The scene is one you'd expect in an election year: The university gym hums with lobbyists, activists, and political committee members, all engaged in serious conversation. Men in suits and less well-heeled college students hand out fliers about upcoming legislation and community meetings.
But punctuating the polite proceedings is a blast of catchy hip-hop music, signaling that this is not your parents' political convention. A thumping bass is so loud it drowns out the rhyming lyrics. And the speakers discuss less than mainstream topics, such as "How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office," alongside "Where Are All the Jobs: Living Wages and the New Labor Movement."
This is an attempt to get more African-Americans, especially youths, involved in politics, to move beyond MTV and into the voting booth. For several years now the hip-hop community has been aiming to show that it is about more than just gang wars and flashy baubles - from Sean "P. Diddy" Combs negotiating to host his own political talk show to a rally two years ago in New York City, where a number of hip-hop celebrities and 100,000 others protested education cuts.
Now, the first-ever National Hip-Hop Political Convention, which concluded last weekend, has sounded themes of voter awareness and responsibility, encouraging as many people as possible in a widening hip-hop fan base to get involved. "There is tremendous clout within the hip-hop community," says Bakari Kitwana, an activist in the rap music world and author of "The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture." "People need to realize and exploit this power that exists."
The Newark gathering, which drew more than 4,000 people, included such pivotal members of the hip-hop industry as rap artists Busta Rhymes and Wyclef Jean. Many of the featured attendees saw the convention as an opportunity to clarify hip-hop's image.
"The purpose of this convention is to dispel myths - myths that members of the hip-hop community may have about politics, myths that the rest of America may have about the hip-hop community," explains Maya Enista, East Coast coordinator of MTV's Rock the Vote campaign.
Ms. Enista stresses that the convention is not so much about aligning the hip-hop community with one political agenda as it is about creating political awareness and directing responsibility to members of the rap and hip-hop music culture.
"The entrance of hip-hop to the political world is revolutionary, and it is badly needed," says convention co-chair and co-founder Ras Baraka, who is also the deputy mayor of Newark. "What we are trying to do is explore the most crucial, political element of music and poetry. We are not allowing the misogynist, violent images of rap and hip-hop, to which people are often exposed, speak for all of us."
A panelist at the convention, MC Lyte, couldn't agree more. "As artists, we have a tremendous responsibility to be role models to our fans," says the well-known DJ.
Convention organizers are eager to move hip-hop music away not only from any negative connotations it may have but also from the closely aligned genre of "gangsta rap," a music form that openly promotes sexist views, gang violence, and drug use. Rather, event organizers say they are trying to develop a broader national agenda for the hip-hop community that focuses on issues such as police brutality, healthcare reform, and a lack of jobs.
Of course, this is not the first time popular music has been used as a tool of expressing social and political unrest. Consider Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, who found enormous success with their antiwar 1960s protest songs.
"The relationship between music and politics is a very old one," says William Galston, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy in College Park. "But this movement is particularly interesting because it now enables the consumers of hip-hop to become the producers of their own politics."