Campaign Crawlers

Rhythm and Blues

Our emissary to the Democratic Convention hip-hops his way across an angry Boston where everything is expected to go wrong.

By 7.27.04

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BOSTON -- I might quibble with the politics of California Rep. Maxine Waters, but I can't deny it -- the woman's got rhythm.

I might have lived all the days of my life without this knowledge if I hadn't attended the Boston Hip-Hop Summit Monday afternoon. Waters, following such rap luminaries as Wyclef Jean and Layzie Bone on stage, bobbed her head and swung her arms over her head as if she were at a rap video shoot.

"Police brutality!" she bellowed to the audience. "You know something about that? Mandatory minimum sentences! You know something about that?"

The crowd cheered. Although the median age of the several thousand strong group was well below 18, they apparently did know something about these things, a tragedy unto itself. And why shouldn't they? After all, they've listened to rap music all their lives. Outside the hall two long buses -- windows barred, the words MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS stenciled across them -- idled ominously.

But Waters didn't talk about that. And black folks who don't want a well-publicized collective spanking aren't inviting Bill "Mad-As-Hell" Cosby to their events anymore. And so thousands of black youths were told by one speaker after another their woes were due to Republicans in general and Bush in particular. Bush hated them so much he had started "a war we ain't supposed to be in," in which "only poor folk is dying."

"Republicans say they gots a contract on America," one self-described "civil rights activist" told the crowd, mispronouncing Newt Gingrich's ten-years-gone Contract With America. "In my neighborhood, when you got a contract on you, that ain't a good thing."

ASIDE FROM WATERS, the summit was a long, bumpy line of speakers. It went something like this: One small time politician or religious figure would give a talk about Martin Luther King, Jr., the chatter of bored children growing slowly like a disturbed wasp nest. Then a rap star would enter to music booming loud enough to liquefy the intestines of anyone in the first 50 rows, and the kids would be on their seats screaming and dancing.

Hearing the rap community's take on the political process was a hoot. For example, when Wyclef Jean, once endorsed by Howard Dean as his favorite musician, was asked about foreign policy under Bush, he took a long pause before saying in a heavy accent, "When a brother who happens to be a Jamaican comes up to you talking like this, you can't make fun of him because we're all from Africa."

Bone Crusher didn't directly answer any question, but instead lifted his shirt and jiggled his substantial belly whenever addressed. "If you're not old enough to vote, send your momma to the poll," another rapper said, moments before my favorite speech of the day, by Lloyd Banks, who has the number one album in the country this week: "You already picked the best artist on MTV. You pick the best videos. You've already picked a lot of the bests. Now you just gotta pick the best candidate."

Rap label mogul Russell Simmons gave an uplifting speech that touched on personal responsibility and having a spiritual anchor in life. But he closed on a note that was particularly disturbing to me. "All the media out there, I want to let you know we aren't going to let you brutalize and ignore our communities anymore," he said, before launching into a diatribe about the lack of attention to "black" issues.

I had purposely looked for the least threatening section of the auditorium I could find -- a difficult task at a Hip-Hop Summit. Eventually, I found a seat behind a kindergarten class. I had mixed feelings throughout the event watching these kids. On one hand, they were so happy, the joy was infectious. On the other, they were being indoctrinated to view themselves as victims.

"Are you a reporter?" a young boy with cornrows and a bandana asked me. He had been smiling at me here and there throughout the event, but now he looked hurt.

"Yeah," I said.

"You SUCK!" he shouted back. His teacher admonished him not to cuss, but glared back at me like I deserved it anyway.

Back on stage another rapper was telling the crowd, "I hope you're all as hype November 2 as you are today."

The music started again, and I took that as my cue to leave. At the subway station, I waited on the platform next to a young woman in a Hip-Hop Summit shirt. She was on her cell phone.

"I know I said I'd be back in an hour," she said. "No! When do I ever call in? The show started late, Banks just rhymed just now, and some beef went down and now I got to fill out a police report. I'm gonna be awhile. I'll explain later."

Safety First

"Do you feel safe in Boston?"

Over and over again I am asked this question. The answer is, of course, "Yes." How could I feel anything but safe here? There is a heavily armed police presence on every corner. It would take DNA testing and eye scans to make event security any tighter. There are WMD sensors deployed along most roadways, military MPs at subway entrances, and armored vehicles full of SWAT teams just out of sight.

When I went to the Hip-Hop Summit, I walked through Roxbury, one of the most violent sections of Boston, without fear. Wearing a suit and tie, I was eyed suspiciously, like I was about to serve an unexpected subpoena, but with cops continuously circling in cars and helicopters, and on foot and on bike and on horse, I couldn't work up any worry. I had no fear of getting lost, never mind being hassled.

But there is something unsettling about being in a city where so much is expected to go wrong. The most troubling thing about all the security may be how unremarkable it has become. The Democratic convention looks like a Gaza Strip checkpoint, and we barely hear a peep about it. This is the new reality, we are being told. This is what the future will look like.

I can't argue. What's the alternative? Leave ourselves and our leaders unguarded and open to attack? I am much happier to feel a bit caged but safe, than to be the free bird in a room with a hungry cat.

But this does not mean we should not mourn this loss of autonomy. We should keep a careful eye on how far all of this goes and be ready to scream bloody murder when that invisible line is crossed.

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