If you look back and chronicle Hip Hop’s evolution as a message tool, you can directly see the most universal theme in many a young person’s struggle: the limits of their surroundings and the desire to change that. Beyond it being one of more common themes in Hip Hop music, it has never taken root in being popular. It isn’t hard to imagine, then, the ever-present difficulty in discovering acts that have both the sonic dexterity to make poignant songs but also do so and still be entertaining.
Far gone are Public Enemy's
glory days of the 1980s and early 90s. Yet during their peak, you would hear PE songs on the radio and their videos enjoyed a healthy run – certainly more than was expected. And not only was it prevalent, it sounded good as well. The message was clearly intended for Black America and regardless of how politically charged the lyrics were, front man Chuck D
was dedicated to his people’s struggles first. Anything dealing with politics on a broad level was never fully articulated. It is precisely why calling certain acts political is such a vague assessment. Most acts that get stuck with the “conscious" or “political" tag are usually those that cater their sound to counter the ever-popular club oriented and radio friendly songs. What sells now is anything that catches the ear and gets folks rushing to the dance floor. Lyrics have very little importance these days. Yet it seems that when you praise an emcee’s lyrical worth and give it a label (sometimes just to highlight the content), some emcees would rather run screaming to the hills.
So why is there reluctance by some of Hip Hop’s better lyricists to embrace those tags? Why did they became so damning when in the 1980s, folks seemed proud to be known as beacons?
I interviewed emcee Talib Kweli
in the summer of 2000 and it was during the recording of the Reflection Eternal LP. I was a huge fan of the man’s work and I definitely enjoyed his Black Star project with fellow Brooklyn native, Mos Def
. During the interview, I made the mistake of asking whether or not he was a conscious or political rapper and would he be getting involved in any voter drives since it was an important election year. Mr. Kweli seemed visibly annoyed with the line of questioning – I wasn’t seasoned as an interviewer at the time. He said that any type of assumed tag people place on him would put him under more stress than he was willing to take on. He admitted that while he would never dumb down his content because he felt that the people would understand it, he did say he wanted little to do with any movement that didn’t concern his people first. He went on to say that voting does nothing to change the fabric of the nation and clearly felt justified in saying that. I don’t know what Mr. Kweli’s stances are on political and social issues now, but I do wonder if the apathy we are inundated with is being helped by this sort of indifference to the democratic process by artists or people most would expect to champion those ideals.
In a recent e-mail exchange with Nicole Powers, MASSV Club and Events Editor for URB Magazine
, she too articulated how difficult it is to remove the shadow of voter apathy. She did express that during this year’s Coachella
event, many artists used their platform as an opportunity to get messages across. To quote Ms. Powers, “the artistic community seems to have found their collective balls‿. As she went on to say in her e-mail, perhaps being politically and socially aware will become fashionable again once more people of prominence step up.
Hip Hop culture, as universal as it has become, is still widely recognized as an entity were black and Latino people are the leaders and pioneers. How then are we to tackle delivering a message when certain people who are witness to the message can’t even relate to it? Perhaps it will take an artist that is on the total opposite of the race spectrum.Sage Francis
, a gifted emcee and poet from Rhode Island, has enjoyed a steady stream of success since the late 90s. He too seems to shy away from labels but as one of Hip Hop’s most accessible and vocal acts, he maintains an almost cult like following. Francis was one of the few underground Hip Hop acts who embraced the Internet early on for its connective power and has encouraged downloading of his own music in the past. His most recent tour, the boldly titled F*CK Clear Channel Tour, was met with praise. A fellow colleague referred to Francis’s work as Public Enemy for White Suburbia. While I won’t support or refute that claim, Francis’s strong anti-establishment views and his educated ramblings (he graduated from the University of Rhode Island) make him an interesting person to watch in coming months.
There are so many angles and answers to chase and we will eventually take them on. For now, we have to find out why so many acts with the power to move a nation have decided to play the background. Perhaps in the coming weeks, someone will grant us their insight.