Party Crashing

How the Hip-Hop Generation Declared Political Independence


By Keli Goff

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For the last forty years the label “black voter” has been virtually synonymous with “Democrat” but a new generation of voters is changing that. In her provocative new book Party Crashing, political commentator Keli Goff introduces America’s newest swing voter. Like soccer moms and Nascar dads before them, young, black voters born after the Civil Rights Movement are becoming increasingly up for grabs, politically speaking. While the politics of their parents and grandparents were shaped by the Civil Rights Movement, Goff notes that the politics of her peers, members of the post-Civil Rights generation, have been shaped by a number of cultural influencers that transcend race; from “The Cosby Show,” to icons such as Oprah Winfrey, and the tragedy of 9/11. Civil rights has long been the defining political issue for black Americans but for this emerging generation of black voters, civil rights is now one issue among many that define their politics. As a result, they are challenging the idea that one’s skin color should color one’s political identity, and they are also challenging the idea that they should be Democrats. Since the support of black Americans has been crucial to the success of democratic candidates-from Presidents Kennedy to Clinton-this shift could be one of the most important developments in modern politics, arguably as important as the Civil Rights movement itself. Along with the political shift occurring, Goff also examines the cultural shift that is taking place on a wide range of issues including: gay marriage, hip-hop, and the emergence of what Goff calls “Generation Obama.” Through in-depth interviews with young, black voters, groundbreaking survey research, and conversations with a range of high profile Americans-from Colin Powell to Russell Simmons-Party Crashing explores the issues and people who have helped shape the politics of the post-Civil Rights Generation, and how this generation is reshaping America.





How the
Hip-Hop Generation
Declared Political


For my mother, Opel Goff,
the most beautiful woman I know
inside and out.

When the Negro was completely an underdog, he needed white spokesmen. Liberals played their parts in this period exceedingly well. . . . But now that the Negro has rejected his role as an underdog, he has become more assertive in his search for identity and group solidarity; he wants to speak for himself.

Martin Luther King, Jr. ,
Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?


If you opened the New York Times and read that there was a candidate running for president whose platform consisted of railing against gun control, single motherhood, and high taxes, who would this candidate look like in your political imagination?

Would you imagine the candidate to be young or old? Black or white? Liberal or conservative? Republican or Democrat? Would you consider him (or her) mainstream or out of touch with the majority of Americans? Would you consider the candidate someone likely to be buddies with the Hollywood liberal elite, or embraced by leaders of the religious right? If you had to name real-life political leaders and/or activists that this imaginary presidential candidate resembles, would it be former Speaker of the House and architect of the Contract with America, Newt Gingrich? Or controversial religious conservative Pat Robertson? Or maybe a composite of rocker turned conservative pundit Ted Nugent, with a bit of Vice President Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh thrown in for good measure?

What if I told you the candidate also railed against homophobia and expressed a liberal position on prostitution? Does that change the image in your mind at all?

What if I told you that the candidate is named Chris Rock?

Yes, that Chris Rock—edgy comedian extraordinaire.

As unlikely as this scenario sounds, remember that in an age in which “the Terminator” can be elected governor of California, a wrestler who costarred in a film called Predator can be elected governor of Minnesota, and a B movie actor who costarred with a chimp in a movie called Bedtime for Bonzo was elected not once, but twice, to the presidency, the scenario is not that far-fetched.

And would a Chris Rock presidency really be so bad?

At least the presidential debates (not to mention the State of the Union Address) would be far more entertaining and would probably attract more viewers. In an age in which the campaign of Dennis Kucinich is viewed as comic relief on the campaign trail, just imagine what a Chris Rock candidacy could do. After all, look at what he did for the Oscars.

Chris Rock has never expressed a desire to throw his hat into the political ring (unless you count his 2003 foray on film in Head of State), but his politics have been at the heart of some of his most compelling stand-up material. And yet his politics are not exactly what you may expect from a young black comedian known for edgy material and for using as many four-letter words in one hour as the rest of us use in one year—possibly a lifetime.

In his stand-up special Never Scared, Rock describes his politics as follows: “I got some shit I’m conservative about. I got some shit I’m liberal about. Crime—I’m conservative. Prostitution— I’m liberal.”1

In his 1999 comedy special Bigger and Blacker Rock covers a great deal of political ground, including taxes, President Clinton, and nontraditional families. Of Clinton, Rock says, “One thing Clinton did that I didn’t like is raise taxes. . . . You don’t even pay taxes they take taxes. . . . That ain’t a payment that’s a jack.” Of single mothers, Rock says he gets sick of hearing women say, “You don’t need a man to raise kids . . . yes, you can have a kid without a man. That doesn’t mean it is to be done. You could drive a car with your feet. That doesn’t make it a good idea.” He later adds that it is easy to tell which children will grow up to be troublemakers: “If the kid call his grandmamma mommy and his mamma Pam—he going to jail.”2

Rock’s comments on subjects as diverse as abortion rights rallies and the burgeoning class schism within the black community (highlighted by one of his more infamous routines on “niggas” versus black people) earned him the moniker “The William F-ing Buckley of Stand-up” in a piece in the online magazine Slate.3

Rock’s politics defy all convenient labels. That’s what makes them interesting and funny. Clearly, a pro-prostitution platform— even when described with a wink and a nod—is not going to endear him to traditional conservatives, yet challenging the choice to become a single mother is not likely to win him any points with hard-core liberals. Rock has publicly claimed to be a Democrat, but he has made a habit of challenging the relevance of traditional party labels.

