A Politician Who Runs on Hip-Hop

Times Staff Writer

Amid thundering rap music and the cheers of 8,000 young fans, the handsome star moved to center stage and, the way hip-hop heroes usually do, called out the name of that night’s arena crowd. “What’s up, Detroit? What’s up, Detroit?”

The man at the microphone, though, was no rapper. He was Kwame M. Kilpatrick, the elected leader of this city and, according to his introduction at this rally, “America’s hip-hop mayor.” That description makes the 32-year-old Kilpatrick roll his eyes -- it is too limiting to his taste, too gimmicky for a man trying to cure problems in a famously troubled metropolis -- but he acknowledges there is some truth and power to the singular title.

Rap music is already one of the most potent forces in American youth culture, and its imprint has changed the rhythms in film, advertising, fashion and television. Some observers look here and wonder if this youthful mayor -- the one who had a rap campaign song and loves to quote the gritty street parables of Tupac Shakur -- represents the arrival of hip-hop in a major elected office. Could the administration of Kwame M. Kilpatrick become a template for using the music-based culture to marshal young votes?


At the arena appearance last month, for an event billed as a “hip-hop summit,” the towering Kilpatrick hailed the local energy of rap, youth and inner-city political activism, and said it could be a model for urban hubs across the nation.

“Detroit,” the mayor announced to loud cheers, “is a shining example in this world of revolutionary change.” It was the type of speech that helped Kilpatrick energize his youthful constituency, as evidenced by a 40% increase in turnout among voters ages 18 to 40 from the previous mayoral race.

Still, campaigning and leading are different tasks. Kilpatrick’s 16-month reign in the nation’s 10th-largest city has been an uneven affair.

He has won points for a reorganization of the city’s police department, the creation of volunteer programs and the reviving of a lucrative casino development deal. But he has also been criticized for running fast and loose with his facts, being disorganized and grinding the gears when it comes to dealing with personalities within Detroit’s powerful, corporate old guard. One local political consultant, who asked not to be identified, said the mayor “tells everyone what he wants the truth to be, not what the actual truth is.”

That may be partisan sniping, but Kilpatrick’s critics, his supporters and even the mayor himself agree that the leader of Detroit is an impatient man.

To the rap fans at the Cobo Arena summit, though, Kilpatrick’s words sound more like youthful urgency. Watching the crowd’s embrace of Kilpatrick, visiting U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) wondered when hip-hop would find its way into other corners of U.S. politics.


“I think that this mayor has an opportunity to help forge a new political agenda, and he has an opportunity to bring a lot of young people into politics,” Waters said. “Much of hip-hop culture is born out of rap about conditions of the cities, the problems, the police abuse and all of that. The rappers have helped to describe what’s wrong in our society and the need to address it. That’s a natural lead to politics and public policy. Now with people like the mayor becoming part of the political process, it should all come together, to converge.”

There are skeptics. David Bositis, executive director of the Center for Joint Political and Economic Studies, said music can add sizzle to a campaign, but that hip-hop, at its core, is not in tune with activism. “Hip-hop is individualistic,” Bositis said. “It seems to be fixated on material gain and enterprise. I don’t think you see in this music the sort of themes or messages that bring people together for common cause.”

Noted social critic Stanley Crouch is even more dismissive of rap-as-politics, although he is a fan of Kilpatrick’s budding political career.

“What’s political about a platinum necklace or rapping about a woman taking her drawers off? It’s like Dick and Jane with dirty words; it’s not a very complex art form or much of anything,” Crouch said. “But this mayor is a very, very intelligent and impressive man. If he can use it to say something important, like to stop shooting each other or stay in school and stop being a co-conspirator in their own degradation, then I’m all for that.”

The April 26 hip-hop summit in Detroit was a curious and intriguing event. It had a celebrity presence, including superstar and local hero Eminem. But instead of a concert, it was a series of panel discussions on the music industry and the political potential of hip-hop. It was the largest in a series of similar events organized chiefly by people working for record executive Russell Simmons.

In the 1980s, as co-founder of Def Jam Records, Simmons was a pioneering rap mogul, but these days most of his time is spent trying to create a fuller political life for himself and his genre.

In Detroit, Simmons and his group announced a new voter registration initiative with a goal of signing up 4 million young people in each of the next five years. Last week, the Rev. Al Sharpton, among the candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, announced that Simmons would be tapping big-name rappers to help the presidential hopeful’s own registration drive and campaign.

If young voters can be energized, Simmons said, Kilpatrick is the type of leader who will have a strong appeal to them. The mayor “is part of a generation that will be becoming the leadership in the years to come,” Simmons said. “That leadership will have lived hip-hop.”

Backstage at the Cobo Arena, with the booming sound of recorded rap audible through the walls, a camera crew from the BBC was sitting down with Kilpatrick to hear about the political backbeat in rap music. The mayor, as usual, was a fluid and charming subject with a winning smile and a message that bundled inner-city economic opportunity with youth activism and pragmatic leadership.

