Black men ask, “What am I voting for?” as they battle frustration

Black men ask, “What am I voting for?” as they battle frustration

African American men emerge as a key swing vote in battleground states.

ByBriana Stewart, Ashley Schwartz-Lavares, and Gabriel Rivera

June 22, 2024, 6:02 AM

    At an invite-only event in downtown Atlanta, hip-hop fans from across the country came together for a unique voter outreach event.

    The Black Male Voter Project, an organization dedicated to increasing civic engagement among Black men, partnered with some of the biggest names in the battle rap to host the No Cap Conference.

    The political conference aimed to educate and galvanize a sector of young Black men who are disengaged and unlikely to vote in the November election.

    “It's called No Cap. No cap, in a young Black man’s language, means ‘no lies. This is the truth,” Mondale Robinson, the organization’s founder, told ABC News Chief National Correspondent and “Nightline” Co-Anchor Byron Pitts.

    “Our purpose was to talk to the Black men who don't participate in the election,” Robinson said.

    Popular underground rappers sparred bar for bar to earn cash prizes and bragging rights as a packed crowd cheered them on.

    There were no slogans, no campaign buttons, and no candidates. ABC News’ "Nightline" was granted exclusive access to the event.

    PHOTO: ABC News Chief National Correspondent and ‘Nightline’ Anchor, Byron Pitts interviews Mondale Robinson, founder of the Black Male Voter Project.

    ABC News Chief National Correspondent and ‘Nightline’ Anchor, Byron Pitts interviews Mondale Robinson, founder of the Black Male Voter Project.ABC News

    The rap battle was an appetizer for No Cap conference-goers, and civic education was the main course. Attendees, many of whom have never voted in any election, participated in seminars about election misinformation and the history of the 15th Amendment, which granted African American men the right to vote.

    The conference also showcased ways for the rappers to leverage their platforms to amplify political campaigns and politicians they support.

    The ultimate goal was to ignite political awareness among those who are typically disengaged from the election process.

    For Robinson, the hope is that through camaraderie and shared interest, the Black men in attendance would be inspired to become more politically involved in both local and federal elections.

    “We talk to the brothers that the world doesn't want to talk to,” Robinson said. “Nobody's doing that.

    PHOTO: ABC News Chief National Correspondent and 'Nightline' Anchor, Byron Pitts interviews rappers Hitman Holla and John John Da Don about the 2024 presidential election.

    ABC News Chief National Correspondent and 'Nightline' Anchor, Byron Pitts interviews rappers Hitman Holla and John John Da Don about the 2024 presidential election.ABC News

    In every election cycle, presidential candidates from both sides of the aisle historically court Black men with a formulaic strategy: making stops at pulpits in churches, hosting barbershop talks, and appearing in roundtables at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

    However, Robinson argues that the usual campaign strategy often misses the opportunity to engage with some of the most marginalized and disenchanted voters.

    The narrative that young Black male voters are apathetic to the importance of the election is false, Robinson told "Nightline." He said that it’s ineffective campaign messaging and stalled delivery of campaign promises that ultimately impact voter turnout among the Black male voting bloc.

    “There's no apathy in Black men. There's a level of antipathy. Antipathy is a whole different emotion. You hate what politics is and does because you've not seen the growth, or benefit of it. Black men are not better off because of politics,” Robinson said.

    PHOTO: President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris wave to members of the audience after speaking at a campaign rally at Girard College, May 29, 2024, in Philadelphia.

    President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris wave to members of the audience after speaking at a campaign rally at Girard College, May 29, 2024, in Philadelphia.Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

    Black men have been a core of the Democratic Party's path to victory, with more than 80% of them identifying with the party for the last 25 years, according to Pew Research.

    And while the Black community still overwhelmingly supports Democrats, some of that support could be eroding. A recent ABC News poll shows that more Black people may have moved away from President Joe Biden.

    Some of the Black voters most likely to support former President Donald Trump are those under the age of 50, according to Pew Research.

    In 2020, record turnout among Black voters in battleground states delivered the Oval Office to Biden. It’s an acknowledgment the president makes often on the campaign trail.

