Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Congressman Carson on hip-hop and politics

Posted By on Wed, Sep 30, 2015 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Representative Andre Carson - NUVO FILE PHOTO
  • NUVO File Photo
  • Representative Andre Carson
U.S. Representative for Indiana's 7th congressional district André Carson recently organized his 7th annual Hip-Hop and Politics panel discussion as part of the Congressional Black Caucus Week in Washington D.C. Carson's discussion series has brought together a range of activists and artists for conversations on the subject of hip-hop music and its influence on the political climate of America. Past editions of Carson's panel have featured iconic pioneers of hip-hop like Rakim, MC Lyte, and Darryl McDaniels of Run DMC. The panel has also featured important activists like reformed drug trafficker "Freeway" Rick Ross, and president of the Hip-Hop Caucus Rev. Lennox Yearwood.

I spoke with Representative Carson via phone to learn more about the his passion for hip-hop culture.

NUVO: Can you tell us about the origins of the Hip-Hop and Politics panel?

André Carson: It's really a forum to reach out to the hip-hop generation and have a serious dialogue about how we can leverage the voting block of Millennials, Generation X-ers, and Generation Y-ers in terms of impacting political life in our country.

I've been going to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's annual leadership conference for almost twenty years now. I can remember going to different panels and getting excited. The one workshop I always looked forward to was Maxine Waters' Young, Gifted and Black workshop. I've told her how inspired I was by her workshop.

In regard to hip-hop I got started with that as a young kid. I've always been a poet and I've always had a fascination with words going back to the bookmobile that would come to St. Rita school. I remember in high school there was a young lady named Allyson Horton who is now an accomplished poet. She bought me a rhyming dictionary when I was in high school because she appreciated my fascination with words. I was in several talent shows. I was in Star Quest. I recorded a few tracks.

All this was driven by my love for hip-hop. Since then I've seen how hip-hop has expended internationally since its inception in the Bronx. I've seen how hip-hop has expended into China, South Asia and even Russia. For me that begged the question how can the hip-hop generation leverage its voting block to impact change in society?

NUVO: The 76-year-old Maryland Representative and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer isn't someone with any connection to hip-hop culture. However, Hoyer called your Hip-Hop and Politics panel the "best issue forum held in Washington D.C." I'm curious how your hip-hop forum has been received by your colleagues in Washington D.C.?

Carson: It's been embraced. Steny Hoyer usually stops by and visits because I think as a seasoned politician he understands that this is an important demographic. The most reliable demographic for politicians has always been seniors because they're up on the issues and impacted by the issues. But I think we're seeing an awakening happening with younger people. Steny Hoyer understands that and Nancy Pelosi understands that. If we're going to be successful as elected officials we have to be engaged with what young people are talking about and thinking about.

NUVO: You referenced your interest in leveraging the political power of the hip-hop generation. How have you been able to work toward that in your career as a politician?

Carson: I think there are others who are doing that better than I am. I'm just a piece of the puzzle in terms of having a forum like the Hip-Hop and Politics panel and bringing artists to Capitol Hill and having them interact with legislators and having them really see a different side of politics. This forum allows artists to get involved and possibly think about running for office themselves, or even lobbying on issues that are important to them be it food deserts, or homelessness or job creation.

NUVO: So would you like to see MCs moving beyond the limits of social commentary and taking an active role in correcting the issues affecting their community?

Carson: It's up to the individual MCs. I think commentary is important because it sparks dialogue. The MC can spark an idea that others may execute. The MC could also become more interested and see themselves in a political space, be it a school board, the city council, congress, the mayor's office or even the White House.

NUVO: So you believe there's power and validity to an artist's social critique?

Carson: Sure, I've been part of the critique. I'm still part of the critique even though I'm now in the system. I think you need outside agitation and inside instigation to create the necessary friction to bring forth change. When you have those seemingly opposing views that are working at cross purposes you see change. I think change is going to come from the outside critique with the activist community pushing politicians to do better and to think more seriously about the language contained inside legislation.

NUVO: During your hip-hop days in Indianapolis you were known as MC Juggernaut with the Catch 22 crew. Do I have that right?

Carson: Well, I didn't use MC on my name after the mid-'80s. I went through a few different names. I was ABC, and OMP. I went through several names before I landed on Juggernaut. That was the most popular name, but MC was never on the front of it. I was part of Catch 22. I was also part of a group called the Swat Team. Those are the groups I'm most known for.

NUVO: I read an interview where you stated that you'd played on concert bills with some big acts during your hip-hop days. Can you fill us in on the details?

Carson: I remember I did one show where at the end of the night all the acts came out onstage. I was onstage with Ice Cube, Da Brat, Above the Law and some others. I did a show when I was with Catch 22 for DJ Kool who recorded "Let Me Clear My Throat" and I was with Catch 22 when they opened up for Too Short as well.

NUVO: I want to read a quote from you regarding your relationship to hip-hop music, and I think this quote speaks to the complexity of hip-hop culture. You said "hip-hop got me into trouble and kept me out of trouble." Can you break down what you meant by that?

Carson: I think I was speaking in terms of my affiliation with groups who were unafraid to speak truth to power. I was with groups who may have said some unsettling things that raised serious questions. But at the same time hip-hop kept me out of trouble. I was never a bad kid. I was never the class clown. Though I may have occasionally ghost-written some material for the class clown.

I came out of a reading household. I came from a school that encouraged reading. Outside of school I had reading assignments at home and I had to write reports. I had double the work, and while I resented that as a young man, it really helped to develop my vocabulary.

