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Gary Younge
Hip-hop message to young: get out and vote

More than 2,000 delegates from 25 cities arrived for the four-day conference in Newark, New Jersey, wearing everything from smart bow ties to the low-slung baggy trousers - the style convicts wear because they are not allowed to wear belts in prison.

"I figure I'm going to have to get out there and do something or I can't really complain about what they do to me," said Jamal Taylor, 19, from New York state.

Organisers hoped the gathering would return the genre to its roots of political protest and then send it back out to galvanise a generation of disaffected youth who are the least likely to register and vote. Delegates had to get at least 50 people to register to attend the conference.

"Our message is simple: you have a stake and a voice in this nation. We want our elected officials to be accountable to who we are and what we want," Bakari Kitwana, co-spokesman for the convention, told the Miami Herald.

"Young people have to start thinking about voting as something that they're continually involved in, not something they just do on one day. Politics is a journey, it's not just a day trip. It's a war, not just one battle," he said.

As well as a concert and a film festival the convention has included a dialogue between the hip-hop and the civil rights generations.

"This conversation is important because it is an attempt to bridge a generation gap," said the Reverend Calvin Butts, the pastor of Harlem's largest church, the Abyssinian Baptist church.

Veteran civil rights activist Gustav Heningburg, compared the hip-hop generation to the students who went to the deep south 40 years ago during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. One of the organisers, Ras Baraka, is the son of the 60s poet and activist Amiri Baraka.

"Hip-hop is much more complex than being positive or negative," Faheem Ratcliffe, the editor of the Source magazine told the Associated Press. "We are the children of the civil rights and the black power movements."

Rap music used to be synonymous with vocal, if not necessarily active, political resistance. In 1990 the FBI issued a warning against Niggaz With Attitude, claiming that they were a threat to national security. But by the mid-90s it had become a multibillion dollar industry characterised by violent feuds between rival gangs on the east and west coasts.

The convention marks an increased effort over the past five years by senior figures in the hip-hop scene to shed the music's image of misogyny, materialism and violence and make it more politically engaged and socially responsible - a strategy that has found an extraordinary focus in November's presidential elections.

Young voters represent an untapped resource. According to the census 51% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 are registered to vote.

Only 29% of 18 to 24 year olds voted in the 2000 presidential election - the lowest of all the age categories - among African Americans the figures are even lower.

Activists have already made some serious inroads in this direction.

A Hip-Hop Summit in Philadelphia, in the swing state of Pennsylvania, last year registered 11,000 new voters in two weeks by making registration a requirement to get into parties. A similar celebrity event at Ohio State University, also in a swing state, swelled the voter rolls by around 10,000. There are more summits to come in New Orleans and a Latino Hip-Hop summit in the Bronx next month.

Rap impresario, Russell Simmons, who launched the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, aims to register 2 million people by November. Meanwhile Sean "P Diddy" Combs plans to create a show for MTV this summer in which he hopes to question the presidential candidates.

"My vote is only one vote, so I'm going to make sure a record number of youth and minorities register to vote this year," he told the New York Post. "I'm asking them to hold their vote hostage until these candidates answer questions in real terms that people can understand. I'm going to make Bush and Kerry squirm."

While it is unlikely that this will benefit Republican President George Bush, the newly registered, highly sceptical, voters will hardly be a gift to Democratic challenger John Kerry either.

"I don't want to see us bigging up the Kerry campaign," delegate Derrick Ashong told the Boston Globe. "Not until we see whether or not they're really gonna address our community, or whether it's rhetoric."

Hip-hop is not the only genre trying to reach the young. MTV has its own Rock the Vote and World Wrestling Entertainment has launched Smack Down Your Vote.

But hip-hop, which is used to selling everything from trainers to careers in the US army may prove the most powerful of all, not least because it has roots in political resistance. It is also probably the one that feels it has the most at stake in doing so.

"In 2004, if hip-hop is unable to truly impact the election, maybe it really is just something to dance to." said hip-hop journalist Davey D at a forum in February.

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