Years before congressman Andre Carson took over the seat held by his grandmother, he penned hip-hop songs for her campaign, writing and performing under his teenage stage name Juggernaut. Carson has since left the mic behind, but he remains an active advocate for hip-hop culture. And as the youngest Democratic member of Congress, his performing days aren't too far behind him.
Carson hosted a Sept. 25 breakout session at the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Caucus entitled "Hip-Hop's Impact on the American Political Landscape" which brought together figures from politics, hip-hop and hip-hop politics - Hip-Hop Caucus president Rev. Lennox Yearwood; actor, comedian and Indianapolis native Mike Epps; BET hosts Terrence J and Darius "Big Tigger" Morgan; and congresswoman Donna Edwards. The conference is just one example of a growing engagement by politicians and educators with hip-hop culture, a movement that has been led by those who grew up with hip-hop, as well as a president who has proclaimed himself a fan of the music.
When NUVO spoke with Carson between votes last Thursday, we began by asking how he would answer the session's title question. Carson traces the influence of hip-hop to the top, connecting the rise of hip-hop moguls like Russell Simmons, Suge Knight and Sean Combs with the election of President Obama, suggesting that it was through hip-hop that young people became comfortable with African-Americans in leadership positions. The following are excerpts from the interview, edited for space.
NUVO: When did you first get involved in hip-hop as a listener and then performer?
Carson: My granddad owned a disco in the '70s called the Nightflight. And my uncle would bring home these records: I heard Sugarhill Gang, I heard Grandmaster Flash, Whodini, and I would just listen. I used to breakdance as a kid, and I was involved with the Jackson campaign. I went up to San Francisco, and I was asked to dance... At that time, if you had a conflict, when I was ten years old, you wouldn't fight, you would break dance. And it grew to be this verbal jousting, if you will, and sparring. I remember growing up, you'd read the dictionary and encyclopedia to expand your vocabulary, because lyrically you wanted to annihilate your opponent, and show your usage of metaphor and simile and verbal dexterity; you just wanted to be creative. So I became involved through the poets in my neighborhood, through the music I heard in my neighborhood, and it's just had a huge impact on me. There are so many kids in our schools that may be placed in certain areas academically, but if you look at their writings, you see such creativity and ingenuity, that it shows that with the right nurturing and environment, I think we could see, easily, the next great philosophers of our time.
NUVO: What do hip-hop entrepreneurs have to say about African-American small business ownership and entrepreneurship?
Carson: You look at some of these guys who, because they were essentially rejected from the larger society, became innovative. To make an album with a record company is a huge endeavor; you're probably talking a half a million to a million dollars, because after you pay at least moderately or big-named producers, that's half of the budget, which, by the way, you have to pay back to the record company. Then hiring writers, if you're using writers; paying for samples; paying the record company for other costs. These young guys could take half of that, maybe even five to 10 thousand dollars, make songs in a local studio, go to a CD printing shop and get a CD pressed that costs 50 cents to 90 cents, charge 10 bucks and sell it out of your car. Once you have those numbers, even locally, if you're selling 100,000 units out of your trunk or your friend's trunk... which is relatively easy to do if you have a good song, that's over a million dollars right there. So I think the younger moguls have shown: Be willing to take risks and don't create self-imposed barriers.
NUVO: What can you as a congressman do to direct the energy of hip-hop culture towards practical political goals?
Carson: I just want to help those who are already doing great work, drawing attention to so many great minds that we have in hip-hop, so many poets and artists who are socially conscious. The problem is that, a lot of the artists, once they finally get to these record companies and get their big break as it were, a lot of them are positive artists, but the temptation from the record company to produce a product can often open the door for them to change who they are, to get in the door to get ahead, with the ultimate goal of reverting back to the positive message, but once they become a part of this machine, it becomes quite difficult to do. And then, oftentimes, a lot of the more positive artists don't even get signed by labels, so they fall to the wayside. So my objective is to really highlight the great possibility that hip-hop possesses in continuing to change the political landscape of this great country we call America.
NUVO: And that can be done through a conference like this, and I wonder if you'd also like to see, say, greater NEA funding of hip-hop culture - I think about the lack of hip-hop culture on public television or radio, for instance.
Carson: We shall see. It comes back to writing letters of encouragement to the Viacoms of the world, who now own BET, VH1 and MTV, and encouraging them to air positive programming, and when they do, to write and congratulate them and encourage them more. I think it starts there as well.
NUVO: Just as you talk about hip-hop artists signing with a record label and losing sight of their mission, I wonder how you, as a new arrival to Congress, keep it real and stay true to your roots?
Carson: I had a talk with an artist about this last week. I think that, at the end of the day, regardless of the circumstances that one may find oneself in, we always wrestle with being true to who we are, whether it's on the job or out in public, you are who you are. You can only pretend to be someone else for so long but the real you will eventually emerge. Stay true to who you are, and people can appreciate who you are. I had some of the best advice from President Obama a few months ago. I was talking about this new life that he was in, and how does he deal with it. He said, "Just be yourself; that's all people expect from you anyway. Just be who you are." So it kind of reaffirmed my commitment to be authentic.
NUVO: And then to turn that on its head a little, this is a quote I'll put to you by hip-hop scholar Jeffrey Ogbar: "The ways in which black youth have internalized problematic 'controlling images' that reduce blackness to pathological expressions of crime and misogyny must be examined. 'Keepin' it real' then becomes a tragic bastardization of hip-hop's original mission to subvert crime and youth violence."
Carson: Very powerful. Going back to [BET host] Big Tigger at the conference, he said, "Nerds make money." And people applauded. That needs to be on a shirt. What a great idea. If you look at the horrible incident that recently occurred in Chicago with a gang jumping on a young honors student. There are so many bright minds like that who may downplay their intelligence in an effort to "keep it real." Killing and robbing folk is not keeping it real. Getting an education, going to college, becoming successful, however you define success - not society's title but becoming a positive contributor to the greater society - is keeping it real. This idea of gangsterism and thuggery is not keeping it real.