Can't fight this power
From Baghdad to Baltimore, Big Boi, Young Jeezy and countless upstart
rappers are changing the world.

By Ryan J. Smith and Swati Pandey
researchers on The Times' editorial pages.
[LA Times]

Tomorrow's most powerful political voice won't be yammering on CNN.

Tune in to your iPod.

In 1939, Billie Holiday crooned against the lynching of black men in
her banned song "Strange Fruit" (MP3 (00:37) ). In 1969, Jimi Hendrix's
version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" blasted peaceniks out of their
drug dreams and into the streets. Then, in 1989, came Public Enemy's "Fight
the Power": MP3 (00:41)
Got to give us what we want
Gotta give us what we need
Our freedom of speech is freedom or death
We got to fight the powers that be
That inchoate shout of rage against all forms of oppression is growing
into a force of real potential. The hip-hop nation has gone global, and
it's going to change the world.

It wasn't Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson or Louis Farrakhan who cranked up
debate about bigotry in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It was Kanye
West's "Bush doesn't care about black people."

Michael Moore's a mere whiner compared to Eminem, who raps: MP3 (01:23)
Strap [Bush] with an AK-47
Let him go fight his own war
Let him impress daddy that way
No more blood for oil.
And listen to poet and singer Jill Scott as she rails: MP3 (00:28)
Video cameras locked on me
In every dressing room ...
You neglect to see
The drugs coming into my community
Weapons coming into my community
Dirty cops in my community

Crispin Sartwell, a political science teacher at Dickinson College,
says of the phenomenon: "If Thomas Paine or Karl Marx were [here] today,
they might be issuing records rather than pamphlets." Consider:

West's words inspired Mississippi rapper David Banner and radio
powerhouses including Big Boi of Outkast and Young Jeezy to play a
concert in Atlanta to support Hurricane Katrina victims.

The Hip Hop Caucus, based in Washington, helped organize a march with
black politicians into Gretna, La., to protest police efforts to keep
Katrina refugees out of the mostly white city.

Hip-hop organizations such as the National Political Hip Hop Convention
started large-scale voter registration drives in 2004, and thousands of
young men and women donned Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' "Vote or Die" shirts
while voting for the first time.

Russell Simmons' Hip Hop Summit Action Network mobilized 100,000
students, teachers, parents and hip-hop stars in a successful fight to
repeal a proposed budget cut to New York City schools. Mayor Michael
Bloomberg said the protest helped change his mind on the issue (and
presumably helped persuade him to seek Simmons' endorsement in his
reelection campaign). Simmons' group also registered 2 million young
people to vote and estimates that 1.3 million of them voted.

Think these efforts are just marketing schemes? The Center for
Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, an
organization that follows voting trends, reported that in the 2004
elections "youth turnout increased substantially, and much of this
increase was driven by an increase in voting among African American
youth." A similar voting bloc helped reelect Kwame Kilpatrick in
— the nation's first "hip-hop mayor."

But hip-hop's greater potential comes from its technology-fueled
border-hopping power, with the Internet and iPods plugging the beat
straight into the minds of U.S. military personnel in Baghdad and
militant young Muslims alike. Globally, hip-hop merchandising, by one
industry estimate, seduces $10 billion from an estimated 45 million
consumers ages 13 to 34. Listeners have an annual spending power of $1
trillion, according to Forbes magazine. The genre is defining the war
in Iraq the way psychedelic rock shaped our memories of the Vietnam War —
not only because it has become the music of protest but because it is
the language of the soldiers, who make it themselves on simple equipment.
Words over a beat.

Michael Tucker's documentary, "Gunner Palace," tracks 400 troops lodged
in Uday Hussein's former digs as they spend their time off
free-styling, beat-boxing and drumming on tanks:
IEDs be going off while we out on patrol
scrap metal be ripping through your skin and your bones
Muslim and Jewish Israelis rhyme about the intifada.

In Britain, the Asian Dub Foundation sings about Tony Blair's
entanglement in Iraq, while Ms. Dynamite gives hip-hop a feminist
MP3 (01:16)
How could you beat your woman till you see tears?
Got your children living in fear.
How you gonna wash the blood from your hands?
Hip-hop came naturally to most of Africa, where people know all about
putting stories to a drum beat. In 2000, Senegalese rappers, who
compare their craft to tasso storytelling, helped end the 20-year rule of
President Abdou Diouf and continue their political efforts by
organizing rallies against the mass unemployment and corruption that plague their country. In Ukraine, the band Greenjolly strung protest chants over a
beat — the anthem of the Orange Revolution. And during last month's
Azerbaijani elections, rappers warmed up the crowd at Freedom bloc

Hip-hop travels like no other music. Any rapper can use a computer to
layer an American beat under a native melody and a rap about local
politics. With every rapper who turns from "bling-bling" to protest,
hip-hop comes closer to being a global force for change.

This political potential revealed itself in the recent riots that
shuddered through French suburbs. Young people from these immigrant
ghettoes, like Disiz la Peste, have been rapping about neglect and
hopelessness for a decade:

For France it matters nothing what I do
In its mind I will always be
Just a youth from the banlieue
Disiz spoke out against the rioting recently — "Burning cars and
schools, it only harms ourselves because it's happening in front of our own
homes" — while still calling France out for inequality of opportunity.

Hip-hop leadership in the making.

Can hip-hop overcome its occasional embrace of the thug life and
"bling-bling" image and become a true political movement? Of course.
It's ready to take on failing schools, the effects of drugs, the despair of
a low-wage economy, warfare on city streets and on foreign battlefields.
The imagined world of get-rich-quick schemes and candy-colored
Escalades is not credible. The calls for accountability are.

Kanye West's Bush remark stated a perception fed by the reality of the
administration's policies. Speaking truth to power, igniting passion
and inspiring people to action — this is when music has always been most

Hip-hop is a global party with a platform that's just beginning to take
shape. What it already has is a mike and millions of ears.

[LA Times]