    “Because Black Americans voted, Kamala [Harris] and I are president and vice president of the United States. Because of you. That’s not hyperbole,” Biden told a crowd of Black voters during a campaign stop in Philadelphia on May 29.

    However, a Washington Post/ Ipsos poll released in May is raising alarms among Democrats that voter turnout may be a challenge for the party in November, as nearly 1 in 5 Black voters who turned out for Biden in 2020 say they are less than certain about whether they will vote at all this year.

    In an election year that could be a toss-up in key battleground states, younger Black men showing up at the polls could play a pivotal role.

    PHOTO: Former President Donald Trump speaks during the keynote address of the Black Conservative Federation, Honors Gala in Columbia, South Carolina, Feb. 23, 2024.

    Former President Donald Trump speaks during the keynote address of the Black Conservative Federation, Honors Gala in Columbia, South Carolina, Feb. 23, 2024.Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Headlining the No Cap conference was Hitman Holla and John John Da Don, two artists, entertainers, and fathers in their 30s. They told ABC News that up until the conference they never discussed politics with each other despite being friends in the music industry for years.

    They have only voted once in their lives, helping to elect former President Barack Obama in 2008.

    However, Hitman Holla told Pitts that he saw very little change in the social issues impacting the Black community, noting the ongoing battle with disproportionate police brutality.

    (MORE: Documentary traces history of policing the Black community – from slavery through present day )

    Since Obama's first term, the rapper says he has been reluctant to vote again. “Voting is the last thing on my mind,” Hitman Holla said.

    “They all want me to vote, but for what? So Mike Brown can get shot . . .? That's what I'm voting for? So, George Floyd can get killed on camera? What am I voting for? What am I going to stand in this line for and vote for one of these people? Y’all want to act like my vote really matters."

    Hitman Holla and John John Da Don are still undecided, but tell ABC News they are leaning toward voting for Trump.

    “I feel like there was more change when Trump was in office than Biden if we have to compare what’s going on,” John John Da Don said, highlighting his trust in the former president on issues relating to the economy.

    The rapper is not alone in his sentiments. On issues related to the economy and inflation, adults surveyed by ABC News/Ipsos said they trusted Trump over Biden by a margin of 14 percentage points.

    But for Hitman, the reticence toward Biden is not a full-throated endorsement of Trump, either.

    “I’ll vote, but they’re my only options?” Hitman Holla continued. “It's like, ‘Hey, do you want to burn your hand in the oven, or do you want to burn your hand in the toaster?"

    PHOTO: People wait as President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are scheduled to address Black voters at a rally at Girard College in Philadelphia, PA, May 29, 2024.

    People wait as President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are scheduled to address Black voters at a rally at Girard College in Philadelphia, PA, May 29, 2024.Bastiaan Slabbers/Sipa USA via AP

    On the campaign trail, the Biden administration has focused outreach efforts in states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, touting progress in student debt relief, support for Black-owned businesses, as well as improvements in inflation and employment.

    (MORE: The Black unemployment rate is consistently twice that of white workers. Here's why )

    The Trump campaign has also tried to court Black voters in myriad ways.

    Trump spoke during a roundtable at a church in Detroit with Republican Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida and Former Housing Secretary Dr. Ben Carson, two prominent Black conservatives and vice presidential contenders, to highlight his record on the economic and funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

    During the roundtable Trump also highlighted his record on criminal justice reform, particularly for his signing of the First Step Act of 2018, legislation that created a system of rehabilitation incentives for incarcerated individuals meant to reduce recidivism rates.

    “We passed historic criminal justice reform. Something that they've been after, people have been after, mostly the Black community, for years and years,” Trump said at the roundtable. “President Obama tried and was unable to get it done. You needed conservative votes and I got conservative votes. We got criminal justice reform done. Nobody else could’ve done that,” Trump continued.

    Critics have scrutinized some of the Trump campaign’s outreach strategies. Earlier this year, the former president faced backlash after insinuating that his multiple indictments and ongoing legal woes made him more relatable to Black voters.

