Welcome to Atlanta, where the players politic.
Anger, fear, new voters, PAC money, minority turnout – these are often credited with shaping elections. What you don’t tend to hear is that rappers in hip-hop’s modern mecca educated voters and got them to the polls to help bounce an incumbent out of the White House.
That’s what happened in November. Atlanta’s hip-hop community hit the streets and beauty and barber shops, took to Instagram and YouTube, and helmed voter drives to help turn Georgia from red to blue – and they’re working to flip the US Senate in the state’s runoffs next week.
This isn’t to say Atlanta rappers alone secured President-elect Joe Biden’s big W, but when one considers Biden’s victory hinged on flipping a handful of states, and Georgia – which hadn’t voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since 1992 – was decided by fewer than 13,000 of its 5 million ballots, the ATLiens’ impact feels undeniable.
“Minus the hip-hop involvement, we might have had a different outcome,” said Killer Mike, one half of Run the Jewels and a 20-year veteran of his hometown rap scene. “I don’t know of one person in hip-hop who did not do something, from Migos to Lil Baby. I’ve seen everyone from our community take part in some way.”
The 2020 election demonstrates every vote matters, said Derrick Darby, a Rutgers University philosophy professor who studies the intersection of hip-hop and politics and co-hosts “A Pod Called Quest.”
“What that means is in places like Atlanta, Georgia, and more broadly in places that were so closely contested, every single effort to get out the vote was absolutely essential for the outcome we got,” he said. “Artists like Killer Mike, like T.I., Usher, Janelle Monae, they appreciate the celebrity platform and the duties of citizenship that require them to be engaged in using their platform to transform politics.”
Feeding poll workers and voter drives
Atlanta has its way of doing things. The 2020 election was no exception.
Big Boi of OutKast sent meals to hungry poll workers, while Offset of Migos fed folks waiting in line to vote. 2 Chainz educated ex-convicts on their voting rights. T.I. lent his Trap Music Museum for a voter drive. EarthGang and Janelle Monae joined Michelle Obama for voting initiatives.
Even exotic dancers – not necessarily always aligned with hip-hop but who in Atlanta were integral to promoting the local rap scene before the city’s trap music carved out its own subgenre – got in on the politics. Director Angela Barnes saw her viral “Get Your Booty to the Poll” public service announcement as a means of addressing down-ballot issues and the marginalization of Black voters, she said.
“Turning the state blue went through the Blue Flame,” Killer Mike said, referring to one of the city’s famed adult clubs.
As President Donald Trump’s team boasted of meetings with Lil Wayne and Ice Cube, Atlanta’s Jermaine Dupri, Monica and Ludacris joined Biden’s get-out-the-vote efforts targeting Black voters in swing states. Ahead of a highly anticipated Verzuz battle, Jeezy and Gucci Mane lent Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams their stage and street cred for a message touting the importance of voting January 5.
The former gubernatorial candidate spoke about Covid-19 response, stimulus money and offering second chances to ex-convicts like her younger brother, Walter, before Gucci seamlessly flowed into one of his Jeezy dis records, “The dope game hard; the rap game easy …”
Killer Mike, a longtime backer of US Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, continued his political advocacy well after his candidate dropped out of the presidential race. He’s joined an incoming county prosecutor’s transition team, applauding her stance on restorative justice, and has been filming PSAs ahead of the Senate runoffs, following up on his work before the election.
While he’s happy to advocate for the Rev. Raphael Warnock and he appreciates Jon Ossoff’s team reaching out to him, he said, he’s not shy in letting the Democratic candidates know how they can best serve Black Georgians. (They face Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively.)
For the son of a policeman, that means reminding the Democrats that many Southerners, like him, are “fiercely pro-Second Amendment,” he said.
“It’s important to use every weapon at your disposal to fortify your community,” the Grammy-winning rhymesmith told CNN. “If I don’t like your policy, I’m going to call bulls**t, and I’m going to speak against you publicly.”
No one should be surprised. After Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in May, propelling Atlanta and other cities into days of fiery protest, Killer Mike and T.I. appeared alongside Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to appeal for calm. Mike also tapped the platform for a broader message: It was time for Atlantans to “plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize” and take their anger to the polls to hold mayors, prosecutors and others accountable.
In the footsteps of Dead Prez, Public Enemy
Darby calls rap “a tool of empowerment,” and he credits numerous hip-hop artists with helping deliver him to Rutgers University from New York’s Queensbridge Houses, the project that also gave birth to Nas and Mobb Deep.
“I had (Nas’ debut) ‘Illmatic,’ Mobb Deep. I had Rakim. I had Wu-Tang. I had (Big Daddy Kane) – all of those voices that were giving me what I needed to get through it,” he said. “They were my inspiration.”
In 2016, Darby conducted a TED Talk on how mastering the fifth element of hip-hop – “doing the knowledge” – punched his ticket to higher education and the scholar’s life. He finds rap is an especially useful tool when it comes to amplifying oft-overlooked Black, brown and young voices, he said.
T.I. takes the responsibility of representation seriously. He understands why fellow Black Americans are weary and skeptical of the political machine. At the same time, he feels an obligation to extol the ways in which they can harness the rights they’ve been granted to improve their conditions.
“The system is doing exactly what it was designed to do. A lot of people say, ‘The system ain’t working,’ but it wasn’t meant to work for us. The Constitution wasn’t even written for us. They wrote that s**t for a bunch of White men, and they wasn’t thinking about us,” Tip said. “How we can impact that system and kind of turn it around and have it work more so in our favor is learn the rules of it – and the first rule of engagement is in the power of the vote.”
He’s teamed up with Warnock in the past on justice initiatives, and he’ll be weighing the best ways he can “galvanize and activate the culture on Rev. Warnock’s and Ossoff’s behalf” ahead of January 5, he said.
For Killer Mike, it’s not solely about showing support, but also about “getting the proletariat to think about how policy affects themselves” – building on the work of groups like Dead Prez, the first band to take him on tour.
“I’m hugely affected by Dead Prez and PE,” he said. “Listen to me: I am a student of Ice Cube, who is a student of (PE frontman) Chuck D. Ice-T challenged politicians during the L.A. riots. He always made you think. KRS-One down to Kilo, Goodie Mob. There have been tons. Most rappers have an opinion. … They have given something or spoke up on something.”
While Killer Mike, T.I. and Dupri will doubtless continue working to shape politics after the election – Mike’s mulling the creation of a “rap PAC” to lobby for hip-hop artists and businesspeople – there’s still plenty of work to do before the runoffs.