Interview with Green Party Vice-Presidential Nominee, Rosa Clemente, by Tolu Olorunda.
"Rosa Clemente is a freedom fighter... When she speaks with such command, you know that her words are not only sincere, but they penetrate, they shatter people's complacency. Every movement needs a Rosa Clemente; not only to wake them up, shake them up, but to encourage them to stand up. Rosa Clemente makes you uncomfortable with tolerating injustice," says former NAACP Executive Director and CEO, Dr. Benjamin Chavis Muhammad. Rosa Clemente is a community-organizer, journalist and tireless activist. She has been at the forefront of youth-activism for over a decade, and vows to only keep moving forward. Like the Hip-Hop anthem, "Can't Stop Won't Stop," Rosa Clemente is fully-dedicated to the liberation of Black and Brown minds. As the co-founder of the National Hip Hop Political Convention, Rosa Clemente has galvanized millions of young men and women to register to vote within the last 4 years. With a portfolio of that magnitude, it came as no surprise, when on July 9 this year, former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, selected Rosa Clemente as her running mate for the presidential race. Rosa Clemente views this role as only an extension of her lifelong calling and vocation. I had the pleasure of speaking with Rosa Clemente on her background, the role of a Vice-President, her assessment of Sen. Obama's candidacy, and much more:
Thanks for joining us, Rosa. What kicked off your journalism/activism career?
Well, my activism career started in college, while I was going to school in Upstate New York, during the early '90s. It was a very political period for Black and Latino students, and I became involved with different student groups. My journalism career began when I started volunteering for a radio show at a local community station in New York, called WBAI, and that was in 2002. I then started writing editorials and op-eds for different websites, and from there, I ended up covering major events, such as The United States Navy leaving Vieques, Puerto Rico (2003), and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (2005).
In your accomplished career of fighting for Black/Brown human rights, what has been the most challenging event or factor?
I think the most challenging factor, outside of the criminal surveillance, is the problem of sexism -- as many people still have a problem with accepting leadership from Women of color. Lately, I've seen that sentiment more pronounced, and that's very strange to me, because I come out of a college-campus experience, and when I got my Masters at Cornell University, I was surrounded by men and women who were very equal, in terms of how they respected each other's leadership -- and that's coming out of a nationalist perspective. A lot of people tend to say nationalists particularly in the 60s and 70s were sexist and misogynistic, and I tend to say that there were other forces that were more sexist. And with the previous positions that I've held, I think it is still a factor that we don't like to talk about a lot. Because it is easy to talk about outside forces that would destroy a movement, and I pretty much think one can figure out the outside forces quicker, than men of my generation to literally own up to their sexism. I think that is the case because, for instance, 95% of the Hip-Hop leadership in this country is male, and the media will only promote men. We have a generation of men who know what is wrong, but still continue to perpetuate sexism through leadership.
In your assessment, what is the prime-difference between the political culture of the 21st century, and that which dominated the 20th century?
That's such a broad question, and I'm not sure I know the answer.
In 2005, you had an incident with the New Orleans Police Department. Can you describe what took place and the state of New Orleans today?
It was after I went along with two other journalists to New Orleans, and we went to the Baton Rouge shelter where people were being housed. We had press-passes, and during the day, it was pretty accessible if you had a press-pass, but the later it got at night, people began settling down, and we started witnessing incidents, such as the Baton Rouge police-force harassing some of the young men, and some young men who had no shoes, but only flip-flops to wear. So we wanted to interview some of the young men, because they had a curfew, and if they missed the curfew time, they had to sleep outside. We began interview some people, and then the police asked us to stop interviewing them because it was 8:00 PM and the babies were beginning to fall asleep. CNN was there reporting, alongside another station, and the police came up to me, and asked for my press credentials. I showed it to them, and they said it wasn't good enough, and that I would have to leave. I refused to leave, because other journalists were still filing reports. The situation escalated, and I was asked to turn over my Minidisc and my tape. I refused to do that, so they put me under arrest and were going to call other police officers from downtown to come and get me. But one of the brothers I was with also worked with the ACLU, and once we told them that, the police chief came and apologized; I guess they didn't like the questions I was asking. So it seems the other reporters were fine, because they were conducting fluff pieces about how nice the shelters were. New Orleans today is almost a ghost down. A lot of people live under bridges, and all the public housing projects have been destroyed. I've been to the 9th ward 5 times since Hurricane Katrina blew by, and I haven't been there since august 2007, but I know that 75%-80% of the people would never come back. I think they're doing what they always wanted to do in New Orleans, and someone told us when we were there, that there were people who were literally praying, that someday, something would come down and wash away all the Black people -- certain white people were willing to tell us that on camera. The city of New Orleans did what it always wanted to do, and that was to purge the town of Black folks; and I think it is the most devastating thing we've seen in this century as it relates to Black people in America.
