With their phones still in their hands from the text-a-thon they had just completed, Mississippi Valley State University students snapped pictures and recorded videos while rapping along with artists on the stage in the Walter Roberts Auditorium on Oct. 24.
MVSU was the third stop of the day for the “HBCU Get Out the Vote Tour” that the Southern Poverty Law Center, Hip Nation and NLess Entertainment co-sponsored. The tour provided students from several of Mississippi’s historically Black colleges and universities an opportunity to mobilize voters ahead of the Nov. 7 elections.
Mississippi State Director for the Southern Poverty Law Center Waikinya Clanton told the Mississippi Free Press that recent election turnout suggests residents suffer from voter apathy. In 2022, only 32% of Mississippi’s voting-age population cast a ballot—the lowest voter turnout rate in the country. In response, the SPLC created Activate Mississippi, a multifaceted initiative that reached out to high school and college students to educate, engage and mobilize them to vote.
“In last year’s midterm election, we had fewer than a third of eligible voters in the State of Mississippi participate in that election,” Clanton told the Mississippi Free Press on Oct. 31. “That’s alarming because we have one of the largest populations of Black voters than any other state in the country. That’s a huge opportunity for us to really be able to positively impact our elections here in the state.”
In recognition of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, the SPLC organized the tour that began at Jackson State University and visited Tougaloo College, Mississippi Valley State University and Rust College. Clanton said the integration of hip-hop music added a connection for students beyond regular speeches and rallies.
“We thought it would be a great way to not only engage young voters around what was happening when it came to their voting rights here in the state, but that it would also give us an opportunity to really invite some cultural influences into the work of civic engagement,” she said.
During the event, students sent voter-mobilization text messages, reminding residents to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 7, and they listened to speeches from entertainers about the importance of voting. Students used preloaded texts to remind voters of the upcoming election. The messages targeted African-American voters between the ages of 18 and 21. The organization designed the nonpartisan effort to reach high-probability voters. In two days, the students texted more than 110,000 potential voters.
“We’re in a world that lives and dies on our phone,” Hip Nation Co-Founder Cameron Trimble told the Mississippi Free Press on Oct. 31. “That’s the thing that’s closest to us, and when we receive text messages or calls from people we know, that’s even more effective than just getting a standard text from some name or person (we) don’t know.”
NLess Entertainment artists engaged the crowd with speeches and live performances at each event. General Manager and Senior Vice President Kemario Brown said the entertainers’ influence should be used for more than just entertainment and that they can draw large crowds of young people. An Instagram video of rapper Big 30 speaking at the event has garnered more than 1.5 million views.
“The way that we make money gives us the responsibility of getting out in the community and enlightening people by teaching them,” Brown told the Mississippi Free Press.
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Trimble said he hopes the event becomes a framework for those looking to increase civic engagement and that the tour will be effective across demographics and age groups.
“This is something that we should replicate whether it’s with SPLC, NLess Entertainment or with other labels and other organizations to be able to bring these artists,” he added. “And it gives (the artists) a chance to be able to showcase things that they care about outside of just what you hear in their music.”
Clanton said young voters across the state are now hungry to be more involved. Her team is now working around the clock building out new programming and increasing their partnership base to provide more opportunities for participation from young voters.
“When I think about the possibilities of what’s happening here—the energy and the momentum that’s coming up from the crowd—it gives me so much hope, so much encouragement, to know that young people are now talking about voting in a way that they had not talked about it before,” she said. “And it’s simply because somebody decided to talk to them instead of at them.”
Mississippians will vote for statewide, legislative, regional and local district attorney offices on Nov. 7, 2023. Any eligible registered voter who registered in person by Oct. 9, 2023, or had their voter registration application postmarked by Oct. 10, 2023, can cast a ballot in the general election.
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Contact your local circuit clerk or election commissioners for polling place information. Voters must bring an accepted form of voter ID to the polls. For more information, visit sos.ms.gov/yall-vote.