COLUMBIA – Dominicque “Static” Ellis got up on stage Thursday night at the hip-hop talent show at Douglass High School and began to rhyme as the beat started. Explaining that he is a natural writer, he finished his performance with a couple of verses a cappella.
Ellis is a 20-year-old aspiring hip-hop artist from Kansas City and exactly who Michael Steele, the recently elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, intends to reach with a new public relations campaign marketed toward young voters who are influenced by hip-hop culture.
Steele told the Washington Times last month: "We need messengers to really capture that region — young, Hispanic, black, a cross-section ... We want to convey that the modern-day GOP looks like the conservative party that stands on principles. But we want to apply them to urban-suburban hip-hop settings."
No details have yet been given about the campaign, named "Off the Hook," but Steele said it would specifically target young black and Hispanic Americans.
Steele's campaign announcement comes just months after Obama's election, which captured 66 percent of the 18- to 29-year-old vote, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
Part of Obama’s youth appeal was the celebrity support he had and the willingness of those celebrities to spread the word and campaign on his behalf. Artists such as Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, Common, Will.i.am and Nas, for example, recorded pro-Obama songs.
“Hip-hop played a big role,” Ellis said of Obama's success, referencing hip-hop songs such as "My President" by Young Jeezy and "Black Republicans" by Lil Wayne and Juelz Santana that created hype for Obama.
When asked about how the Republican Party could reach hip-hop youth, Ellis showed some skepticism. “They would need real artists with real pull,” he said.
The campaign's name, "Off the Hook," also provides some confusion.
“I don’t really know what that means. You need something that says what you are trying to do,” Ellis said, citing rapper P. Diddy's "Vote or Die" catchphrase in the 2004 presidential election as a successful campaign slogan.
Jeremy Hagen, chairman of the Missouri College Republicans and a second-year law student at MU, said he hadn't heard of the "Off the Hook" campaign but would support such an effort.
"We can't keep losing generations of voters to the Democrats if we expect to win elections in the future," Hagen said.
Hagen said the Republican Party needs to target youth as a whole, which includes youth in urban environments — Steele's targeted demographic. "The principles I believe in would be as helpful to them, if not more," he said.
Nate Crisp of Columbia, who attended Thursday's talent show, doesn't dismiss the prospect of the GOP reaching young black voters with the "Off the Hook" campaign.
“It could start to even out,” Crisp said. “You could see more black Republicans in the future.”
Bobby "Junebud" Walton, 19, of Columbia and a judge at Thursday night's talent show, said he thinks young people don't necessarily pay attention to politics and sometimes blindly follow celebrities to a vote.
"Young Jeezy says, 'Vote for Obama,' so they are going to go do that," he said.
Walton said Steele's campaign could work if he recruits the right people.
“Basketball, football, hip-hop is all very urban,” he said. "(The icons of these professions) took it upon themselves to be leaders and get the urban youth to vote.”
Walton also said that although the hip-hop culture is mostly Democrat, he wishes "that hip-hop was more diverse."