As a Hip-Hop Historian and lecturer, what is Hip-Hop in your definition?
For me, Hip-Hop is exactly the five elements which Afrika Bambaataa (Zulu Nation) gave: The MC, The Graff Artist, The B-girl/B-boy, The DJ, Element Knowledge and Culture. So for me, Hip-Hop should be producing knowledge and culture. It should be a way to organize people, and promote multi-racial coalitions -- with people of color leading it. I think Hip-hop is so defined now by everyone; whether it is FOX News, Harvard University, BET, "We the people of Hip-Hop," or the streets. A friend of mine, Khalil Almustafa has a poem called, "We The People Of Hip-Hop Declare Our Independence," where he talks about reclaiming or reaffirming to himself what Hip-Hop is and means: The politics, the knowledge, the culture, the "in your face." It's not the 'Republican Hip-Hop,' and not the 'P. Diddy Hip-Hop.' I define Hip-Hop as a space for radical thinking and radical action, and that's the only form of Hip-Hop I'm willing to engage in at this point. There are other forms of Hip-Hop that can be fun and glamorous, but I’m personally not interested in it, because the majority of our people don't live that way. So I think it’s very different for everybody, and I hope we can maintain a radical and political movement within the culture.
Can you therefore please describe the route which hip-Hop has taken since its inception in the '70s?
Hip-Hop in the early '80s was just, as sometimes, materialistic and misogynistic. But even with those songs, there was a balance on the radio-play. I mean, you could hear from Dana Dane to Public Enemy in 5 minutes, and that's why Hip-hop was incredible: It spoke to so many different people. I think once the powers that be - particularly white men over the age of 50 - found out that they could make money off of it, they began to define it, and define the artists and themselves, and that's how they began to divide Hip-Hop into "West Coast Rap," "East Coast Rap," and "Southern Rap." Also, the disappearance of women as MCs is astounding. We had 100s of more Women Emceeing in the '80s and '90s than we even have now. So I think the corporate-structures of this country are culture-bandits; they would lag unto anything that is culturally ours, and remix it for their purpose -- whether it’s to sell cookies, or to sell a book, or to pass public-policy. In the '80s, Hip-Hop was still within our community, but now it’s worldwide, and you can't control something that big. Its a billion dollar industry that they've been saying would die for 30 yrs, and also a culture that every day, still speaks truth to power -- even with the co-optation. I don't subscribe to the theory of the "Golden Age of Hip-Hop," but at some levels, much of the politics has devolved greatly. I saw more political-hardness in the '80s, especially around the work in South Africa, and how so many of the people within that generation knew who Nelson Mandela was -- not because of the mainstream media, but because of Chuck D and Afrika Bambaataa.
In early 2006 - alongside R.E.A.C.Hip-Hop coalition and the grand Hip-Hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa - you headlined a protest against Hot 97 for its irresponsible conducts. What exactly provoked that outrage?
Well in January 2005, Hot 97 - owned by Emmis Communications - made fun of the victims of the Tsunami. At the turn of that incident, a DJ by the name of Kuttin Kandi put the coalition of REACH together. It was a coalition of mostly women of color who were fed up with Hot 97, and wanted to hold them accountable. We then went right to the elders of Hip-Hop such as Afrika Bambaataa and Ernie Paniccioli, and that was the year when media justice just came under the radar. So we met with the advertisers, and concretely asked if they wanted to be associated with a station that made fun of dead people and Tsunami Victims. So we had two advertisers pull out, and Hot 97 lost advertising revenue -- which led them to losing their no. 1 status in New York City.
For those unaware, who is Emmis Communications, and what amount of leverage does it have in the Hip-Hop industry?
Emmis is only one of the big-media conglomerates in this country. There's Emmis, Clear Channel and Radio-One in the radio market. But then you have BET, and MTV and VH1 -- all owned by Viacom and General Electric. Emmis is just one of the leading conglomerates that we've seen since the early '90s when Bill Clinton was president, and the deregulation of the FCC took place. Ever since Bush got into office, - but really stretching back to Bill Clinton's presidency - we’ve seen Emmis, Clear Channel and Radio-One go across the country and buy up many local radio stations, and even the takeover of many community stations. Emmis is just one of the three that control probably 85% of what is called 'mainstream radio.' But Emmis is just one of the conglomerates we fight. We fight Viacom, BET, and they're feeling the heat. Now, BET is planning a half-hour weekly political talk-show, and we feel that's not enough. There should be an hour everyday of hardcore news to the Black Community.
How were you informed that former Congresswoman, Cynthia McKinney, wanted you to be her V.P.?
Well, I've known Cynthia for years, and I was supporting her presidential-campaign. So she called and asked me, and I accepted.
What are the issues of critical mass in this election, and how do you gauge the youth's lively response to the call for change?
