Five days ago, Russell Simmons and his Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) cancelled their much-ballyhooed March on New York, which was originally set for today, coinciding with the opening of the Republican National Convention. I’ve always said privately—but I’ll say it here now—that this “action” was always only sound and fury, and signified nothing more than a blatant headline grab. That’s unfortunate because Russell Simmons is one of the few people who could mobilize the fractured Hip-Hop nation, educate them about the issues both on and off the ballot that will be decided in this election, and leverage the cultural capital that holds sway over a generation.

Instead, what we’re left with is a statement that reads like it was dictated over a cell phone. Here’s part of it:

[D]ue to increased security measures and safety concerns around the Republican National Convention and the timing of the MTV Video Music Awards in Miami where a number of the leading hip-hop artists will be, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network has decided not to participate in the March on New York: Still We Rise. The large-scale march that we had originally planned, given these circumstances, is not now feasible.

We wish, however, the Still We Rise Coalition all the best for success in their mobilization, march and assembly on August 30th and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network will make a donation to Still We Rise in support of them for their march. HSAN looks forward to continuing its work to increase public awareness around the unfairness of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

In no particular order, here are some thoughts that come to mind both after reading this and wrestling with my issues about HSAN and its efforts over the last few months.

1. How cynical! Is there no other way to motivate young people to show up to a purportedly political event other than by dangling celebrities? Of course there are, but there’s significantly more work involved and I’m not sure HSAN was willing to do it.
2. What happened to the other issues that were to be raised, at least according to their press releases back in April? What about the need to fund deprived schools? What about voter registration? Chalk these inconsistencies up to sloppy PR handling.
3. Should we be surprised that after a decade of taking the “Fuck the world” attitude and swagger to the Nth degree, that most Hip-Hop artists are not socially or politically active?
4. A follow-on to #3: What we should find in particularly enlightening that these same rappers—all of whom swear they live lives out of the Robb Report—can’t hop on their private planes and show up for an event at least as important as receiving a moon man at the VMAs.
5. A follow-on to #4: Why didn’t the board, comprised of the heads of major urban labels, press their artists into service for such an event, even if it did fall the day after the VMAs?
6. If HSAN’s message is so important, why not hold the rally without the celebs? Six other organizations planned activities for this week.
7. A follow-on to #5: HSAN seems to insist on going it alone. It’s surprising that no one thought to combine Russell’s ability to reach the Hip-Hop generation and then bring them together with organizations like moveon.org or indyvoter.org. Not only would these young people be registered to vote, they’d learn how they could affect change in their local communities. Rockefeller Laws couldn’t stand up to that.
8. It’s more that just being registered to vote. It’s about affecting meaningful change via electoral participation and getting people to fully reengage in our democracy. Unfortunately, it seems that the scam was this: HSAN dangles celebrities in front of people in order to get their personal information so that they could be market CDs and related merchandise to them at a later date. Okay, that may not be the case, but I’m cynical, at least as far as HSAN is concerned.

So how do you market social change? 100 million people opted out of the last election. Many of these people are members of the Hip Hop generation who did so because they felt, and continue to feel, that voting changes absolutely nothing. So, what they need to know are the tools that will enable them to make a difference. This is the beauty of organizations like indyvoter.org and MoveOn.org: They provide practical steps ordinary people can take to get involved, such as 50 Ways to Love Your Country. Most importantly, they help answer the question “What can I do?”

It doesn’t require a celebrity to make social change. Consumers are in charge. If they can skip commercials and obliterate billions of dollars in advertising, they can, if they only put their minds to it, repeal laws that they disagree with, demand adequate funding for schools or otherwise positively affecting public policy in a way that is truly in synch with this country’s democratic ideals.

HSAN’s full statement on the cancellation of the march is here.

My earlier reference to Russell Simmons is here.

Posted by Rob Fields

  • Sad, but consistent with what I’ve always believed about Hip Hop as a nation: it’s values are no deeper than it’s momentary grooves, which are actually virtual, not even pressed in vinyl anymore.

  • Bo Sandine

    While I was initially reluctant to this story because of the “fractured hip-hop nation” line, I believe that the author of this blog makes several valid points. My sole challenge is to the point about having to dangle celebrities to get kids to these types of events. While Generation Y is clearly more cause conscious than its Gen X predecessors, you still need to break through the clutter and using rap stars to draw young crowds accomplishes this.
    I have mixed feelings about moguls such as Rush and P Diddy. I think they are profit hungry yet do mean to do many things that are positive. The lure of Miami and the VMAs were probably too strong – witness P Diddy’s entrance on a cruise ship! While the author’s point that this missed opportunity was a crucial one is air tight, it is not the only time that voter registration was on the hip-hop leaders’ agenda. At other rallies, many new voters were added to the ranks.
    As we all know, the VMAs are the Super Bowl for teens and young adults. The VMAs were bombarded with “Vote or Die” and “get out and vote” messages. I would argue that many more impressions were made via that show than would have been in NYC. However, the author’s telling inclusion of past PR by Simmons and others shows that the moguls’ word may not be bond.

  • Bill Francis

    As someone who was one of the hundreds of thousands who marched for peace and an end to the Bush era, last weekend, I offer the author serious props for the thoughtful and articulate pan of Simmons’ last-hour abandonment of his much-hyped hip-hop March on New York.
    Simmons is the hip-hop counterpart of what author Norman Kelly recently coined “The Head Negro In Charge Syndrome” which has held the black community’s social and political agenda hostage for more than a decade. Pseudo Black icons like Simmons, who are more interested in hyping and protecting their media profiles and Crystal lifestyles than leading any movements for real change. Until they are challenged by a strong Black critique, the Black community will continue to be more and more marginalized.
    When hip-hop had a chance to keep its soul, after falling prey to Madison Avenue and gangsta pretenders, Simmons, the genre’s most powerful figure, steadfastly defended the thug life which disses the values of education, civility and respect for women so needed among our Black young. It’s all very sad considering that hip-hop once was a revolutionary cultural phenomenon, like the bebop of the 40s. Who, now, believes that hip-hop still is about anything that matters.