FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
This is News & Notes, I'm Farai Chideya.
"All of this happened because of you." That line comes from an email message that Senator Barack Obama sent to supporters a week ago, just before he took the stage as president-elect in Chicago's Grant Park. And he owes a lot to young voters.
We're going to talk about the youth vote with Valeisha Butterfield, she's executive director of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, an advocacy group founded by music producer Russell Simmons. And we've also got Bakari Kitwana, author of the book "The Hip Hop Generation," and founder and CEO of Rap Sessions. Rap Sessions put together a series of town hall meetings this year on issues facing the hip-hop generation. Hi, guys.
Ms. VALEISHA BUTTERFIELD (Executive Director, Hip-Hop Summit Action Network): Hello.
Mr. BAKARI KITWANA (Founder and CEO, Rap Sessions): Hi, how are you?
CHIDEYA: I'm doing great. So Valeisha, let me start with you. We've had on Russell Simmons several times to talk about what he does, and yet, there are so many questions about what exactly it is like to try to get young people to vote who don't want to vote. Because I think that's something that comes up a lot in, you know, in various communities, that people have all sorts of reasons that they think that voting doesn't matter.
Give me an example, if you had a chance to talk to someone who really believed that voting didn't matter, and what you said to that person.
Ms. BUTTERFIELD: As we've traveled the country in the last eight years we've talked to people directly, face-to-face, young adults between 18 and 29 years old, and what we've found is that there is a resounding thought and belief that politicians in Washington, D.C. do not care about the youth vote and what matters to young people. And, you know, rather they play politics and are controlled by Washington, D.C. So I think young adults really felt like their voice didn't matter and their vote didn't count, and therefore they just didn't - they didn't - you know, the apathy was there and they just didn't turn out.
CHIDEYA: So what did you do to try to turn folks around? Because the youth vote did work - rather, there was a strong youth turnout this time around.
Ms. BUTTERFIELD: Absolutely. We found that it was a matter of translation, how the message and how the important points were translated to the young adults. So rather than hearing it from someone like, you know, a Washington politician or you or I, instead we leveraged them and utilized our relationships with hip-hop artists, those who young adults looked up to, respected and followed, to translate that message for us and be the messenger of what the real issues were in the election. Civic engagement, why it's important, why it's important to register to vote, but most importantly, go out to the polls.
And it really worked. It connected with the young people. But I think in this election we found more than ever that the issues really mattered, and young adults resonated with those issues. So that combined with the celebrity aspect for us really helped young adults get excited, but most importantly, helped us sustain that momentum all the way until November the 4th.
CHIDEYA: Bakari, you went from someone who wrote a book about the hip-hop generation and helped define it to someone who's really done a lot of studies about this group of people. And you actually talk about how it's - there are different sub-segments. So before I get to the sub-segments, overall, how do you think the hip-hop generation did this time around at the polls?
Mr. KITWANA: I think the hip-hop generation has continued to increase their participation. It was up in 2004 from 2000, up in 2006 and again in 2008. So I think we've seen a steady increase. I think a lot of the catalyst for that has been hip-hop amongst young people, just making voting and politics more fashionable.
I think we saw the "Will.I.am" video this year. The 2004 video that M&M did, "Mosh," I think was even more political and had as significant an impact. It just was not seen as widely felt in the mainstream culture.
CHIDEYA: Well that video, I remember the video "Mosh" that M&M did, but it came out so late in the campaign.
Mr. KITWANA: Right. But do you think overall that it really does make a difference? Both of you have analyzed or dealt directly with the issue of celebrity. Do you think it really does make a difference to people, say between 18 and 29, to know that celebrities support their political participation?
Mr. KITWANA: I think that it makes a difference in terms of - I think that hip-hop artists, most certainly, I think, have a way of making things seem cool or fashionable. I think that's a catalyst. I don't know to what extent we could contribute the turnout in this election to hip-hop alone, because I think that Barack is such a - Barack Obama, Senator Obama, now President-elect Obama is such a figure that motivates and inspires, that we saw just a huge turn-out across the board.
So I think there are women groups that want to take credit for this election, there are hip-hop groups that want to take credit and others, but I think that just the candidacy and the way the issues were framed had a lot to do with it also.
CHIDEYA: Valeisha, what do you think?
