Using wrestlers, rappers to rouse young voters

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- When you think about it, the idea of rappers and wrestlers getting together to lure young people to the polls is not such an outlandish concept.

After all, the two entertainment industries have so much in common:

Each panders with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the overheated fantasies of teen-age males.

Each operates in a pretend world. Professional wrestling pretends that it's a sport and a lot of rap is only pretending to be music.

And, most important for our current discussion, each has superstars seen and heard by loyal young fans who don't want to see or hear much of anything else their elders have to say.

It was upon this common ground that hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records and the Hip-Hop Action Summit Network, came together at the National Press Club this week with professional wrestling kingpin Vince McMahon, chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment.

They were jointly announcing "Smackdown Your Vote!" -- a national campaign to persuade 2 million more 18-to-30-year-olds to register and vote in the 2004 presidential election than registered and voted in 2000. That year, the wrestlers registered more than 15,000 people before the November elections.

Whatever you think of his musical tastes, Mr. Simmons, 45, is a business genius of our times. He founded Def Jam in 1984 and expanded later into TV shows (Def Comedy Jam and Def Poetry on HBO), movies (The Nutty Professor, starring Eddie Murphy), theater (Def Poetry on Broadway, which won a Tony) and clothing (Phat Farm).

And, like other impresarios, Mr. Simmons couldn't resist the lure of the high-stakes entertainment industry known as politics. He co-founded the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network in 2001 with Benjamin F. Chavis, whom many will remember for being fired in 1994 as executive director of the NAACP.

"Now I'm back to doing what I've always really wanted to do," he told me at the Washington news conference. The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network is a nonprofit coalition of rappers, music executives and political activists of old and new schools of thought.

The big question is, will the voter registration push work? There have been earlier efforts such as MTV's Rock the Vote and radio disk jockey Tom Joyner's national bus tour for voter registration prior to the 2000 election. The under-25 crowd still has a voter turnout rate of slightly more than 30 percent, compared with a two-thirds turnout for the over-45 crowd.

Even in 1992, when the turnout of voters under age 25 was the highest of any year since 18-year-olds first got the vote in 1972, the turnout of all other voters also surged upward, leaving the usual margin between young and old.

Still, Mr. Simmons was optimistic, pointing out the success of Detroit's 32-year-old Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a.k.a. the "Hip-Hop Mayor," who won in 2000 with a 40 percent increase in voters ages 18 to 40 over the previous race.

Mr. Simmons has a point. All you have to do to get young people politicized is to give them someone and something to believe in.

And experience shows the most important steps such a mobilization movement can take would be to:

1. Get the youngsters registered.

2. Work a vigorous door-to-door get-out-the-vote campaign on Election Day.

3. Protect the vote, as civil rights activists would say in the 1960s, to avoid the sort of debacle we saw in Florida in 2000.

For example, a close examination of the Florida ballots by a consortium of eight newspapers investigating the 2000 election aftermath found that more Floridians attempted to choose Al Gore over George W. Bush, but more Gore supporters improperly marked their ballots, leaving Mr. Bush with more valid votes.

Whether or not that Gore undercount was helped along by shenanigans, as some claim, the best way for grass-roots activists to avoid such problems is to train voters and poll workers in advance on how to vote and how to watch out for dirty tricksters.

Most important for reaching young voters is that, like other voters, somebody has to show them there's something in it for them. Here the candidates can help. Instead of giving up on young voters, they should reach out to them. They don't even have to be wrestlers or rap stars. They only have to take the time to show they care.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at cpage@tribune.com.

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