Event highlights African-American involvement

The night before Barack Obama is sworn in as the nation’s 44th president in an historic first, Washington’s newly opened Harman Center for the Arts will host another significant first: the Hip-Hop Inaugural Ball, with Russell Simmons, L.L. Cool J, T.I. and Young Jeezy as hosts.

The event, says Valeisha Butterfield, exec director of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, “represents a significant milestone in the evolution of hip-hop culture” that will “celebrate the contributions of young adults in the election and acknowledge hip-hop artists that took a leadership role in the transformation of the United States.”

That’s not mere hyperbole: Obama’s candidacy, which largely steered clear of identity politics during the campaign, signals a new level of political visibility and involvement by African-Americans from the entertainment arena, be they production execs, music artists or entertainers.

Awareness of that shift will be readily apparent in the extensive, round-the-clock programming that BET: Black Entertainment Television and TV One are devoting to the inauguration — both will be more celebration participants than passive observers.

TV One, a five-year-old fledgling network of entertainment programming geared to African-American auds, doesn’t even have a news division, but found it couldn’t ignore the “historic moment in the lives of all African- Americans,” as CEO Johnathan Rodgers says.

The cabler, which saw an uptick in ratings when it covered the Democratic National Convention and Obama’s victory speech at Chicago’s Grant Park, plans to create more programming covering African-Americans in the White House.

In addition to hosting its own inaugural ball, as well as the BET Honors, the cabler will cover the swearing-in ceremony, with Rene Syler and Hill Harper co-anchoring. Covering an historic event is a new role for Harper, a star of “CSI: NY” and a relentless campaigner for Obama. “I can be just as honestly passionate as maybe a journalist can be,” he says.

Perhaps not since the height of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s have so many famous names lent their time to the political process — a recognition not just of Obama’s historic candidacy but the notion among many entertainment figures that their energies will be worth it.

After all, any performer stepping into the political arena faces the fear of getting so caught up in the partisan fray that it costs them jobs or popularity. Oprah Winfrey, for instance, received a barrage of angry messages on her website after she endorsed Obama, some accusing her of favoring race over gender.

Quincy Jones, whose activism stretches back decades, notes that performers are able to seize on a worldwide reach.

“I come from the days of Dr. King,” he says. “There was a time when we literally believed that by 1970 or 1975, that we wouldn’t be discussing the word ‘racism.’ We really believed that. … Now, communications are going to force us to change, that is for sure. The global gumbo is going to change it all.”

More subtle changes have already taken place in the close-knit network of fund-raisers and donors who drive the ATM that is Hollywood.

Chief among them was music executive Nicole Avant, who along with Charles Rivkin, Rufus Gifford and Jeremy Bernard helped lead Obama’s fund-raising team in Southern California. One of their tasks was to expand the base of connected political players.

In September, when the general election was in sight, supporters clamored to host one of the few remaining visits from Obama or his wife, Michelle.

Instead of familiar names like Haim Saban or Ron Burkle — both of whom supported Hillary Clinton in the primary — Obama’s team chose some hosts relatively new to the process. Among them, Samuel L. Jackson and his wife, LaTanya Richardson, hosted Michelle Obama and about 300 donors at their Beverly Park home.

The goal, says one source close to the campaign, was to “diversify fund-raising economically, geographically and socially” — in other words, to bring in those “who were never asked to sit at the table, never asked to co-host an event.”

The same was true on the campaign trail. Among the many African-American actors who stumped for Obama was Nate Parker, most recently in “The Secret Life of Bees,” who canvassed in Ohio and Pennsylvania, covering 16 cities in five days. Before then, he had done volunteer work for education charities but largely stayed away from campaigns.

“I don’t think that it is that I never wanted to be involved. It is that I felt so separated or cut off from the political process,” Parker says. “I did not think that it would matter in this community. I felt like the changes that I was seeking were never even mentioned by the people who were supposed to represent me.”

His views shifted when he attended last year’s NAACP convention for a screening of one of his movies, “The Great Debaters,” and met the candidate. He came away impressed.

Parker insists he’ll stay involved.

“Absolutely,” Parker says. “For me, this wasn’t a ‘black’ thing. This was a man stepping up to the plate and talking about issues that other people were not talking about.”

Amid the inauguration hype this week, the exclamations of excitement may strike some as over the top, especially as Obama shifts his attention to the nitty-gritty work of his first 100 days. Supporters are destined to be let down, expectations won’t be fulfilled and new tiffs will erupt.

Will the idealism among the industry’s new political players endure?

Jones thinks so.

“Once you make the step of victory, you go after the giant step the next time,” he says.

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