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Back in May 2003, Denver believed it had made the bling-bling bigtime when Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Records, stood beside then-mayor Wellington Webb and promised to bring his Hip-Hop Festival and Summit to the Mile High City.
Denver's still waiting for him to make good on that promise.
While Webb will be hitting the All-Star scene this weekend -- hosting parties at Club Bash with his grandson, who plays for the New Orleans Saints -- he won't be at any hip-hop summit. Simmons himself, fresh from New York's Fashion Week (the multi-talented fellow is also the founder of Phat Farm Clothing), will be here, too -- but not for any hip-hop summit. No, on Friday he'll be pushing his foot gear at the Finish Line at FlatIron Crossing.
"FlatIron," repeats Jeff Campbell, executive director of the Colorado Hip-Hop Coalition. "Oh, yeah, that's in the hood. Russell Simmons did the city wrong -- and I don't think he really cares."
Campbell does. He watched as Denver's overblown and underplanned Hip-Hop Festival and Summit imploded in May 2004, when Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit Action Network bailed out just a day before the event was supposed to start. Although a few workshops went on as planned at the Denver Coliseum that weekend -- including Mayor John Hickenlooper's appearance before a handful of kids -- the big hip-hop concert was canceled (not that many people had bought tickets, anyway), and Simmons was a complete no-show, as was his legendary voter-registration drive. "While we remain committed to convening the Denver Hip-Hop Summit at a future date," read a last-second statement from the Hip-Hop Network's New York office, "we have decided to postpone the Summit."
Until what millennium? At the Coliseum that sad weekend, Charlotte Stephens, head of Denver Safe City and the summit's local producer, talked hopefully of last September, but then fall came and went. When the summit was canceled, Benjamin Chavis, the former head of the NAACP who's president of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, had suggested that it might be rescheduled around the NBA All-Star Game already set for Denver; there'd been a successful Hip-Hop Festival and Summit in Los Angeles when that city hosted the All-Star Game in February 2004.
But this week, when all the bling-buying, hip-hop hoop-lovers hit town, they won't be attending any summit where they can mingle with members of Colorado's hip-hop community.
"There will definitely be some young entrepreneurs from Denver who will make connections and maybe get access to some resources -- if they step up," Campbell says. "But I'm pretty pessimistic. Basically, a bunch of millionaires are going to come into our town and make a whole bunch more money off of their hype, and then they're going to leave."
Last spring, Campbell was critical of Denver's abysmal planning for the summit -- which the city had once estimated would bring $20 million to town and instead wound up costing plenty -- and he's not handing out hearts and flowers now. "I know for a fact that a lot of the promoters are from out of town," he says. "We didn't even hold down our own real estate. At this event that can be directly tied to our urban culture, the money's going to go back to California, to New York. That's on us. That's our fault. I don't think the hip-hop community will be enriched because of this. That could just sound like a social entrepreneur whining. But I'm sincere about what I'm talking about." So sincere that he runs hip-hop after-school programs at Montbello and George Washington high schools and trains kids in spoken-word performance at the Spot every week. (He's also playing George Bush in a play at the Mercury Cafe, but that's another story.)
Although Campbell worked with the NBA to put some local kids in a commercial and is helping Carmelo Anthony with a party February 18, he's already anticipating what the hip-hop scene will look like after the All-Star glow fades. "It'll definitely keep moving," he promises. "The community is getting stronger ties with the national underground more and more."
Hip-hop carries such a powerful message that the Committee of Resistance, which Tuesday announced its opposition to the city wasting so much money and attention on All-Star Weekend, plans to offer a free hip-hop concert in protest in Civic Center Park Friday night. The group doesn't plan to let a little problem like no permit get in its way -- and if the city were truly hip, it would even help out the local talent.
Michael Coates, whose One Way Entertainment used hip-hop to push voter drives last fall, knows the power of hip-hop. "We were pretty disappointed that things didn't follow through with the summit," he says, "but it's basically a matter of time before the right people come here with the right influences and things really, really stick." Coates is helping plan parties at the Soiled Dove this weekend, working with local-promoter-made-good Big Jon Platt, who made good on his appearances at the Coliseum last May even as the summit tanked.
"Hip-hop will give us the opportunity to do so much," Coates continues. "Often we get these very influential people to come in, and then they leave, and there's no spark there. As a positive company, we want to be able to carry that spark."
It's up to Denver to fan the flames.
On Tuesday, Peter Jennings broadcast ABC's World News Tonight live from Civic Center Park. The supposed reason that Denver was chosen for this honor was the metro area's fight against gridlock. But to really keep the area moving would require the impossible: ignoring Boulder, where the University of Colorado remains stuck in a quagmire of questionable athletic-department recruiting and questionable liquor-store purchases and the very questionable resumé of professor Ward Churchill.
And Boulder isn't just smack-dab in the middle of the media universe, subject to endless eyeballing by everyone from Alexander Cockburn to Bill O'Reilly. It's now the center of the galaxy, the point around which all things loony rotate -- talk-show hosts included.
That's because the Raelian Movement -- which bills itself, at some 60,000 members strong, as the world's largest "atheist, non-profit UFO-related organization" (www.rael.org), and which is billed by others as a nutcase cult founded in 1973 by former racing-car magazine journalist Claude Vorilhon (now known as Rael) that believes that humans were created by extraterrestrial beings who had mastered genetic engineering, that started the Clonaid company to make clones in case the extraterrestrials aren't around to do the job, and that still plans to establish an embassy to welcome people from space if they are -- recently bestowed the title of Honorary Priest on Churchill.
He can hang that right beside his honorary enrollment in a branch of the Cherokee nation.
"Mr. Churchill is exactly right in what he wrote!," said Ricky Roehr, leader of the U.S. Raelian Movement, in a statement issued February 10. "If we are to have peace, we must take responsibility for our part in the violence and stop handing out blame as if we have done nothing. Quite the contrary, we have done terrible things to countless people. Churchill addressed the cause of the 9/11 attacks, and people want to shoot the messenger. Fox News and the right wing would have him thrown out of the U.S. for being unpatriotic and insensitive to the innocent people killed in the 9/11 attacks. It is precisely Churchill's compassion for loss of innocent life that prompted his essay."
Roehr sent Churchill a copy of the release along with a personal note, but so far the Raelian hasn't heard back from the besieged professor. Then again, he hasn't heard back from Bill Owens, whom he took to task in that same release for saying that "the victims of the 9/11 attacks were murdered by evil cowards."
In the days since he issued the statement supporting Churchill and taking a shot at Colorado's governor, Roehr's feelings have only grown stronger. "I thought it was beautiful," he says of Churchill's essay, "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens." "How can someone not support him? What he says is right on the money. The right wing was telling us he wasn't patriotic, and they took everything he said completely out of context, as part of this fear-based culture they're trying to create."
This isn't the first time the Raelians have come down to earth and gotten involved in a down-and-dirty debate. Last year they made Linda Ronstadt an honorary priest, too, after she took a hit for criticizing Bush and the Iraq War. "We send support to these people who are otherwise considered politically incorrect," Roehr says. "Our organization tries to bring consciousness to this society. When you have a culture of conformists, you have a great, great danger. That's how Nazi Germany happened."
Still, Roehr offers a ray of hope. "It's not too late," he concludes. "If the U.S. were to spend only a portion of the time and money it spends for war and apply it toward apologies and actions toward reparations, we would become as we once were -- a benevolent big brother instead of the big bully everyone hates and fears. And while we're apologizing, send one to Ward Churchill, too."
Fine. But only if, when the UFOs return to earth, they promise to beam up all of Boulder.