Ms. BUTTERFIELD: Absolutely. If we just look at the facts for a moment, over 22 million young Americans, as you said, between 18 and 29 years old, voted in this election, and it was the second highest youth voter turnout that we've seen in American history. So we can't give hip-hop or celebrities all of the credit. You know, although we've seen an increase of the years in each election cycle in youth participation, and that has had a lot to do with celebrities and their involvement. This year and last week was really historical for all of us, and you can't point the finger, as he just said, to one group or one segment. It has really been a collective effort. And the message, I mean, you know, Senator, or President-elect Obama received the youth vote two-to-one over McCain in this election.
So I think his message really stuck and resonated. The young people felt connected to it. So the celebrities helped, no doubt. But, you know, we had the "Vote or Die" campaigns, we had the Hip-Hop Summit in 2004, but in this election cycle we just broke through all expectations, and it had a lot to do with the overall just expectations of this country and the need and desire for young people to really seek change.
CHIDEYA: All right. I want to bring someone else in the conversation. We've got Derrick Ashong. He is a musician, does not belong to any political party and he spent more than a year trying to convince voters to support Barack Obama. First he used music, then he got caught on tape or was participating on tape having a heated conversation with a reporter about health care. We have a little bit of that conversation. Take a listen.
(Soundbite of taped conversation)
Mr. DERRICK ASHONG (Musician, Barack Obama Supporter): There hasn't been the political will, that's been the big problem.
Unidentified Reporter: Is it the political or the economic will?
Mr. ASHONG: It's a combination of both. But I think if you've got the political will, you have people who are courageous enough to take a stand, and that's one of the things I like about Senator Obama. I think that he's courageous enough to try new things. And that's not to take something away from the other candidates, but I feel like you're having the same old stuff tried, tried, tried again, and it's not working. We need something different.
CHIDEYA: All right. Derrick, so you've got so far over a million hits on YouTube for sort of laying out your policy analysis. So hey, that's a great accomplishment in and of itself. But what kind of responses did you get from people, particularly younger voters or potential voters, when they were responding to what you said?
Mr. ASHONG: I had a really positive response, actually. One of the biggest things I kept hearing was kind of almost like a thank you, because at the time there was all of this discourse around the idea that Senator Obama was a rock star politician, all style, no substance. And people were implying that young voters were drawn to the mystique around him as opposed to his actual policies. And this kind of worked towards dispelling that myth that a new generation of voters didn't know what was going on.
I think the other thing that was really cool for me to hear back from people is that they felt that they understood the issue, in that case health care, better after watching the clip. So all in all I feel like it was a positive moment as far as my support of the candidate and as far as like, just representing a different analysis of the role of youth and understanding of youth about what is going on in the campaign.
CHIDEYA: I just want to reintroduce a couple of the other people we have in the conversation. We've also got Valeisha Butterfield, executive director of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, and we have Bakari Kitwana, author of "The Hip Hop Generation," founder of Rap Sessions.
When you think about it from your perspective, Derrick, you are someone who does use your music to really talk about social issues, as well as being able to talk about them yourself. What do you think, as a performer, is the value of using music and other forms of art to really address political issues?
Mr. KITWANA: I think that's a great question. Bob Marley had a quote that I always love to hearken back to, and that is, "One good thing about music: When it hits, you feel no pain." And I've always felt that one of the problems we've had historically in this country, at least in the last, you know, 20 years or so, is that there isn't a lot of dialogue between people on the red state/blue state side of the divide, right? So sometimes people will act like other Americans are virtually aliens.
And the funny thing about music is, we can rock a party in Manhattan and the next week be playing in Wyoming, and people are equally receptive because they're not assuming that I'm coming here to plug a candidate or a particular issue, but that I'm sharing something that is creative and that they can buy in to.
Now, once these people get a chance to commune with you and see what you're all about and see what you're singing about, they're going to be much more open to a dialogue to just about anything than if I came there with an Obama sticker on my shirt. Which is not say that we don't need people on the ground working for the campaigns, but it is to say that I think that artists need to move beyond paying almost lip service to supporting candidates, and actually start creating music that reflects the best of what we want to see in society, as opposed to simply what we think will sell.
CHIDEYA: Valeisha, there's been - we've had all sorts of different artists on this show. David Banner came on and talked to us about politics and, you know, straight ahead politics, hip-hop politics and all that. But there's been a lot of critique that hip-hop has drifted away from being a form of relevant social critique and dialogue. How do you address what hip-hop can be or should be as you do the work that you do? And do the people who work with you as artists who go out on the road or come to your events to speak, do they have to be people who have shown appreciation for political lyrics as well as political action?
