Millennials have been a major key to the 2016 presidential election. Flip to 2002 when Diddy and Russell Simmons lent their voices to the nonprofit Rock the Vote and its spin-off, Rap the Vote (a Rock the Vote and NAACP collaboration). Now, the Hip-Hop Caucus, a nonprofit that empowers the hip-hop community to make change happen in civic engagement, has jump-started its Respect My Vote campaign, a nonpartisan movement that encourages disenfranchised communities and targets young voters to get their voices heard in the polls.
Since 2008, the Respect My Vote campaign led by Reverend Lennox Yearwood, has been successful in increasing the number of registered voters. In examining youth voting, a new Tufts University study out of Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service revealed that voters in the 18 to 29 age bracket can greatly influence the outcome of an election when they favor a candidate. Rev. Yearwood says the Respect My Vote campaign saw a larger number of voters in 2008 and 2012 when Barack Obama was on the ballot. He hopes to continue the trend and “smash records” in voter turnout this year.
Following in the footsteps of T.I. and 2 Chainz, Power 105.1’s unfiltered pundit Charlamagne Tha God has signed on as the leading spokesperson for Respect My Vote. (Veteran TV/ radio host Sway will also be on-board.) Like Tip and Chainz, C Tha God’s an ex-offender who plans on educating former felons on how they can reinstate their voting privileges and plans to use his celebrity to prove voting can make a significant impact. Although he hasn’t revealed his official endorsement, Charlamagne has been vocal about his opinion on Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders. The latter was even a recent guest on The Breakfast Club.
Billboard recently spoke with Rev. Yearwood and Charlamagne Tha God to talk about the importance of Respect My Vote, how hip-hop impacts voting and their plans to continue the conversation once a president is elected.
Why do you think there’s a stigma that disenfranchised communities don’t care about voting?
Reverend Lennox Yearwood: The reason why there is a stigma is because people really feel that when you do not have power or you are considered outside the process. You’re an ex-offender or you don’t quite have a stake per say—stake meaning that you don’t have a relationship with your member of Congress or your mayor. But the actual opposite is the case. You have more at stake to utilize your voice when you’re sometimes disenfranchised or at risk or in a situation where you’re an ex-offender rebuilding your life after incarceration. You have more at stake to state policy at that point in time.
What does the Respect My Vote campaign represent?
Rev. Yearwood: The Respect My Vote campaign is about taking your voting process personal because to ensure that not those who have money or resources are the only ones who are engaged in democracy, but everybody is engaged in democracy. That’s the one great thing about voting is that you can be a billionaire or you can be homeless to some degree and your vote is still the same. The idea here for the campaign is while there are those with their power, if you can equip power in your own community, than you can also be seen as valuable in the process.
Why was Charlamagne Tha God the perfect spokesperson for Respect My Vote this go-round?
Rev. Yearwood: We wanted celebs not only because of their platform or a medium but because they care about their community. [Charlamagne] was the one who clearly wanted to be a part of this. He wanted to use his platform because he cares about his community. Second, we’ve been doing this campaign now for a while and so when T.I. did Respect My Vote, he actually inspired our lead-off person, 2 Chainz. At the time, 2 Chainz was actually Tity Boi. When I first talked to 2 Chainz, he said, ‘You know what? I was in the mall and I saw T.I. doing this and I had a dream that I would have made it [to a level] when I get to lead off a campaign like this.’ Then Charlamagne said the exact same thing about 2 Chainz. That’s very powerful.
Charlamagne, why did you want to get involved?
Charlamagne Tha God: It’s funny how the universe works. For the first time ever, I’ve been really engaged in the political process. Of course, we all were enchanted by Barack Obama. That was the first time I ever voted in 2008. I wasn’t even sure that I could vote because I was a convicted felon. I just wanted to see Barack in the White House. Barack just had that charm, that charisma. He was just enamored by the whole country.
This time around, I didn’t know who I wanted to vote for. At first I thought, I just wanted to vote for Hillary because she was a woman and I liked the whole novelty thing with the black president [then transitioning] into a woman [in office]. But then I’m like, ‘You know what? That’s really not that great of a reason to vote.’ When I really started paying attention to the issues, listening to everything Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was saying, even listening to some of the Republicans like Marco Rubio, I was like, ‘Yo I’m really confused.’
