You Down with GOP?
As amateur hip hop goes, the fidgety high-hat and chant-along, gun-toting chorus that kick off the disc Racism Exposed sound pretty typical. "You think I ain't goin' carry my strap?" demands an MC named Shoanna Z (a.k.a. Shoanna Zealand), before the album's first minute is up. But check the rhyme preceding it: "Democrats want me to stress like that?" Uh, Democrats? Since when did the buttoned-down DFL join sucker MCs, industry snakes, and jealous haters on rap's universal enemies list?
No, an album that opens with "Gun Control Is Racist" and follows with "Liberal Democrats Are Racist" is hardly pedestrian in its agenda. In fact, credited producers Don Kennedy and Rocco Gotti are among the unlikeliest impresarios the rap world has ever seen. They're odd in part simply for who they are (St. Paul-based salesmen in their midthirties who describe themselves as "successful white businessmen") in relation to what they've done (written an album's worth of rap lyrics for a hired team of African Americans to make into songs and perform). But it's the pair's Limbaugh-like obsession with the L-word--other titles include "Liberal Hollywood Hypocrites" and "Liberal Democrat Education Is Wack"--that relieves the authors of precedent.
Kennedy and Gotti aren't aspiring hip-hop stars; they're Republican activists. In the fall of 1998, the pair founded Citizens Opposing Racism and Discrimination (CORAD), a political advocacy group that, in Kennedy's words, "promotes conservative values and philosophies as a means to overcome racism." Released in September by CORAD Records, Racism Exposed was born of the duo's plan to reach an audience not usually steeped in right-wing discourse. "Rocco called me on April 15 last spring," Kennedy recalls. "He says, 'Don, I've got an idea. We can make a CD!' I said, 'Are you crazy?' He said, 'No, I'm not. We can do this.'"
To Kennedy, making a rap record was a matter of political expediency, not the realization of a creative urge. "I'm not a big music fan," he admits. "I do like some rap music. I like some of the stuff that Puffy Combs puts out, some of the stuff Biggie Smalls puts out. Master P has a couple good songs that I like, Public Enemy does some good stuff. But I'm more into mainstream rock, I guess."
But hip hop "seems to appeal to everybody," he continues. "We wanted our message to reach the broad spectrum of youth, and we felt this would be the best way."
So the pair began writing lyrics, trading ideas via fax and e-mail, then getting together to share their work. The process was quicker and easier than Kennedy had anticipated. "We thought we'd just do one or two songs, but then it really took on a life of its own," he recounts. "We had so much information and so much to write about that we decided to put out a full LP." In the end the pair penned lyrics for ten tracks (the album wound up with thirteen; the last three are dramatic readings of snippets from the Gettysburg Address, the Bill of Rights, and sound bites culled from John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and...Barry Goldwater). Only "Our Black Founding Fathers," with a nearly inspired paean to forgotten black heroes of the Revolutionary War, ventures beyond easy mudslinging. Most of the rest are right-wing shoot-'em-ups, riddling everyone from Patricia Ireland to Leonardo DiCaprio with verbal bullets. The broadest targets take the most direct hits: "Ya know where Clinton was in Rwanda's genocide/Gettin' busy with an intern in the White House on the side." The disc is genuinely entertaining only when it stumbles blindly into the ridiculous, as in "NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, aka Left Wing Trickery," wherein we learn that "Alan Dershowitz is a liar" and Matt Drudge is "the truth resource."
Having rhymed the rhymes, the duo lacked the musical acumen to record them. So Kennedy approached the staff of KMOJ (89.9 FM), the local black community's longtime bastion of community news and music. KMOJ disc jockey J.R. Maddox pointed CORAD to St. Paul record producer B-Cube (a.k.a. Ben Obi), and later debuted a pair of tracks from the album on his program Rush It or Flush It, a show that invites listeners to phone in their reactions to new (mostly amateur and local) songs. When Maddox spun the cut "Secret Hidden Racism," supportive calls poured in. Most of the listeners who called during the segment (a tape of which Kennedy gave to City Pages) seem to have been less concerned with the lyrical content than CORAD might have intended. "It made me want to get up and dance," one caller declared. "That was dope--I liked the beat," added another. Kennedy's rhymes found a few friendly ears: "You got to rush that," a female caller said. "That girl was talkin' her mind." Only one caller voted to "flush it," opining, "Man, that wasn't cool with me." Additionally, Maddox's fellow KMOJ DJ Ray Richardson wrote a warm article about the album for the Minneapolis Spokesman in September.
KMOJ station manager Vusumuzi Zulu doesn't want to comment about his station's involvement in the project. "We are not dealing with that mess," Zulu says of Racism Exposed. "Personally, I find [the album] very offensive and manipulative. It's anathema to our mission of promoting positive images of the black community."
Until Racism Exposed came along, there's little evidence CORAD was much more than a name Kennedy printed on his letterhead. Kennedy claims the group has "a couple of thousand" registered members, but he can offer no proof. The chat boards on his Web site (www.coradpress.com) are all but silent. He says that last year CORAD organized a food drive and held an anti-racism rally, both in partnership with KMOJ. But station manager Vusumuzi Zulu denies ever having worked with Kennedy, and Kennedy was unable to find any records to document those events.
