism and disaffection in the United States.
“That whole age demographic is up for grabs,” Dixson says. “Anybody who really wanted to mobilize that group could have an impact on an election. Anybody who has that vote can swing an election. I think one of the things you’re seeing is kind of a perfect storm situation where you have a lot of different organizations that have come together at the same time to put an emphasis on the young African American and just generally the young vote.”
Flip on the television and the message rages on the BETs, VH1s and MTVs — “Vote or Die.” Go to a rap concert and “street teams” swoop down on partygoers, not to promote some unknown artist’s record but to register new voters. Eminem, Ja Rule, Beyoncé, Nelly, 50 Cent, Ashanti — they all say they’re going to do it. Suddenly it’s cool to vote.
But it actually goes beyond just being cool. Like the civil rights generation before them, the Hip-Hop crowd is worried about the lack of job creation and vanishing opportunities to make it into the middle class, and the ongoing expense of the War in Iraq, political observers say. And many are still angry about what they saw in the 2000 election when more than a million minority votes weren’t counted. While some remain disillusioned and say they won’t vote because their voices won’t count, others say the election four years ago taught them that one vote means more now than ever.
Simmons’ Hip-Hop Action Network, one of the first groups to target minority youth through its Hip-Hop summits, says it has registered two million new voters in the past two years. Citizen Change, launched by Combs this summer, doesn’t actually do voter registration, but Combs uses his brand name and fashion to get the word out about the importance of voting and to get Hip-Hoppers excited about the concept, a spokesperson said. And MTV and BET, both owned by Viacom, say they have registered 789,905 voters through their “Rock The Vote” and “Rap The Vote” campaigns. There are others including organizers of smaller Hip-Hop voter registration drives like the one held in Dallas which signed up 63 people on a Saturday afternoon. Even the national political parties are in on the act, with Hip-Hop themed fund-raisers and street teams of their own.
There are several groups targeting young voters with registration drives in hopes of getting 20 million or more young adults to the polls this fall. The goal, organizers say, is to make this young voting bloc — which includes but is not limited to minorities — a force politicians must court.
Dr. David A. Bositis, senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, says he doesn’t know if the likes of P. Diddy and Beyoncé will actually move young voters to the polls in November. It’s one thing to register young people, Bositis says, it’s quite another to actually get them to vote.
“Young African Americans have been voting at very low rates in recent elections, and there’s a question as to whether that’s going to be enough to change that,” Bositis says. “I don’t want to say it can’t be done, but it is a tough thing to do.”
About 13 million African Americans voted in the 2000 election, of that only 1.3 million fell between the ages of 18 to 24 — the age range used by the U.S. Census Bureau. A total of 8.6 million — representing all races — voted in the presidential election four years ago.
To say 20 million will go to the polls this year is highly unlikely and to some degree, unrealistic, Bositis contends. That said, organizers don’t need 20 million to swing the election he adds.
“The people who are doing this can have a significant impact on the election if they get one to two million more voters,” Bositis says. “Even a relatively modest increase can make a big difference.” 

—  By Tracie Powell

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