Hip Hop Convention Urges Political Activism

In conference, Black Men’s Forum aims to use music

Hip hop fans of all ages gathered Saturday afternoon to voice their concerns about the apathy of young people toward politics and to identify ways in which the “hip hop generation” can wield stronger political influence.

About 50 students, from middle school to graduate school, joined hip hop enthusiasts from the greater Boston area for the Hip Hop Youth Political Engagement Retreat (HHYPER), organized by past and present members of the Black Men’s Forum (BMF) and held at the Institute of Politics.

Event organizers said the retreat was the first in a series of conferences aimed at educating young people about political activism in preparation for the first ever National Hip Hop Political Convention (NHHPC), to be held in Newark, N.J. from June 16-19.

In his opening remarks, Derrick N. Ashong ’97-’98, a former BMF president who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in African-American studies and Ethnomusicology at Harvard, told the audience he initiated HHYPER to encourage political awareness and activism.

“What we want to do today is to talk about what political voice you have and how we can magnify it,” he said.

A panel of academics from the fields of law, public policy and hip hop studies, joined by one local rap artist, engaged the students in a discussion about issues such as juvenile execution and public education.

Ernesto Arroyo, a.k.a. “Eroc,” a Boston native and MC in the hip hop group “The Foundation,” introduced himself with a rap: “I am the Foundation, I’m an entire nation/I’m persistence, resistance, the reason for existence...I’m evolution, I’m revolution/They can’t stop us, ’cuz we are free.”

Beyond his smooth rhymes, Arroyo offered a pointed message.

“Be educated about the [electoral] process, know who’s running, vote, hold those people accountable,” Arroyo said.

Claire E. Gauthier, a volunteer with the High Flight after-school program based in Waltham, brought several students with her to the retreat.

“I think it’s very, very important to bring them to these kinds of things because a lot of them say, ‘Well, it’s politics. Who cares? I can’t even vote yet,’” Gauthier said.

Even though the High Flight students who attended the retreat were between the ages of 10 and 15, Gauthier said she hoped the group discussions would “get them thinking about the world around them.”

“There’s more to life than just your neighborhood,” Gauthier said. “It’s important to get them thinking about politics, how it affects them when they get older and how they are perceived as youth.”

Ashong said the purpose of the retreat was not “to teach kids what to think,” but rather to “challenge what they think.”

Taryn M.E. Norton, an eighth grader at McDevitt Middle School in Waltham, participated in a discussion led by Ashong—who has founded his own music production company—about the hip hop music industry.

Norton said she appreciated the opportunity to debate with older members of the community about the influences of hip hop music and culture on her and her peers.

“It’s not very often that people our age actually have a say in stuff,” Norton said. “[People] think that we are too immature to understand what’s going on in our world.”

At the end of the event, current BMF President Brandon M. Terry ’05 said he thinks voters “largely neglect” local and state politics.

“What I hope people took away from the event is that there needs to be a redefinition of minority, youth and urban politics that combines a more sophisticated policy agenda with a bipartisan bargaining approach,” he said.

Ashong, the HHYPER founder, described this summer’s NHHPC as an alternative to the Republican and the Democratic National Conventions.

According to the NHHPC website, the goals of the convention will be to adopt and endorse a political agenda geared toward the needs of the country's young people.

“We’ll see if the hip hop generation can prove to the rest of the nation how this country should be run,” Ashong said.

—Staff writer Andrew C. Esensten can be reached at esenst@fas.harvard.edu.