Selling the Political Soul of Hip Hop
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Fifteen years ago, rappers like Public Enemy, KRS-One and Queen Latifah were received as heralds of a new movement. Musicians--who, like all artists, always tend to handle the question "What's going on?" much better than "What is to be done?"--had never been called upon to do so much for their generation; Thelonious Monk, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder were never asked to stand in for Thurgood Marshall, Fannie Lou Hamer or Stokely Carmichael. But the gains of the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s were being rolled back. Youths were as fed up with black leadership as they were with white supremacy. Politics had failed. Culture was to become the hip-hop generation's battlefield, and "political rap" was to be its weapon.
Today, the most cursory glance at the Billboard charts or video shows on Viacom-owned MTV and BET suggests rap has been given over to cocaine-cooking, cartoon-watching, Rakim-quoting, gold-rims-coveting, death-worshiping young 'uns. One might even ask whether rap has abandoned the revolution.
Indeed, as the central marker of urban youth of color style and authenticity, rap music has become the key to the niching of youth culture. The "hip-hop lifestyle" is now available for purchase in every suburban mall. "Political rap" has been repackaged by record companies as merely "conscious," retooled for a smaller niche as an alternative. Instead of drinking Alizé, you drink Sprite. Instead of Versace, you wear Ecko. Instead of Jay-Z, you listen to the Roots. Teen rap, party rap, gangsta rap, political rap--tags that were once a mere music critic's game--are literally serious business.
"Once you put a prefix on an MC's name, that's a death trap," says Talib Kweli, the gifted Brooklyn-born rapper who disdains being called "conscious." Clearly his music expresses a well-defined politics; his rhymes draw from the same well of protest that nourished the Last Poets, the Watts Prophets and the Black Arts stalwarts he cites as influences. But he argues that marketing labels close his audience's minds to the possibilities of his art. When Kweli unveiled a song called "Gun Music," some fans grumbled. (No "conscious" rapper would stoop to rapping about guns, they reasoned, closing their ears even as Kweli delivered a complicated critique of street-arms fetishism.) At the same time, Kweli worries that being pigeonholed as political will prevent him from being promoted to mass audiences. Indeed, to be a "political rapper" in the music industry these days is to be condemned to preach to a very small choir.
"Political rap" was actually something of an invention. The Bronx community-center dances and block parties where hip-hop began in the early 1970s were not demonstrations for justice, they were celebrations of survival. Hip-hop culture simply reflected what the people wanted and needed--escape. Rappers bragged about living the brand-name high life because they didn't; they boasted about getting headlines in the New York Post because they couldn't. Then, during the burning summer of the first Reagan recession, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released "The Message," a dirge (by the standards of the day) that seethed against the everyday violence of disinvestment. Flash was certain the record, which was actually an A&R-pushed concoction by Duke Bootee and Melle Mel, would flop; it was too slow and too depressing to rock a party. But Sugar Hill Records released the song as a single over his objections, and "The Message" struck the zeitgeist like a bull's-eye. Liberal soul and rock critics, who had been waiting for exactly this kind of statement from urban America, championed it. Millions of listeners made it the third platinum rap single.
Through the mid-1980s, Melle Mel, Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force, Run-DMC and others took up the role of the young black lumpenrapper opposition, weighing in on topics like racism, nuclear proliferation and apartheid. And just as the first Bush stepped into office, a new generation began to articulate a distinctly post-civil rights stance. Led by Public Enemy, rappers like Paris, Ice-T, X-Clan, Poor Righteous Teachers and Brand Nubian displayed the Black Panther Party's media savvy and the Minister Louis Farrakhan's nationalist rage. Politics were as explicit as Tipper Gore's advisory stickers. As the Gulf War progressed, Paris's "Bush Killa" imagined a Black Power assassination of Bush the Elder while rapping, "Iraq never called me 'nigger.'" (Last year, he returned to cut an MP3-only critique of the war on Afghanistan, "What Would You Do?") Rappers' growing confidence with word, sound and power was reflected in more slippery and subtle music, buttered with Afrodiasporic and polycultural flavor.
Many of these artists had emerged from vibrant protest movements--New York City's resurgent Black Power movement; the swelling campus antiapartheid/multiculturalism/ affirmative action movement; local anti-police brutality movements. In each of these, representation was the cry and the media were a target. Rap "edutainment" came out of the convergence of two very different desires: the need for political empowerment and the need to be empowered by images of truth. On 1990's "Can I Kick It?," A Tribe Called Quest's Phife Dawg captured the mood of his audience sweetly and precisely: "Mr. Dinkins, will you please be our mayor?" But while Mayor Dinkins's career quickly hit a tailspin, hip-hop rose by making blackness--even radical blackness--the worldwide trading currency of cultural cool.
