When Barack Obama piled up primary victories last winter in white-majority states like Iowa, KPFA deejay Davey D saw these electoral returns reflecting political and cultural changes ignited by hip-hop music.
Teenagers drawn to hip-hop's lyrical ingenuity and social consciousness in the early 1990s started going to Public Enemy and KRS-One concerts, including concerts on Minnesota college campuses and Wisconsin county fairgrounds. Davey D said many of these fans are now in their 30s and voting for Obama.
"Those 15-year-olds had the experience of intelligent black men that broke stereotypes," the veteran DJ told close to 100 students in his Jan. 13 talk at the Soda Center. "The possibility of electing a black man was not far off after that."
Hip-hop has always been political, according to the host of KPFA's "Hard Knock Radio" who also reaches 100,000 readers through his electronic newsletter. The music originated in the African-American neighborhoods of the South Bronx in the late 1970s as a form of protest against social conditions in New York City, including massive cuts in public education.
"At my high school, there was no prom, no driver's ed, no after-school programs - all those things that should be a social net for young people," explained the Bronx Science graduate who went on to complete his education at UC Berkeley.
Rap music began to fill the void, giving a voice to some of the city's most marginalized citizens. Davey D cited the music of Afrika Bambaataa as an early example - rap about ridding the Bronx River housing projects of social evils like heroin addiction and police brutality.
"These were people who were written off expressing themselves - people nobody cared about finding a way to be heard. And that's political," he said.
Socially conscious hip-hop was also filling the void caused by media conglomerates' purchase of black radio stations that had traditionally served as an important means of uniting the African-American community.
Davey D explained that his predecessors on black radio stations had often served as conduits of information during the Civil Rights movement. He noted that in 1967 Martin Luther King acknowledged the importance of black DJs like Jack the Rapper, whose WERD radio station was located below King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference office in Atlanta.
"Jack the Rapper made Selma sound like it was going to be Summer Jam," Davey D said. "He'd say â€˜We're going to walk across the bridge, you'd better be there, it's going to be hot.' "
If fans have to search harder for socially conscious hip-hop in an era when the music has become a multibillion-dollar business, Davey D says that's not the fault of the artists. He noted that even mainstream megastars like Jay-Z and Nas rap about Hurricane Katrina and God, but most DJs and station managers gravitate to songs about sex instead.
Even more significantly, rappers with more overtly political lyrics are shut out entirely.
"Artists who were political no longer have access to the airwaves around the country," he said. "How records get on the airwaves - that's all political."
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Photo by Gorbachev Lingad '10