A Hip-Hop Mayoral Race

By Dr. Joycelyn Wilson


Remember the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards this past September? On the red carpet, Issa Rae, the star and brains behind HBO’s highly lauded comedy series, “Insecure,” unapologetically told the press, “I’m rooting for everybody black.” The interviewer laughed in awe of Rae’s candidness, and then she nailed down her answer: “I am.”

I feel similarly about Atlanta’s upcoming mayoral election next Tuesday, a cage match of sorts among the eight candidates who remain viable — five of them black, three of them white. It will almost certainly end up in a runoff. It’s a hugely important election, not only within the city itself but also beyond, because Atlanta is the largest city in the South and one of the region’s primary economic engines.

The question is: Who is best qualified to cement Atlanta’s place as a technologically advanced, international mecca of entertainment and culture? After all, major economic gains have come to this city because of the hip-hop music created and produced here.

Want proof? Look at the Billboard charts this week. On the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, Atlantans either created, produced, or contributed to at least seven of the top 10; add the entire South in the picture, and you’ve got nine out of 10. On the big Billboard 200 chart, which crosses all genres, four of those albums are in the top 10.

That music does more than just top the charts: It does so while fearlessly and fiercely commenting on the problems our city faces — the problems that “everybody black” faces.

So, in next Tuesday’s election, I am rooting for everybody black, literally and figuratively. But when I say “everybody black,” I extend the definition to include:

  • All poor and working-class people

  • Middle-class people living check-to-check

  • Every child attending a substandard public school

  • Every mother and/or father suffering from the loss of a child to mass incarceration or police brutality

  • Every legacy homeowner threatened by gentrification

  • Every renter who has had to move out of the city because rent is exorbitantly high

  • Every person challenged with getting in and out of the city every day

  • Every child and family living in the city’s food deserts, and every community member who has - over at least the last forty years - contributed to Atlanta’s political economy.

Why do I expand the definition? Because in this city, race and class are proxies for each other.

As of this writing, pollsters place Mary Norwood in first, followed by Keisha Lance Bottoms. The two women, both members of the Atlanta City Council, are a generation apart. Norwood is white and, in the view of the Democratic Party of Georgia, a closet Republican. Bottoms is black and openly identifies as a Democrat, although the mayoral race is officially nonpartisan. Norwood is strongly supported by the city’s white and wealthy. Bottoms gets strong support from the city’s affluent and hip.

The possibility of electing a conservative, white mayor has turned this election into a nail-biting frustration fest, gassed up by ideological tensions and racialized microaggressions. Atlanta elected its first African-American mayor, Maynard Jackson, in 1974 — and the office has been held by an African-American ever since. As the city’s population has grown over the last decade or so, its voter base has changed, becoming whiter, no doubt about it. But the possibility of inaugurating the first white mayor in 44 years has the potential to keep the old, ongoing battles for racial and economic leverage raging in Atlanta and beyond.

Atlanta drives the South in business and opportunity. It has become a globally significant technology hub. But perhaps most importantly to the broader South and the nation, Atlanta is a cultural incubator. Because of the huge success and market dominance of Atlanta’s hip-hop community, this community creates images that influence how the entire world sees black Americans.

To kids everywhere making beats and rhymes, Atlanta is more than a city. It is a mythical land of opportunity.

But I am disturbed that this mayor’s race has created an all-out clash among the three native Atlantans who, like me, are products of the post-Civil Rights Movement, hip-hop generation: Bottoms, Ceasar Mitchell, and Kwanza Hall.

November 7 is my birthday. I get nervous when an election hits on or near my born date. The last one (give or take a day) was the reelection of President Barack Obama on November 6, 2012. Hip-hop voters helped put him in office. That’s documented in songs like “My President” from Atlanta rapper Jeezy. November is also Hip-Hop History Month; November 12, 1974 is considered its birthdate. Bottoms, Mitchell, and Hall were all born within a few years of this date.

All three are vying for control of City Hall following the last eight years under the thumb of Kasim Reed, the city’s first mayor of the hip-hop generation. Despite their clashes, Bottoms, Mitchell, and Hall have much in common. They are all Atlanta natives, graduates of the Atlanta Public Schools, and beneficiaries of Atlanta’s civil-rights acumen as experienced through the formative years of hip-hop culture. Without question, they are political leaders of Atlanta’s hip-hop generation. Their professional and political careers are tied to a voting base that identifies with hip-hop and lives a lifestyle influenced by the culture’s sociopolitical sensibilities.

The part that’s freaking me out is the unfortunate and unnecessary division placed on the three candidates’ specific constituencies. Ego (the “elimination of good opportunities”) is putting the folk I mentioned above in grave danger.

Two months ago, in early September, I moderated a “Black Agenda” mayoral forum hosted by ONE Music Fest, along with a black Trump supporter, Shelley Wynter, and progressive rapper/activist Michael Render (aka Killer Mike). It was standing room only in a conference space designed to hold 700 people. As I stood at the podium to present opening remarks, I realized there were enough people in the room to swing the vote. Norwood lost by only 714 votes to Kasim Reed in 2009.

We asked about the issues that concern black Atlanta. We asked about the issues concerning a community of creatives in a city where contemporary black culture — in the form of hip-hop and trap music — is one of its major exports. We asked about the expectations of the people and how candidates planned to prioritize them. But more than anything, we asked why so many black candidates were running against one another.

Of course, race and class matter. The Brookings Institution ranked Atlanta in 2015 as having the widest income inequality of all American cities. That’s high, it’s significant, it’s real, and all one has to do is walk around Atlanta to see the grave consequences among poor, working, and middle-class people, who fear they will get priced and segregated out of the city.

And then there are the city’s schools. A report issued in 2015 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that 80 percent of Atlanta’s African-American children live in concentrated poverty, which frequently means a lack of access to critical resources like quality education and health care. The graduation rates for black students in the Atlanta Public Schools APS is only 57 percent. Black and Latino students in APS are three times more likely to drop out of school than a white child.

These are the issues rapped about in trap music — Southern trap music.

Atlanta’s reputation as a "civil rights" city is a peculiar one. While it operates within a tradition of social justice and social courage, it is also a city struggling to provide equitable opportunity to “everybody black.” Much is at stake. It is literally a matter of life or death that we begin to reach across the table, listen to one another, confront without confrontation, perhaps even disagree but not be disagreeable, and walk away with a candidate who is also rooting for the city’s most vulnerable populations.