As they say, there ain’t no party like a hip-hop party ’cause a hip-hop party don’t stop. And with the November elections looming, Philadelphia’s newly formed Hip-Hop Party for the People and its City Council candidate, 26-year-old Pili X—a local rapper who goes by the name KASH Kuumba—are going all-out with a spirited, if seemingly quixotic, independent write-in bid for an at-large Council seat. It’s a grassroots campaign that hopes to ride the unifying power of hip-hop, as well as the increasing despair over joblessness, education woes and violence in some of Philly’s most disadvantaged hoods, to a spot at the Council table.
“I’m in it to win it, not just for show,” says Pili. “I’m not gonna lie—we don’t have the financial backing that the Democrats or Republicans have, but we can win. We represent what the people are feelin’. We just have to hit the streets hard.”
Established in January, Hip-Hop Party for the People was borne out of the Poor Righteous Party of the Black Nation—Leah “Keturah” Caesar and Tommy Joshua, both members of that long-running local activist group, led a protest against the controversial police beating of Askia Sabur last September that sparked national outrage when video of the incident hit YouTube.
Sabur was standing outside a Chinese restaurant at 55th Street and Lansdowne Avenue in West Philadelphia waiting for his food when cops from the 19th District demanded he and others clear the sidewalk. Police maintain that only after Sabur became confrontational, knocking an officer to the ground and reaching for his gun, did they wrestle him to the ground and strike him with batons for several minutes. The widely circulated video shows only the beating. Sabur disputed the police account, claiming he did nothing to deserve the broken arm, head and spinal injuries, and aggravated assault charge he received (his trial is in January).
The day after the incident, the Poor Righteous Party held a “People’s Court” at the site of the beating, where community members “indicted” the PPD. Two weeks later, they compelled 500 people to march to the 19th District police headquarters to demand justice.
“We initiated a whole uprising in West Philly,” Caesar says proudly.
But when nothing came of it, Caesar, 28, decided to channel her frustrations into local politics by co-founding the HHPP with an eye toward a Council run. “City Council, they’re focusing on DROP [Deferred Retirement Option Program] and they’re not talking about police misconduct,” she says. “They’re not talking about violence in the community, HIV, inner-city pregnancy, no jobs, schools closing, all these things people out here care about. Those are the things we plan to work on.”
“Out here” includes the North Philly neighborhood that surrounds Gilbert’s Shoes—the old shoe store-turned-counterculture residence and community center on Ridge Avenue that also serves as HHPP HQ. Caesar, HHPP’s national coordinator, is kicking back in a chair next to a row of refurbished computers for local kids to use; the unfinished space also houses a piano, drum kit and mics for live rap shows.
Caesar’s roots in Philly arts and activism run deep: A dancer and filmmaker, she co-directed the 2010 short documentary The Big Pay Back —a look at Philly’s female hip-hop artists—and has been working on a feature-length film about the city’s hip-hop dance history titled Philly Raw Talent since 2009. Prior to that, she taught black history and civics to students at Philadelphia Freedom Schools. Invoking hip-hop for her nascent political party was a nod to the dominant language and lifestyle of the streets, and a way to bridge cultures in a manner that a group called Poor Righteous Party of the Black Nation might have more difficulty doing.
“Hip-hop is the only culture that has brought everyone together,” says Caesar. “You can incorporate funk or blues or jazz and it’s still hip-hop, so in the same way we can bring people from different backgrounds and races together for social change.”
Not long after announcing in January that she was running for City Council, Caesar backed out, deciding that her talents were better served in a behind-the-scenes organizational role. So the HHPP drafted Pili X to run in her place. Like Caesar, Pili’s been involved in music and activism since his teens, mentoring peers at Overbrook High and working since 2007 with the local organization Beats, Rhymes and Life, which steers at-risk kids toward recording and audio production, along the way helping them develop skills to graduate high school and apply to college.
Inspired by the hard-hitting, radical polemic of Brooklyn hip-hop duo Dead Prez—and by his father and uncles, who were affiliated with the Black Panthers and helped shape his own worldview—Pili began rapping under the moniker KASH Kuumba in 2004. There’s a recent video on YouTube in which he’s freestyling on a Philly train platform: “My political views are those of a communist/Hip-hop socialist/I’m the Maoist Chris Brown/Got a model chick she an anarchist so I keep her around,” he rhymes.
Making no apologies for his ideology, Pili insists voters—especially in the North, West and Southwest Philly neighborhoods he’s particularly courting—are looking for a new way forward. “Most people are sick of the way things are going in Philadelphia, they’re sick of the things that are going on with City Council and the mayor,” he says.
Among Pili’s priorities, should he win office: Creating “better relationships” with companies and factories to get them to come to Philadelphia and create jobs. Implementing a “zero tolerance” policy for police misconduct. Instituting a “neighborhood beautification” program that would transform the city’s vacant lots and properties into low-cost housing, marketplaces, parks and recreation centers. And establishing community control over schools, health-care clinics, food co-ops, child-care centers, and businesses so that neighborhoods become less reliant on city services and schools with “curriculum decided by outsiders.”
How he’d fund such initiatives, or convince fellow Council members to go along with his ideas, Pili’s not quite sure. “Issues will come up where I’ll have to compromise and go halfway, and that might not be what I promised but that halfway would be better than giving the people nothing,” he says. “I’m confident that I can do the job. I’m studying policy every day.”
Pili and his HHPP comrades are indeed trying to hit the streets hard—knocking on doors, handing out fliers, sponsoring more “People’s Courts,” putting on hip-hop shows, and participating in events like the recent anti-curfew march on South Street to get the word out. Both Pili and Caesar say that despite basic ideological differences, they’ve been inspired by the Tea Party’s ability to mobilize disenchanted voters and get their candidates into office; Pili even counts Philly conservative Robert Allen Mansfield—a Republican candidate for governor and one of the most prominent black Tea Party activist in the nation—as one of his political advisors. “He’s taken me under his wing, helping me learn about how city government works,” says Pili.
“Pili and I don’t have to agree on every issue, but I think Philadelphia would be well-served by young people with independent voices like his in City Council,” says Mansfield. “The ruling elites in this city don’t want new faces, because if Pili X wins, they lose.”
Clearly, the write-in campaign is a longshot, but, says Caesar, “There have been so many budget cuts and people getting laid off and people feeling like they’re being brutalized … you know how you go through tragedies as a society and it just wakes everybody up? I feel like that’s what’s happening this year. We’re out there talking to the people, and they’re ready for us.”