"We're about to see what happens when groups come together," says Will Mega, looking like Mr. Clean in white linen and a mop-waxed bald dome. He's the head of the Philadelphia "Dream Team" of six delegates to the National Hip Hop Political Convention in Newark, N.J., that ended June 19. Members of Philadelphia's delegation, none older than 35, registered more than 100,000 voters as their entry ticket to this five-day gathering of the hip-hop generation. About 70,000 of these potential voters are in the 18-35 age group -- the typical candidate's least concern.
But that hasn't dimmed Mega's enthusiasm for the panel, "GOTV: Let's Get Out the Vote Training," or what he announced would be a discussion on "Black Empowerment, Leveraging Intellectual Capital." He collapses the seating arrangement, removing the half-a-dozen seats behind the podium and forming a communal circle.
"Instead of being a facilitator, now my position in the group is no greater or lesser than yours," he says.
A woman of Indian descent immediately asks how black empowerment can be achieved by an all-black, male panel.
"There were women who were supposed to be part of our panel who couldn't make it," explains Mega, "but that doesn't matter because we're a circle now -- the panel no longer exists."
Among the circle are Khari Mosley and David Dix, members of the Pittsburgh delegation to the inaugural National Hip Hop Political Convention created to establish a political agenda for the hip-hop generation.
"Since I've been here I've heard a lot about music but I haven't heard a lot from people in politics on how to make this generation a political force," says Dix. "I expect to find different ways the hip-hop generation can begin to define our political agenda and how to effectively influence those issues in our communities."
"Dream Team" member Jay Woodson, who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh a few years ago, soon has a chalkboard full of ideas. Then Jacqueline Berrien tries to enter the discussion.
"Excuse me, miss, do you have permission to join this group?" Mega asks making some in the circle visibly uncomfortable. "When a group is being formed, I don't like how people just pop in, and after we did all this work and all this intellectual capital was exchanged now you're gonna reap the benefits of all this work ... and you didn't help."
Berrien apologizes, but not before three women, one of them a reporter for The Nation, storms out. Undeterred, Mega asks people to get rid of empty seats and to tighten the circle. In fact, this exercise was just theater, Mega reveals -- a staged way of showing the dynamics of group formation, what these young activists will encounter when trying to mobilize the electorate.
"Now," begins Mega, suddenly the facilitator again, "what I would like from this group is to come up with a goal that can be implemented now -- not anything theoretical. Something that can be applied today."
Mosley led Pittsburgh's delegation with Dix as his co-spokesperson for what was likely the most diverse group from any state -- 25 delegates, the third largest of 17 states represented, behind California and Minnesota.
Dix, just 23, from Erie, was perhaps the lone Republican of several thousand people attending the convention. And he definitely was the only one there wearing Brooks Brothers suits and ties amid a sea of Sean John denim and Roc-A-Fella shirts. One of the convention's goals was mass voter registration, hopefully to sway upcoming elections. Dix hoped the hip-hop crowd would be more open-minded about aligning itself with forces other than the Democratic Party. But the party's shadow loomed over most of the event.
"No other group promotes individual responsibility, puts God at the center of their lives and wants to see their tax money returned to us like black people," says Dix. "It's these issues that the Republican Party is founded upon."
Dix has worked for the election of Sen. Arlen Specter and Tom Ridge, when he ran for governor. Mosley is a veteran Democratic campaigner, having worked for Mayor Tom Murphy, City Councilors Bill Peduto and Sala Udin and State Rep. Jake Wheatley. But the delegation also included a dozen members of Homewood's Community Empowerment Association, who don't subscribe completely to electoral politics. CEA directors Luqmann Salaam and I Majestic Allah represented a more grassroots ethos and came to the convention seeking agendas that supported underserved and over-ignored communities rather than specific political parties.
"I believe in people politics," says Salaam. "Electoral politics should be used as a tool -- a means, not an end. Politics for me works from the bottom up, not the top down."
Where could that be truer than in hip hop? Most of the organizers of the convention got that, such as Bakari Kitwana, the Kent State professor who wrote the book The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture, and Rosa Clemente, a Bronx, N.Y., activist involved in the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. The convention's other chief organizers and sponsors, such as Will Mega, Newark Deputy Mayor Ras Baraka, and the Service Employees International Union, clearly represented political interests.
Workshops held throughout the convention reinforced the focus on electoral politics: "Why Vote? Community Voices On the Criminal Justice System," "How to Get Stupid White Men Out Of Office" and "Living Wages and the New Labor Movement" are just samples. The strongest sentiment emanating from the convention, though, seemed to be "How to Get George W. Bush Out of Office."
The national anti-Bush League of Pissed Off Voters had a huge hand in the event, as did the officially nonpartisan fundraisers America Coming Together and other George Soros-funded entities.
"Too liberal," says Dix.
"I'm not saying it's bad to funnel votes to the Democratic Party," says Salaam. "There was a lot of money put into organizing young people and the activists, but what was the purpose? I thought we were creating a hip-hop president."
One tangible product of the convention, besides possible voters, was a five-point national agenda put forth by the delegates as a whole. The process of producing the three-page document, still not completed at press time, was grisly, and perhaps reflecting what goes on in legislative chambers when special interests battle it out.
Pittsburgh was actually one of the last Local Organizing Committees to come to the national table. Most all other LOCs had been campaigning for months and, as a condition of becoming delegates, had registered at least 50 voters for each member. Since Mosley, the Pittsburgh LOC chair, had learned of the convention late, he had just weeks to put a team together. They will be allowed to fulfill their voter-registration requirement after the convention.
Upon linking with Mega and the Philly LOC, the state's corps assembled to tweak its five-point state agenda, agreeing on four items: education, economic empowerment, criminal justice and health. Mosley, Dix and the Community Empowerment Association delegates succeeded in adding public transit over Philly's push for international affairs, but turning the state's items into a national agenda proved more difficult. It was a battle fought in a hotel room one night, from 8 p.m. until 4:30 in the morning. At the end of the morning, while public transportation did not make the final agenda with education, economic justice, criminal justice, health and human rights, Mosley fought successfully for an education provision that's sensitive to Pittsburgh's public school problems: curricular cultural diversity and relevancy.
"This was probably the first time they ever went through parliamentary procedure," says Mosley of these hip-hop statesmen. "This is how government works. We have to understand the rules of the game -- you don't step on the football field without your helmet on. Cats can freestyle off the dome, so we're great orators. Why not understand parliamentary procedure?"
Although the African-American vote in the presidential election rose 4 percent from 1996 to 2000, people ages 18 to 24 have the lowest voting rate -- 32 percent. A third of the American electorate is part of the hip-hop generation, says convention co-chair Baye Wilson, but most of them didn't vote in the last presidential election either.
Mosley believes a solid hip-hop voting bloc can be formed locally to swing next year's mayoral elections. Since fewer than 600 votes decided the last mayoral vote, Mosley and the Pittsburgh LOC want to register at least 1,000 hip-hop-age voters in the next 12 months.
"The hip-hop generation isn't that political," cautions Mosley, who also aspires to a rap career. "And by that I mean not just being aware of issues, but talking about national and international affairs, understanding zoning laws, voter materials, governmental and public policy in all its forms. That's why people like myself and David [Dix] are out there. That's what this was all about -- people like ourselves who have two feet firmly planted in politics and hip hop."