The CORAD Web site is Kennedy's electronic soapbox, a forum for his beliefs that many typically Democratic positions limit individual freedoms (notably support for gun control and opposition to school vouchers) or trap minorities in endless cycles of poverty and violence (affirmative action, welfare entitlements, public housing). And the site exudes a fervor noticeably absent from the CD. Cloaked in the relative anonymity of the Web, Kennedy labels Democrats "the party of the Klan," and rails about perceived similarities between "extreme Liberals" and Nazis. But even online Kennedy has a habit of ducking sole ownership of his views. He writes in the first person plural, as if intending to amplify CORAD's membership. Then there's his narrative voice as a rap lyricist: Kennedy, a white salesman, writes in a voice he imagines is that of a black MC ("Sit back, relax, while I hip you to the hap").
He says he felt no qualms about writing lyrics in which the terms "we" and "us" speak for a group to which he does not belong. He has little time for questions of authenticity and shrugs off the squeamish specter of minstrelsy. He did his homework, he says, talking to "thousands of blacks" in informal settings. ("Say, on an airplane or in an airport," he posits.) "I take an interest in black people, because blacks have an understanding of freedom," he explains. "Blacks and conservatives have a lot in common: We want a couple of things out of life, and that's to be free, to have low taxes, to live where we want, to have a car if we'd like, and not have to abide by the rules of overbearing government."
And how did the black participants in Racism Exposed feel about disseminating Kennedy's lyrics? While the MC Shoanna Z was out of town prior to press time and could not be reached for comment, producer Ben Obi says he had his doubts. "Initially, a flag went up," says Obi, a British national of Nigerian descent who has lived and worked in the Twin Cities for a decade. "Anybody's initial reaction to this is probably gonna be, 'I don't want to have anything to do with this.' But there's a passion there that has to be respected."
In the end, Obi says, he set his qualms aside. "I purely approached it from a musical standpoint," he explains. "As a music producer, it's my job to bring out the best in their project. I'm just trying to enhance what they do." Obi says Kennedy and Gotti told him exactly what they wanted to do: Reach the masses. "They just said they wanted some R&B music that was accessible to anybody," he recalls.
Despite the producer's best efforts, the album's sales figures are less than impressive. A check of the disc's retail history at metro area Best Buy locations reveals that the chain stocks 10 to 15 copies at each store--and sold a grand total of four of them in the ten weeks prior to press time. (One of those was purchased by City Pages for this article.) Though Kennedy says he and Gotti have invested $100,000 in the project, he seems unconcerned about the financial bath he must be taking. That may be because he believes he has found a wealthy new benefactor: The state Republican Party.
The use of rap music to spur activism is nothing new. KRS-One and Public Enemy's Chuck D have long mixed nation-building with market-testing, and Grandmaster Flash got out the vote for Jesse Jackson way back in '84. Contemporary "raptivists" such as the Black Star-affiliated Black August group easily align with the political left (they recently sent a delegation of rappers to Cuba), as does Mumia 911, a collective spearheaded in part by Spearhead's Michael Franti to agitate for prison reform and a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal. If anything, CORAD is raptivism's right-wing doppelganger--and one that carries the endorsement of Minnesota's Republican establishment.
In January, Kennedy and KMOJ DJ J.R. Maddox met with Tony Sutton, executive director of the state GOP. Says Sutton: "I'm not a connoisseur of hip-hop music, but to me the music has a pretty good beat." It must have been good enough to convince him to give Racism Exposed some exposure--an item about the disc appeared in the January 25 edition of the party's weekly e-mail update GOP Newsline, in which communication director Bridget Cronin sampled "some of [her] favorite lyrics." Sutton also says he played the album at a recent meeting of the state executive committee and promoted it at last month's Republican National Committee meetings in San Jose. "I had so many requests for it that I didn't have enough copies with me," he beams. "I had to get extra copies from Don Kennedy to mail around to people."
Sutton admits he was skeptical of the disc at first. "It sounds kind of strange," he says. "But then you listen to it, and it's good music and it's got a conservative message. Frankly, in order to reach out to young people in general and young African Americans specifically, we need to have somebody other than a guy in a stuffed shirt with a suit and tie on." Sutton says he wasn't aware of CORAD's Web site. Having perused it, he professes surprise at the group's fondness for comparing political opponents to Nazis and Klan members, but he sees no reason for the GOP to distance itself from the group. Deeming CORAD's rhetoric "a little politically incorrect," Sutton adds, "Compared to what liberals call us, [referring to them as Nazis] is probably very kind."
Meanwhile, thanks to Sutton's connections, Kennedy is planning to take his CD nationwide. He's working with the College Republicans to distribute the disc at historically black colleges and boasts that the Republican National Committee is considering granting his group $200,000 to further its efforts. (The RNC did not return a call seeking comment.) DFL Party officials say they hadn't heard of CORAD or its collaboration with the GOP. After being contacted by City Pages, the DFL hastily issued an official statement aimed at the group, condemning "any kind of political hate speech that incites anger." DFL associate chair Mary McEvoy is more blunt: "Sutton's got his head screwed on wrong," she avers. Of course, instead of getting mad, the Democrats always have the option of getting even. There'd be no need to manufacture a feud like hip hop's East Coast-West Coast rivalry: With CORAD actively raising money and rounding up support for Frank Taylor, a black Republican challenger to U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo in the Fifth District, the stage is already set for a DFL disc.
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