“There has been really no revolution in world history that’s been started without young people,” he told the foreign journalists. “Whether it was Tiananmen Square or it was the civil rights movement in America.” Interestingly, Kilpatrick said that within the city’s black community, the civil rights generation -- the generation of his parents -- has put up the most resistance to Kilpatrick as a candidate and then mayor. Senior citizens view him “as the grandkid who did it right,” and the younger voters embrace him as a cultural peer. “The people in between, though, they think my generation isn’t ready yet, that we didn’t have to struggle.”

Kilpatrick grew up on Detroit’s west side, and as a youth his defining competitions were in two games: football and politics. The former would take the 6-foot-5 athlete to Florida A&M; University, but when his professional aspirations fizzled, it was politics that gave him a career.

The son of a state representative and a Wayne County commissioner, he had learned plenty about Michigan politics. His mother, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, now a congresswoman representing Detroit, showed him a devoted liberal in action, and his father, Bernard Kilpatrick, illustrated a savvy campaigner and hard-nosed politician. Kilpatrick took from both of their examples.

A stint as a schoolteacher and a tenure in the state Legislature prepared Kilpatrick even more and, in 2000, the national Democratic Party’s leadership council included Kilpatrick as one of the country’s 10 young Democrats to watch. By then he was giving motivational speeches at prisons, which he still does. Inevitably, he sees someone he knows from childhood or hears that another former high school teammate is a killer or killer’s victim.

The grim realities he saw in the streets that stretched out from his parents’ block are one of the reasons he has a passion for rap music. Instead of glorification of street violence, he views the music as a documentary of the nation’s inner-city life, its struggles and its joys. He also sees the music as inherently political because of that documentary aspect. Parents should discuss rap with their kids, he said, not ban it from their homes.

“This is the music that speaks to young people and speaks to me,” Kilpatrick said backstage, where the music’s blare reverberated. “I am in the hip-hop generation, and it’s the music I grew up with.”

To political consultant Mike McKeon, that makes Kilpatrick a new type of lightning rod. “There is so much passion for this music and so much power in it, it can pull people together,” McKeon said. “But, you know, the flip side is a lot of people will be instantly turned off by it.”

The generation gap created by rap is the widest in pop music since the counterculture era of the 1960s, and the mayor of Detroit represents the most significant elected official to stand on the youth side of that gap.

More specifically, few elected politicians would appear on stage shoulder to shoulder with the controversial Eminem, as Kilpatrick did at the summit, or cite as their favorite new artist the rapper 50 Cent, an unrepentant street tough who has a penchant for getting shot.

Politicians have often used music to send messages about generations. When Bill Clinton played Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” at rallies, it sent a signal about who he was and who he wasn’t. When a campaigning Kilpatrick used a hip-hop song called “The Future ... Right Here, Right Now,” it instantly set him apart from his opponent, a 68-year-old former police officer. When Kilpatrick won, he spent his victory night club-hopping in the city’s night scene.

Waters said she knows many young, black politicians who are rap fans in private but, unlike Kilpatrick, will not publicly embrace the music. That boldness earned Kilpatrick the title of the “playah mayah” in the Source, the rap world’s leading magazine, and likely works better in Detroit than any other major U.S. city. The city has a black population hovering above 80% and a youthful streak that stems from an ongoing population exodus (the city’s population has halved in the last 50 years), not to mention a growing gallery of home-grown music stars, including Eminem, Kid Rock, D12 and Slum Village.

“Here, this was the place for the first hip-hop politician, it had to be,” said Michael “MC Serch” Berrin, a former member of the rap group 3rd Bass and a radio personality in Detroit. “In 15 years, someone will be saying that hip-hop has become a political entity, and they’ll look back to this city and this mayor.”

The effusiveness about the charismatic Kilpatrick goes beyond his hip-hop constituency (the Chicago Tribune called him “the black Bill Clinton,” for instance), but the creaking city of Detroit could easily bruise his political career. Crime, vast legions of condemned buildings, economic stagnation and racial tensions are not easily tamed, no matter what the soundtrack.

Bill Ballinger, editor of a statewide political newsletter, says Kilpatrick has done better than his critics expected and, after an early reputation for brashness, has broadened his reach. “It’s been a mixed bag, but as a person he has impressed people, and there is reason to believe he will get some things done.”

Kilpatrick has a hard time waiting: “Detroit can’t continue to exist and not move along. I don’t want to waste any more time. This is about where Detroit needs to be positioned to compete globally in the next 10 years.”

Backstage at the summit, sitting on a couch between Waters and Reverend Run of Run DMC, Kilpatrick said that in his case, rap neither defines the politics nor the politician. It’s just the music he likes and an instant -- and organic -- connection to young people.

“Hey, I won the seniors vote too, and nobody talks about that,” Kilpatrick said. “But with them I’m singing gospel songs.”