What really made me want to get involved was [seeing] the rise of the antichrist Donald Trump. I started to see how he was energizing the country, but he was energizing the country in total opposite ways than Barack did. He wasn’t bringing people together; he was literally tearing people apart. He literally wants to build a wall while I feel like Barack Obama’s rise actually built bridges.
What are some of the challenges you face for these communities to pay attention to political campaigns?
Rev. Yearwood: In some cases, some communities are struggling for a while. We have situations where you are dealing with poverty and you are dealing with jobs lost. We are dealing with health crisis. Our campaign is going to go to the hood and is going to go where people are. We are going to go there and educate. We are not going to come in some foreign language that people don’t understand. We are going to come in their language where folks and celebrities from their community [are] and using their culture. We say how can we use our cultural expression to shape our political experience all the time so we are going to do that.
Charlamagne, you’ve been vocal about supporting Beanie Sanders. Do you think your celebrity helps communities take this election seriously?
Charlamagne: I would hope that my voice makes the community take life seriously because the truth of the matter is our ancestor really did die for our right to vote. This is something they fought for, got beat up for, got killed for so for us in 2016, just to sit around and be like, ‘Man, voting don’t mean nothing,’ why would I not take advantage [of this opportunity] and respect what they died for? I really feel like voting does something for your life and you don’t realize it. When you’re young, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I am on my Jay Z shit’ when Jay Z used to say, ‘Government? Fuck government. We used to politic ourselves.’ But when you get older and got a family, you have to pay taxes and you worry about your kid’s education and things like that. That stuff really matters. I can’t sit around and play with that.
Why is it important to have other hip-hop artists weigh in outside of the people you have chosen to represent Respect My Vote?
Rev. Yearwood: What’s beautiful about the Respect My Vote campaign, it doesn’t matter what label you work for or what station you work for or what magazine you’re from, it shows unity. I think it also puts other campaigns and parties on notice that our culture is organizing. It’s very powerful. So we look forward to having many more artists from all different sectors. When we first started this campaign in ’04, we didn’t have Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. Now we have it. Now we have folks that are Instagram models and folks who have Instagram platforms. We are looking for all of them now who want to be involved in this campaign. And we are going to have student activists, we have folks that are climate justice activists, we have Black Lives Matter activists. We are also going to highlight them as well so they can be a part of this. Utilizing the amazing vigor of activism and engaging them as well in this campaign is important to us.
Who are some other celebrities that you reached out to?
Rev. Yearwood: We are going to have some coming on-board. We are reaching out to a lot of artists who will be engaged like a Vic Mensa.
The culture of hip-hop has a big influence on young voters and minorities. What would you like to see when Respect My Vote kicks into high gear in the coming months until Election Day?
Charlamagne: I’d love to see the largest youth voter turnout ever for the presidential election. I think the largest one was in 2012 and before that it was 2008. And not just the presidential election, I want people to start getting involved in voting for the Senate, Congress and local elections. I just want to see us get involved more in the political process especially when you see things like police brutality going on and different people complaining about the sheriffs whether it’s in Ferguson or Missouri. It’s like we played a part in putting those people in office.
What’s next for Respect My Vote after a president gets elected?
Charlamagne: I was watching 60 Minutes this weekend and Cornel West was on there. He said he gave 55 speeches for Barack Obama to get him into the White House but he told everybody, ‘As soon as Barack Obama gets in the White House, the very next day, I am going to become his biggest critic.’ I think that’s what we don’t understand as human beings is this is America. It’s a democracy. Once we get whoever we want into the White House, even the person we want to get in the White House doesn’t get in the White House. We have every right to not only criticize that person but demand that person does what it is we need to get done. That just happens with us mobilizing and us using our voices to talk to the mayors, the governors and the presidents. We have to be a democracy and demand certain things even after that individual gets in the White House. All those promises those dudes and women are making on the campaign trail, we gotta make sure those promises come to fruition and that doesn’t happen by just voting and letting them get in and then falling back. Nah, you gotta be active. You gotta make your voice heard and be constantly involved in what’s going on.
Rev. Yearwood: We will continue to hold forums and platforms and we hope Hip-Hop Caucus doesn’t go away. We are going to make sure that if you’re going through Detroit or Compton or the Bronx, you are still engaged in the process. Come post-election, November 9, our job really continues then because one thing we always say is either you shape policy or policy will certainly shape you. We want people to be in a position that they can shape policy after this election is over, no matter who is in charge.