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Mississippi HBCU students join Hip-Hop Text-a-Thon event to mobilize voters

Sitting in a lecture hall at Jackson State University’s College of Business in Mississippi, professor D’Andra Orey took an informal poll of the dozen or so political science students.

“How many of y’all are registered to vote?” he asked. Just about every hand in the room shot up. “And how many of y’all plan to vote?” The hands didn’t waver. The Southern Poverty Law Center and its partners put those hands to good use last week with a voter mobilization event.

Earlier that day, students met at the university’s radio station Sipp-FM, awaiting the arrival of a host of music artists to kick off the SPLC’s Hip-Hop Text-a-Thon by speaking with students about the importance of voting. That kicked off a two-day tour hitting four of Mississippi’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The purpose of the tour was to connect with young voters and boost turnout throughout the state. Their goal was to text as many of Mississippi’s eligible voters as possible and encourage them to vote in the state’s elections on Nov. 7.

By the end of the two-day event, the four HBCUs had sent 106,000 texts to voters.

In the video: Students from Tougaloo College and Jackson State University took part in the SPLC’s Hip-Hop Text-a-Thon events aimed at underscoring the significance of voting and the power of the youth vote.

“There is so much power in the collective,” SPLC Mississippi State Director Waikinya Clanton said at the event. “Youth voices make up the majority of folks here in the state of Mississippi. Do y’all understand the power of that? This is an opportunity to mobilize and transform lives, and it begins with our own. So, let’s pay it forward by ensuring that we vote.”

Jackson State junior Jordan Riley, 20, understands that HBCU students are directly affected by elections.

“HBCUs are severely underfunded by the state,” Riley said. “So it’s important for us to have somebody in office who really cares about HBCUs and the culture, who will fund us, who will come to our schools and actually talk to us. We need to do our part and get people in [office] who actually care about us, who are going to do the work to support us.”

The text-a-thons are a partnership between the SPLC; Hip Nation, an organization focused on magnifying the political power of hip-hop; and Memphis record label NLess Entertainment. The text-a-thons launched at Jackson State on Oct. 24, before heading to Tougaloo College and Mississippi Valley State University. The effort wrapped up with a visit to Rust College on Oct. 25. Among the students were first-time voters and others who had cast their ballots in the 2020 presidential election and were eager to participate in races that hit closer to home.

The event was part of the SPLC’s larger “Activate Mississippi” initiative, which seeks to bridge the worlds of arts, activism and voter education with events such as the text-a-thon.

‘Not just talk, but action’

More than half of the country’s eligible Black voters live in the South and 35% of those voters are located in Mississippi — the second-highest concentration in the country. Those statistics, however, aren’t translating into people voting, according to exit polls. In the 2022 midterm elections, the state had the lowest voter turnout in the country, at 31.7%.

What’s more, a recently passed state law known as HB 1310 threatens to suppress the vote even more by potentially removing voters from active status if their registration is flagged by the state’s public safety department database or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The situation in Mississippi underscores the need for events, such as the text-a-thon, that can mobilize voters.

Jeremiah Harris, a 19-year-old Jackson State sophomore, also recognized the need for action.

“You can see a lot of people talking about this, that and the third, but they won’t go out and vote to actually make the change, and that’s something I want to be a part of. Not just talk, but action,” he said.

Fighting back at the ballot box

At Tougaloo’s Kroger Gymnasium, students passed out flyers that explained how to join the text-a-thon by creating an account to log into a texting platform that would allow them to reach voters directly. While they awaited the arrival of NLess Entertainment artists Big30, Dee Mula and Big Homiie G, among others, students texted while others hit “two steps” as a DJ fired off tracks. The SPLC’s Clanton encouraged everyone to “turn up, turn out, and text to turn out the vote.”

The label’s artists hadn’t been slated to perform, only to speak to students about the power of their vote. But once they hit the Bulldogs’ stage, the students’ energy was hard to ignore, still harder to let pass unrewarded. The gym erupted as the artists rapped verses in call and response. At turns, the students’ voices all but drowned them out. 

Freshman Nakia Brasiel, 17, served as one of the event’s student volunteers as a member of Tougaloo’s NAACP college chapter. Although she wasn’t yet eligible to vote, the text-a-thon’s significance wasn’t lost on her.

“One issue that’s really important to me right now is the Jackson water crisis,” Brasiel said, referring to the failure of the city’s largest water treatment plant in 2022. “It’s a shame that people should go without [clean] water. We realize that there is an oppressive system against us. Voting is one way that we can fight back. I feel like it’s important that we as students find that thing we can fight with, and we fight.”

Before the artists had left the stage, Clanton announced that numbers had started to pour in. Jackson State students had managed to reach 3,000 voters by text message that afternoon compared to Tougaloo’s 12,000.

The Tougaloo students erupted in cheers.

Photo at top: NLess Entertainment artists appeared at Tougaloo College in Mississippi for the Hip-Hop Text-a-Thon on Oct. 24. (Credit: John Arroyo)