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Hip-Hop Summit encourages voting

Saturday, August 21, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- The Hip-Hop Summit held Friday in St. Louis had the hallmarks of a concert -- screaming fans, an emcee warming up the crowd and a DJ breaking beats.

But the head of the organization holding the summit, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, wasn't there to play around. "This is serious business," Simmons said. "These people sit here for three hours and learn."

More than 5,000 people came to the city's convention center to hear a panel of hip-hop stars -- including rappers Nelly and Jadakiss -- discuss why registering to vote has an impact on their communities. The event was organized by the nonpartisan, not-for-profit Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, which is chaired by Simmons.

The purpose was to draw on the voting power of the hip-hop generation -- millions of young people who grew up listening to everyone from Run DMC to Nelly.

It was intended to mobilize people who listen to hip-hop music, Simmons said.

"What hip-hop is about is poor people," Simmons said. "It's inspiring all different kinds of poor people -- black, white ... . They can be part of a voting bloc that is more compassionate."

Organizers said it's about more than getting young people registered to vote; it's also about getting them to the polls.

In the 2000 election, about 60 percent of those registered to vote actually did, according to the U.S. Census Bureau figures. However, among 18- to 24-year-olds, only 36.1 percent did.

Volunteers at the America's Center convention center showed attendees how to vote on the punch-card system used in most parts of Missouri. When they registered to vote, they could sign up to receive mobile phone text messages, pages, e-mails or phone calls reminding them to go to polling stations on Nov. 2.

Hip-Hop Summit Action Network CEO Ben Chavis said volunteers from the network and America Coming Together -- a group that's trying to oust President Bush -- had so far registered 114,000 voters in Missouri.

Rapper Jadakiss said he only registered recently, after being encouraged by Simmons. He said he hadn't really seen the importance of voting before. He said like other people he grew up with in Yonkers, New York, he didn't feel part of the political process.

"I never was really focused on, never really targeted," Jadakiss said.

Still, the initiative offered just another example of efforts this election cycle to woo black voters.

Blocks away from the hip-hop event, the Bush-Cheney campaign rolled out a statewide quest to sway black voters to the GOP. Headlining that noontime rally was Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who said any migration of blacks to the GOP was part of an "emerging political sophistication."

"For most of the 20th century, civil rights was the singular focus," Steele said after remarks to about two dozen black Missouri Republicans, before heading over to the hip-hop summit. "That struggle is over ... It's now about economic and political empowerment."

Like others at the rally, Steele said he had grown up in a Democratic household.

"My parents were FDR Democrats. We had the (John F.) Kennedy portrait on the wall," he said. "But Ronald Reagan spoke to me. I found (the GOP) just fit once I matured politically."

Asked why they had switched political parties, black attendees at the Bush-Cheney rally said the GOP better reflected their core social values and provided an avenue for economic opportunity, school choice and faith-based services.

Damien Johnson, a 24-year-old St. Louis college student bearing Republican badges, said all his friends and family are Democrats.

"I'm for strong national defense, gun rights and personal responsibility," he said.

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Associated Press writer Cheryl Wittenauer in St. Louis contributed to this report.


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