Are Jay-Z, Kanye and the Hip-Hop Establishment too Conservative for OWS?
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Given its rich and influential history of political protest and social justice, from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” and Stetsasonic’s “Freedom or Death” to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and even to Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing In the Name Of,” one would imagine that hip hop would make a perfect fit for the Occupy movement. But one would evidently be wrong.
To be sure, some hip hop artists have either openly supported or participated in the Occupy movement. In the past months, Talib Kweli, Boots Riley, Immortal Technique, Tom Morello and Lupe Fiasco, who once called Barack Obama a terrorist, have donated their valuable time and considerable talents. This week, following Mayor Bloomberg's eviction of Zucotti Park, Zack de la Rocha composed a poem in solidarity, while The Roots' drummer Questlove sent the Occupy movement a heads-up about the imminent police mobilization on Twitter.
But most of the aforementioned have been for their entire careers unrepentant soldiers in the collective fight against the powers-that-be, to paraphrase Public Enemy’s foundational anthem “ Fight the Power," which was written for director Spike Lee’s uncompromising 1989 dissection of racial and economy inequality, Do the Right Thing. Excepting the comparatively mainstream Fiasco, as well as Morello and de la Rocha, whose band Rage Against the Machine has been openly outspoken for two decades, the rest are independent hip hop artists who exist well outside of its increasingly materialistic mainstream.
That mainstream is now best represented, as the two rappers will likely tell you themselves, by one-percenters like Kanye West and Jay-Z. They count not just millions of people but also Obama himself, America's first hip hop President, as avid fans and consumers. Obama admitted on the campaign trail in 2008 that superstars like Jay-Z and Kanye, who are currently touring together in support of their collaborative platinum full-length Watch the Throne, are sometimes controversial but nevertheless champion torchbearers of hip hop’s historical ability to mass communicate with precision and persuasion. But over three decades after hip hop's unassuming birth in the bombed-out South Bronx, it has experienced a global commercial crossover that has succeeded in papering over, literally, its culture of protest and persistent middle finger to the mainstream.
Take the case of Jay-Z, the 21st century’s pop-hop crossover, who boasts of having “Obama on the text” in his Grammy-winning hit “On to the Next One.” Last week, Jay-Z and Damon Dash’s Rocawear apparel company sold, apparently yanked, then eventually relisted a currently backordered $22 “Occupy All Streets” T-shirt, made in Mexico. The controversial shuffle occurred after Business Insider published a statement from Rocawear clarifying that it had “not made an official commitment to monetarily support" the Occupy movement that had so obviously inspired it. Coupled together with Kanye West’s brief, mute appearance at Occupy Wall Street in October, it’s becoming clear that mainstream hip hop has not only mostly turned its back on the Occupy movement, but that it also has few misgivings about trying to nakedly profit off of it.
“I think Jay should think boldly and find a creative way to reach out and not run a hustle on fans, most of whom are part of the 99 percent,” award-winning hip hop historian and activist Davey D, who has been intensively involved in the Occupy Oakland movement, told me via e-mail.
What the Fuck Is Up, In the Place to Be?
Davey D’s sentiment is not shared by noted hip hop mogul and philanthropist Russell Simmons. It was Simmons' appearance with an "Occupy All Streets"-wearing Jay-Z -- after a Madison Square Garden concert with Kanye West last week, in a blog post published on Simmons’ site Global Grind entitled “ Jay-Z Ditches Occupy Wall Street For “Occupy All Streets,” that initially set off the controversy. And it was Simmons, co-founder with Rick Rubin of the legendary Def Jam label and author of this January’s Super Rich: The Guide to Having It All, who was also responsible for not only bringing Kanye West to Occupy Wall Street, but also hilariously speaking at length for the opinionated rapper who once infamously blurted out that George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people” during Hurricane Katrina.