Hip-Hop the Vote

The Kucinich campaign gets some St. Louis spin

When long-shot Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich flew into San Francisco late one night in September, his hip-hop coordinator was there to take him out to press the flesh. The destination wasn't a mom-and-pop diner or any other sort of kissing-babies place. Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, whose official title within the Kucinich campaign is National Director of Community Outreach and New Voter Development, was taking the Ohio congressman to the Hip-Hop Theater Festival after-party at Studio Z, to mingle with the crowd and listen to musical guests Zion I and DJ Sake One.

"Davey D, one of the most influential Bay Area artists, interviewed him," Sekou recalls. "He shook a few hands, the DJ gave him a shout-out and we broke about one that morning."

That wasn't the first time the 32-year-old St. Louis minister stepped in "to place the candidate in communities where he traditionally wouldn't go." Sekou has also taken the campaign for the anti-war candidate to New York City clubs. "You just go in, you dance, you have a good time just like everybody else, and folks strike up conversations," he says of his job. "It is really being who you are."

Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou stands inside a garage around the corner from where he lived as a kid
Jennifer Silverberg
Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou stands inside a garage around the corner from where he lived as a kid

And Sekou says clubgoers are eager to hear Kucinich's message. "There's already a poised group waiting for somebody -- not to be their messiah, not to save them, but to give voice to their issue. And so anytime somebody meets Kucinich, they're like, 'He the truth.'"

In October Sekou's mug landed in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times, in a photo with underground rapper Majesty (another Kucinich supporter). The men were attending a Kucinich house party -- a phenomenon embraced by many of the Democratic candidates, including homeboy son-of-a-milk-truck-driver Dick Gephardt. The gatherings are fundraiser-lite events, low-dollar affairs that are more like parties and less like a stuffy business meeting.

While Gephardt's brief foray into the realm of the house party seems to have been directed toward the bundt-cake set (notwithstanding the coincident release of "Gephardt Remix," a wincingly painful ditty in which the candidate's sound bites were sampled over a techno track), since going to work for Kucinich this summer Sekou has been reaching out to young rap artists, activists, poets and minorities.

David Jackson, assistant professor of political science at Bowling Green State University and author of Entertainment and Politics, says recruiting hip-hoppers in the battle to get out the vote may prove a smart strategy in the primary elections. Though the impact of new voters would likely be minute in the general election, primaries are a different story. "It certainly might matter," Jackson says of the primaries, "because the turnout number is so much smaller, so the percentages can be more easily affected."

Of course, although Kucinch "may get some positive bump" out of the house parties, Jackson says the turnout could also simply signify that "the only people you can get at something like that are the people who show up anyway."

Sekou believes the 18- to 24-year-olds it's his job to woo want to listen to his candidate's message, and he's willing to take it to their homes, clubs and haunts. In the process, the campaign worker is becoming better known on the coasts than in his hometown. But he touched down in St. Louis last week long enough to visit his family and to lead the Riverfront Times on a field trip to his old neighborhood.

Born Michael Braselman, Sekou was raised by his grandmother in Arkansas, where his father sent him out of concern that Sekou's mother was an alcoholic. When Sekou was six, his father died of cancer. "I grew up speaking correct English with a Victorian black woman who loved justice and Jesus and had a mean right hook, too," he recounts. When he was fifteen, his grandmother died and he was sent back to St. Louis to live with his aunt, who had an apartment above a storefront on the corner of Delmar and Academy. Gang members lurked a few blocks away.

In the alley behind the apartment, Se-kou's uncle, Richard Braselman, is working on a car, just like in the old days. Braselman recalls the times when Sekou was a student at Soldan High and would come by to bum money. Sometimes, Sekou says, he'd walk over to the Schnucks on Delmar and Kingshighway and shoplift.

He never got involved with the gangs, though. "I'm five-two," Sekou points out. "I realized a long time ago, and my uncles who had been in prison told me, 'Look dude, you're too little to get in trouble. So we're gonna' get you some books, we gonna' put you in the library, buddy."

He was class president at Soldan, set a school record in the mile and then went off to college, first at Knoxville College and then at the University of Tennessee. He got involved in student protests and took courses in political science, African and African-American studies and anthropology but left school in 1993, a few credits short of a degree. He returned to St. Louis, worked as a substitute teacher, fathered a son and was licensed as a Baptist minister. While at UT, he changed his name to Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou (which is taken from three African languages and means "redeeming freedom fighter") and began growing out his hair, which now hangs in dreadlocks past his shoulders.

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