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The name of Detroit’s embattled mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, is seldom mentioned without the sobriquet “hip hop mayor.” Kilpatrick coined the phrase on the campaign trail, swept into office on a wave of support from young voters. He has continued to evoke it ever since—as have his critics, who now appear to far outnumber any remaining supporters.

But what, really, does it mean to be a ‘hip-hop mayor?’ For that matter, what does it mean to be a hip-hop teacher, parent, or businessman?

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This becomes an important question as ‘hip-hop’ is evoked to describe an ever-broadening range of activities, occupations, mindstates, and artistic endeavors. We have ‘hip-hop novels’ and ‘hip-hop theater,’ the ‘Hip-Hop Political Convention’ and even ‘hip-hop churches.’ In many cases, the tag is merely a marketing handle, an attempt to convince certain demographic groups to partake. Depending on the product and the context, these groups range from black urban adults to white suburban teenagers.

But ‘hip-hop’ can and should mean more. And redefining and reclaiming the term before it becomes meaningless is crucial.

Language is always a battlefield; the way we define a word circumscribes the very way we think. Already, ‘hip-hop’ has come to signify, in the eyes of many, a form of music characterized by misogyny and materialism, cartoonish and violent and immoral. For those of us who know better, educating the public on hip-hop’s structural precepts and its roots in social protest is the first step toward a truer definition.

The culture’s four foundational artforms —rapping, deejaying, b-boying and graffiti—are linked by a number of desires and artistic pillars. Among these are a love of democratic, merit-based, freewheeling collage (whether verbal, sonical, kinetic or visual), a need to forge community and claim space in the face of depravation, and an absolute genius in re-imagining what art itself could look and sound like, and what it could achieve.

(This is, of course, a partial and incomplete list. For a deeper look at hip-hop theory, check out my essay “On Lit Hop”—then buy the book it’s from, Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop Culture.

What, then, is an individual, an institution, or a movement that claims ‘hip-hop’ required to do? Let’s go back to the notion of a hip-hop mayor. Such an individual’s philosophy of government would honor hip-hop’s principles by seeking to privilege and amplify marginalized voices. In particular, such a government would be concerned with the young, the poor, and people of color—i.e., the people who invented hip-hop.

A hip-hop mayor would replicate hip-hop’s philosophy of collage—which threw whatever was hot into the mix regardless of where it came from, from James Brown to Kraftwerk to Billy Squire—by seeking out and recognizing good ideas (and idea-generators) regardless of location, philosophy, or any other ideological impediment.

She would approach civic issues, from crime prevention to renewable energy, with the same audacious, outside-the-box inventiveness that led Bronx teenagers to dream up backspinning records and writing their names on subway trains.

She would realize that in hip-hop, as in other great American inventions from jazz to baseball, the individual could achieve greatness only when the community supporting her is healthy and intact. She would understand that even visionary ideas—like hip-hop, and democracy itself—can easily be derailed when the principles on which they’re founded recede into the past. She would understand that ‘battles’ are important, but that they must be conducted within the boundaries of respect.

She would not, however, wear this hat.

Adam Mansbach’s latest novel is The End of the Jews (Spiegel & Grau/Doubleday).

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