A strikingly subdued group of rappers is meeting with politicians this week to tackle hip-hop's often controversial image in the media.
For the rappers, the ongoing Hip-Hop Summit at the New York Hilton Hotel offers a chance to voice their opinions about the industry — and enjoy a reunion. (Check out a slideshow of some of the participants.)
Rap legends Naughty By Nature and 2 Live Crew mingled with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and up-and-coming rappers including Talib Kweli during Tuesday's opening session. Today's speakers were to include Queen Latifah, Sean Combs (aka Puffy, P. Diddy), and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan slated to deliver the keynote address.
"I think it's going very well," said Simmons, the founder of Def Jam Records and the summit's organizer. "We're here also to celebrate and know our power, and how influential we are … to build on what we have."
What they have is one of the most profitable arms of the music industry. Yet like their rock-star predecessors, the flamboyant personalities topping the charts continue to find their lyrics debated in Washington.
Just last week, the Federal Communications Commission fined a Colorado radio station $7,000 for playing Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady." The station said it thought it was a clean version of the track, but the FCC still deemed it indecent.
The Censorship Controversy
Politicians, religious leaders and the musicians are meeting largely behind closed doors. When they wrap up Thursday, they hope to have a unified plan for the industry as it moves forward.
Members of the NAACP and rapper Chuck D were among the first speakers to take the mike in the opening session. Chuck D focused on marketing, accusing record labels and the media of "narrowcasting" — preventing a diverse range of hip-hop artists from getting airplay and attention.
Rising star Kweli said outside the meetings the three-day seminar brings together a community that is often divided by feuds among its musicians.
"It's a good positive direction, it's good that the people involved in hip-hop are the ones that are taking responsibility," said Kweli.
Prime on his mind, and on most of the artists', is freedom of speech.
"I've been fighting this battle for about 12 years now," said 2 Live Crew originator Luther Campbell. "It's good that everybody is now collectively trying to get together to understand what the actual issue is. And what the political issues are."
Singling Out Black Artists?
Campbell was among the first rappers to put a warning label voluntarily on one of his albums. He says he's at the conference to voice concerns over "open" attempts at censorship in Washington.
He said he's concerned by efforts spearheaded by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., to crack down on record labels, movie studios and others in the entertainment industry that market violent or sexually explicit material to kids.
"Our own is attacking us," Campbell said of the former Democratic vice-presidential nominee. "It's not Bush, it's not the Republicans who are known as being right-wing, anal people … so it's kind of weird."
He feels politicians are especially targeting black artists.
"Before it was just music, now it's the entire black music industry, it's the entire black movie industry," Campbell said.