Kendrick Lamar - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted Photo
  • Kendrick Lamar

NUVO: I dropped out of high school at a very young age. When I was in school I had very little interest in politics or social issues. It was through listening to hip-hop artists, from Public Enemy to Black Star, that I began developing a political consciousness. I'm curious if there were any specific hip-hop artists that had a hand in shaping your political consciousness?

Carson: I'd have to say Public Enemy, N.W.A., Eric B. & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Poor Righteous Teachers, Brand Nubian, Queen Latifah, KRS-One, X-Clan, Tupac Shakur, Geto Boys, Above The Law — there's so many to name that I know I'm forgetting some. I could even say Wu-Tang Clan which came later. These groups were critical and had great observations about what was taking place in their community. Some of the groups were overt with their message and some you had to listen to their music over and over again to really unearth the hidden meanings.

When N.W.A. gave their critique of the police, I was in agreement because I was experiencing harassment every week. Public Enemy raised our awareness of things on a political level. Big Daddy Kane and Rakim were big on encouraging knowledge of self. I think when you develop a knowledge of self it encourages you to teach others.

NUVO: To some extent, contemporary artists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole are carrying forward the tradition of politically conscious rap as pioneered by the list of artists you just referenced. I know you have an extremely busy schedule as a congressman, but I wondered if you're able to keep up with some of the newer voices in hip-hop music?

Carson: A lot of my staffers keep me in the loop. I am very busy and I'm consuming a lot of information and studying often. But every now and then my staffers will send me a link. I have a few staffers who love Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. I like what Jay Electronica is doing. I'm definitely feeling Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole.

NUVO: I feature a lot of Indianapolis hip-hop music on my radio show for WFYI, artists like Oreo Jones, Sirius Blvck, or Comdot who I just interviewed. I'm curious if you're able to maintain any connection with the current Indianapolis hip-hop scene?

Carson: I respect everyone that you mentioned. I do different events in Indianapolis and sometimes I'll feature DJs like Rusty Redenbacher, Indiana Jones or DJ Limelight who is a friend of mine, as are the others. I have a busy schedule and I can't go out like I used to, but I do try to stay in the mix to the best of my ability.

NUVO: I collected a few questions for you via social media from folks here in Central Indiana. The first question comes from Julia Muney Moore who is Director of Public Art for the Arts Council of Indianapolis. Julia asked how we can encourage policies so that graffiti/street art is not seen as vandalism.

Carson: I think there has to be a space were graffiti can be respected and even protected. I think there should be a space where we allow those artists to express themselves. Perhaps that comes in the form of some kind of collaboration like we see on Madison Avenue or U.S. 31 going toward the Southside before you get to Manual High School.

The question becomes how do we get city council members and state legislators to craft legislation that will encourage those artists to work with NGOs and local municipalities where their art can be expressed on a public facility where there's a need to beautify the area. At the same time we have to make sure the art is done in a way that will uplift the community. If it gets to a point where there's no intellectual or community value in the art it becomes a distraction and it takes away from those artists that are really about the culture and really trying to do something positive.

NUVO: The next question is from Tristra Newyear Yeager who asked: What subject do you wish MCs talked about more often?

Carson: Education, because I think there are so many MCs who are brilliant in their own right but they were impacted by the lack of true education in high school or even college. They had to teach themselves independently or learn from their social environment.

One could argue it's because of that broken education system that these artists were forced to harness their ingenuity. But on the other hand I think we should emphasize that our high schools are graduating up to forty percent of students who are functionally illiterate. There's something happening in our schools that's not meeting the needs of our kids. There are societal issues attached to all this, but I think we need a rallying call to really support education and bring the arts back to our schools. Research supports that the arts are critical for brain development and memory retention and the arts help us in other fields like math and science. The more we call for a greater investment in the arts, the better results we'll see in our kids.

A shot of General Public Collective's window during Chreece - KATHERINE COPLEN
  • Katherine Coplen
  • A shot of General Public Collective's window during Chreece

NUVO: Our last social media solicited question comes to us from the beloved Indianapolis hip-hop producer Jay Brookinz. Jay's question references the Chreece festival, which brought together dozens of local hip-hop acts and over one-thousand attendees for a peaceful celebration of hip-hop culture. Jay asks how we can dispel the myth that hip-hop events incite violence and disruptive behavior?

Carson: I think we need to gather facts about other music events where incidents of violence occur but may go undocumented. You have venues that refuse to provide protection or insurance for hip-hop events because of their bad reputation. There must also be internal controls within the culture that say we need to resolve issues peacefully.

When I first got into hip-hop you had less fights because people would take out their aggression through breakdancing. If you look at battle raps where people go after each other verbally there's very few instances of people actually fighting because of a battle rap. There has to be internal control within the culture to to discourage any kind of activity that could deface and devalue what the culture is all about and what the founding fathers of hip-hop intended for the culture.

NUVO: Finally I wanted to ask if you have any ambitions for the Hip-Hop and Politics panel outside of Capitol Hill?

Carson: The Hip-hop Caucus is touring the country right now to raise awareness on climate change. They're bringing in folks from the arts community to raise awareness about our abuse of the environment. I think that's an important issue to address in a hip-hop context. Usually in hip-hop you'll hear about issues like police brutality, poverty, and maybe education. But talking about climate change shows that hip-hop really does have a wide impact and it's reaching into how we can protect and save the Earth.

Special thanks to Kathy Souchet-Downey for her assistance in arranging this interview.

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