Vote or Die: A Year Later

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New York-The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) will honor three extraordinary individuals for their outstanding commitment to democracy and voting rights at its annual 2005 National Equal Justice Award Dinner (NEJAD). Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), Johnson Publishing Company President Linda Johnson Rice, and entertainer and producer Sean “Diddy” Combs, will be honored at the organization’s most important annual event on November 3, at the Hilton New York & Towers.

A special award will be presented to Sean “Diddy” Combs for his innovative efforts to register voters and engage America’s youth in the democratic process.

I wasn’t a fan of the “Vote or Die” movement and I’m still not. Below is a piece I wrote on “Vote or Die” last fall.

As the impending presidential election draws closer, an effort to bolster the voting power of the hip-hop community has intensified. Many influential figures of the hip-hop community, including Russell Simmons and Sean “P.Diddy” Combs, have used their clout to orchestrate large voter registration drives through organizations like the Hip Hop Action Network and Citizen Change, respectively.

Additionally, artists such as Mary J. Blige, Monica, Chingy and Ashanti, among others, have joined forces to record tracks such as “Wake Up Everybody,” with the same goal as Simmons and Combs – to increase voter turnout among young Black Americans.

While they should all be commended for giving their time and effort to such a worthy cause, I have a few qualms with this “movement.”

For one, there is an emphasis on voter registration rather than voter education. While I agree with the notion that voting is empowering, I feel as if it is even more empowering if you actually understand what’s going on in the political world before you enter the voting booth. A voter registration card is the first step.

The second, and arguably the more important step, is to educate you on the candidates and the issues. Perhaps, in the same way we learned to walk, we can simply crawl and make baby steps until we learn to stand on our own two feet. However, as pertinent as this year’s election is, do we really have that kind of time? Already, it appears that their efforts are likely to face the same dilemma plaguing much of hip-hop today: elevating image over substance.

Voting is being made out to be the latest trend in hip-hop, and like most trends, they die. The now infamous “Vote or Die” campaign by Combs and Citizen Change employs the same flashy marketing tactics Combs uses to promote his Bad Boy artists. Likewise, Simmons’ Hip Hop Action Network stages concerts and summits with a bevy of hip-hop’s top stars to bring awareness to the cause. While their methods do garner attention, what is going to keep us interested in politics after the election? What is being said about the specific issues that affect our community by the artists promoting voting? So far, nothing at all.

This brings me to another problem I have: Many of these artists, including P.Diddy, Mary J. Blige, Monica, and Andre 3000 have all admittedly voted only once or never at all. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I find it difficult to relate to the people stressing the importance of voting who have not practiced what they preach. While everyone’s heart may be in the right place, I feel the current methodology may ultimately do more harm than good. During the late 1980s, hip-hop, specifically acts like Public Enemy, instilled a sense of black pride in the listener. Unfortunately, what was then viewed as a movement is now looked upon as a fad. I would hate for history to repeat itself.

I still appreciate the effort to motivate young people to vote, but I still believe more emphasis should have been placed in voter education. When the Christian Coalition released their voter guides, they knew exactly how to speak to their audience to get them to the polls. With another three years left of Dumbya and co., they’ll get closer and closer to their long awaited theocracy. A year later and where are we?

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