In Never Scared he announces that “Republicans are fu**ing idiots. Democrats are fu**ing idiots. Conservatives are idiots and liberals are idiots,” and adds for good measure, “Anyone that makes up their mind before they hear the issue is a fu**ing fool. Be a fu**ing person. Listen. Let it swirl around your head. Then form your opinion. No normal, decent person is one thing.”4

What also makes Rock’s politics interesting is that they are not merely his own. Whether he knows it or not, through his social and political commentary Rock has emerged as the voice of a movement. As a young, successful black American who refuses to have his politics forced into a box, Rock is one of the faces of a seismic shift occurring in American politics. Young black Americans whose parents have comprised a substantial portion of the Democratic Party’s base for nearly half a century are asserting their political independence—literally.

According to a 2001 study from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, approximately 30 percent of black Americans ages eighteen to thirty-five identify themselves as political independents.5 It is tempting to dismiss such provocative findings as a fluke, so in 2007, in conjunction with the Political Research Center of Suffolk University, I conducted a follow-up study of four hundred randomly selected black Americans ages eighteen to forty-five (the age range of respondents was expanded to incorporate the responses of those who would have been thirty-five at the time of the initial Joint Center study). Our findings confirmed that a definite shift has occurred in how younger black Americans are defining themselves politically. Most significantly, more than a third of younger black Americans no longer feel the need to conform to traditional party labeling.6

The reasons for this shift are varied and complex. In some ways it is part of the natural progression of the American Dream: immigration, followed by integration, followed by assimilation, followed by I-want-my-taxes-lowered. But for black Americans, who came to this country not as immigrants but as cargo, the story is more complicated than that. Unlike other ethnic groups, the Irish for instance, who also struggled with discrimination upon their arrival, black Americans found that their skin color made full assimilation in the traditional sense impossible. Therefore, regardless of any other differences that may have divided them, including ethnic origin or class, black Americans remained united in a singular political struggle. This unity was firmly solidified by the civil rights movement as blacks from all walks of life, including a West Indian entertainment superstar named Harry Belafonte and domestic servants from the segregated South, marched side by side, each in pursuit of the rights denied them both. But it is hard to imagine that today the political issues that matter to a young black entertainment superstar, like Usher for instance, and a young black janitor would be the same. In the eyes of one, the most pressing political issue may be “I need a job that provides a living wage,” while for the other it may be “I want my taxes lowered.” (You can probably guess which issue would most likely matter to which individual.)

Unlike their parents and grandparents, young black Americans no longer view their political identity as black and white, so to speak. Today, the politics of race that were once the defining political issue for all black voters have become one political issue among many for younger blacks, causing them to reevaluate their political involvement, activism, and partisanship.

That black Americans are Democrats has been one of the most reliable truisms of American politics of the past forty years. But black Americans born after the civil rights movement are challenging the notion of a singular “black vote.” Instead, they are proving that black voters come in all shapes and sizes (politically speaking), and that the issues that matter to them are just as diverse as those that matter to white Americans from different ethnic, geographic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and different generations.

Issues like racial profiling, not to mention the response to Hurricane Katrina, have proven that race remains an issue relevant to our political discourse, yet such issues are still a far cry from the days of legal segregation. In other words, most black Americans can draw a distinction between being pulled over under questionable circumstances by a police officer while at the wheel of their car, and being legally forced to sit in the back of someone else’s bus. As the role of race in American politics has changed, so have the political attitudes of those who have long been expected to allow race to define their politics—namely, black voters.

While our parents and grandparents grew up in a world in which the Emmett Till tragedy symbolized justice for black Americans in this country, the post–civil rights generation grew up in a world of O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, and Kobe Bryant—a world where race may matter, but money, fame, power, and who your defense attorney is may matter even more.

