Fifty years later, hip-hop is still influencing California politics

When Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) thinks about hip-hop’s influence, he remembers all the wrongdoings artists illuminated throughout history. Even as hip-hop turns 50, the music is still provoking discussions about high-stakes political issues from police brutality to gun violence.

“I’m in elected office today because of hip-hop,” said Bradford, pointing to his time as a former nightclub promoter. “My attitude was if I can bring folks out to a club to listen to music, we can get folks out in our communities to rock the vote, and I use that as a catalyst to do what I do.”

Standing on the steps of the State Capitol in Sacramento on Monday, Bradford was among members of the California Legislative Black Caucus celebrating hip-hop’s 50th anniversary. Lawmakers teamed up with the Recording Industry Assn. of America and the Bring the Peace Movement to host the event, which was filled with dance and music.

Born in the Bronx, New York, hip-hop made its mark around the world including on the West Coast. Its spirit of protest and truth-telling is alive and well in its poetic lyrics. Hip-hop group N.W.A, formed in Compton, spoke out against police brutality and racial profiling in the 1988 hit “F— tha Police.” The 1995 song “California Love” by late rapper 2Pac, featuring artists Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman, references multiple cities including Sacramento, Oakland and Watts in Los Angeles.

Hip-hop artists have long embraced the use of digital tools such as drum machines, turntables and synthesizers. The use of artificial intelligence, though, has sparked fears about the future of music and hip-hop artists have been at the forefront of that debate.

Joel Flatow, senior vice president of Artist & Industry Relations at the Recording Industry Assn. America who also oversees the group’s West Coast operations, called hip-hop a “driving force” not only in music but in fashion, culture and even politics.

“Hip-hop is really the language of protest, poetry and speaking truth to power,” Flatow said.

For Assemblymember Lori D. Wilson (D-Suisun City), hip-hop’s influence isn’t just about its lyrics. Wilson, whose first concert was N.W.A, said hip-hop’s swagger isn’t easy to replicate.

“What’s always uplifted me about the music is the boldness and the confidence of the artists,” she said. “That feeds me and the others in the crowd.”

Democratic and Republican lawmakers weren’t always big fans of hip-hop. In the 1990s and 2000s, explicit lyrics in rap songs garnered criticism from Congress. Nowadays, hip-hop has mass appeal and even presidential candidates have embraced the music in political campaigns.

“We’re really trying to return to the origins of hip-hop culture and speak to all the peace-building and motivate our communities to be engaged civically,” said JoHanna “J” Thompson, who has been developing programs for the Bring the Peace Movement.

The celebration of hip-hop comes at a pivotal moment for the entertainment industry. Hollywood writers have been on strike for more than 100 days, demanding better pay and other benefits; actors joined writers on the picket lines in mid-July.

The use of AI to generate text and other content has been a major flashpoint in negotiations between labor unions and film studios. While many musicians, including hip-hop artists, aren’t unionized, they also face the same challenges plaguing Hollywood actors and writers such as fears that AI will be used to clone their voice and style without their consent.

Hip-hop artists have varied views about the use of AI in music. Rapper Timbaland, in announcing his new startup, thinks the use of AI to sound like the voice of another artist could unleash more creativity. The artist recently drew backlash, though, for using the voice of the late Notorious B.I.G. in a song he shared on Instagram. Ice Cube has called AI “demonic” and said he thinks artists need to go back to using their “real voice” rather than relying heavily on technology. Lil Wayne has said that he’s too unique for AI to replicate his sound.

AI music startups are already popping up and tech giants including Google, Facebook parent company Meta and Microsoft are researching the use of AI to generate sound.

Wilson and Bradford said that it’s an issue lawmakers are watching closely.

“I think we as California legislators have to do a better job of protecting our creatives because really it is what makes us who we are,” Wilson said.

Last year, California became the first state to restrict the ways an artist’s lyrics and other forms of creative expression can be used against them as evidence in criminal proceedings. When California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act into law, the politician appeared alongside well-known rappers such as YG, Ty Dolla Sign and Tyga in a virtual ceremony. Congress reintroduced a federal bill this year that would limit the use of song lyrics as court evidence.

One lawmaker at the event acknowledged that their work is still not done. Referencing lyrics from pop superstar Beyoncé, Assemblymember Tina McKinnor (D-Hawthorne) asked the crowd at the hip-hop celebration to join her in a prayer.

“When those who seek to break down the foundation of who we are, remember those wise words from Queen B,” she said. “You won’t break my soul.”

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