Are Jay-Z, Kanye and the Hip-Hop Establishment too Conservative for OWS?
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.
After the “Occupy All Streets” controversy broke, Simmons posted a poll to Global Grind asking readers to vote where Jay-Z should donate the proceeds from the T-shirt. The results, as of this writing, are the opposite of surprising: Over 80 percent of respondents think Jay-Z should either donate all profits to Occupy Wall Street, start his own Occupy foundation or stop selling the shirts altogether. Barely 10 percent think Jay-Z should keep the proceeds for himself.
When I asked Russell Simmons on Twitter where he thought his friend Jay-Z should donate the proceeds, he was decidedly undecided for such a staunch supporter of Occupy Wall Street. “It’s not up to me to decide, nor do I believe he owes anyone anything,” Simmons tweeted. “I’m grateful for the branding he gave Occupy Wall Street.”
One could argue that Simmons inverted the logical chain of influence. Occupy Wall Street seems to have branded Jay-Z’s “Occupy All Streets,” not the other way around. And sure enough, as the controversy mounted, the “Occupy All Streets” T-shirt was pulled for a few days from Rocawear’s site. If for only a few days, the invisible hand of the Occupy movement’s underground economy had evidently spoken. But on Monday, the shirt reappeared without an update on where Jay-Z planned, if at all, to donate the its profits. How did Jay-Z put it in “On to the Next One?” Oh yeah: "Hold up, freeze/Somebody bring me back some money please."
“Naturally, there will be some bloodsuckers,” Occupy Wall Street spokesman Patrick Bruner said of Jay-Z's capitalization on the movement in a statement to NME. “A much better way to show your support for Occupy Wall Street would be to show up and participate.”
"I had to laugh when I saw Jay-Z jumping on this unlikely bandwagon," said Geoff Wilkinson, producer of London-based jazz-hop crew Us3, who independently released its openly political latest effort Lie, Cheat & Steal in October. "Somebody ask him what he thinks of multinational corporations’ use of transfer pricing to lower their taxes. But don’t hold your breath for the answer."
But Public Enemy’s Chuck D, the hip hop icon who wrote its reigning activist anthem "Fight the Power," was much more sympathetic. “I don’t think Occupy All Streets is offensive at all,” he explained to me on Twitter. “I think Jay-Z actually wanted to say something very relevant to the issue. But this is a very careful topic to many.”
Yet it shouldn't be, given hip hop's unquestionable power to mobilize capitalism's disenfranchised billions. They have nevertheless become poorer as the rich, helped along by everything from taxpayer bailouts to corporate personhood, have achieved escape velocity behind gated communities, private security and even, as Stephen Colbert pointed out recently in a hilarious segment called "Wealth Under Siege," yacht arks and self-sufficient islands.
Fight the Powers That Be
“As part of the 99 percent, and those who recognize their support from the 99 percent, hip hop artists should absolutely be a part of the Occupy movement,” Jeff Chang, Solesides founding member and award-winning author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, explained. “I participated in Occupy Oakland’s general strike as a proud marcher and supporter.”
“We’ve been about ‘Fight the Power’ since the ’80s, so it feels good to see that spirit rising once again,” explained Oakland-basedZion I's MC Zumbi, who like Chang attended Occupy Oakland’s general strike. “But at the same time, I don’t feel like this is a movement catalyzed or defined by hip hop culture.”
“The Occupy movement feels invigorated mainly by the dismay of the middle class,” he added. “There seems to be a great many college students, parents, elders, hippies, revolutionaries and the disgruntled. In my opinion, hip hop should be better represented within it; I had a conversation with some protestors on my radio show and there was a general consensus that brown and black folks need to be more present. The common thread was that it didn’t necessarily ‘feel’ like our movement, although we are definitely the 99 percent. Quite possibly, we are so used to having to fend for ourselves, that it may feel foreign that there is a greater movement happening that actually benefits our situation.”
It may feel awkward, but it’s the truth, and a near-historical constant. You will be hard-pressed to find a major American civil rights movement where a committed if sometimes uncomfortable collusion between the comfortable and the oppressed didn’t effect political and policy change. The Occupy movement is no different. That hip-hop’s mainstream -- whose shining superstar Jay-Z claims to have a Bat phone to the first African-American president in United States history -- isn’t employing its influence by taking the lead on a populist no-brainer sadly says more about its co-option by the one percent than its solidarity with the 99 percent.
Given what has transpired with his one-percenter friends Jay-Z and West, one imagines that Simmons' recent announcement of an Occupy Wall Street concert event is not the excellent news it would seem to be at face value. Simmons has continued to defend Jay-Z's "Occupy All Streets" profiteering in a recent softball interview with Billboard, and went so far as to maintain that the controversial T-shirt "furthers" and "inspires the movement," without explaining how. Nor does Simmons explain, although it is evidently in its formative stages, whether or not any proceeds from his Occupy concert will go to the movement itself.
But longtime fans of conscientious hip hop's storied past probably aren't holding out hopes. They likely remember that Simmons endorsed ex-Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele's 2006 Senate run and that Jay-Z is the closest thing to a too-big-to-fail bank that hip hop has. Why would mainstream hip hop richest rhymer join Occupy Wall Street's front line, when he could simply vandalize its name on a shirt that he's added to his renewable revenue streams?
“I do think that artists should rep on the front lines, but how exactly does one go from rhyming about a life of luxury and leisure, then turn around and show up at an economic protest?” said MC Zumbi.
“For African-Americans and other disenfranchised communities, being poor is nothing new,” he added. “We’ve dealt with it by celebrating the trappings of wealth, so that we feel that we have access to some part of the American Dream. On one hand you have realization, and on the other you have delusion. It’s sad, because hip hop used to be that unfiltered voice echoing out of the lowest rungs of society. Now, I’m sure that some hip hop artists consider themselves the one percent. Whether it’s true or not, it simply speaks to a disconnect between hip hop and Occupy Wall Street. I hope hip hop can open itself to the possibilities that Occupy Wall Street presents. If we can use its power, we may see some lasting change from this after all.”