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How the Hip Hop Caucus is mobilizing voters for 2022

·National Reporter & Producer
·4 min read
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Hip-hop, the dominant music genre on the Billboard charts during the last four years, is now increasingly entering the political fray. Through the self-proclaimed “political arm” of the category, the Hip Hop Caucus, artists and activists alike are coming together over their shared love of culture to engage young people in key states ahead of the midterm elections.

“You shape policy or policy shapes you,” the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus (HHC), told Yahoo News. “The reason why it’s important to be engaging with the culture is because ... culture is liberation.”

Rev. Lennox Yearwood, left, and President/CEO of the Hip Hop Summit Benjamin Chavis
The Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr,, left, with Benjamin Chavis, president and CEO of the Hip Hop Summit, in 2008. (Mychal Watts/Getty Images)

A growing number of politicians recognize this. The impact of hip-hop, born out of the cultural exchange between Black, Latino and Caribbean youth in the South Bronx in the 1970s, has made worldwide waves for more than 40 years. Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a Democratic congressman from New York City, told Yahoo News that there is no American culture today without hip-hop.

“We all have to respect how far hip-hop has come and how much it has influenced our society,” Bowman said. “All people did with hip-hop was shine a light on their lives and their experience, and in doing so they created communities all around the world.”

For nearly two decades, the Hip Hop Caucus has leveraged the genre’s cultural relevance and biggest artists to push for change at the ballot box. Artists like T.I., Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes and Beyoncé have worked with the group to get people, particularly young voters of color, to the polls. The nonpartisan organization may be best known for its past national youth voter mobilization efforts, alongside hip-hop titans like Sean “Diddy” Combs with his “Vote or Die” campaign, and Russell Simmons’s Hip Hop Summit Action Network, both of which date back to 2004.

Sean P. Diddy Combs, Russell Simmons and Tony Shafrazi
Hip-hop legends Sean Combs and Russell Simmons with gallery owner Tony Shafrazi. (Johnny Nunez/WireImage)

In 2020, the caucus says, it reached more than 7 million people through its “Respect My Vote!” campaign by hosting events on various college campuses, text banking, email and social media blitzes and more. Now, in addition to engaging the young vote, HHC is targeting previously incarcerated people, who are widely denied voting rights after returning to the population. Indeed, one estimate is that more than 5 million Americans were unable to vote in 2020 due to past felony convictions, though some states are now restoring voting rights to the previously incarcerated.

“A number of Americans believe they have permanently lost their ability to vote due to past felony convictions, when in fact they do have the right to vote in their state,” the Hip Hop Caucus said when announcing the “Respect My Vote!” campaign. “A history of incarceration does not automatically result in ineligibility.”

The group is targeting 10 states in the 2022 midterms, and it hopes to encourage a record number of Gen Z and previously incarcerated voters to engage in the political process. The states — Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia — are battleground regions between the Democrats and Republicans. Some of those same states have also enacted polarizing legislation around immigration, education reform and access to the ballot box.

Residents wait in line to vote
Residents wait in line to vote in Janesville, Wis., Nov. 3, 2020. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Like hip-hop itself, the caucus wants to ensure that historically overlooked groups have the tools and knowledge to be heard, particularly during midterm elections, in which only 40 percent of the eligible population has voted, compared with 60 percent in presidential elections.

“If there's anything limiting your freedom, [whether it’s] the criminal justice system, education or health care, then you could use culture to create change to make that better,” Yearwood said.

Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and producer Eric Bellinger released a new song this week titled “Speak Up” as part of the “Respect My Vote!” effort, encouraging people to mobilize around voting rights.

“As an artist, using music to share a message is powerful, and I am so thankful to do my part to ensure folks in our community nationwide head to the polls to vote,” Bellinger said in a statement shared with Yahoo News.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a freshman congressman from New York, is one of a growing number of politicians who appreciate the political significance of hip-hop. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

“We just have to meet the people where they’re at by working with people they love and respect,” added Bowman, a freshman congressman who recognized hip-hop’s contributions to America through legislation last year. “We still have a long way to go in terms of becoming a fully inclusive, multiracial democracy.”

“I’m always open to cypher though, I freestyle with my office sometimes,” he added. “I can teach these young artists a little something about that.”

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Ty Wright/Getty Images, Joseph Labolito/WireImage via Getty Images

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