Not only has the post–civil rights generation grown up in an America in which segregation is a distant memory, but it has grown up in an America in which black people and black culture are the defining arbiters of America’s cultural landscape. While the civil rights generation grew up in an America in which Leave It to Beaver represented the ideal American family (and black families were simply nonexistent in popular culture), the post–civil rights generation has grown up in an America in which the ideal American family is black and goes by the name Huxtable, as in The Cosby Show. Whereas the most influential woman during the civil rights era arguably was First Lady Jackie Kennedy, who could single-handedly spark a fashion trend with a public appearance, today the most influential woman is named Oprah Winfrey. Not only can she spark a trend by featuring something or someone on her show, but she has a Midas-like touch for doing so that has become legendary. Forty years ago the term “professional athlete” denoted white male, whether you were discussing professional basketball, football, or tennis. Today the idea of watching a basketball or football game without seeing any black faces (or watching a tennis tournament without seeing the Williams sisters) sounds unimaginable.

And then there’s hip-hop. No other form of popular music in history has become such a defining cultural force, influencing the language, fashion, music, and movies of Americans of all races.

All of these changes have had a profound impact on shaping the political attitudes of the post–civil rights generation. After all, when members of your race begin to define American culture, it becomes harder to believe that your politics should be defined by the suppression of your race, and yet that is just what has long defined black America’s decades-long relationship with the Democratic Party; a relationship that some younger black Americans have begun to question.

This is not to say that all younger black Americans have signed letters of intent with the GOP; in fact, in this election cycle they have emerged as a crucial force in the early success of Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. But many of these Generation Obama voters are also emblematic of the generational shift occurring among black voters. Unlike their parents and grandparents, for many members of Generation Obama their political loyalty lies with Obama not necessarily because of the party he represents, but because he is one of them. There is a growing contingency of black voters who believe that a candidate’s party label matters a lot less than the candidate himself. Additionally, there is a growing contingency of younger black voters, fueled by the 2000 election recount and other factors, who have grown increasingly suspicious of the American political process in general. By extension they consider the major parties and the politicians at the helm of them suspect as well. This means that while they may not be moving into the GOP column, they are moving away from the political process in general, which ultimately harms Democrats by default.

One prominent Democratic political operative interviewed for this book faults the Democratic Party for essentially being asleep at the wheel for an entire generation and not noticing that there was a burgeoning swath of young black voters whom their message was not connecting with. He predicts that this new generation of voters presents a golden opportunity for Republicans, not because they will ever win a majority of them but because they don’t need to win a majority to do serious damage to Democrats, particularly considering how many high-profile, close races there have been in recent years.7 All they have to do is peel away enough votes and the tide of an entire campaign—or even an entire election cycle—can turn. Just think back to the 2006 midterm elections, in which control of the Senate was ultimately decided by less than 10,000 votes, or to the state of Ohio in 2004.

In covering the 2004 presidential election, the American Prospect noted that Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who in 2000 became the first black woman to manage the campaign of a Democratic presidential nominee, had chided the Kerry campaign for a lack of blacks in senior positions. Additionally the article noted that “the need for Kerry to personalize his relationship with the black community is a sentiment heard across a broad spectrum of black voters. He has yet to show any originality, for example, in reaching out to young blacks, who are by far the most politically independent group of black voters. Only 50 percent to 60 percent of African Americans aged 18 to 25 identify themselves as Democrats.” Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, was quoted as saying, “This is a figure that should shock Kerry into action.”8

Apparently it didn’t. And we all know how that election turned out.

One young black voter interviewed for this book says that both of her parents were Democrats and that while she is a registered Democrat, she believes that “Democrats have been pimping the black vote for years.” According to her, the only way that will change is if her vote and that of others like hers become up for grabs. Many of them already have. Another young black voter, who interned for a prominent Democrat before switching her voter registration to independent, explains her political evolution this way: “We never had to sit at the back of the bus. I’ve never been bitten by attack dogs. I know that all of those things happened but that’s not my experience. You have to learn to customize your message for a different audience and they [Democrats] are just not doing that.”

General Colin Powell says that while he does not consider himself an expert on voting patterns, he does believe that “over time as more blacks enter the middle class; as more blacks become of means—and that is happening—they will vote their interests which may not be the same as blacks used to do in the past.” This, he believes, could present an opportunity for the GOP.9

However, Reverend Al Sharpton speculates that any burgeoning generational gaps that exist politically among black Americans will ultimately be dwarfed by the realities of what it still means to be black in America. “The one problem that I never worry about is at the end of the day reality sets in. As long as you’ve got bias in this country, they will start uniting these generational problems for blacks.”10

It remains to be seen which one of them is correct.

Chapter 1


The Politics of the Post–Civil Rights Generation

Every generation is defined by something. For Americans born at the turn of the twentieth century, it was World War I. For their children, it was the Great Depression and World War II. And for their children’s children—baby boomers—it was Vietnam, Watergate, and of course, the civil rights movement.

For black Americans, the civil rights movement was more than one defining moment among many. Regardless of wealth, social status, or geographic location, there is not a black American born anytime before 1960 whose life was not forever changed by it.