In the new global entertainment industry of the 1990s, rap became a hot commodity. But even as the marketing dollars flowed into youth of color communities, major labels searched for ways to capture the authenticity without the militancy. Stakes was high, as De La Soul famously put it in 1996, and labels were loath to accept such disruptions on their investments as those that greeted Ice-T and Body Count's "Cop Killer" during the '92 election season. Rhymers kicking sordid tales from the drug wars were no longer journalists or fictionists, ironists or moralists. They were purveyors of a new lifestyle, ghetto cool with all of the products but none of the risk or rage. After Dr. Dre's pivotal 1992 album, The Chronic, in which a millennial, ghettocentric Phil Spector stormed the pop charts with a postrebellion gangsta party that brought together Crip-walking with Tanqueray-sipping, the roughnecks, hustlers and riders took the stage from the rap revolutionaries, backed by the substantial capital of a quickly consolidating music industry.
Rap music today reflects the paradoxical position of the hip-hop generation. If measured by the volume of products created by and sold to them, it may appear that youth of color have never been more central to global popular culture. Rap is now a $1.6 billion engine that drives the entire music industry and flexes its muscle across all entertainment platforms. Along with its music, Jay-Z's not-so-ironically named Roc-A-Fella company peddles branded movies, clothing and vodka. Hip-hop, some academics assert, is hegemonic. But as the social turmoil described by many contemporary rappers demonstrates, this generation of youth of color is as alienated and downpressed as any ever has been. And the act of tying music to lifestyle--as synergy-seeking media companies have effectively done--has distorted what marketers call the "aspirational" aspects of hip-hop while marginalizing its powers of protest.
Yet the politics have not disappeared from popular rap. Some of the most stunning hits in recent years--DMX's "Who We Be," Trick Daddy's "I'm a Thug," Scarface's "On My Block"--have found large audiences by making whole the hip-hop generation's cliché of "keeping it real," being true to one's roots of struggle. The video for Nappy Roots' brilliant "Po' Folks" depicts an expansive vision of rural Kentucky--black and white, young and old together, living like "everything's gon' be OK." Scarface's ghettocentric "On My Block" discards any pretense at apology. "We've probably done it all, fa' sheezy," he raps. "I'll never leave my block, my niggas need me." For some critics, usually older and often black, such sentiments seem dangerously close to pathological, hymns to debauchery and justifications for thuggery. But the hip-hop generation recognizes them as anthems of purpose, manifestoes that describe their time and place the same way that Public Enemy's did. Most of all, these songs and their audiences say, we are survivors and we will never forget that.
The "conscious rap" and "neosoul" genres take up where 1970s soul experimentalists like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield left off. At their best, they are black-to-the-future havens of experimentation that combine a grandiose view of pop music's powers, an earnest hope for a better world and a jaded insider's disdain for rote commercialism. Crews like Blackalicious, the Coup, Jurassic 5, Zion I and dead prez have attained modest success by offering visions of twenty-first-century blackness--hypertextual rhymes, stuttering rhythms and lush sounds rooted in a deep understanding of African-American cultural production and ready-made for a polycultural future. The Roots' album Phrenology stretches hip-hop's all-embracing method--the conviction that "every music is hip-hop" and ready to be absorbed--to draw from a palette as wide as Jill Scott, Bad Brains, James Blood Ulmer and the Cold Crush Brothers. Common's Electric Circus takes cues from Prince and Sly Stone in reimagining the hip-hop concept album.
Tensions often spring from the compromises inherent in being given the budget to build a statement while being forced to negotiate the major label's Pavlovian pop labyrinth, and others have left the system to, as Digital Underground once famously put it, do what they like, albeit for much smaller audiences. Public Enemy has gone to the Internet and to indies in order, they say, to "give the peeps what they need," not what they think they want. After spending more than a decade in unsuccessful efforts with major labels, rapper Michael Franti now records on his own Boo Boo Wax imprint. It's hard to imagine his latest effort, "Bomb Da World"--whose chorus goes, "You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can't bomb it into peace"--passing muster in the boardrooms. Berkeley-based rapper Mr. Lif cut two of the most funky and politically challenging records of the year, the Emergency Rations EP and I Phantom LP, for the indie Definitive Jux. The EP's clever conceit--that the rapper has literally "gone underground" to escape angry Feds--is easily the wittiest, most danceable critique yet of the USA Patriot Act.
