Russell Simmons couldn't stand it. Blocked from testifying in July at a Senate hearing on entertainment ratings, the hip-hop mogul showed up anyway to defend the industry he helped build from scratch. Simmons' improvised stand-up performance was just the beginning. Now he has helped form a political action committee, Nu America. The goal: Let hip-hop money talk as loud as the cash from oil, tobacco, and other powerful PACs that jockey for position on Capitol Hill.
Nu America will combine deep pockets with star power to drum up support in local and national elections, lobby lawmakers on the Hill, and host a series of forums around the country. "Supporting candidates with money and with votes and with unity is a very strong way of making a dent in the whole process," says Simmons, founder of Def Jam Records, who has made a fortune with the street sounds he discovered in Harlem more than 20 years ago. "We expect," he adds, "to make a strong dent."
Heading up the PAC will be former NAACP president Benjamin (Chavis) Muhammad, no stranger to controversy since his ouster from the civil-rights organization in 1994. "Now that the hip-hop community has emerged as a major economic force in the United States, it's time for us to flex some political muscle," Muhammad says. With rap kingpins like Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Jermaine Dupri on the roster, Muhammad is optimistic the PAC can raise millions. "We have not set a limit, let's put it that way."
HIGH-MINDED ISSUES. The hip-hop agenda? To burnish the genre's image by focusing on high-minded issues such as racial profiling. Organizers would like to see police using a universal set of standards when stopping motorists.
The PAC also will back lawmakers who support more aggressive efforts to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa, and to improve inner-city schools. The plan is to compile House and Senate voting records in the next few weeks and begin evaluating candidates for possible endorsements.
While the music-and-entertainment industry has long been a potent lobby, never before has a musical genre formed its own PAC. Hip-hop is now a $2 billion-a-year industry, backers note. "I think it's not only ingenious, it's overdue," says DePaul University Professor Michael Eric Dyson, who specializes in hip-hop culture. "I think they're one of the most powerful, untapped gold mines available."
NO OZZIE AND HARRIET. Some lawmakers are already on board. The Congressional Black Caucus maintains close ties to the hip-hop community, and will devote a portion of its annual conference in September to the music's influence. Representative Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) says rappers serve as important social commentators. "The members of Congress must take their heads out of the sand and stop pretending this is an Ozzie and Harriet world," she says. "Even if we don't like it, we have to understand it."
Reverend Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan, the NAACP, MTV, and a host of record labels also have pledged their support for the star-studded PAC, which will share Washington office space with the Recording Industry Association of America. "This is about the disaffected people out there, the people who aren't politically engaged and don't play by the inside rules Washingtonians play by," says RIAA President and CEO Hilary Rosen.
A large checkbook and a galaxy of stars may not be enough, however. The key to success inside the Beltway is to translate largesse into real political clout -- easier said than done. "If you don't know how to use it, it goes down the drain," says Jim Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional & Presidential Studies at American University. "A PAC won't work if you don't know the norms of the Hill."
Although Washington is a center for hip-hop culture, Congress isn't. The music continues to face criticism as being too violent and profane, laced with images of guns, drugs, money-flashing, and misogyny. If the movement is to fully prosper, artists may find it in their best interest to make some lyrical sacrifices. "Don't just talk about 'bling-bling' and how many gold teeth you got," Dyson says. "It's time for them to step up to the plate and be challenged."
FIRST TARGET? If nothing else, having Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre chomping on chilled shrimp at Hill fundraisers will provide quite a show. "Celebrity status means the media covers it," Thurber notes. While there is little fear that government will ever actually ban rap music, quashing attempts at censorship remains a priority -- a "good organizing point," as Simmons puts it. One possible lobbying target is the Media Marketing Accountability Act, which would prohibit the marketing of adult-rated entertainment to children and has drawn ire from music, movie, and television executives.
The group remains convinced its opening act will go platinum. "We probably caught a few people sleeping who didn't think we would do this," says Muhammad. Still, it's a long way from notching hits on the Billboard charts to seeing legislation passed. Now Nu America has to put some emphasis on the "action" in political action committee. By Rod Kurtz in Washington