It’s 54 days before the U.S. Presidential election, and Reverend Lennox Yearwood Jr. is fired up and passionate. He’s not hype about any particular candidate, but rather the power of the hip hop community and young people’s influence on politics. The 43-year-old president of the Hip Hop Caucus had a lot to say about why young people aren’t voting, artists taking "I'm not voting" stances, and what the Democratic and Republican campaigns need to be more focused on. He’s bridging the gap between hip hop commentary and political mobilization through honesty, tough love and concern for the people he represents.
"In hip hop, we are very political, but sometimes not very good at being organized," Yearwood told BET.com. "So [the Hip Hop Caucus] is really about how we get our community to be organized, so we can be much more effective.”
The Hip Hop Caucus has been organizing young people to be active in elections, policy making, and service projects, since its conception in 2004. With the 2012 elections around the corner, they’re fueling the Respect My Vote campaign to promote that same work across the United States and encourage more members of the hip hop community to hit the polls.
"We’re building things for the future. Because what we see now, while this is President Obama's last election, this won’t be our last election. So what are we going to do so that we just don’t get to November 6 and stop? We want to continue to build the hip hop community," he shared.
There are over 657,000 Hip Hop Caucus supporters across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Approximately 70 percent are under the age of 40, 60 percent are women, and the majority are African-American and Latino. The HHC has received major celebrity endorsements, including T.I., Keyshia Cole, 2 Chainz and Monica. However, it’s not focused on the glitz and glam of building a political campaign, rather it’s working steadfast to create a strong and educated grassroots network.
"We’re non-partisan. We want people to make that decision. We want an educated voter. We want somebody who looks at the ballot and can critique," explained the Reverend.
He was clear that voter empowerment is bigger than any particular candidate and even President Obama, the incumbent candidate.
"If I’m just voting because I see somebody’s skin color or because the D or R behind the name, then that’s not going to be empowering for them or for even that candidate in the long-term," Yearwood explained.
Yearwood is serious about his voters knowing the facts and being able to make the best candidate selections for themselves. He is advocating for both the Democratic and Republican campaigns to play closer attention to the issues affecting the hip hop community, and not just the plight of the middle class.
"I would want Barack Obama and clearly Mitt Romney to begin to look more at issues of poverty. Clearly, the issues that affect our community are criminal justice and the prison industrial complex, which has over 2 million people incarcerated, definitely health care and pollution, which is critical," said the HHC leader.
He cited a few tragic examples of policy failing to protect impoverished citizens, including young kids getting asthma at alarming rates and parents getting cancer due to unregulated pollution in their communities. He also encouraged each candidate to invest more in college education, Pell grants and HBCUs, which build a "pipeline for educating people of color."
Many presidential candidates have disregarded the communities that face these issues above, primarily due to their low voter turnout. Yearwood cautions Obama and Romney from following suit, and feels the focus should not be on the past, but rather getting them to vote now.
“[Do not] disregard a base of people because the numbers don’t show they voted in the past, but figure out what we have to do to make sure they can vote. That’s one of the most alarming things about this election. There have also been groups that have also been targeting this group not to vote,” said the advocate.
The passion and frustration rose in his voice as he listed some of the similar challenges contemporary voters are facing to the Civil Rights era. Across the country, right-wing parties are attempting to put in extra requirements for voting that could prohibit demographics, like hip hop communities and youth, from voting.
"We cannot go back to a place where we’re putting in modern day poll tax," he said. "Where we’re creating modern day Jim Crow laws. We can’t go back to that route. That isn’t democracy. That isn’t what makes our country strong."
It isn’t just right-wing fundamentalists that are working to suppress these communities’ votes. There are artists as well that have taken public stances on why they’re not voting without considering the vast impact of their words and the context in which they’re being received. In particular, hip hop star Lupe Fiasco has been vocal about his decision not to go to the ballots or support any candidate due to the corruption of the U.S. government and its foreign policies. However, Yearwood will not be deterred in his mission, and even hosted Lupe at a Respect My Vote town hall. He said that there is power in them collaborating.
"I can approach it from an institutional perspective. [Lupe] can approach it from an individual perspective as an artist and a celebrity. And then we can merge that," Yearwood explained. "Then, when we merge that, we can have one of those moments where Dr. King and Harry Belafonte were merging ideas. Or when Ali and Malcolm X were merging ideas and discussing all those types of things. So we can have those kinds of moments. So that’s [Lupe] and for him, I think he was like, oh, OK, I can understand what this means because if I start from don’t get involved and you don’t even know what you’re getting involved with, I’ve already cut out a step for somebody else."
Between organizing celebrities, public conversations and grassroots activism, Yearwood emphasizes the importance of empowering young people to know that their votes hold weight and immense power. It’s about instilling confidence in their personal ability to mobilize change.
“You’re saying more about you when you say that your vote doesn’t count than the system," he warns. "When you say that you’re not going to vote because it doesn’t matter. You’re really saying that you don’t matter."
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(Photo: Paul Morigi/WireImage)