The Hip Hop Caucus is a national and international coalition of hip-hop, social and political organizations, community-based organizations, youth leadership organizations, and individuals who believe in the collective power of persons born after 1964. The organization, led by Rev. Lennox Yearwood, has helped spearhead a number of campaigns to engage the hip hop generation including The Hip Hop Summit Action Network with Russell Simmons, P-Diddy’s Citizen Change, and Jay Z’s Voice Your Choice. Voting is once again on the agenda as Hip hop Vote 2008 is slated to launch this summer. In addition, the organization has created programs and drives to help Hurricane Katrina victims, the homeless and to foster youth leadership in urban communities.
Currently Rev. Yearwood and his followers are traveling the country on the “Make Hip Hop, Not War” Tour urging young people on college campuses and in urban communities to call for an immediate end to the war in Iraq. We caught up with the good Reverend, in the midst of his many initiatives, to learn more about the Hip Hop Caucus’ creation, its purpose and use of hip hop to encourage social and political action.
Website: Hip Hop Caucus
Halftimeonline: Tell me a bit about the Hip Hop Caucus, how it got started and your overall mission.
Rev. Lennox Yearwood: The Hip hop Caucus was started on September 11th, 2004. It started out as a collaboration of a number of youth and hip hop organizations who recognized after the 2004 election that we really needed wanted to have an inside / outside approach to Capitol Hill. We were getting people out to vote which was critical but we really weren’t working politics. We weren’t pushing bills or finding out what bills were passing so the caucus was formed recognizing that importance. It was formed during the congressional black caucus of that year. In March 2005 I became the president and CEO of the caucus and we’ve been moving ever since. We were pretty much a political organization but on August 29th 2005 we became a political and human rights organization because of Hurricane Katrina. That was like our lunch counter moment of the hip hop generation. We were able to move on that issue because we were flexible and recognized that racism and poverty existed in the 21st century. Since then we have been able to grow to deal with poverty, racism and war.
Halftimeonline: I’d suspect that people not apart of or familiar with hip hop culture would generally balk at dealing with an organization that touts close ties hip hop as one of its main characteristics. What type of reactions did you get as you began to approach congress?
Rev. Yearwood: Truthfully and honestly, we got laughed at when we first mentioned hip hop politics. They didn’t take us seriously. They looked at the Hip Hop Caucus like, ‘˜Hey, that’s cute and it’s nice that you’re getting involved with the process.’ There wasn’t anyone really taking our generation, people born after 1964, seriously. That was because of a lot of reasons. We learned during Hurricane Katrina that a lot of our institutions had become institutionalized as well as our generation had really not been organizing and mobilizing to get out the word. That’s also compounded by the fact that the black community isn’t as involved as it needs to be. Sometimes politics is seen like hockey and golf, not really for black people. We’ve been changing that because we recognize that the people making decisions dealing with education, healthcare and housing have a direct impact on our community. We have a person like Benny Thompson, who is in charge of Homeland Security, asking, ‘œWhose homes are secure?’ So it has been very powerful.
Halftimeonline: What ways do you feel the culture helps put forth your messages?
Rev. Yearwood: By the nature of our ages we will be able to communicate certain things to people. We are on that same level. We are also able to use some of the techniques that actually work great for hip hop from the marketing to the messaging so we use all of those facets. One of the things we must deal with as the hip hop community is that we are more than music. The civil rights generation wasn’t called the Motown generation [but the music was very important]. Right now we are in the position where we need to move forward for the struggle of our people and we need artists who are much more aligned for people than for profit. So we need the Harry Belefonte’s and the Dick Gregory’s who were there for Dr. King and we need the Muhammad Ali’s who were there for Malcolm X. Unfortunately, what happens is that a lot of people think the hip hop community has a lot of money because they see certain artists. That’s like saying the civil rights movement was rich because they had Smokey Robinson. Back then you wouldn’t have thought that because you would have known that everybody wasn’t on the same page and those who fought for justice at that time weren’t in the same place. For instance we’re on this bus tour and when people hear Hip Hop Caucus and they assume we have a lot of money but it’s not that way. It’s just like it was in the 60s and 70s when the Black Panthers were organizing. Nothing has changed. You have people who realize that their time in the struggle is now.
Halftimeonline: Talk to me about your current campaign the ‘œThe “Make Hip Hop Not War” National Tour. The tour’s goal is to help young people realize their political power and make a stand on the Iraq war. Various campaigns such as ‘œVote or Die,’ have encouraged with some success to have young voters come out and voice their opinion. However, with Bush back in office it seems like people feel even more so that they can’t make a difference. How are you addressing those feelings and what is an example of one way you are trying to help the youth understand how much power they can wield?
