Hip-Hop music is the soundtrack to my politics. Whether it’s the pounding beats, the declarations of making it despite all odds, or the prophetic proclamations that things can get better and change is possible, my work is underlined by the inspiration provided by this art form. Hip-hop culture can sometimes reflect some of the shortcomings of wider American society but, at its best, hip-hop is the art-form of modern day griots, an articulation of the power of agency, hope against hope and a prophetic roadmap to better days, while reflecting and appreciating the lessons of harder ones.
Last month, as a speaker at the California Democratic Convention, I walked out to Drake’s God’s Plan. In its chorus, I found agreement with many of the initiatives that I addressed in my speech: that the work I am doing in Stockton by piloting a basic income demonstration (The Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration), starting a city-wide scholarship fund to make college affordable (Stockton Scholars), and in bringing an innovative gun violence reduction program (Advance Peace), I “could not do on my own, but someone is watching this work close.” Last year, during my first State of the City address, I walked out to Big Sean’s “Bigger than Me,” because “all I wanna do is make my city proud yeah” and to remind those present that the effort to #ReinventStockton and the platform I have been given is in service to a purpose that’s bigger than me. On November 8, 2016, I approached the podium as the newly elected Mayor of Stockton to the Notorious BIG’s Juicy, as it “was all a dream”, “cuz I went from negative to positive” and to highlight the lessons I learned in escaping from poverty in Stockton to become Mayor. If you walk into my office today at Stockton City Hall, you will see the following quote from J. Cole’s The Autograph on my wall “Anything is possible, you have to dream like you’ve never seen obstacles.”
As a child of single mother and an incarcerated father, hip-hop was my narrator as I grew up in South Stockton. My mom introduced me to hip-hop music and in the urban griots I found words and beats that spoke to the pain and hopes of growing up in urban communities. Tupac’s yearning for a safe space in Thugz Mansion reminded me of my own dreams for a community of opportunity free of violence. DJ Quik’s Uz a Gangsta, spoke to the struggle I felt growing up , namely in not wanting to be implicated by association in the illicit activities of those I loved. 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Trying spoke to my hunger of wanting to escape from the hood. I wrote my college applications to Jay-Z’s American Dreaming and Lil Wayne’s Hustla Musik. Furthermore, while attending Stanford University as a first generation college student, I discovered a kinship with J. Cole and his mixtapes. In The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights, I found someone who was able to articulate my survivor’s guilt and told stories eerily similar to my own and that of my friends. The Ville he spoke of was my city, the feelings he struggled with growing up without his father were my own, and the stories he told of coming of age were as if he wrote them to describe what I had experienced.
After the murder of my cousin, Donnell James II, and my election to the city council in 2012, it was Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, Maad City, that illustrated to me the promise and the peril of my hometown of Stockton that I had decided to come back to. In Sing About Me, I’m Dying of thirst I found a reminder that the nihilism that many of the young men in my community had succumbed to was partly because they felt that if they were to leave, no one would miss them. In listening to the inner struggle of The Art of Peer Pressure, I was pushed to focus on creating structured activities for youth to be involved in so they weren’t forced to find fun on their own. Furthermore, in Jay-Z and Kanye’s Murder to Excellence, I found a rallying cry to share with young men from neighborhoods like the one where I grew up. Recently, in J. Cole’s single 4 Your Eyez Only I’ve discovered sociological expose on the pressures facing many young men of color as they struggle with criminal records, neighborhoods with no opportunity, the need to provide for their families, and an all-consuming sense of impending doom.
Throughout history, African-Americans have used music as the impetus for social change. From the spirituals sang by slaves to the freedom songs sung by Civil Rights protestors, music has provided a critique of a failing status quo and an outlet for the deepest yearnings of true equality and freedom. Today, my music choices may have a little more bass, and in some cases finesse and swag, but provide the same motivation. As I focus on investing in people and in increasing opportunity for my community, hip-hop serves as a motivating force. As the youngest mayor of a major city in American history and as the first black Mayor in the history of the City of Stockton, I truly feel like Drake and Future when they said, what a time to be alive and like Kanye when he said, I’m living in the 21st century, and need to do something mean to it.
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