Can't Fight This Power
"From Baghdad to Baltimore, Big Boi, Young Jeezy and countless upstart rappers are changing the world."

By Ryan J. Smith and Swati Pandey, researchers on The Times' editorial pages.

November 27, 2005

Tomorrow's most powerful political voice won't be yammering on CNN.

Tune in to your iPod.

In 1939, Billie Holiday crooned against the lynching of black men in her banned song "Strange Fruit" (MP3 (00:37) ). In 1969, Jimi Hendrix's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" blasted peaceniks out of their drug dreams and into the streets. Then, in 1989, came Public Enemy's "Fight the Power": MP3 (00:41)

Got to give us what we want
Gotta give us what we need
Our freedom of speech is freedom or death
We got to fight the powers that be

That inchoate shout of rage against all forms of oppression is growing into a force of real potential. The hip-hop nation has gone global, and it's going to change the world.

It wasn't Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson or Louis Farrakhan who cranked up debate about bigotry in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It was Kanye West's "Bush doesn't care about black people."

Michael Moore's a mere whiner compared to Eminem, who raps: MP3 (01:23)

Strap [Bush] with an AK-47
Let him go fight his own war
Let him impress daddy that way
No more blood for oil.

And listen to poet and singer Jill Scott as she rails: MP3 (00:28)

Video cameras locked on me
In every dressing room ...
You neglect to see
The drugs coming into my community
Weapons coming into my community
Dirty cops in my community

Crispin Sartwell, a political science teacher at Dickinson College, says of the phenomenon: "If Thomas Paine or Karl Marx were [here] today, they might be issuing records rather than pamphlets." Consider:

West's words inspired Mississippi rapper David Banner and radio powerhouses including Big Boi of Outkast and Young Jeezy to play a concert in Atlanta to support Hurricane Katrina victims.

The Hip Hop Caucus, based in Washington, helped organize a march with black politicians into Gretna, La., to protest police efforts to keep Katrina refugees out of the mostly white city.

Hip-hop organizations such as the National Political Hip Hop Convention started large-scale voter registration drives in 2004, and thousands of young men and women donned Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' "Vote or Die" shirts while voting for the first time.

Russell Simmons' Hip Hop Summit Action Network mobilized 100,000 students, teachers, parents and hip-hop stars in a successful fight to repeal a proposed budget cut to New York City schools. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the protest helped change his mind on the issue (and presumably helped persuade him to seek Simmons' endorsement in his reelection campaign). Simmons' group also registered 2 million young people to vote and estimates that 1.3 million of them voted.

Think these efforts are just marketing schemes? The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, an organization that follows voting trends, reported that in the 2004 elections "youth turnout increased substantially, and much of this increase was driven by an increase in voting among African American youth." A similar voting bloc helped reelect Kwame Kilpatrick in Detroit — the nation's first "hip-hop mayor."

But hip-hop's greater potential comes from its technology-fueled border-hopping power, with the Internet and iPods plugging the beat straight into the minds of U.S. military personnel in Baghdad and militant young Muslims alike. Globally, hip-hop merchandising, by one industry estimate, seduces $10 billion from an estimated 45 million consumers ages 13 to 34. Listeners have an annual spending power of $1 trillion, according to Forbes magazine. The genre is defining the war in Iraq the way psychedelic rock shaped our memories of the Vietnam War — not only because it has become the music of protest but because it is the language of the soldiers, who make it themselves on simple equipment. Words over a beat.

Michael Tucker's documentary, "Gunner Palace," tracks 400 troops lodged in Uday Hussein's former digs as they spend their time off free-styling, beat-boxing and drumming on tanks:

IEDs be going off while we out on patrol
scrap metal be ripping through your skin and your bones

Muslim and Jewish Israelis rhyme about the intifada.

In Britain, the Asian Dub Foundation sings about Tony Blair's entanglement in Iraq, while Ms. Dynamite gives hip-hop a feminist touch: MP3 (01:16)

How could you beat your woman till you see tears?
Got your children living in fear.
How you gonna wash the blood from your hands?

Hip-hop came naturally to most of Africa, where people know all about putting stories to a drum beat. In 2000, Senegalese rappers, who compare their craft to tasso storytelling, helped end the 20-year rule of President Abdou Diouf and continue their political efforts by organizing rallies against the mass unemployment and corruption that plague their country. In Ukraine, the band Greenjolly strung protest chants over a beat — the anthem of the Orange Revolution. And during last month's Azerbaijani elections, rappers warmed up the crowd at Freedom bloc rallies.

Hip-hop travels like no other music. Any rapper can use a computer to layer an American beat under a native melody and a rap about local politics. With every rapper who turns from "bling-bling" to protest, hip-hop comes closer to being a global force for change.

This political potential revealed itself in the recent riots that shuddered through French suburbs. Young people from these immigrant ghettoes, like Disiz la Peste, have been rapping about neglect and hopelessness for a decade:

For France it matters nothing what I do
In its mind I will always be
Just a youth from the banlieue

Disiz spoke out against the rioting recently — "Burning cars and schools, it only harms ourselves because it's happening in front of our own homes" — while still calling France out for inequality of opportunity.

Hip-hop leadership in the making.

Can hip-hop overcome its occasional embrace of the thug life and "bling-bling" image and become a true political movement? Of course. It's ready to take on failing schools, the effects of drugs, the despair of a low-wage economy, warfare on city streets and on foreign battlefields. The imagined world of get-rich-quick schemes and candy-colored Escalades is not credible. The calls for accountability are.

Kanye West's Bush remark stated a perception fed by the reality of the administration's policies. Speaking truth to power, igniting passion and inspiring people to action — this is when music has always been most potent.

Hip-hop is a global party with a platform that's just beginning to take shape. What it already has is a mike and millions of ears.