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A Rocky Political Period for the Rock the Vote Campaign

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A parade of big-name pop music stars, from Madonna to Michael Stipe, have stared into the camera to endorse Rock the Vote since its birth in 1990, but no famous face has been more closely associated with the youth voter registration effort than its greatest beneficiary, President Bill Clinton.

In the wake of the 1992 election, that identification was cause for celebration.

In 1999, however . . .

The Clinton scandals and subsequent impeachment proceedings have created a wave of apathy or disgust among the American people, according to various polls. That may be especially true of the youth who turned out in force in 1992 to help push Clinton to victory and, in the process, create a defining moment for Rock the Vote. Those gains, however, slid back in 1996 and have gone further south in the years since.

As Rock the Vote prepares to honor Wyclef Jean and Neil Young during its sixth annual awards ceremony Tuesday at the House of Blues, the turnaround leaves the organization facing a tough question, according to its president, Seth Matlins.

“How do you sell political participation at a time when the state of politics is just so repulsive?” he asked this week.

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The group’s answer is to shift its core focus away from political arenas and toward civic activism.

In short, with the national political scene running short of heroes these days, Rock the Vote is going out to find its own. A new campaign will debut soon featuring testimonials from young people who have worked in their communities for education and other causes.

“We’ll still use celebrities, but now young people will also be the stars, the heroes,” Matlins said.

That’s a departure for the Culver City-based nonprofit organization that was created in 1991 by music industry leaders who wanted to organize young voters by spreading the word about freedom of speech issues. The effort found its biggest spotlight a year later when Clinton’s campaign reached out to youth.

The nonpartisan group does not endorse candidates, but it became closely identified when Clinton cited Rock the Vote as a key contributors to the victory.

Indeed, the election saw a 20% jump in 18- to 24-year-old voters from the previous presidential election, a surge that bucked a 20-year trend in declining youth vote, and Rock the Vote took credit for registering 350,000 new voters and sending 2 million young people to the polls.

“It was like catching a wave,” says Rock the Vote founder Jeff Ayeroff, co-president of Work Records. “Everything took off . . . but if 1992 was about enlightenment, we’re in the dark ages now.”

The young people who saw Clinton as tuned into their views now may be tuning out. In 1996, Clinton was reelected, but the youth voter turnout tumbled from 42% to 29%, and, in the wake of the recent scandals, Matlins says, the group is even more disaffected and disinterested.

“All of their hopes have seemingly been dashed,” Matlins said. “Clinton embodied what we were speaking about. . . . Now a lot of young people are disappointed.”

The backlash, of course, is not exclusive to young people. The congressional election in November saw the lowest voter turnout since 1942, with only 36% of the eligible population casting ballots. Can Rock the Vote help turn that around for the 2000 election?

To Wyclef Jean, who will be honored Tuesday for his charity work, the key to winning back youthful excitement in politics occurred to him when he was discussing the impeachment proceedings with his teen sister, who was disgusted with the direction of politics.

“I told her she was right, everything is messed up in D.C.,” Jean said. “But I told her that when things are messed up, you don’t walk away. That’s not a reason to give up; it’s a reason to get busy.”

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At the Crossroads--Another awards ceremony coming to Los Angeles during Grammy Week also finds itself wrestling with its future.

On Thursday, the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s 10th Annual Pioneer Awards caps a decade of supporting oft-forgotten R&B; stars who have fallen on hard times. But, in an unkind twist, the charity itself is now grappling with money problems and an uncertain direction.

The foundation will hand out a record $260,000 next week, when it honors a dozen pioneers, including John Lee Hooker and Patti LaBelle, at a ceremony at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City. But finding money and star support to continue that mission is getting increasingly difficult, according to board member Bonnie Raitt.

“This isn’t cocktail party talk,” the singer-guitarist said this week. “This is about justice. It’s about getting people money to pay for teeth, instruments, their rent, their mortgage, medicine.”

Money is not the lone issue: Raitt says the foundation’s crusade for royalty reform has lagged as various record labels have been slow to fulfill their promises to veteran R&B; artists.

That fight and the charity effort to recognize and support the genre’s pioneers began a decade ago with $1.5 million in seed money from Atlantic Records and a $450,000 grant from what is now Time Warner. The foundation’s founder, Washington attorney Howell Begle, said record labels were contributing a combined $500,000 per year up until a few years ago, but many of those companies “fell by the wayside.”

The foundation is now dipping for the first time into its original endowment to pay its costs--which include extensive archive programs, school outreach efforts and other programs. Begle resigned from the foundation earlier this year because he disagreed with its direction and had concerns about the organization’s internal debate about relying on the record labels for money while also “bashing them on the head” about royalty reform.

“I wish the foundation well,” said Begle, a key reform advocate. “It has challenges ahead of it.”

In a separate interview, Atlantic Records founder and foundation board member Ahmet Ertegun said he believes the charity must call on major record companies in upcoming months to make an annual donation commitment. Without that steady stream of money, Ertegun said, the clock may be ticking on the foundation’s mission.

“We’ve given a lot of money to needy rhythm and blues artists . . . but we will need further financial support to continue that,” Ertegun said. “Short of that, we will have to curtail the amount of help that we give or sustain the current level until we run out.”

This year’s honorees are the late Johnny Adams, Garnet Mimms, Mickey Baker, the original members of the Drifters, Brenda Holloway, LaBelle and the Bluetones, the Manhattans and Dee Dee Warwick. Hooker, the bluesman who is celebrating his 50th year as a performer, will be honored with a lifetime achievement award. Smokey Robinson will emcee, and performers include Eric Clapton and Wyclef Jean.


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