How Zohran Mamdani’s Rap Career Taught Him to Campaign as a Socialist

The arts have a role in the future of American socialism and a slate of candidates backed by the New York City chapter of Democratic Socialists of America is demonstrating what music and culture can do for the movement. 

Annie Levin Jun 20, 2020

Many on the left in the city have come to know Zohran Kwame Mamdani as the democratic socialist running for state Assembly in Astoria, Queens. His supporters may not be aware that before he was involved in politics, he was a rapper known as Mr. Cardamom.

The neighborhood of Astoria has seen him through both his musical and political careers. It was on the Astoria Boulevard subway platform where he shot part of “Nani,” a rap video, starring the Indian-born actress and food writer, Madhur Jaffrey, about a foul-mouthed grandmother who transforms from put upon kitchen drudge into the strutting queen of Astoria. Like much of Mamdani’s creative work, the video uses humor and verbal dexterity (in multiple languages) to create a joyful cultural product that exalts the lives of the poor and exploited.    

Years after shooting “Nani” on the Astoria Boulevard platform, Mamdani went there to canvas for his Assembly run. These experiences are connected for him. 

“When you are a C-list rapper, seeking to get the word out about your music, in many ways you are using the same principles of being an organizer,” Mamdani says. “We might have an idea of where we should have political debate, we might have an idea of what music should look like and where it should be performed, but frankly it has to engage with the reality of things. The same thing that drove me to make a video on the Astoria Boulevard subway platform is the same thing that drew me to speaking to voters at that very platform, which is that this is what captures our actual life. This is where people are actually at.” 

Canvassing the subway platform for Mamdani wasn’t just about looking for a space with foot traffic. As an artist he knew about de-contextualization, a technique with easy application to organizing work. 

We have “all of these classic ideas of what it means to stand up to power,” he says, like giving fiery speeches, but there are also “ways to make an idea palatable to someone by stripping it away from the context from which they expect it.”

This ability to engage people where they are using as many vectors of communication as you can opens up a vast array of possibilities for socialist candidates. Recently, in Socialist Forum, Jackson Albert Mann and Patricia Manos made the “Case for a Culture International.” They argue that the resurgent left needs to take a cue from the 20th century Latin America in developing a cultural strategy. In the United States, cultural work is especially necessary in reaching those who have been ignored or forgotten by mainstream Democratic politics and who cannot be reached through traditional electioneering.

Zohran Kwame Mamdani isn’t the only DSA-endorsed candidate running for office in New York City with a background in cultural work. State Senate candidate Jabari Brisport’s booming voice and compelling oratory skills are staples of Brooklyn protests and rallies and a product of his extensive training as a stage actor. And, while not an artist herself, for South Bronx congressional candidate Samelys López, cultural organizing is an inherent part of community outreach, a tool that can be used to push back against the forces of gentrification.

Prior to running for office, López became interested in bomba y plena, a traditional Afro-Caribbean style of singing, drumming and dance. As a community organizer, she helped put on parrandas, musical performances similar to New Orleans’ Second Line parades. 

“A lot of people get together, they get drunk, they get maracas, and sing traditional songs to bring happiness and cheer to people around the holidays and go into people’s houses,” she explains. “It’s called a musical assault. You’re assaulting people with music, lovingly.” 

Parrandas are not political actions, López acknowledges, but “cultural organizing in and of itself is an act of resistance. In light of all the displacement that’s going on in our communities, if we don’t organize around our culture, if we forget where we come from and don’t honor that, we are going to be forgotten.”

Cultural organizing has long been used in the struggle against the forces of capitalism. Music in particular has always played a special role for the left. 

“Listening to hip hop helped radicalize me,” says Marcela Mitaynes, a DSA-endorsed candidate for state Assembly in South Brooklyn. “In the ’90s, hip-hop artists rapped about growing up poor and the effects of government on the poor, really making me think and opening my eyes to things I had not seen.”

In December, the Mitaynes campaign, along with members of Sing in Solidarity, a socialist choir and artist’s collective begun in 2018 by DSA members went campaign caroling. Volunteers interspersed traditional protest songs and union hymns with Christmas carols while canvassing passersby. Mitaynes says she believes in “using music to grow solidarity within our movement. And using music to heal our souls of the injustice we endure.”

While the socialist left currently underutilizes cultural organizing, in New York City that is beginning to change. 

DSA For the Many, a fundraising committee representing Mamdani, Brisport and Mitaynes, as well as Phara Souffrant Forrest, nurse running for Assembly in central Brooklyn, was able to bring together comedians, musicians, drag queens, dancers, performance artists and poets, as well as megastars Sarah Silverman and Cynthia Nixon, in their “You Had Me at New York” fundraiser — an event which raised $55,000 for the candidates in May. Additionally, Sing in Solidarity, as a music and socialist base building collective, has been drawing people into the movement and engaging them in campaign work. 

A sign perhaps of the strength of the socialist left in New York City is the growing community of cultural organizers inserting themselves and being used in powerful material ways by the movement. Artists, in addition to being workers who are often unorganized, atomized and exploited, are inherently necessary to that movement. 

Artists are the storytellers of this world,” Mamdani says, “and we need to ensure that they are not simply along for the ride with us but that we are organizing side by side with them.” 

The fight cannot be won without them, he adds: “It’s not just that we need to combine the arts with the need for dignity, it’s that we have to.”

Annie Levin is a writer and speechwriter and has taught writing and literature at New York and Fordham Universities. She is a member of Democratic Socialists of America and is a founding member of Sing in Solidarity, a socialist choir based in New York City. 

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