All eyes were on L.L. Cool J as he strutted into the Good Morning America studio wearing a fur-lined jacket, a stocking cap and large diamond studs that gleamed in each ear.
"Yay-ah!" he shouted into the pen _ the microphone _ and then laid into the spellbound audience of fans and up-and-coming rappers at the kickoff of the "One Mind, One Vote" voter registration drive last week. No more just complaining about just "maintaining" and not bettering your life, he barked. No more blaming racism. Get out and act!
"It is important to vote," said the veteran rapper, who is 36 and first registered to vote in 2002 while publicly endorsing New York Republican Gov. George Pataki. "You don't have any right to complain if you don't do anything about the thing you are complaining about."
Hip-hop and R&B artists including Eminem, P. Diddy, Nas and Jadakiss, who have built their careers attacking "the system," are asking fans to get active in their communities and to take part in one of the most traditional American establishments: voting.
The musicians, led by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, are trying to harness their sometimes controversial appeal to light a fire under a potentially powerful electorate: their diverse fan base.
In a series of "hip-hop summits" across the country, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network is using the lure of big-name artists to try to register 2-million voters ages 18 to 30 by the Nov. 2 election, and 20-million over the next five years.
One of those summits was Jan. 24 in Houston, featuring Beyonce, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Busta Rhymes, in town for the Super Bowl.
Organizers say if these musicians have the power to set trends just by wearing their hats to the side or drinking a certain drink, they should be able to inspire a political movement.
Simmons started the hip-hop network with civil rights activist Benjamin Chavis in 2001 hoping to use the music's cultural relevance to promote education advocacy and focus on issues concerning at-risk youths. For example, the group organized a rally in 2002 protesting proposed school budget cuts in New York. In the end, the money was mostly restored.
During the 2000 election, about 29 percent of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds voted, according to Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a voting research organization. That was down from 43.4 percent in 1972.
Politicians often have chastised hip-hop for its graphic violence and sexual content. But in this presidential campaign, a few candidates have tried to embrace some hip-hop, or at least its popularity. Some of the Democratic candidates have met with Simmons. Howard Dean has professed an affinity for Wyclef Jean.
Wesley Clark is featured in a Rock the Vote ad saying, "I don't care what the other candidates say. I don't think OutKast is really breaking up." That ad was voted most popular on the Rock the Vote Web site (www.rockthevote.com). Simmons said the campaign will reach out to hip-hop's diverse audience in a nonpartisan effort, though Simmons has contributed to Democratic candidates. The network got some early criticism because many of the rappers were not registered to vote. Now Simmons and Chavis ask musicians to register to generate publicity. Also, some states bar people with felony convictions from voting, so some artists can't vote. Network activists urge them, and fans who might be in that situation, to get their friends and family to vote, and they are lobbying for the repeal of such restrictions.
Political scientists are skeptical of the impact of voter drives such as this. Sabato said registration does not automatically mean participation.