Political hip-hop parlays on the election battle

Published in the Vancouver Observer | November 15, 2011 | Circulation: 99,000 unique monthly readers

Dubgee -- aka Harley James Rose -- performs at a campaign event at the Media Club this week. Photo by David P. Ball

Might a rap battle between politicians help get out the vote?

With voter turnout expected to continue at historic lows today, the idea was floated during this campaign by independent mayoral candidate Dubgee – a rapper running under his stage name who this week was suggested as a protest-vote-alternative to Mayor Gregor Robertson in the Georgia Straight.

Hip-hop isn’t your usual electoral terrain, but this week the Vancouver Observer parlayed (talked) with three rappers to discuss voting, politics and the issues sidelined by the media.

“I mean, realistically, I’m a musician,” Harley James Rose, aka Dubgee, admitted. “I don’t want power over the city right now. My goal was really to raise awareness of the issues and try to raise the voter turnout in my neighbourhood.”

“I took two months out of my life, and I’m broke. I got no job, I’m on the verge of eviction here. For me to take that time and energy out of my life and put it into something this big, I really hope that people will be inspired to take 30 minutes out of their day to go out and vote for somebody who’ll actually make the changes – somebody who’s honest.”

On Hastings, in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, rapper The Dirty Sample – aka Planit, real name Josh Thorp – ends his manager shift atSave-On-Meats and joins me in a booth over coffee. The veteran Calgary-born rapper, who moved here two years ago, donated the proceeds of his latest album – Kings EP – to Vision Vancouver. He expressed concern for housing affordability, homelessness and gentrification in the Downtown Eastside.

“I don’t know how much I want to talk about supporting (Vision) – it’s my own personal politics,” he cautioned. “But I think they’ve got some positive ideas. There’s some projects Vision has done — to lower rent is a big one for me, more low-income housing for people. People gotta live, if we’re all equal we should all have housing.”

“Mostly, I make sure I go and vote every year, and I tell people around me to go and vote. We live in Canada and we get the chance to vote. God, look what’s happening in the world where people have to fight the oppressor to even have a chance to live as an equal human being.”

Thorp, 30, pauses to think about some rhymes he’s penned about social issues from what he estimates are his 16 albums. His hands bounce in staccato with the rhythm as he spits out lyrics from his album Two Blue Apes (The Modern Day Lo-Fi Experiment):

“Sweatshops and slave ships
Pirates and divinity
Armies of poor folk who claim they have their dignity.” (Listen to MP3)

“What I’m talking about is we’ve got all these problems in the world,” he said. “There’s all these big things to look at. We’ve gotta start somewhere, why not start big?”

“That’s one thing about hip-hop that’s beautiful, is everyone can relate to it in their own sense. I’d love to see more political artists coming out of hip-hop”

The question of hip-hop politics is historic, explained Toronto rapper Mohammad Ali, an organizer in the anti-war and student movements.

“Hip-hop started out as a response to the failures of the civil rights movement,” Ali told the Vancouver Observer by phone. “After civil and political rights were won, it fell well short of meeting people’s human rights because of the economic aspects.”

“There was a rejection of this form of political organizing – like marching on Washington – in favour of backyard politics, more grassroots goals and focusing on the community at hand and not the larger national stage.”

This localization of political struggle created the community organizing model widely used today among activists, more radical anti-poverty workers, and advocacy organizations like ACORN, which has led voter registration drives in communities of colour in the U.S. and bases its model on grassroots empowerment.

“There was at its core a rejection of organized politics in the birth of hip-hop,” Ali says. So what of a hip-hop mayor? Turns out Rose – aka Dubgee – is not the first. In fact, Detroit had a self-described ‘hip-hop mayor’ from 2002-2008, Ali says — Kwame M. Kilpatrick. “When you ask, ‘Should hip-hop engage on an electoral level?’ you’ve got to keep in mind that originally it came out of a rejection of the failures and limitations of the electoral system.”

“But there is a place for it. As long as hip-hop is rooted in the community, then it’s still hip-hop. The key is running for office with that community support. hip-hop is always an extension of the community and working for the community.”