Hip-hop has been roundly condemned within and without for its sexist, misogynistic tendencies, but it has also created room for artists like Me'shell N'degeocello, Mystic, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Goapele and Angie Stone to mix up and transform both rap and r&b. "Neosoul" has been especially attractive to women and post-young 'uns. Its hip-hop feminist critique came into sharp relief last year. After years of flying high, rap sales crashed by 15 percent, leading an industrywide plunge. But multiplatinum newcomers Alicia Keys and India.Arie were garlanded with a bevy of Grammy nominations. Keys and Arie celebrated "a woman's worth" and were frankly critical of male irresponsibility. India.Arie's breakout hit "Video"--in which she sang, "I'm not the average girl from your video"--stole the music that had once been sampled for a rap ode to oral sex called "Put It in Your Mouth."
Hip-hop feminism has been articulated by Joan Morgan as a kind of loyal but vocal, highly principled opposition to black (and brown and yellow) male übermasculinity. In the same way, neosoul dissects the attitudes and ideals projected in the hip-hop mainstream. Me'shell N'degeocello's compelling Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape opens with the line, "You sell your soul like you sell a piece of ass." The most commanding of the neosoul artists, Jill Scott, imagines reconciliation, no longer having to love hip-hop from a distance. On "Love Rain" she sings of meeting a new man: "Talked about Moses and Mumia, reparations, blue colors, memories of shell-top Adidas, he was fresh like summer peaches." But the relationship ends badly, "All you did was make a mockery of somethin' so incredibly beautiful. I honestly did love you so."
Neosoul personalizes struggles, but the approach has its limitations. India.Arie's Voyage to India, for instance, suffers from reducing black radical conviction to self-affirmation mantra. At the same time, the genre mirrors a deeply held conviction of the hip-hop generation: Revolution does not come first from mass organizations and marching in the streets, but through knowledge of self and personal transformation. "Back in the '60s, there was a big push for black senators and politicians, and now we have more than we ever had before, but our communities are so much worse," says Talib Kweli. "A lot of people died for us to vote, I'm aware of that history, but these politicians are not in touch with people at all. Politics is not the truth to me, it's an illusion." For a generation that has made a defensive virtue of keeping it real, the biggest obstacle to societal change may simply be the act of imagining it.
These are the kinds of paradoxes the silver-tongued Kweli grapples with on his second solo album, Quality, as masterful a summation of the hip-hop generation's ambivalent rage as Morgan's book, When Chickenheads Come to Roost. On one of his early songs, Kweli synthesized 1960s militancy and 1990s millenarianism in a phrase, rapping about the need for "knowledge of self-determination." At one point on the Nina Simone-flavored "Get By," he sees the distance his generation still needs to cover: "We're survivalists turned to consumers." Echoing Marvin Gaye's "Right On," he measures the breadth of his generation--from the crack-pushers to the hip-hop activists. "Even when the condition is critical, when the living is miserable, your position is pivotal," he concludes, deciding that it's time to clean up his own life.
Kweli never fails to deliver fresh, if often despairing, insights. On "The Proud," he offers a sage reading of the impact of 9/11 on the 'hood--"People broken down from years of oppression become patriots when their way of life is threatened." Later in the song, he cites California's Proposition 21--the culmination of nearly two decades of fears of gangs, violence and lawlessness--and ties it to the intensifying nationwide trend of profiling and brutality against youth of color. But he scoffs at a revolution coming at the ballot box. Of the 2000 Florida elections, he angrily concludes, "President is Bush, the Vice President is Dick, so a whole lotta fucking is what we get. They don't want to raise the baby so the election is fixed. That's why we don't be fucking with politics!"
But politicians can't stop fucking with rap and the hip-hop generation. Senator Joe Lieberman regularly rallies cultural conservatives against the music. Michael Powell's corporate-friendly, laissez-faire FCC has censored only the white male rap star Eminem and the black feminist hip-hop poet Sarah Jones. Texas Republican John Cornyn overcame African-American Democrat Ron Kirk's November Senate bid by linking him to police-hating (and, interestingly, ballot-punching) rappers. When Jam Master Jay, the well-respected, peace-making DJ of rap group Run-D.M.C., was murdered in October, police and federal investigators intensified their surveillance of rappers while talking heads and tabloids like the New York Post decried the music's, and this generation's, supposed propensity for violence and lawlessness.
Now a hip-hop parent, Kweli hopes to steel his young 'uns for these kinds of assaults. "I give them the truth so they approach the situation with ammunition," he raps. "Teach them the game so they know their position, so they can grow and make their decisions that change the world and break traditions." While he critiques his elders for failing to save the children, he knows his generation's defensive b-boy stance is not enough: "We gave the youth all the anger but yet we ain't taught them how to express it. And so it's dangerous."
Here is the hip-hop generation in all its powder-keg glory and pain: enraged, empowered, endangered. The irony is not lost: A generation able to speak the truth like no other before is doing so to a world that still hasn't gotten the message.