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2 Chainz talks voting rights to ex-felons

The hip-hop artist visited Charlotte as part of a Hip Hop Caucus workshop

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Through its role as convention host and largest city in the swing state of North Carolina, Charlotte will attract politicians and political pundits leading up to the Democratic National Convention in September.

But then there will be the less obvious visitors who carry equally important messages.

Hip-hop artist 2 Chainz stopped in the Queen City on Saturday to preach about the importance of voting at a workshop for ex-felons. The event was hosted by the Urban League of Central Carolinas and Hip Hop Caucus as part of their Respect My Vote! campaign, which aims to register, educate and mobilize young voters between the ages of 18 and 40 and empower them to engage in the political process.

The campaign works with historically black colleges and universities, faith institutions and lower-income communities to tap into traditionally apathetic, and often disenfranchised, demographics.

And among the least likely demographic to vote or get involved in the political process are ex-felons. Only 14 percent are registered to vote, compared to 65 percent of the general population, according to a 2007 study by the Sentencing Project,

"We are deeply concerned about the alarmingly low voter registration rates among eligible voters who are ex-offenders," said Brandi Williams, Hip Hop Caucus Charlotte's coordinator. "Low voter registration and turnout rates among ex-offenders is not good for democracy. It means a large portion of our community is not being heard."

The event was an opportunity for young people with prior criminal records to spend an afternoon getting registered and learning about the political process through their common love of hip hop.

Rapper Chuck D once famously referred to the musical genre as "the CNN of the streets." Hip hop has left an indelible mark on music and pop culture and is what inspired the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, president of Hip Hop Caucus, to begin using his organization as a way to reach young minorities and urban dwellers.

His Respect My! Vote campaign has used artists like T.I. and Keyshia Cole to motivate young people to participate in the political process. Now, 2 Chainz is one of its spokesmen.

In a way it was surreal to hear a rapper decked out in chains and gold jewelry talk about civic engagement. But the juxtaposition made his message that much more effective, especially he told the he became a felon at 15.

After he got out of prison, 2 Chainz assumed that his voting rights were gone forever until one day, while walking through the mall in Atlanta, a volunteer handed him a pamphlet informing him that his rights were renewed once his sentence was served.

"Our whole studio went and voted, and I walked around with that sticker on the whole day," he said.

Local attorney William Harding informed workshop attendees about felon voting laws. In North Carolina, if you are charged with a felony, you can still vote until you are convicted. Once you are convicted, you temporarily lose your citizenship rights, including the right to vote. Once your sentence is completed, including parole and probation, those rights are automatically restored and to vote, all a person has to do is register. In some states, felons lose their voting rights forever.

As Williams took questions, an enthusiastic and at times stunningly honest dialogue began among the attendees about why votes matter, which then turned to a discussion of issues such as gay marriage, mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes, the role of public defenders, and the Trayvon Martin shooting.

Audience members expressed deeply religious reasons for opposing gay marriage, but none were knowledgeable about Amendment One, the ban on gay marriage North Carolina voters approved May 8, or its impact. Some attendees were initially skeptical about voting, including 23-year-old Dimitros Jordan who served five months for armed robbery as a teenager.

"It doesn't matter who the president is, and until things change I'm not going to vote," said Jordan, who said eventually he changed his mind after hearing different reasons why his vote mattered.

After this discussion, the ex-felons filled out their voter registration forms.

"Speaking to the group today, knowing what it is like to be in their shoes, and seeing them get registered to vote, I could not be more inspired," he said. "The Respect My Vote! campaign gives hope to those most in need, and I'm down with that, because we have to make sure that everyone who has that right to vote has the information they need to be part of the democratic system."

The Respect My Vote! campaign will have more events in Charlotte in the coming months. Those interested in being a part or volunteering can check out www.respectmyvote.com.

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