What Became of the Hip-Hop Politicians?

They were supposed to be the new breed. What happened to elected officials of the hip-hop generation?

Harold Ford (David Goldman); Artur Davis (Chip Somodevilla/Getty); Jesse Jackson Jr. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty)
Harold Ford (David Goldman); Artur Davis (Chip Somodevilla/Getty); Jesse Jackson Jr. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty)

“The younger generation actually thought that there were greater opportunities for them to be able to act upon their ambition, and because of that they took risks that older black politicians and earlier cohorts of black politicians didn’t take. Unfortunately they [the risks] didn’t pay off,” said Gillespie. “In Artur Davis’ case he miscalculated. He took the Obama moment and hoped that it would transfer to success in the Deep South.”

The tragic disappointment of Jackson and Kilpatrick is another story. After 17 years in Congress, Jackson resigned from his seat on Nov. 21 to “focus on restoring” his health. Jackson was diagnosed with bipolar II depression this summer. The former congressman remains under federal investigation for misuse of campaign funds. Kilpatrick resigned as mayor of Detroit in 2008 after a corruption trial that included a sexting scandal. He served jail time and is currently in court again facing more corruption charges.

“Jesse Jackson, he wanted to break into the higher level offices that African Americans seldom win — governor, senator,” said David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Kwame, he said, “was a young man who didn’t view the world as a potentially dangerous place. I think to some degree, he thought he could pretty much do what he wanted.”

But for all their faults, the public still rooted for these young black men from the hip-hop generation. They wanted to see them succeed.

“The reason why the downfall of these two men in particular was so disheartening was because this cohort did a really good job of presenting themselves as technocratic do-gooders. People believed the hype and I think assumed that they were not susceptible to the same sort of challenges and vulnerabilities that a lot of people are susceptible to,” said Gillespie. “And so it’s more shocking because they had always framed themselves as being very, very different from their predecessors who, sometimes, had ethics issues.”

The young black politicians of the hip-hop generation have now moved on from Capitol Hill. Ford found his place in corporate America and is a popular television commentator. Meek continues to work on education issues with his family’s foundation. Davis, who abandoned the Democratic Party and spoke at the Republican National Convention, worked at a law firm after leaving office and was a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics this spring. Kilpatrick continues to deal with his corruption charges.

Bositis believes that most of these young black politicians who entered Congress with great fanfare can still have a career in politics, if not elected office.

Though the new breed may not have accomplished all that they would have liked or reached their own personal goals, Peterson notes that their time in office was important in the bigger scheme of things.

“It really spoke back to older generations — that suggestion that our generation was disengaged, that our generation was apathetic,” said Peterson. “These leaders, successful or not, as they emerged, they really helped to sort of construct a counter-narrative to the political-apathy identity that some of these people try to hang around the hip-hop culture.”

Lottie Joiner is the senior editor at the Crisis magazine.