Rep. Hakeem Jeffries Fights for Creators Rights, Brooklyn Hip-Hop and Recognition for Female Rappers

bb8 ftdo
Greg Kahn
Jeffries photographed March 15 at his office in Washington, D.C.

For Women's History Month, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the 47-year-old Democrat who represents New York's 8th Congressional District, took to Medium to share his views on a hot topic: "The Dopest Female MC Collaborations of All Time."

Jeffries, who last year honored "the late, great Notorious B.I.G." on the floor of the House of Representatives on the 20th anniversary of his death, personally put together the list, and the lifelong hip-hop head knows his stuff: underappreciated MCs Monie Love and Remy Ma share space with stars like Lauryn Hill  and Missy Elliott.

"These female MCs bodied their male counterparts," says Jeffries, sitting on a couch in his Brooklyn office, near the edge of a district that includes Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvesant and several other neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. "Someone needs to recognize that."

In that spirit, Jeffries is also using his position on the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees copyright law, to help creators of all kinds. In October, he introduced the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement (CASE) Act, which would give independent artists a way to enforce their rights in a small-claims system under the authority of the U.S. Copyright Office. (Currently infringement cases must be filed in federal court, and the average cost of such litigation, including appeals, is $278,000, according to the American Intellectual Property Law Association. Since there are no federal small-claims courts, the CASE Act would create an organization akin to one, which could adjudicate disputes if both sides approved.)

Jeffries is also a co-sponsor of the Music Modernization Act, which will create a new organization to collect and distribute mechanical royalties to ensure that songwriters are paid when their compositions are used by Spotify and other on-demand streaming services. Both bills are being considered as part of the current copyright reform process being overseen by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who has said he does not intend to run for re-election this fall.

Before entering politics, Jeffries worked at Viacom, CBS and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison as a litigator, handling a handful of copyright cases, including representing Lauryn Hill in a lawsuit filed by members of her band.

Now the rising Democratic star, who last year considered a run for New York City mayor against Bill de Blasio, brings a bit of Brooklyn to the nation's capital every year with his annual "Hip-hop on the Hill" fundraiser; the event, hosted for the last two years by DJ Clark Kent, draws a young crowd of Washington insiders.

He hasn't been shy about calling out the President, either: "Donald Trump has always fanned the flames of racial hatred to further his own interests," Jeffries says. "In many ways, celebrating hip-hop by highlighting female MCs was a way to engage with my constituents that was removed from the day-to-day horror show that is the Trump administration."

Tell me how you decided to make this list.

The best way to highlight the dynamicism of these female MCs was to pick performances they did with legendary artists who they either matched or outperformed. The list came from me, based on my appreciation of hip-hop.

Your district includes Bed-Stuy, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill, which gives it serious bragging rights in terms of hip-hop history.

The South Bronx has its place as the pioneer, and South Central Los Angeles -- inclusive of Compton -- certainly contributed much to gangsta rap, but no one can top the combination of Biggie and Jay-Z in terms of what the 8th Congressional District has given the world. While I continue to work as hard as I can on issues like housing, transportation, and public safety, members of the House reflect the district they represent and mine includes a close relationship to hip-hop.

You're part of the generation that grew up with hip-hop. Do you remember when you first heard it?

I recall hearing "Rapper's Delight" when it came out [in 1979] and the buzz it created among my circle of friends. Watching hip-hop develop -- with Grandmaster Flash, and then Run-DMC, and then the artists of the ‘80s and ‘90s -- has been a fantastic journey. What's been most compelling to me is how hip-hop has been a vehicle to tell the story of urban America and black America in such an artistic, poetic, and authentic fashion.

When did you realize how important that would be?

KRS-One and Public Enemy were incredibly important in terms of conveying the challenges facing black America, but even before that Grandmaster Flash released a song and video that captured urban life in a compelling way: "The Message." I remember watching that video sitting in the living room with my grandfather, who was visiting from LA, and him saying, "Wow, there's some serious stuff going on in the Bronx!"

You co-sponsored the Music Modernization Act with Rep Doug Collins [R-Ga.], a very conservative Republican from Georgia. You make an unlikely pair.

We're definitely an ideological odd couple, but we get along great. I respect his intellect and his authenticity, and we've found common ground on issues ranging from this to data privacy to trying to help people who were incarcerated re-enter society. In order to get things done in a divided Congress you need to find partners on the other side of the aisle, and Doug has been that guy for me in many areas.

The Music Modernization Act has been criticized because, at least in most cases, it closes the door on copyright infringement lawsuits for statutory damages against on-demand streaming services that haven't been paying mechanical royalties.

In order for Spotify and Pandora to come on board they needed some certainty for future disputes. So we tried to strike a balance between that and letting existing litigation continue on its path. Currently, anything filed before January 1, 2018 would be untouched.

Tell me about the CASE Act.

Now, individual creators who don't have corporate interests looking out for them have a hard time enforcing their rights. This small-claims system would give them that opportunity. It's viewed as setting up a structure that would probably most benefit visual artists [who usually own and control the copyright to their work], but the entire creative middle class could benefit. For those interested in seeing it pass, the most important thing you can do is contact your member of Congress or Senator.

I have to ask you about the elephant in the room, by which I mean the Oval Office. You had an interesting line: "Not every American who voted for Donald Trump is a racist but every racist in America voted for Donald Trump." Can you unpack that a bit?

It's an observation that I first made in fall 2016, because to me it captured something about Donald Trump and race in America. It seems wrong to conclude that a substantial number of Americans who voted for Donald Trump are racists because many of them voted for Barack Obama twice and it's not clear to me how a stone-cold racist could pull the lever for the first African-American president once or twice and then turn around and vote for Donald Trump. So clearly there are more complicated dynamics at play. On the other hand, Donald Trump has been a racial arsonist who has never hesitated to fan the flames of hatred to advance his political career.

Has his behavior surprised you?

Based on my own observations of Donald Trump, growing up in New York, I expected the worst. In the seventies, the Trump Organization was sued by the Nixon Justice Department for discrimination against black and Latino housing applicants. In the eighties, Donald Trump led the lynch mob against the Central Park Five, the black and Latino teenagers who were wrongly accused, convicted, and imprisoned for a crime they didn't commit. For years, Donald Trump perpetrated a racist lie that Barack Obama was not born in the United States in order to delegitimize the nation's first black president. He's a 70-year-old-plus man -- I had no expectation that he would change.

A year ago, there was talk that you might run for Mayor of New York. What will you do next?

Those of us on the Democratic side of the aisle should have one goal this year: Take back the majority in the House of Representatives so we can be a constant check and balance on an out-of-control Trump presidency. So all of my energy on the non-governing side will be focused on getting to 218 or more Democratic members of the House. There will be more than enough time in the future to think about serving the public in a different way.