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."

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.

Sekou, who describes his religious affiliation as Pentecostal, chose not to pursue ordination. "As you know, in many churches women can't preach," he explains. "And their positions on queer brothers and sisters I find problematic."

Instead, he worked with the youth ministry. He also landed a job with the St. Louis Public Schools, working with at-risk students. And he decided to embrace hip-hop, despite its misogynistic and anti-gay strains. "When Tupac died, young people demanded it," he says. "I had an option: Either demon-ize him or come to deal with him."

He married in 1999 and is the father of four boys, ranging in age from two months to ten years. In 2001 he self-published Urbansouls, a slim volume that's part autobiography, part meditation on inner-city existence. And in mid-2002, at a retreat sponsored by Positive Futures Network, a nonprofit whose stated aim is to create "a just, sustainable and compassionate world," he met Dennis Kucinich.

Kucinich had been invited to speak at the event. Sekou hounded the Cleveland congressman on "questions of poverty and eliminating poverty. Where are you on queer issues, where are you on women's bodies as it relates to choice? Because if you look at the states that make it the most difficult for women to get abortions, they also have the lowest funding of prenatal care, and so it is like a contradiction to me." In short, Sekou says, "I basically gave him the blues for two and a half days."

And he came away impressed: "He would listen to people, was willing to incorporate other insights. And I just found him very real. He essentially comes from nothing, born on the wrong side of the track, has been homeless, he had to fight like hell to get everything he's gotten. As a person of African descent, I could identify deeply with that."

Sekou told Kucinich that if he decided to run for president, he'd walk the campaign trail with him. Late this past winter, as Sekou was winding up a long lecture tour in support of his book, he gave Kucinich a call. The two men met in Washington, D.C., and in August Sekou was named to the national staff. (He declines to reveal how much he's being paid for the gig.)

"Reverend Sekou brings coolness to our campaign, he's a lot more hip than some of us," says David Swanson, Kucinich's campaign press secretary. "He is helping us to reach out to young people and also to African-American communities and also to a lot of hip-hop artists. He helped bring Danny Glover in as a major endorser."

Sekou helped put together the 30-second hip-hop video that aired for Kucinich as part of the MTV/CNN "Rock the Vote" debate at Faneuil Hall and was on hand at the Boston event. As Swanson alludes, he has also arranged for actor Danny Glover to help christen a Kucinich campaign office in East LA later this month. On a more ambitious front, Sekou is at-tempting to pull together a hip-hop tour that will travel to several U.S. cities.

"The media's ig-noring us," he says of his candidate. "But that's what they did to hip-hop. They said it wasn't going to be around, that it wasn't going to make no money. What has happened to hip-hop music has happened in the campaign. Ignoring it, not taking it seriously, and that kinda thing."

That said, is St. Louis, with its vibrant hip-hop scene and a large population of young, disenfranchised African-American voters, getting the cold shoulder from the Kucinich campaign?

Sekou says it isn't so. "We're planning on coming here. We've just got to get through Iowa and New Hampshire," he says. "Quite honestly, no candidates have really campaigned well in St. Louis, other than [Al] Sharpton, who has a presence among the disenfranchised."

The campaign, Sekou says, is putting together a St. Louis "street team" of young people whose mission will be registering voters. And he says he has already scouted some local hip-hop talent: "Most of the guys will be underground -- it won't be major-label people or that kind of thing -- but if Nelly or Chingy came onboard, that would be great."

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