    “My mug shot, we've all seen the mug shot and you know who embraced it more than anybody else? The Black population,” Trump said while speaking at the Black Conservative Federation's annual BCF Honors Gala at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center in Columbia, S.C., on Feb. 23.

    During the gala, Trump also said, “I got indicted a second time and a third time. I got a fourth time and a lot of people said that, 'That's why the Black people like me, because they have been hurt so badly and discriminated against.”

    (MORE: Black conservative voters stand by Trump despite controversial remarks )

    Addul Ali, a Black Republican congressional candidate in North Carolina's 12th district, who supports Trump, was in the room when Trump made the controversial remarks. He told ABC News he was not offended.

    “The problem is that we have a double standard,” Ali said. ”Donald Trump's mug shot T-shirt is racist, but you all having some hip-hop gerbils sell me a car is not. Black culture in America is identified as ‘gangsta,’” Ali said.

    The former president also unveiled Trump-branded sneakers and has aligned himself with rappers and pop culture figures in recent years to woo young Black voters.

    In Raleigh, North Carolina, college students who will be voting for the first time in November told Pitts that Trump’s outreach attempts aren’t translating.

    (MORE: Trump courts Black, Hispanic votes in South Bronx rally: New York is 'going red very, very quickly' )

    “I kind of feel disgusted that he felt like he could get to us by making jokes about going to jail and relating to us that way. It's not what we stand for as people. That's not us as a whole,” Aaron McKinley Veal, a junior at Winston-Salem State University, said.

    Ahmad Blair, a junior at North Carolina A&T University, said that while he finds it offensive, he recognizes how it energizes some voters who support Trump.

    “The thing is they say those things and while we know them to be wrong, it's effective. It energizes the people that it needs to,” Blair said.

    Much like Hitman Holla and John John Da Don in Atlanta, Blair says it’s difficult not to be disillusioned by the current political landscape.

    “I'm so politically tired,” Blair told ABC News. “I don't even know what issues I care about anymore. I know that reproductive rights are important to me, but I'm tired. Constantly having to fight as a Black man in every space. You have to fight when you enter these white spaces. You’re fighting in a housing market applying for apartments because you can be discriminated against just for being Black. It's like every system is built in opposition to our success,” Blair continued.

    Despite feeling political fatigue, Black male HBCU students told “Nightline” they are still committed to casting ballots in the upcoming presidential election.

    “I think it's really important. Our ancestors fought for this. We're coming into one of the biggest elections ever. So I feel like it's very important for Black people, in general, to vote, to go out and voice their opinions,” Blair said.

    PHOTO: President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop at South Restaurant & Jazz Club in Philadelphia, May 29, 2024.

    President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop at South Restaurant & Jazz Club in Philadelphia, May 29, 2024.Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

    North Carolina has been a mainstay in the story of Black political progress in America and HBCUs have been at the center.

    (MORE: Biden faces silent protests at Morehouse commencement )

    In Greensboro, North Carolina, four HBCU students famously spearheaded the nationwide sit-in movement in 1960, which led to widespread desegregation of stores in the South.

    The Tar Heel state was among one of the common stops for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his crusade for civil rights.

    For generations, the Black church has been instrumental in getting voters to the polls and fighting for access to the ballot box.

    In Charlotte, it’s a history that will continue at Chappell Memorial Baptist Church. Rev. Dr. Gregory Moss has helped organize voter outreach, including the “Souls to the Polls” program, for much of the 46 years he’s been a pastor.

    “The church cannot tell you who to vote for, but we can emphasize the importance of exercising your right as a citizen,” Moss said, adding that he sees his voter outreach as an extension of Sunday service.

    “We have a predominance of working-class people and oftentimes when the polls are open, they don't always have the luxury of being able to leave their job to go to the polls,” Moss said.

    While the Biden campaign has made several stops in North Carolina, Moss still hopes to see more intentional ground game and creative outreach in the Black community.

    “At the end of the day, again, it’s getting out there touching people,” Moss said.

    “It's not just on social media. It's not just through 10-second sound bites. It's getting out there among folk and doing old-school politics.”

    ABC News' Rachel Rosenbaum and Stephanie Lorenzo contributed to this report.

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