By Dr. Joycelyn Wilson
For more than 40 years, black mayors have led Atlanta — the South’s largest city, with the second largest African-American population in America. First came Maynard Jackson, who was inaugurated in 1974, then Andrew Young, followed by Bill Campbell, Shirley Franklin, and the current mayor, Kasim Reed, who will step aside in January to make way for the newly elected Keisha Lance Bottoms.
Atlanta, a city whose population is almost 55 percent African-American, will continue to have a black mayor, and there’s a strong argument Bottoms owes her victory to hip-hop — not just its beats and rhymes, but its community.
If you did not follow Atlanta’s 2017 mayoral race, the basics were this: A November election narrowed a field of more than a dozen candidates down to two women, one of them black and the other white: Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood. The two women also represented different generations. Bottoms is 47, and Norwood is 64.
To say there was a generational and ideological gap between the two is an understatement. The polls flip-flopped continually, and Mary Norwood pulled in several endorsements, including surprises like a nod from former Mayor Franklin. As the December 5 runoff approached, a Norwood win appeared to be in the offing.
The polls were wrong. Endorsements don’t win elections. Votes do. And I believe it was the city’s hip-hop community — who came up in the same post-Civil Rights Movement generation as Bottoms — that helped turn out enough votes to put her over the top in the runoff, by 759 votes. (Election officials are due to certify the results today, and Norwood has said she will request a recount. But officials in the two counties over which the city spreads told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that a recount is unlikely to change the result.)
Bottoms’ generation of Atlantans, of which I am part, was nurtured and professionally incubated by Civil Rights Movement elders, and rap music represented our culture.
Today, it’s clear this generation got the juice. Lots of it. (Sometimes too much of it, but that’s another column for another time.) Atlanta’s hip-hop community is using its capital and cultural power to swing local elections.
Take Michael Render for example. You probably know him better as Killer Mike, one half of the duo Run the Jewels, which has amassed a following of millennials that crosses racial lines. And when many of them were on the fence before the runoff, Killer Mike moved hard in social media to those undecided millennials to swing toward the woman I cannot resist calling Mayor Keisha. Render also used his pan-Africanist identity to get undecided blacks to vote the Bottoms ticket.
Like Bottoms and many others of her generation in Atlanta, thanks to the work of African-American mayors 40 years ago, Render attended a high school named after black educators and leaders. Bottoms and Render are both graduates of Frederick Douglass high school and grew up in the Collier Heights neighborhood — a neighborhood mixed with black wealth and black working-class people. Like Bottoms, Render has humble beginnings. Neither comes from a family of privilege; instead, they came from hard-working families who saw education as the ticket to acquiring success. And like Bottoms, Render was educated at a historically black college and university.
And in the election, like the big person he is, Render leaned into the rock so many were already pushing and gave it that extra nudge, helping push Bottoms — a lawyer, judge, city council member, mother, and wife — past her opponent. His words were reminiscent of a Southern preacher rallying a community, and they were effective in a runoff election marked by hyperbole, racialized frustrations, and indictments of the rich for ignoring the poor. He changed the minds of some black people who were planning to vote the Norwood ticket.
This election forced hip-hop's cultural influencers to embrace the political influence their entertainment value has given them. The possibility of losing such status was a flat-footed truth many did not want to realize. For them, it meant going backwards. It meant taking the hip-hop generation backward — even for those who opposed Bottoms.
The election was a wake-up call for my generation.
A mountain of work remains to be done. As Andrew Young still reminds us, to whom much has been given, much is required. We have been given a huge responsibility. The question is where we start. As this generation seeks to keep its cultural and political relevance, how does it serve the people? All the people. How does the leadership displayed by the hip-hop generation — the post-Movement generation — shift into implementing legislation that moves beyond charity, like giving out book bags for school or turkeys for Thanksgiving, and onward toward sustainable efforts that present life-changing opportunities. How do we collectively work to lower the dropout rate, build community schools, and enforce programs that help Atlanta’s most vulnerable live securely in their homes or assist them as they try to rise above environments plagued by concentrated poverty? In a city “too busy to hate,” but where segregation is alive and kicking, how do we answer these questions with innovation — or, to put it in hip-hop terms, “that next-level shit”?
These are the challenges facing the new administration. The Bottoms administration. The administration of Mayor Keisha.
In rap songs, “Keisha” is more than a name. It's an archetype for black adolescence. For example, “Keisha” was the grandchild being told by her grandmother during a thunderstorm to “turn off that loud mess” and to get off the phone at the end of Outkast’s “Da Art of Storytellin’, Pt. 1.” (See playlist below.)
“Keisha” is also a popular name for young black women. I’d bet every black woman knows a Keisha. They are usually like the “Around the Way Girl” described in LL Cool J’s song of the same title: smart, feisty, cute, someone people like to have around.
Beyond the fact so many people — black, white, and in between — can relate to her come-up, Bottoms is competent, credentialed, and compassionate enough to make hard decisions for a city as diverse and as segregated as Atlanta. She’s a brown girl, an around-the-way girl of humble beginnings for whom education was the way out, as it was for me and so many others.
This election represents the spirit of hip-hop in Atlanta: the idea that possibility can trump privilege. Mixed with a healthy dose of Bottoms’ own #BlackGirlMagic, the creators and consumers of hip-hop culture provided the sauce and street credibility to help elect Keisha Lance Bottoms as Atlanta’s 60th mayor.
Word to Mayor Keisha.