Rev. Yearwood: A lot of people started off talking about election protection. What’s more important than that is voter protection. That means starting from the beginning and getting people to understand that democracy only works when everyone is involved and our issues are on the table. Voters have a right to be upset. Last year was a great example in the progressive community. In 2006, we went out looking for voter disfranchisement with videos and cameras and people found out that like in 2000 and 2004 there were people being disfranchised during the process. This time you heard ‘œWe won, so it’s ok’ but there was still injustice in this past election. That can’t be the case. That’s why it’s critical for people of color to unify themselves not just around a ballot box but around specific issues. One of the reasons the ‘œMake Hip Hop Not War’ tour is so important is for that very reason. The resources spent on communities are gone. When you have a immoral, unjust war the resources that should be going to scholarships, community centers, senior centers, hospitals and playgrounds [are being spent on the war effort].
Halftimeonline: I know the tour has just begun but what has been the response from the communities that you have reached so far?
Rev. Yearwood: It’s amazing. It’s been a mix. On one hand we were able to dispel a lot of myths about the hip hop community. We’re not the Motown generation or a civil rights generation; we’re a human rights generation. Another myth is that our generation has the path of least resistance. Our parents had to fight Jim Crow but we have to fight Jim Crow’s son James Crow Jr. Esquire. James has a law degree, works in the World Bank, listens to and produces hip hop, and works for the media outlets. He is much more sophisticated. Jim Crow wouldn’t let you cross the bridge. James will let you cross the bridge but once you get there there are no schools or opportunities on the other side. On this tour we had to dispel the myth that we can’t do anything. On the other hand it’s been very powerful because the response has been, ‘œWhere have you been? We’ve been waiting for the standards to be set.’ Have you seen Sean Bell? Have you seen poverty rates? Have you seen Katrina? I think the people are really excited. Do they take us seriously? I don’t know but we are working extremely hard. While it is very tiring I will tell you this I would put up our activists up against any SNCC activists you ever saw in the 60s and I’m sure they would be the same way saying go ahead and fight on m young brothers and sisters.
Halftimeonline: One of the other programs you will be kicking off later this summer is Hip Hop Vote 2008. What lessons did you learn working to register voters in 2004 that will be important to apply this year?
Rev. Yearwood: What we learned is that we have to do a lot better is that we continue to have a continuity of the process. A lot of times you had situations where people went out to vote and we didn’t stick with them. We have to show them that it’s more than a vote that we are ready to fight. With Katrina the Hip Hop Caucus just emerged. A lot of our people ended up getting arrested. People got arrested protesting the war. We’re also looking at the long term process. We’re looking at 2020 as a day when the Hip Hop Caucus has members in congress. We’re looking at a day when we will have organized and mobilized for the next twelve years.
Halftimeonline: What are your thoughts on Barack Obama’s chances?
Rev. Yearwood: Barack Obama is very interesting. On one hand there are people who are proud to have a candidate of color taken seriously. At the same time as we become much more sophisticated we know that having a black face in a high place is just not going to cut it. So we recognize that while we are very happy that there are black candidates that can be taken seriously that black candidate will be judged on the issues that face black communities. The black community must survive more than the black candidate. It is not what are we going to do for Barack Obama but what is Barack Obama going to do for us.
Halftimeonline: You have a number of initiatives including programs for the homeless, Katrina victims, and leadership development. Where else will we be seeing the Hip Hop Caucus making a difference?
Rev. Yearwood: We’re enjoying this time. People have called us a modern day Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and we wear that with a badge of honor. We’re just going to continue to fight for people of color and that’s key. A lot of institutions have become institutionalized. It’s unfortunate. They don’t have the same power and have become more worried about funding for injustice than about fighting the injustice.
Halftimeonline: Now you’ve said you are a hip hop connoisseur. So I gotta ask who are some of the artists you grew up on and who are you checking for today?
Rev. Yearwood: I was very fortunate. I grew up on KRS, Public Enemy, Black Thought, Tupac & Biggie. They all really spoke to me at different times. I understand that with hip hop today we’re not going to get ‘œI’m Black and I’m Proud’ but we’ll get ‘œPass the Courvoisier.’ That’s a problem but there are artists that are beginning to recognize that this is freedom music just like when they used to sing ‘œDown by the River Side.’ That song didn’t have anything to do with gospel. It was a road map so the master wouldn’t know where you were but you could get the hell off that plantation. It was freedom music and we still need that today. We need people putting codes and messages within their music so people can hear the messages and be like, ‘œOk, I know what to do now.’ We need rappers talking about the World Bank or even this is how you do job interviews or whatever. We have to get back to thinking like that again. We need freedom music because our people are dying.