“This is the year where we are taken seriously in politics.”
In the year 2016, civic engagement within communities of color has taken on a whole new definition.
Eight years after witnessing the election of the United States of America’s first black president, a new generation of change has ushered in a novel rhetoric surrounding what it is that the Hip Hop community expects to see in the leaders they elect moving forward.
Reverend Lennox Yearwood Jr. is no stranger to the ever-changing dynamics of major political elections as it pertains to this demographic, and this year, he has returned once more to energize the latest generation poised to pick the nation’s next president.
As President of the Hip Hop Caucus, Yearwood has launched the Respect My Vote! initiative, a non-partisan campaign geared towards the Hip Hop community, including the new age of millennial voters who have now emerged as the largest living voting-eligible generation.
“What really creates this movement is the pain of our people,” Rev. Yearwood says, speaking on the inspiration behind the inception of the campaign. “We want to change that in a holistic way when it is not just one person coming up and them doing well, but we want to change for our whole community. One way we saw we could do it was through the vote.”
Young voters now hold a great deal of power and with that, a significant amount of responsibility to educate themselves on relevant topics pertaining to the 2016 presidential election.
In recent months, weeks, and even days, we’ve witnessed the collective effort of this generation to bring about societal and judicial change within our nation’s systems of power—an effort most notably highlighted by a series of rallying protests, marches, and heightened social media engagement to continue to shed light on social issues within the country.
According to Yearwood, we’re on to something, but it can’t just stop there.
“Utilize the vote as a door, not whole process,” he says. “Don’t vote and stop. The whole idea is to make democracy and being engaged in the process a lifestyle.”
In a time where knowledge of issues surrounding pollution and climate change, criminal justice, civil rights, and economic advancement has seen a substantial increase, Yearwood didn’t fail to mention the shifting gears of the Hip Hop community’s focus as it relates to this year’s presidential election in comparison to 2008 and 2012.
There’s still a lot out there to which we’ve been blind, however. Citing a recent move where the state of Virginia began pushing to remove laws that prohibited ex-offenders from voting, Yearwood touched on one of the campaign’s main goals, which is eradicating the Jim Crow-era legislation that keeps a great portion of this nation disenfranchised and without a voice.
“We lobbied hard and in April of this year, Governor McAuliffe allowed for ex-offenders to vote, allowing for 200,000 people in Virginia alone the right to vote.”
While the move was recently met with pushback by the Virginia Supreme court, McAuliffe has still vowed to personally grant clemency to each individual ex-offender affected.
This goal of the Respect My Vote! campaign has seen the support of cultural figures such as rappers T.I. and 2 Chainz, and former offenders themselves. While the use of celebrity figures is nothing new and definitely not a novel concept to Respect My Vote!, the initiative has worked to introduce a new generation of cultural influencers to the political spectrum.
With the likes of Charlamagne tha God, Keke Palmer, and G Herbo coming on board to use their stakes in popular culture to get voters to the poll, the Rev. explains that this campaign has displayed a new kind of celebrity endorsement where the effort being put forth by campaign spokespersons has been different from years past.
Using rapper Vic Mensa as an example, Yearwood explains how many have now gone above and beyond the typical involvement to energize young voters.
“Vic is a new age kind of artist,” he says. “He is probably the first to get on the phone with the staff to create the campaign. We’re now moving into a whole new kind of artist who is now at the drawing board putting together the plans. They’re literally helping to put the campaign together. That’s what is so exciting about this new generation.”
But even with the newfound involvement of our generation’s influencers in the political process, it seems that many young voters simply lack the energy to get up and cast their ballot.
Anti-establishment mentalities and fears of partisanship have begun to settle in, making this generation more cautious than ever when it comes down to casting a vote.
Yearwood explains that political literacy is the most important tool for any young voter attempting to navigate the political field in all levels of government this year and for years to come.
“Young voters should know the nominees and should not be caught up in partisanship,” he says. “They should be most concerned with the issues. I find that most young voters are tired of politics and not concerned about what is behind a name but how a politician is addressing the issues that matter most to them. My advice is to not worry about the partisanship, worry about the policies.
“When people begin to understand what it means to actually create legislature, then they get excited,” he adds. “It’s about us. We are the ones who are going to make this government do what it needs to do. We’re the ones who’ll be around. We are truly who we’ve been waiting for.”