Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Rhythm and the Rebels: Rap's changing political engagement over generations

"Stay calm, there's no need for alarm
You say goodbye to your mom
And you're off to Vietnam.
You shoot to kill
Come back and you're a veteran.
But how many veterans
Are out there peddling?"
("Stop the Violence" by Boogie Down Productions)

In the song "Stop the Violence" (circ. 1988?) by Boogie Down Productions, rapper KRS-One opens the song by singing:

"One, two, three, the crew is called BDP. And if you want to go to the tip-top. Stop the violence in hip hop, why oooh!"

Mos Def of Black Star chanting the late 90s anthem

Ten years later, in the song(s) "Re: Definition" (and also "Definition") by Black Star, Mos Def sings:

"One, two, three, Mos Def and Talib Kweli. We came to rock in on to the tip-top. Best alliance in hip hop, why ooh oh!"

The lyrical sampling occurring between Mos and KRS-One is an homage technique that has been used in hip hop since its mythical beginning. Along with the aesthetic resonance that sampling allows, often the reverberations in content points to intentional recitation of form and content that shapes newer work. That being said, many of us who are fans of BDP and Black Star immediately notice the shared political engagement these artists weave into their songs--issues of drugs, self-love, political empowerment, conspiracy-laden critiques of the government and the elite, etc.

In 1988, a decade in which many young people in college today were not yet born, KRS-One references the war in Vietnam, an event which was still in people's consciousness during the 80s, especially in some instances when young men of color served and came back to be immersed in the bubbling hip hop culture. Yes, some people of the so-called "hip hop generation" are now in their 40s and even their 50s, and yes, some may have served in Vietnam. As an interesting side story, Rachel Maddow (MSNBC) was on David Letterman's show on Monday night. Maddow mentioned she used to host a radio show with Chuck D of Public Enemy, and suggested that Obama and Chuck D are roughly the same age. But I will talk about Obama in a bit. (For fun, here is Public Enemy performing on Jimmy Fallon's show. Still relevant baby!)

Chuck D on "DL Hughley Breaks the News"

Sometimes I ask some young people what they know about Rodney King and the 1992 LA Riots. I usually get blank stares. For hip hop during the 90s, the racial/class tensions related to the LA Riots (and notable boycotts in other urban areas) were near staple for the hip hop soundscape. In fact, gangsta rap preceded the 92 urban unrest. Therefore, hip hop's political environment reverberated along very different (and I'm not valuing it as "better" or "worse") themes than they do today.

Rodney King beating by LAPD, that ignited a generation's fire

With Black Star's late 90s hip hop anthems ("From the first to the last of it, delivery is passionate, the hole and not the half of it" whaaaat!!), I think that Black Star's generational cohort demonstrates a "bridge" that connects the 80s political canvas with the emerging millennium music. The chant "One, two, three..." exemplifies this bridge. To be certain, material from the 80s and 90s still echos today. Generations are never so distinct, but I think certain songs, groups, and anthems point to "road markers" that give character to various eras.

So, what can be said about the ending of the first decade of the millennium? What are the "hip hop political themes" of an Obama generation?

Some emcees, such as Bambu, take a cautious stance on our current era. He reminds us that we must always be critical of power, even if we identify with elite leadership. He rhymes, "Exact Change":

"Now a generation thinks we all act like Flava Flav.
Maybe they associate us all with that
Overlook it cuz a presidential candidate is Black.
Never mind the fact that prison numbers is ridiculous..."

...and also in "Like Us":

"I know what they really think about me.
A Black president will never change what Americans see."

Is Bambu correct in suggesting an Obama generation will not erase the "on the ground" race-consciousness/conspicuousness that people of color live through daily? After listening to so much hip hop before and after President Obama's election victory (from Dres of Black Sheep, to Nas, to Zion I), I am wondering if the resistant and defiant politics of hip hop of the 80s, 90s, up to the late 2000s are forming into something new. But what is it?

After we celebrate, breakdance on the floor, and pop bottles for Obama, will hip hop deploy those staple themes of defiance against the power elite? For hip hop, can there be a "Vietnam" or "Rodney King" in an Obama generation?

Let em have it.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

mv with the heavy questions.

there is our "Viet Nam" and "Rodney King" with our generation, it's Iraq, it's Oscar Grant, it's Katrina.

but we should also note the sheer different terrain of the mainstream's relationship to hiphop is dramatically different today as it was '88 and '92.

along with the mainstream acceptance of Obama, the mainstream acceptance of hiphop broke right after Bad Boy. I can confidently lots of Hiphop music IS part of the elite. so the challenge is can it critique itself with its inherent race, gender, class issues?

The Kanye call out of Bush's disaster on Katrina, Sierra Leone diamonds & the campaign to get Obama elected was great, but like all of those intentional gestures, it humanized the people behind those issues and I think thats going to keep bein the call for cultural work of movements like Hiphop.

Hiphop, if we truly believe Chuck D saying it's the voice of people of color, the "Black CNN", it will always depend on the perspective of our communities locally in the streets, just as the 1990s recession sparked gangsta rap, & 1970s failed urban renewal projects gave birth to "The Message".

You'd think by now, there would be easier access to hearing conscious music since there's more people of color owning the industry..