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Rappers Need to Speak Out About Political Injustices

February 10, 2008


(From Oct. 3, 2007 SF Bay View)

Critics of hip-hop complain about A-list artists who’d rather “shuck and jive” than try to inspire and uplift listeners. The commentators point to the heyday of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the late 1960’s and early’70’s, when popular artists such as Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, James Brown and the Jackson 5 fearlessly weighed in on issues and recorded songs reflecting the social climate and politically charged sentiments of the Black community. Whether it was the Black Arts Movement, led by spoken-word artists such as Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez and Ishmael Reed, or the Last Poets, Harry Belafonte and Gil Scott-Heron, there is no denying that the predecessors of hip-hop played a galvanizing role in particular causes. Not only did they provide searing and inspiring soundtracks for these movements, but they also gave voice to perspectives those in power would have preferred to ignore.

Thirty years later, a number of compilation albums– including “Talk to Me” and “Black Power: Music of a Revolution” – are here to remind us of how cultural expression was used as a social weapon. Today’s rap critics acknowledge there are still political artists, including Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez and Public Enemy, but don’t rank them as high as Gaye or Sly Stone, whose music was always heard on the radio. Rarely do we hear, much less see, today’s political artists on mainstream outlets. If music from the Black community was once a tool for liberation, it could be argued the music is now just another tool of oppression, because many highly visible artists remain silent or create distractions from the important community issues. For example, during the past month we’ve been subjected to endless discussion about whether 50 Cent’s new album would outsell Kanye West’s, while the focus should have been on the case of the Jena 6 – six Black high school students arrested in Jena La., for allegedly beating a white student. At one point, the charges they faced could have sent them to prison for 50 years. Even now, they still face assault charges that carry terms up to 20 years in prison. The truth of the matter is that many artists 35 years ago became political only after the community demanded it. They didn’t lead the movement; they followed it. ‘A case in point is Brown, who wrote “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” after taking heat from organizations such as the Black Panthers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

In fact, it wasn’t unusual for leaders such as H. Rap brown -now known as Imam Jamil Al-Amin – to argue that popular entertainers had very little power. He cited Brown and jazz great Lionel Hampton as artists being used as tools in a system that oppressed Blacks. Much of the criticism of that period is similar to the arguments raised against today’s popular artists. That was apparent last week, when I visited Jena to support the Jena 6. An estimated 60,000 people showed up in the town of 3,000, the overwhelming majority from the hip-hop generation.

A number of rap artists also came, including Mos Def, Salt N Pepa, Bun B of UGK and Ice Cube, as well as local independent artists. When we caught up with Mos Def, he said it was too bad more of his peers didn’t come to Jena. The absence of some of hip-hop’s biggest stars was noticed by others in the crowd. One woman wondered if Diddy and Jay-Z were there. They weren’t. Someone else wanted to know if 50 Cent or Kanye West would set up a fund in behalf of the Jena 6, or at least speak out in their behalf. As more of today’s political issues become too big to ignore, artists who talk loud but say nothing, will become increasingly irrelevant. 50 Cent vowed that, if his CD didn’t outsell Kanye West’s, he’d retire. Well, if he and others don’t get in step with their audience on important issues, they’ll have no choice but to hang up the microphone, because no one will be paying attention.

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