Reverend Lennox Yearwood Jr.
President & CEO, Hip Hop Caucus
In 2004, I escorted Missy Misdemeanor Elliott—the multi-hyphenated talent, Grammy Award-winner and Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee—to the polls to vote for her first time. Like so many young people and people of color, Missy felt alienated from the voting process and did not recognize her power in our shared democracy. But moved by the issues she faced in her community growing up, and empowered by a budding movement that would ultimately become the Hip Hop Caucus, Missy felt compelled to finally exercise her sacred right as an American citizen.
Stories of people voting for the first time are beautiful. But for too many young people, particularly young people of color, the act of participating in our democracy never comes to fruition.
Young voters, ages 18 to 34, make up more than 30 percent of our electorate. Galvanizing this key voting bloc has traditionally been a low priority for the political establishment. However, we know that big things happen when the youth are engaged.
The 2018 midterm elections demonstrated record turnout for young people, with millions more young Americans voting across the country than in past midterm elections. This record-shattering turnout influenced tight races from sea to shining sea, helping to elect a historic 100-plus women to Congress and openly LGBTQ candidates to office. The youth vote ushered in a wave of politicians resolved to bring issues like voting rights, women’s rights, criminal justice reform, gun violence, and climate change front and center on the new Congress’s agenda.
The power of young people participating in our democracy is undeniable and essential for winning on the issues we care about. That’s why Hip Hop Caucus created Respect My Vote!, a non-partisan, get-out-the-vote campaign in 2008.
For more than a decade, Respect My Vote! has worked with dozens of artists and influencers like T.I., 2 Chainz, Amber Rose, Charlamagne Tha God, Keke Palmer, and Vic Mensa to prepare hundreds of thousands of people to vote through voter registration drives, issue education programs, and voter mobilization efforts. The campaign also aggressively pushes back against attacks on voting rights and advocates for reforms that will make voting easier for all Americans.
Respect My Vote! engages young people where they are: in communities, on college campuses, at music venues and festivals, and at major events like March For Our Lives. But it is equally important to meet young voters at the intersection of the issues that matter most to them and give them the tools available to make necessary change.
Rapper T.I. was the lead Respect My Vote! spokesperson during its inaugural year. When the campaign started, he was on house arrest and unaware of his right to vote as a returning citizen (a formerly incarcerated person who has re-entered society after serving his or her sentence). He used his multi-city bus tour as a platform to stress that returning citizens learn their rights and flex their power by voting.
As returning citizens and campaign spokespeople, T.I., 2 Chainz, and Charlamagne Tha God have led the way and opened the door for other artists and entertainers to actively engage with programs that address injustices and inequalities, including addressing the prison industrial complex and fighting for criminal justice reform.
Their efforts played major roles in recent voting rights wins, including a 2018 ballot measure in Florida to restore voting rights to more than 1.5 million returned citizens—a major victory for our communities, our country, and our democracy.
Last year, ahead of the crucial 2018 midterm elections, one of our key initiatives was a partnership with social media influencer Amber Rose to inspire and prepare young women to vote. The project featured Amber’s top 10 reasons to vote if you are a woman, or care about women. The initiative focused on violence against women, reproductive health, immigration, sexual harassment, LGBTQ equality, equal pay, mass incarceration, paid family leave, environmental health, and student loans and education.
Centering on those issues that unduly burden women, particularly women of color, we stressed that elected officials at all levels of government have a major say over the lives and opportunities that exist for women, and those that we elect make critical decisions on policies that can either bring our country towards greater equality and opportunity—or set us back.
Following the 2018 Parkland mass shooting, Respect My Vote! teamed up with March For Our Lives to empower millions of young people to end gun violence in their communities and classrooms. Joined by Vic Mensa in Washington D.C., we co-hosted a voter registration training for over 400 people and joined crowds across the country to register thousands of young voters in a single day.
We believe in helping to implement solutions to reducing gun violence that come from the very communities that experience it firsthand. That is why Hip Hop Caucus teamed up with the multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning recording artists Black Eyed Peas for the release of “Street Livin,” a 2018 single and video that drives awareness and is a call-to-action on issues that largely impact communities of color, including gun violence. We developed the project’s call-to-action on gun violence in partnership with national organizations led by millenials and people of color and implemented proven strategies to reduce gun violence in cities across the United States.
For more than a decade, the Hip Hop Caucus has been engaged in education campaigns and advocacy to address the disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable communities, including urban communities and communities of color. We work with artists such as Antonique Smith to bring awareness to the issues and the solutions, like voting. We have launched Think 100% - The Coolest Show on Climate Change, a powerful podcast that engages young people and communities of color on climate issues facing their communities and the planet.
2018 was a landmark year for young voter turnout and engagement. But while we witnessed historic turnout, there remains much room for growth.
For more than 10 years, Respect My Vote! showed up for young voters who are looking for more than “thoughts and prayers” on the issues that impact them. This movement is not about a political party or a partisan line. It’s about lives and justice for all. It’s about the empowerment of young people heading to the polls in 2020 and beyond.