Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Roots and Reality Check, Part 2: Is “Conscious” Hip-Hop On the Next?

I might've failed to mention that the chick was creative

But once the man got to her, he altered the native
Told her if she got an image and a gimmick
That she could make money, and she did it like a dummy
Now I see her in commercials, she's universal
She used to only swing it with the inner-city circle
Now she be in the burbs lookin' rock and dressin' hip
And on some dumb shit, when she comes to the city
Talkin about poppin glocks, servin rocks, and hittin switches
Now she's a gangsta rollin with gangsta bitches
Always smokin blunts and gettin drunk
Tellin me sad stories, now she only fucks with the funk
Stressin how hardcore and real she is
She was really the realest, before she got into show-biz

-- Common, “I Used to L.O.V.E. Her

This entry is a follow-up to Roots and Reality Check Part 1: Nuthin’ is Free, which was a reaction to a hot back-and-forth on the topic of free speech and hip hop at American University Washington College of Law’s Roots and Reality II: Hip Hop, Law, and Social Justice Organizing conference held in April.

Another provocative topic that emerged during the final roundtable, entitled “On the Next: Hip Hop in the Grassroots,” was the question of whether “conscious” or politically-engaged hip hop could be commercially viable? And if so, should it be?

I think that the conventional wisdom is a flat “no.” Typically two reasons are given for this, which were expressed by one panelist, Jemar Daniels (J.D., original co-organizer of Roots II). The first reason is the belief that politics won’t sell. After all, who wants to hear about revolution when they can bounce to a repetitive dance track? The other reason often espoused by local conscious artists, like artist and panelist, Head Roc, is that hip hop produced for mass consumption inherently compromises a political message. Interestingly, these are the same reasons that industry folks put out to justify the current sad state of most popular hip-hop, and maintain the status quo of video-vixened, auto-tuned up music.

But, are these reasons true? Another panelist, Mazi Mutafa, founder of Words Beats and Life, Inc., flipped these ideas on their head, by droppin’ science of his own: because some conscious hip hop does sell (take a look at some of Jay-Z’s, Kayne’s, and Common’s music) why do we give life to a myth that no conscious hip hop can’t be commercial? (Head-nodding.)

Mazi’s got a point. Some hip-hop with conscious elements can and do blow-up. Regardless of what you think about Kayne, his body of work from College Dropout’s “Jesus Walks” to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s “All of the Lights,” contains politicalized themes about perseverance, violence, and power. These tracks are not Dead Prez’s “Hip Hop,” or even Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” but they are critical and complicated in ways much of popular radio hip-hop is not. But they are more like Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” which is analytically rich, among other things.

There’s a lot more to say on this subject, but I think it breaks down to this: explicitly political hip hop may not sell platinum because the politics may scare some listeners or may rhyme in a language unfamiliar to others, but this gap can be bridged, ‘cause we know that politicized hip hop music can sell if industry execs, artist power-houses, or savvy producers give life to it.

And maybe if hip-hop lovers are willing to expand their ideas of what’s political and “conscious,” we may be surprised by the reception to the message. I want us to find a way to defy the conventional wisdom because hip hop politics have got to become popular—as a way to resist the crushing political forces, like mass incarceration, which threaten the communities where hip-hop calls home. I can’t be down with sellin’ out, but I can be down with transforming what’s “out” there.

-- Richael Faithful

1 comment:

  1. I certainly think that political and "concious" hip-hop can be mainstream, and to an extent it already is. K'naan's 'Take a Minute' and 'Wavin' Flag' are both songs that I would consider to be mainstream and they both have srong, concious messages. But I do agree to make these political hip-hop artists popular the hip-hop community has to find a way to defy the conventional hip-hop mindset. There are so many political and concious artists who have great messages and music that needs to be shared with more people.

    Saigon's 'The Color Purple' is an awesome socially concious hip-hop track that I've been listening to lately.


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