Now, nearly four decades after the right to vote became more than an impossible dream for many African Americans, we may see yet another impossible dream come true. A black man may actually be elected president. This reality (the very thought of which probably would have caused most southern politicians to laugh to the point of tears forty years ago) raises the question of what is the defining experience for the generation of black Americans who have come of age in post–civil rights America.

Unlike previous generations that were defined by one or two major cultural touchstones, the post–civil rights generation cannot point to a single unifying experience. Instead, it has been shaped by a variety of cultural landmarks, some triumphant, others tragic: the war on drugs, the war in Iraq, 9/11, the rise of hip-hop, the rise of Oprah, the deaths of Tupac and Biggie, and the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama.

What it has not experienced is legal segregation. This single fact has had a profound impact on the way the post–civil rights generation views politics.

The success of the civil rights movement gained black Americans countless rights, big and small—from equality in access to education and housing to water fountains—and yet it stripped black Americans of one historic privilege: the ability to share an inherent social and political bond. As Bakari Kitwana notes in his landmark book The Hip Hop Generation, “The previous generation had the luxury (if you want to call it that) of a broad-based movement. In a climate that screamed for change, youth movements across race, class, gender, and ethnicity were part of the culture.”1

That isn’t so any more. Post–civil rights black Americans are not defined by a universal social or political cause or movement as their parents and grandparents once were. Despite the best efforts of political strategists and the media to pigeonhole them, younger black Americans are staking out their own social and political identities. For some, this means embracing specific labels. Others simply want to be recognized by a political label that has long eluded black Americans: voter.

Not black voter. Not young black voter. Just voter.

But labels are often irresistible, and Kitwana has helped name this generation for the music and culture that many believe most sets them apart: the Hip-Hop Generation. Born between 1965 and 1984, one could argue that this is a group for whom Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” is as much an anthem as “We Shall Overcome” was for their parents.

Love it or hate it, hip-hop has been one of the defining cultural forces of the last two decades. Once a staple of the inner-city streets, today the music of 50 Cent or Yung Joc is just as likely to be heard blasting in the suburban homes of affluent white kids, in some cases even more so. For some, hip-hop music and culture embodies the essence of their American experience—in which to struggle is a fact of life and protest and rebellion are the only ways to be heard. Therefore hip-hop embodies the essence of their political identity. Others view it as merely one aspect of African American culture, not the most important aspect or the one that defines their American experience or political identity. The struggle of young black Americans to reconcile these two views is at the heart of the politics of the post–civil rights generation.

Like the blues before it, hip-hop is more than an art form. It is the soundtrack to the triumphs and tragedies of this generation’s experience; but unlike blues or rock, hip-hop transcends the boundaries of music. While some (like my mother) dismiss it as questionable words put to indistinguishable beats, it has left an indelible mark on American culture, from fashion and film to politics.

Hip-hop’s reach into mainstream popular culture, as well as the lack of a definitive, unifying political movement among younger black Americans, may explain why a name initially limited to a section in a CD store has come to be applied to a whole generation. Following the first ever hip-hop political convention, the Black Commentator wrote, “In the absence of a mass Black political movement, the generation born after 1965 has been named for the culture it created, rather than—as with the preceding generation—the political goals for which they fought.”2

This has turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it has given a voice to a generation that might otherwise have been ignored by society altogether. On the other hand there are many who do not deem hip-hop’s contribution to be especially positive. As Kitwana notes, “It is not uncommon to hear some of these community leaders dismiss rap music—the most significant cultural achievement of our generation—as ghetto culture. Most of our parents, and especially civil rights leaders and community activists, would rather ignore rap’s impact—especially those lyrics that delve into the gritty street culture of the Black underworld—than explore its role in the lives of hip-hop generationers.”3 Today, however, the negative rap on hip-hop no longer falls strictly along generational lines.

The controversy surrounding radio personality Don Imus’s comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, in which he referred to them as “nappy headed hos,” cast a spotlight on how increasingly divisive the content of hip-hop music and the image its culture represents have become among black Americans. The argument lobbed by Imus defenders, sometimes with excessive enthusiasm, went something like this: if a twenty-something rapper can call a black woman “ho” in a song, why can’t a sixty-something white guy say it in good fun?


On Sale
Apr 28, 2009
Page Count
304 pages
Civitas Books

Keli Goff

About the Author

Keli Goff‘s commentary on politics and pop culture has been seen on numerous networks including: CNN, FOX News Channel and MSNBC, among others. After beginning her career in politics as an intern on Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign, Goff went on to work as a congressional aide and communications strategist. She served as Campaign Manager for Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney’s successful re-election in 2002 and later as Deputy Campaign Manager of “Vote No on 3,” a successful citywide effort to defeat a ballot initiative. She holds a master’s degree in strategic communications from Columbia University and lives in New York City.

Learn more about this author