Rose agreed with Ali that election campaigns are an uncomforable terrain for rappers, particularly because hip-hop is historically critical of the system.

“Hip-hop’s always been about social issues, especially poverty, women’s equality,” Rose said. “Success isn’t winning the election.”

“Being able to parlay with society is important in raising awareness about social issues. Songs are used in so many communities to bring people together. I didn’t ever think for a second that I would come close to winning this election.”

Rose said his campaign has focused on issues ignored by the mainstream media – missing and murdered Indigenous women in the Downtown Eastside, developer influence on City Hall, and police brutality to name a few. In fact, last night he released a free track on his website, his final effort to shape the election: a remix of renowned rapper group NWA’s ‘Fuck the Police.’

Last Monday, Dubgee performed at the Media Club to promote his campaign. Dubgee took the stage and threw his support behind fellow mayoral candidate Randy Helten, whose Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV) candidates were in the audience, along with independent candidate and Occupy Vancouver camper Lauren Gill.

Rose launched into one of his first campaign songs – ‘Relevant Development‘ – which accuses City Hall of being under the control of the development and real estate industries:

“Back to the lecture at hand – you know its shitty
Irrelevant Development all over Vancity
It start at City Hall we offered this and that
But when the buildings are done, developers take it back.
(…)
We probably just some NPA hacks
I heard the mayorship was for the city so I’m taking it back
We just need some relevant development up in the hood
City Hall and Developers up to no good.”

Rose landed himself in hot water earlier in the campaign when he criticizedCoalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) candidate RJ Aquino, who he accused of being unwittingly chosen to run simply because he’s Filipino. In another campaign song – ‘Connect the Dots‘ – he sings:

“Let’s get to Vision’s slick regular player
He talked COPE into not even running a fuckin’ mayor
His website and fundraiser is a tokenizing joke
While Mable Elmore and Aquino got that ethnic vote.”

Despite getting a sympathetic interview on a Filipino community radio programme shortly after, understandably Rose’s call-out (criticism) wasn’t well-received in other circles.

“I’m not upset, I’m more disappointed,” Aquino said. “We have somebody who’s decided to throw his hat in the ring and has the ability to deliver a coherent message. Instead he’s using it to fabricate accusations.”

“It really came out of left field. He made an assumption about me without meeting me. I don’t know where his opinion comes from. He’s a really thoughtful guy who’s articulate and passionate. He could be using his voice for so much more.”

Thorpe said his approach to political issues is to focus on the positive and collective responsibility for problems – not individual attacks.

“I try to talk about it in a worldly sense rather a direct attack – like, we as the people should be doing better than that, instead of blaming a person,” he said. “What does that do? You can call out people all you want. It’s funny because when people get face to face, you just end up talking. Calling people out is not my style.”

In fact, when Rose met Aquino at an all-candidates debate several weeks ago, the two had what Rose described as “an awkwardly long handshake” and conceded that his criticism was more directed at COPE for agreeing to run alongside Vision and not field a mayoral candidate.

“That was a big statement to put out there,” Rose admitted of his ethnic-tokenizing accusation. “Maybe I’m wrong.”

“(Aquino) kind of caught a potshot — he got the brunt of it. I said, ‘I’d love to sit down and talk with you — prove me wrong.’ I don’t need to sling mud or dirt and don’t want to.”

Thorpe pauses in our diner-booth conversation to fist-bump a customer, and explains that the Downtown Eastside is the first place he’s felt at home since moving to Vancouver – a neighbourhood he feels needs more respect and prominence in the election.

“I’ve got to meet a lot of dope people – people in suits and people pushing carts,” he said. “There’s something about the DTES that really is amazing. It’s sadly beautiful.”

Regardless of which way people lean politically, Thorpe agrees with Rose on one point – people need to get involved in their community, and an important facet of that is voting.

“You don’t see a lot of youth going out to vote for the mayor of their city,” Thorpe said. “If someone got the youth really involved in it, you could see a huge change in that.”

“If you started at a young age, as they get older they’ll keep doing it and form a sort of culture that wants to do it. But that’s not on me, I’m not a politician nor will I ever be.”

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