Well, most of those young people are middle-class college students. They (Obama and the DNC) made it pretty clear who their target youth audience is. I’ve been saying that since the beginning, that the young people, who are attracted to Obama, are predominantly white and liberal-leaning. There's a difference between young people on college campuses - who have the ability to intellectualize, debate and engage in this process - and those who haven't even graduated from High School, but are being recruited by the military. That clearly is a different demographic, and Obama's campaign seems to be targeting the former. Young people began this sudden interest in voting, around 2004, and I think part of that has to do with the founding of the Hip-Hop Convention, and how particularly the Hip-Hop community brought a political agenda that spoke to the needs and issues that young people care about in this country. But on the flip-side of that, only 1 out of 14 young people who are not in college are registered to vote. That means, essentially, they see no hope in voting. So I even think the issues among the diverse demographics of young people are different. 'Obama's young people' would say they want an end to the War in Iraq, and young people in the hood would say they want an end to the war of the police. 'Obama's young people' would advocate for the impeachment of George Bush, and young people in the hood are looking for livable jobs and second jobs, just to maintain. So the claim that the youth vote is unilaterally swinging toward Obama is not true. You don't see Obama going to the Boys and Girls club in Oakland, California; or the Martin Luther King Recreation Center; or a Black and Brown unity forum -- which is happening everywhere, since the media is attempting to pit Blacks against Browns. I don't see him in those spaces, and therefore, their issues are never reflected. Barack Obama couldn't even articulate a decent statement about the exoneration of Sean Bell's killers. So the youth vote might be the highest it’s ever been, but there's still almost 50% of the youth population who are not registered to vote, and who don't care about this election, because they don't see any politician willing to do something that would benefit them immediately.
In light of that, how does the McKinney/Clemente ticket plan on compelling those despondent would-be-voters to support your candidacy?
Well, what I'm trying to do right now, is not get caught up in this Hip-Hop hype that is supposedly coming out for Barack Obama; but I'm also trying to get into spaces were gang truces are being held. Young people are fighting these taser-deaths that have killed 5 young men within the last 2 weeks. I'm going right into the community. I view my role as the Green Party V.P. as long-term, because come January 20, 2009, we must all be prepared to hold the new office-holders completely accountable, and build a movement from the ground. And I think that requires me being in spaces where people have completely disassociated themselves with any type of political-organizing. The Green Party is scheduled to have lawyers on the ground in the major states, to ensure that every vote is counted. No other party is doing that. It was the Green Party lawsuit in 2004 Ohio, which exposed that over 1 million African-American votes were not counted. So I think it is critical that people understand how serious we are, in guaranteeing election integrity. After that, I'm hoping to - with the help of The Green Party - inspire young people to run for office in local posts. If we had more young people sitting on judicial benches, the amount of young folks of color going to jail would be significantly different. So I'm hoping that young people get the message that we don't have to be - by default - beholden to the Democratic Party anymore. They really need to learn a lesson; and the lesson is that, they've completely - in 4 yrs - let down the African-American, Latino, and working-class people in this country. They've made it clear that they would continue to lie to people of color in this country.
Lastly, as a veteran journalist and ferocious activist; what is the principal motivator that pushes you beyond all odds?
For me, it is being around a lot of Elders that are here today -- some are not. When I was in school, I was really lucky to have a mentor by the name of Dr. Vivian Gordon, who started the "National Council for Black Studies." Through her, I met Dr. John Henrik Clarke. I ate with Dr. Clarke, and I sat with Kwame Ture. I went to Cornell University under Dr. James Turner -- who is very well-known in the Black-Nationalist Community. He's been my mentor for over 15 yrs, and like a second father. I've visited political prisoners such as Jalil Muntaquim. Haki Madhubuti, founder of Third World Press, hosted the founding of the Hip-Hop Convention. So I've been really lucky to know a lot of elders in this movement, and to listen, and to learn from their mistakes. The one thing I know from all these people - including Dhoruba Bin Wahad, who was at the Hip-Hop Convention a couple of weeks ago - is that they never deviated from principle. I've seen these people who could have been presidents of Universities, and presidents of non-profit organizations, and they never compromised their integrity. Haki Madhubuti often says of Third World Press, that "there's no white money up in here," and I think that's the best thing ever. When I think of what he's done with Third World Press, and the fact that he's never taken government money or grants, I'm inspired. For a lot of people in my generation, honor is bought and sold. So if Cynthia McKinney can leave the Democratic Party, I refuse to be dishonest to the people I serve.
Thank you so much for being with us, Rosa Clemente. I wish you all the best in your endeavors.
Watch this powerhouse speech given by Rosa Clemente, in honor of Katrina Victims:
This interview was conducted by Tolu Olorunda, Staff Writer for YourBlackWorld.com