Monday, April 27, 2009

The Political Power of Music

Russel Simmons promotes political power of hip hop

When Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele suggested the GOP needed to reenvision itself in a hip hop mold many people assumed he was either crazed or simply delusional.

After all, hip hop and the Republican party could be expected to mix about as well as oil and water.

But hip hop may be the most inherently political genre music has to offer. Because of its uniquely political character, hip hop provides political organizers with invaluable opportunities to mobilize grassroots urban youths -- a demographic that not only is becoming more politically active, but one that Republicans are practically entirely alienated from.

Russel Simmons provides an example of precisely how powerful hip hop can be as a political organizational force. His efforts to mobilize the hip hop community in support of environmental causes, something he plans to accomplish through his America's Greenest Campus campaign, promise to be nothing short of revolutionary.

"[This campaign] is an educational tool and an empowerment vehicle. People don’t understand what it is to lighten their footprint, what steps to take," Simmons explains. "So if we give them the simple steps and we tell them exactly how much it affects the environment if they make certain changes—being a vegetarian, doing other things that make a dramatic difference in how much weight they carry in the world—people want to know that. When they realize that by changing simple things they can make a difference, it’s an empowerment vehicle."

While this is an encouraging idea, Simmons fails to exercise some crucial critical thinking in regards to his own ideas. His intent to utilize hip hop -- which in addition to being music's most inherently political genre has also become music's most inherently materialistic genre -- in favour of environmentalism contradicts hip hop's consumer-driven nature.

But Simmons is also right in noting the impact that hip hop has on consumer culture. Convincing rappers to embrace environmentally-conscious products will go a long way toward improving their marketability.

"The biz is depending on hip-hop to pick which color diamond is popular," Simmons explains. "The only way [the Maybach] beats Phantom Rolls Royce is to get rappers to choose it. Tommy Hilfiger’s praying that hip-hop discovers him again. So is Coca-Cola; [they’re] worried what hip-hop says versus Pepsi."

Simmons admits that he doesn't currently have a big-name rapper he can point to as the franchise player for his environmentalist hip hop movement.

But even if rappers aren't necessarily becoming more environmentally conscious just yet, they are becoming wealthier on an ongoing basis.

The ever-increasing wealth of hip hop artists provides an open window for Republicans to appeal to hip hop artists through fiscally conservative policies -- particularly those promising lower levels of taxation. The biggest barrier remaining to Michael Steele remaking the GOP under a hip hop prototype is the social values projected by many of those currently being allowed to portray themselves as the Republican party's standard bearers.

As politically revolutionary music, one can rest assured that few rappers will publicly support a political party that is at least perceived to promote socially regressive or racially hostile policies.

Michael Steele's plan to infuse a raptivist base within the Republican party will require him to embrace Meghan McCain's plans to moderate the GOP. The potential for growth following such a radical course of action is immense -- but first the party would have to endure significant growing pains.


  1. It would be really interesting to see the Republicans try to do this, I think it would be a good social experiment in any case...

    Political music has been around for ages, just look at the whole "peace and love" movement, the punk movement in the UK in the late 70s and Hip Hop from "It Takes a Nation of Billions" in 1987 until today.

    It's always surprised me that no political party has been able to really take advantage of the music industry aspect of running a campaign and drawing out younger voters.

  2. It would be an interesting social experiment. But in order to accomplish something like this, the GOP would need to abandon any and all pretenses of a "culture war" from their party brand.

    That would mean distancing themselves from individuals like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. This comes with a variety of pros and cons.

    Whether we like to admit it or not, these extremists do provide assets to their party, even if we'd agree that they cost their party far more than they provide.

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