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A Politician Who Runs on Hip-Hop

Detroit mayor's use of rap lures young voters and suggests the music has electoral juice.

May 11, 2003|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — Amid thundering rap music and the cheers of 8,000 young fans, the handsome star moved to center stage and, the way hip-hop heroes usually do, called out the name of that night's arena crowd. "What's up, Detroit? What's up, Detroit?"

The man at the microphone, though, was no rapper. He was Kwame M. Kilpatrick, the elected leader of this city and, according to his introduction at this rally, "America's hip-hop mayor." That description makes the 32-year-old Kilpatrick roll his eyes -- it is too limiting to his taste, too gimmicky for a man trying to cure problems in a famously troubled metropolis -- but he acknowledges there is some truth and power to the singular title.

Rap music is already one of the most potent forces in American youth culture, and its imprint has changed the rhythms in film, advertising, fashion and television. Some observers look here and wonder if this youthful mayor -- the one who had a rap campaign song and loves to quote the gritty street parables of Tupac Shakur -- represents the arrival of hip-hop in a major elected office. Could the administration of Kwame M. Kilpatrick become a template for using the music-based culture to marshal young votes?

At the arena appearance last month, for an event billed as a "hip-hop summit," the towering Kilpatrick hailed the local energy of rap, youth and inner-city political activism, and said it could be a model for urban hubs across the nation.

"Detroit," the mayor announced to loud cheers, "is a shining example in this world of revolutionary change." It was the type of speech that helped Kilpatrick energize his youthful constituency, as evidenced by a 40% increase in turnout among voters ages 18 to 40 from the previous mayoral race.

Still, campaigning and leading are different tasks. Kilpatrick's 16-month reign in the nation's 10th-largest city has been an uneven affair.

He has won points for a reorganization of the city's police department, the creation of volunteer programs and the reviving of a lucrative casino development deal. But he has also been criticized for running fast and loose with his facts, being disorganized and grinding the gears when it comes to dealing with personalities within Detroit's powerful, corporate old guard. One local political consultant, who asked not to be identified, said the mayor "tells everyone what he wants the truth to be, not what the actual truth is."

That may be partisan sniping, but Kilpatrick's critics, his supporters and even the mayor himself agree that the leader of Detroit is an impatient man.

To the rap fans at the Cobo Arena summit, though, Kilpatrick's words sound more like youthful urgency. Watching the crowd's embrace of Kilpatrick, visiting U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) wondered when hip-hop would find its way into other corners of U.S. politics.

"I think that this mayor has an opportunity to help forge a new political agenda, and he has an opportunity to bring a lot of young people into politics," Waters said. "Much of hip-hop culture is born out of rap about conditions of the cities, the problems, the police abuse and all of that. The rappers have helped to describe what's wrong in our society and the need to address it. That's a natural lead to politics and public policy. Now with people like the mayor becoming part of the political process, it should all come together, to converge."

There are skeptics. David Bositis, executive director of the Center for Joint Political and Economic Studies, said music can add sizzle to a campaign, but that hip-hop, at its core, is not in tune with activism. "Hip-hop is individualistic," Bositis said. "It seems to be fixated on material gain and enterprise. I don't think you see in this music the sort of themes or messages that bring people together for common cause."

Noted social critic Stanley Crouch is even more dismissive of rap-as-politics, although he is a fan of Kilpatrick's budding political career.

"What's political about a platinum necklace or rapping about a woman taking her drawers off? It's like Dick and Jane with dirty words; it's not a very complex art form or much of anything," Crouch said. "But this mayor is a very, very intelligent and impressive man. If he can use it to say something important, like to stop shooting each other or stay in school and stop being a co-conspirator in their own degradation, then I'm all for that."

The April 26 hip-hop summit in Detroit was a curious and intriguing event. It had a celebrity presence, including superstar and local hero Eminem. But instead of a concert, it was a series of panel discussions on the music industry and the political potential of hip-hop. It was the largest in a series of similar events organized chiefly by people working for record executive Russell Simmons.

In the 1980s, as co-founder of Def Jam Records, Simmons was a pioneering rap mogul, but these days most of his time is spent trying to create a fuller political life for himself and his genre.

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