Ms. BUTTERFIELD: What we've found is that the artists that we work with - and we have a vast network of not only hip-hop artists but professional athletes and actors and actresses and across the board - and we found is that their art form often times reflects the harsh realities that people deal with and face every single day in their communities throughout the nation. So we never want to sensor an artist that we work with, and we try not to be discriminatory in who we allow to participate on our panels and to get young people encouraged to vote. As long as the message is something that is positive or at least honest and a true depiction of what we feel does exist in society.
But we do always encourage the artists that we work with to take that responsibility, seek a higher message and hopefully put out a more relevant message that young people can connect with, but also aspire to be better. So we never just want to wallow in self-pity or whatever the situation or economic circumstances are. But we do encourage and challenge not only the artist, but the constituents that we have to aspire to be better, and we believe that they're headed in that direction, and this was evidenced last week.
CHIDEYA: Bakari, let me turn back to you. You are someone, again, who's been tracking the hip-hop generation. You also see there being some sub-segments within the hip-hop generation. Tell me a little bit about what you see in terms of demographics.
Mr. KITWANA: Right. I start to talk about this in some detail in my book, "Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop." And that is, there are two generations born after the civil rights movement. There's the hip-hop generation, people born between 1965 and 1984, and then there's a younger generation, many of whom are between the ages of 18 and 24 right now.
And so you have these two generations, and I think that when we talk about electoral politics and we talk about voting, a lot of time we just talk about young people in general and we're not making distinctions. I think that we're starting to see some subtle shifts between the views of these two generations, and I think the 18 to 24 and a little bit older set, they are a little bit more politically savvy than members of the hip-hop generation.
And in our survey that we did, "Understanding the Hip-Hop Voting Bloc," which came out a week before the election, they found - we found that 18- to 24-year-olds were 90 percent more likely to say race didn't matter in their choice for president, whereas you got into the 25- to 34-year-old set, the number dropped to 81.
And so you're starting to see some subtle differences between these two age groups in terms of the issues that matter to them, in terms of who they wanted to see in the White House and what they want to see the president focus on after the inauguration.
CHIDEYA: Derrick, when you think about - you've been very successful using some unconventional means like the YouTube success to really reach out to people. But now there's the whole question of how do you hold politicians accountable for being available to members of younger generations. Do you have any thoughts? Because it sounds like you're essentially a political Independent who felt passionately about Senator Obama's candidacy. Do you have any ideas about how you can hold this man who was just elected to the White House accountable?
Mr. ASHONG: Absolutely. I think that there are a couple of things. One is, his constituents, the kind of ground - grassroots base that the Obama campaign built is something that really hasn't been seen in American politics prior to this time. And I think that that same network that was so effective in raising money and getting the word out and actually knocking on doors and making phone calls can be used to lobby on critical issues that the campaign wants to get done. Particularly, lobbying Congress to make sure that the White House and Congress are hopefully on accord on some key issues.
At the same time, I think that we've got this massive opportunity right now with so many young people excited and thinking about the political arena and wondering what their next step could be, to do actually do something to solve potentially, or at least help address two problems within the country. Namely, this sort of quote unquote red state-blue state divide, and also some of the issues in our lagging educational system.
And I think we really should take these young people and set up an internal Peace Corps, where we can say to a college student, look, you can go and spend a semester quote unquote "abroad," but if you're going to school in Massachusetts, we're going to send you spend a semester in Birmingham. If you're from Atlanta, we're going to send you to spend a semester in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And you will have the opportunity to actually work with kids in that community as an after-school teacher, as a teacher's assistant, working on special programs.
It gives these students, the college students, the opportunity to see how people live in other parts of this country. Because as I've traveled around I've noticed that kids we talk to in Minnesota, many of them have never been to Brooklyn, they have no idea what life is really like on the East Coast, and vice versa. And if you were to do that, not only do you help to bridge the divide, but you now start providing some resources to support our educational system as well.
CHIDEYA: All right. Well we're going to have to end it here, but I think we're going to have to have all of you guys back on again soon. Thank you.
Mr. ASHONG: Thank you.
Ms. BUTTERFIELD: Thank you so much.
Mr. KITWANA: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: We were speaking to Valeisha Butterfield, executive director of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, Bakari Kitwana, founder and CEO of Rap Sessions, he joined us from the studios of WBEZ in Chicago, and also speaking to Derrick Ashong, political activist and member of the band Soul Frege. And he also has a song called "From the Soul," which we're going to listen to in a second. He and Valeisha joined us from our studios in New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.