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When Rappers Lead the Way

Are movie and music stars influencing youth political participation in the United States?

March 24, 2006

Are movie and music stars influencing youth political participation in the United States?

Hip-hop artists and African-American actors are often considered a bad influence on children and young adults. It is thought by many that they do nothing but promote violence or other negative things.

While these claims may be true, it must be recognized that recently rappers and actors such as Kanye West, Chris Rock and P. Diddy, among others, have been stepping up on social issues.

They have criticized the elite for mishandling their jobs of leadership in the United States, something that politicians and media should have done. Their messages may be considered radical or biased by some, but many of their comments ring true.

These stars of the movie and music industries have been providing factual information and have helped many young Americans to make decisions and participate in politics.

In today's world, where the majority of Americans under the age of 18 watch MTV more than the local or national news, a song about a particular issue has a greater impact on more kids than a statement by one politician criticizing another.

In the 2003 movie, Head of State, a popular black actor, Chris Rock, plays Mays Gillian, an alderman in Washington, DC who runs for president. Despite the film's comical stance, Rock makes some powerful statements on important issues of our time.

In his campaign speech, he states, "When it comes to creating so many enemies that we need billions of dollars to protect ourselves, I am an amateur. When it comes to creating a drug policy that makes crack and heroin cheaper than asthma and AIDS medicine, I am an amateur."

To me, these were some very important, moving and strong words. And most importantly, straightforward words — something I feel many U.S. politicians lack.

In time for the 2004 elections, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, a popular rapper from New York City, started a program called "Vote or Die." His goal was to educate young minorities aged 18 to 29 to get out and vote in the 2004 Presidential Election.

He reminded them how much power they possessed, and how much of an influence they could have on the outcome of the election. Combs traveled around the country making stops on popular television and radio shows to spread his message of voter participation.

He used his popular clothing line, Sean John, to create T-shirts with the simple slogan, "Vote or die." Statistics showed that 4.6 million voters between the ages of 18 and 29 came to the polls that Tuesday in November.

Next, during a one-hour NBC special benefiting the Red Cross and Hurricane Katrina relief, Kanye West, a rapper, made one of the most controversial political statements possibly ever made on live network television.

West started off by saying that the way things are portrayed on the news, when a black family is stealing they are "looting." He went on to say that when a white family is stealing, they are "looking for food." His remark could be considered exaggerated, but unfortunately there is a lot of truth in it.

Then came the big one, "George Bush does not care about black people." Mike Myers, former Saturday Night Live comic and star of the "Austin Powers" movies, who was also on screen with Kanye West at that moment, looked like he had just seen a ghost.

Whether or not one personally agrees with West, I was watching a show done a few days later by Brian Williams on MSNBC sharing his personal experience of being in the Superdome and New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina's landfall. I was shocked.

There were dead bodies all over the place, people were screaming, it would seem to a person who did not know what was going on that these people might have been crazy. The people shown in MSNBC's dialogue were largely African-American and poor.

They were the ones that could not get out of New Orleans because they did not have a car or the money for a ticket. I sat there thinking, the United States is the most powerful and richest nation in the world. How did we fail to help these people?

After seeing this, one can end up siding with West's controversial statement. The United States government cannot stop a hurricane from making landfall. But that it cannot rescue its citizens when there was ample warning is inexcusable.

It seemed that, while these people were struggling for their lives, the most powerful government in the world was sitting around primarily focused on playing a blame game.

Others in the music industry, such as The Black Eyed Peas, two of whose four members are African-American, began voicing their political opinions as well. Their 2003 hit song "Where is the Love" asked why we should waste lives by creating war and promoting hatred all over the world.

The group asked, "Where is the love, and why are children crying and dying?" In this case, the Black Eyed Peas looked at the war in Iraq not only from the perspective of the United States, but also from that of the children living through this war in the Middle East.

The protest songs, however, were not limited to African-American rappers. It is hard to believe that controversial rapper Eminem, famed for his outlandish humor would write a song addressing one of the most serious political issues of the time.

In 2004, however, the rapper from Detroit wrote "Mosh." The song criticized the war in Iraq, citing the unnecessary loss of American life. In the song, Eminem claims, "No more blood for oil, we got our own battles to fight on our own soil."

Eminem goes on to say that there should be no more "psychological warfare" against citizens convincing them that they are not loyal if they don't fight for the U.S. government in the Middle East.

In conclusion, U.S. music and movie stars, who many consider people to be kept away from children's ears and eyes, and are even hated by adults, have had a profound influence on youth opinion in the United States.

They have stepped up as leaders and important figures in encouraging young people to become more involved in social issues — and to raise their awareness of what is going on around them.

By doing so, they have accomplished the goals of many teachers and parents — raising the awareness of their students and children to the most critical issues of the present day and near future.

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