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.
Dupri worries Georgians might not be as enthused as they were for the presidential election, when the state’s voters achieved record turnout. Not only are runoffs typically less of a draw than general elections, but he’s concerned people will still be in holiday mode come Tuesday.
“It’s not so easy to get people to move. Their focus is in other places,” he said. “I’m worried about turnout. A lot needs to be done.”
‘It’s in the grass, in the dirt of the city’
Atlanta is the perfect setting for Black entertainers to mold the political landscape.
In interviews with CNN, Dupri cited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Congressman John Lewis and the Freedom Riders, while T.I. mentioned King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, former Mayor cum Ambassador Andrew Young and the campaign by the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of Black colleges, to end apartheid in South Africa. Killer Mike, who as a kid campaigned for Young, spoke of almost five decades of Black mayors “who understand people who sing and dance don’t just sing and dance.”
The city is steeped in activism and uprising aimed at improving the plight of African Americans, so it’s natural that as their art became a juggernaut in the 1990s Atlanta rappers began carrying on the tradition.
“The whole us being a part of politics in this city, it’s in our blood. It’s in the grass, in the dirt of the city. It feels like something we want to be a part of,” Dupri said. “We’ve been a part of trying to make it better for us for a long time.”
Before the Olympics arrived in Atlanta in 1996, there were “big conversations” about whether the Black community would be left out, Darby recalled. OutKast and Goodie Mob spoke to those issues on their records, “leading to broader conversations about gentrification, which Atlanta was on the verge of,” Darby said.
Killer Mike points out Atlanta hip-hop’s socially conscious streak goes back to Kilo Ali, arguably the city’s first rap star, and his 1991 anthem, “America Has a Problem,” dealing with the pitfalls of cocaine. Nearly three decades later, Atlanta’s rappers are more than musicians; they’re businessmen and -women, job creators — voices that must be respected.
“Our culture runs this city. We make this city go,” T.I. told CNN. “You come here, our culture is going to take the lead, period. I can’t think of anything — from the film and TV industry to real estate to sports, whatever it is, bruh — our culture runs this town, and it must be acknowledged if anyone wants to have any significant influence.”
The three-time Grammy winner added, “What we love to do is use that influence as leverage to support the right people who have a genuine interest in helping the people in our communities.”
Took a while to get here, Dupri says
Dupri entered Atlanta’s hip-hop scene earlier than most, discovering Kris Kross and writing multiplatinum singles for the duo before opening his label, So So Def Recordings, in 1993. Because of that clout, he feels he can reach young and old — a privilege but also an obligation as he wishes he had had more mentors when he was coming up in the game.
“You have to move the way you want the moves to be made,” he told CNN. “Me not doing it is me leaving people in the same space I was left in. That’s not my energy.”
Atlanta’s artists today have more influence than he or TLC or Goodie Mob had, owing largely to social media, he said.
“It makes things feel much more massive than times prior. If Kris Kross would’ve come out in this era and been as popular as they were, people would think Kris Kross was Drake. That’s how big they were,” Dupri said. “If OutKast would’ve come out now — man, they would be perceived as The Beatles.
“(Social media) allows the new rappers to have a bigger voice and be seen a lot more, and people are paying more attention to the culture.”
Hip-hop has long been the most influential export from a city that brought the world Coca-Cola and Tyler Perry, but Dupri doesn’t feel the city has always given the rap community its dap for “the energy we were putting out into the world.”
Dupri recalled having to “raise hell” to get Kris Kross a Sprite commercial. Even two years ago, when he included Abrams, then a gubernatorial candidate, in his all-star So So Def anniversary lineup for the first event in the Atlanta Hawks’ renovated State Farm Arena, it drew only a few headlines.
Dupri found himself surprised last month when he saw a local news channel covering the American Music Awards nominations of Atlanta’s Future, Lil Baby and Summer Walker, he said. He doesn’t recall Luda or Usher getting much local coverage for their Grammys, or Mariah Carey, after she snared two gilded gramophones for “We Belong Together,” which was recorded in Atlanta and which Dupri co-wrote and co-produced.
That’s why Freaknik fizzled, he said. The city refused to embrace the spring break celebration for Black college students that exploded in the 1990s.
“They just thought Black kids were wiling out. It could’ve been our Taste of Chicago or Caribana to Toronto,” Dupri said. “The city did not understand that it was a cultural movement these kids started. They just said, ‘We don’t want it in the city anymore.'”
‘Hip-hop has been doing it’
Killer Mike says many Atlanta mayors, going back to Maynard Jackson’s 1975 charity fight with Muhammad Ali, have understood the importance of tapping the entertainer class, but it didn’t always garner the attention it deserved. Likewise, Atlanta rappers have long worked beneath the radar to better their hometown.
“Hip-hop has been doing it. The media just started to acknowledge it,” he said.
Tip concurs: “This ain’t nothing that Atlanta is new to.”
Mike prefers influence to credit — “credit just means you in debt,” he quipped — but rap, in general, has had trouble wielding either over its relatively short history.
Going back to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 hit, “The Message,” hip-hop has a storied lineage of rappers taking on society’s shortcomings — from Public Enemy and Dead Prez to J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar — yet critics more often home in on elements of the music they find objectionable, Darby said.
“People think about hip-hop — the vulgarity, the pants sagging, it’s all about wealth and shaking it up in the club — and that’s just an easy way to ignore the substance we find in serious artists,” the professor said.
This has always infuriated T.I., he said. To him, it feels like a cop-out. Rock ‘n’ roll is rarely held to the same standard, he said.
“Artists create art that is a reflection of their environment,” Tip said. “If you don’t like what rappers talk about, you should come see our humble beginnings. You should see what we made it out of. To fix what the artists are talking about, you have to fix their environment. That’s the whole reason (Public Enemy’s) ‘Fight the Power’ or (NWA’s) ‘F**k tha Police’ were made. It’s because they were making us aware of how atrocious their environments were.
“My thing is, why are entertainers held to a higher standard than America itself? America was founded on principles of violence, treachery, slavery, bondage, rape, deceit, theft, extortion. … You’re not holding America accountable, but you want to hold a rapper accountable for things that he said?”
The nation never seems to make “the same fuss” when Quentin Tarantino puts his spin on the world, Darby said. Meanwhile, rappers painting pictures of their communities, offering diagnoses and holding up mirrors so the country can better see its reflection are deemed problematic. It’s past time to rethink those attitudes, he said.
“They’re rich, complex people living in the world just like we all are,” the professor said. “They can teach us something about the problems we all live with, the dreams we have, a better world, a better Atlanta — and they can say something about what we need to do to get there.”