Hip-hop to the polls

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Hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar recently said he doesn't plan to vote because voting changes nothing -- hidden hands, not politicians, control world events.

Mr. Lamar has a right to his opinions, but his statement was foolish and dangerous.

Having won the public spotlight, Mr. Lamar is burdened with being a role model whether he likes it or not. And whether he handles this responsibility wisely is up to him.

Responsible or not, Mr. Lamar has phenomenal influence. His music is featured on the top music blogs, he has fans all over the world and, most of the time, he delivers meaningful messages. Rap stars like Mr. Lamar are trendsetters, and many young people listen to their every word; some even emulate them.

In 2012, despite what Mr. Lamar says, voting and politics are "cool." Millions of new voters have recently been activated and voting is increasingly becoming associated with hip-hop culture. Jay-Z, Diddy and Young Jeezy, for instance, have all urged fans to vote. In 2008, hip-hop was instrumental in motivating young people to get to the polls.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, voters aged 18 to 24 were the "only age group to show a statistically significant increase in turnout in 2008, reaching 49 percent in 2008, compared with 47 percent in 2004."

Mr. Lamar's public comments on voting do a disservice especially to minority and disenfranchised communities of America. This seems odd since his music paints vivid pictures of poverty and discrimination. In his seminal work, "Section .80," he raps, "Everybody can't drive Benzes so I make it my business to give them my full attention."

When people aren't getting the attention they deserve from politicians, they have to demand it.

Politicians have a job to do and must be held accountable when they face re-election. The two things politicians need to win office are money and votes. Disenfranchised communities may not have money, but they do have votes. Those who vote demand attention from the top. For example, people with little means can vote for those candidates willing to raise the minimum wage.

For years, community organizers have developed strategies to get people to vote. One is to have cultural leaders like Mr. Lamar get out the message about the importance of voting.

Sometimes people stop believing in the American Dream when it seems unattainable. Voting is one of the few levers of power available to them. And those who do not make decisions about their own lives and communities will have those decisions made for them.

Why vote?

Vote for the black Americans who at various points in history have been threatened, tricked, maimed, raped and killed to keep them from voting. Vote for the women who fought tooth and nail during the suffrage movement simply to cast a vote. Vote for the Americans who cannot vote: the mentally ill, the incarcerated, the kids. Vote even for those people in other countries who are rebelling for freedom, as we did, and rising up against tyranny so that their voices might be heard.

Music educates -- for good or ill. Mr. Lamar and other public figures should think carefully about the lessons they teach.

Mr. Lamar may think the world is out of our control. And maybe he's right. But one thing we know for sure: It is out of his control because he doesn't vote.


Jamar Thrasher is a partner at Kennedy Blue Communications, a Pittsburgh-based communications firm, and a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College for Public Policy and Management (jamarthrasher@gmail.com; @jdthrasher on Twitter).


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