It was Chris Rock who first called Kwame Kilpatrick the “Hip Hop Mayor” back when the burly young man in a suit and adorning himself with a diamond earring was only too glad to talk about politics with the swagger of an emcee lacking neither self-confidence nor lyrical dexterity.
It was in the way he walked too. Kilpatrick publicly admitted during his eventually successful run for mayor that he was a fan of rap music. He wanted to continue to challenge the narrative about hip hop culture that was enmeshed in violent crimes, misogyny, explicit language, and everything foul. If hip hop was decidedly African-American, it was up to African-Americans to hoist a clean flag for the culture.
But Kilpatrick could also do all of this because his city was Detroit, the Blackest in the United States. In fact, he had to do this. To keep in touch in the most relatable way, while submerging himself into the communitarianism of the hood, identifying with the sentiments of the marginalized and perpetuating anti-establishment propaganda. He was not reinventing the wheel. He just had to go with Public Enemy’s Fight The Power or N.W.A’s F*** Tha Police flow.
In 2002, Kilpatrick became the youngest ever mayor elected by Detroiters. He had not been new to politics as he had been a multiple-term-serving Democratic member of the Michigan House of Representatives since he was 25. He even became the first Black person to be made the Democratic (minority) leader in the House.
Kilpatrick excited Detroiters and there was very little doubt about that. Somewhere between elected lawmaker trusted with the people’s business and the face and voice necessarily countercultural to the philosophies that had built America, the young politician and rap aficionado found the thinnest safe space where he harbored and catered to the aspirations of Black people and the confidence of power represented by the Democratic Party and white people.
The congresswoman from California, Maxine Waters, thought Kilpatrick was in possession of the panacea that harmlessly merged hip hop culture and stately politics. This was Waters in 2003:
“I think that this mayor has an opportunity to help forge a new political agenda, and he has an opportunity to bring a lot of young people into politics. Much of hip-hop culture is born out of rap about conditions of the cities, the problems, the police abuse and all of that. The rappers have helped to describe what’s wrong in our society and the need to address it. That’s a natural lead to politics and public policy. Now with people like the mayor becoming part of the political process, it should all come together, to converge.”
It is not an oversimplification or exaggeration to point out that there had never been anyone quite like Kilpatrick in American political history with regards to his fateful setting. His rise in the 1990s coincided with the beginning of the mainstreaming of hip hop. But to have adopted, rather than shirk what white America had tactically castigated as an albatross around the neck of the Black man, was not only historic but in his own words, “a shining example in this world of revolutionary change”.
Again, this was Detroit. They could have had another Black man other than Kilpatrick. His challenger in 2001 was the respectable former cop and actor Gil Hill from Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop triad of films. This was not simply generational triumph but should also be seen as the embracing of the vivacity of Kilpatrick’s hip hop brand.
Congresswoman Waters certainly was right about the dialectic between rap music and the condition of Black life. The synthesis was found in the character-brand of Kilpatrick.
It sounds a bit pretentious to even call it a brand. It was not as if his campaign in 2001 was backed by the ingenuity of establishment strategists and the commonplace miraculousness money tends to create. It was rumored that Kilpatrick did not receive the backing of a financial nature or otherwise from trade unions and congressional districts. There were no special interest political action committees there too. Kilpatrick and his hip hop appeal was the stuff said of fish to water.
All of this promise began to undo itself midway through his first term. On his way to winning a second term, Time magazine said he was one of the worst mayors in the United States. Things fell apart because Kilpatrick’s moral compass could not point north, and that much is on him. But what we need to mourn is the opportunity that was shattered with Kilpatrick’s commitment to the dark side.
Kilpatrick’s nickname as the Hip Hop Mayor deserved cultivation and water for the sake of the culture. In him, Black America was given an opportunity to radically challenge the politics of respectability that has moderated and quieted down positive social change for so long. Whatever we may think of hip hop today is not the point. The point is that Kilpatrick viciously truncated the union of two spheres, united in a way the country has never before seen.
There have been those who have asked in the last decade if Kilpatrick could have had anything close to the stellar career Barack Obama saw. Incidentally, the two men met in 2005 and expressed admiration for each other. But while Obama was on his way to world history in November 2008, Kilpatrick was resigning his position as mayor in shame in September of that year.
Kilpatrick did not need to be as successful as Obama to be meaningful. Kilpatrick was once upon a time, liked, if not appreciated, the country over. What he could have offered was a complementary vision to Obama’s frankly modest politics. For all his intellectual adroitness, Obama was not particularly troublesome to traditional American sensibilities except to those who failed to hide the fact that they were bothered with a Black man in the White House.
To live as he started, Kilpatrick would not have been confined to the prisms that held Obama back. That is an intrinsically good position from which to begin. A nationally known and understood Black “hip hop politician” would have been great.
America still needs it.