When Will We Be Ready to Listen?

Posted by on September 29, 2013

hip-hop-hip-hop-rap-music-lincoln-political-poster-1262657172 July 1, 1982, the conversation began. This was almost a decade after Kool Herc first put his hand to vinyl on Prospect Ave., addressing the crowd over the beat—a mix of popular record samples. A new record was on its way to radio, slated for a hip-hop audience, though it was a drastic change to its proven formula. Hip-hop, at the time, was party feeder, and steadily gaining national attention as a result: just a year earlier The Funky 4 Plus One had performed their hit “That’s the Joint” on SNL (the first instance of the genre on television), and Africa Bambaataa’s techno-heavy “Planet Rock” was becoming ubiquitous on the radio circuit, having fully embraced the relationship between hip-hop and dance music.

This record, though, borne out of an increasing disgust with Reaganomics, was comprised of a slowed, down-tempo beat, clocking in at just over 100 beats per measure. “The Message”, primarily written by emcee Melle Mel (as other members of the group, including Grandmaster Flash himself, elected to not be included), wasn’t the first song to address social issues stemming from poverty or feature social commentary, but it was the first song to feature a beat sedated enough that no crowd could be rocked by it, no pleasure could be derived from it without dissecting the lyrics. The record was critically acclaimed, pioneering the subgenres of “conscious” and “political” hip-hop that have remained prominent to this day. One critic from the Village Voice at the time, Vince Aletti, was moved enough by the song to declare, “It’s been awfully easy to criticize mainstream, street-level rap for talking loud and saying nothing. No more.”

Though “The Message” was also able to find tremendous success as a single (rising as high as #4 on Billboard hip-hop charts), over thirty years later the same subgenre has almost exclusively inhabited the underground, with social messages rarely able to regain chart popularity after the “gangsta rap” movement of the 90s. Not only that, but we live in an age of hip-hop where the stories found nestled between kicks and snares aren’t solely of the working class, those below the poverty line, or those who have historically been placed into these circumstances because of the color of their skin.

Rap albums performed by white emcees have topped the Billboard Rap Albums chart a total of thirty-six weeks since 2011. Apart from Eminem, whose “Recovery” scored nineteen of those, this collective has had a radically different range of content, from the middle-class comforts and party-centric Blue Slide Park by Mac Miller, to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ The Heist, an album powered by a song that popularized thrift shops, not out of necessity, but as part of a cultural fad.

That said, I am a supporter of the aforementioned artists, and especially of the latter’s recent foray into political hip-hop, the timely “Same Love”, which highlights the rapper’s pro-gay-marriage stance, one that has historically been rejected in hip-hop. But this song’s success has brought a conversation back to the surface that has been steadily building over these early years of white rapper success, where—as a result of the majority of hip-hop listeners’ lighter skin tones—critics and fans alike highlight music that doesn’t “promote” or talk about what we see as negative topics (violence and drugs, in particular) as this new beacon of positive or “conscious” hip-hop.

Yes, “Same Love” is an incredible act of songwriting, and speaks to issues that are very relevant for the majority of our society, but we also have to address the privilege that comes with it. The fact that one of the most pressing issues on the heterosexual Macklemore’s mind is that of gay rights is a privilege in itself—he isn’t facing the kind of day-to-day stresses and fears that were originally expressed in “The Message”, and that continue to infiltrate the records of many rappers of color. He seems to be the only one aware of it, too. On one of my favorite songs from The Heist, “A Wake”, Macklemore states, “They say, it’s so refreshing to hear somebody on records/No guns, no drugs, no sex, just truth/The guns, that’s America, the drugs are what they gave to us, and sex sells itself, don’t judge ‘till it’s you.” He acknowledges here that he simply speaks to his environment, and that the music of those who detail these other issues isn’t less socially conscious; they’re simply doing the same. They are speaking about the realities of their communities, and any harshness that they encounter is that which they are not responsible for.

In an extremely compelling recent Twitter debate, two highly successful rappers and fierce social commentators, Talib Kweli and Lupe Fiasco, discussed whether or not hip-hop artists are to blame for any of society’s ills. Kweli held to his argument that focusing on hip-hop lyrics as “a root cause is dismissive of real problems that create space for said lyrics.” He went on to claim, “we don’t like the negativity [because] it holds up a mirror we ain’t ready to look at.” Lupe, a longtime promoter of more positive messages in hip-hop, said that he believes speaking about violence in hip-hop promotes the culture of violence in these communities, even going as far as claiming, “[the] KKK don’t run around Englewood or BK no more… we do. It’s like we have become the heirs to their legacy.”

Both points are valid on some level, but most of the hip-hop proving successful in the modern day is coming from artists choosing not to glorify the same tropes that have defined hip-hop for much of its existence. Rappers rising to prominence as of late appear to be more highly aware of how they are reflecting upon their environments, and the role they possess as artists who have a degree of influence. That’s a big change from, say, ten years ago, when Eminem’s platinum single, “Sing For the Moment”, suggested—to grossly simplify its message—that the burden of crimes committed by young hip-hop fans should not be on the artists, but rather their parents, as well as the kids themselves.

While I was just fourteen at the time of its release, that seemed to capture the mindset of most artists at the time, while more commonplace now is the kind of thinking that Lupe demonstrated on his recent collaboration with Wale and Rick Ross, “Poor Decisions”: “Rappers influence your shooting sprees/Turn around and publish bars like it ain’t got shit to do with me,” or Macklemore’s “Otherside”: “Us as rappers underestimate the power and the effects that we have on these kids.” The past six months of hip-hop have been flooded with artists struggling to reach moral ground, from more subtle remarks (i.e. Drake’s “Girls Love Beyonce”, which states, “All my young boys ‘round me saying, ‘Get money and fuck these hoes’/Where we learn these values? I do not know what to tell you”), to full albums contemplating the normative habits of their communities and hip-hop culture, such as Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.a.a.d. city, which emphasizes the Compton emcee’s struggles in a community plagued with gang life, violence, and peer pressure, and J. Cole’s Born Sinner, where he spends much of the album ruminating and reflecting upon adultery, mistreatment of women, and his fear of losing his moral compass among the company of fame and rappers.

As hip-hop escalates to unprecedented new heights as a crossover genre, many listeners find themselves aesthetically attracted to a genre that started in a community that couldn’t be more different than their own. A genre that once solely solicited the writing of people of color and those living in poverty has an audience in 2013 that in many respects is closer to that of pop radio than anything else. An audience built from communities that are more affluent, white, and comfortable, while less violent, drug-laden, crime-ridden. People have been able to separate their political and moral preferences from the music they listen to for generations, yet it seems more problematic when what’s being separated is a love for the aesthetic qualities of hip-hop from the realities that much of its content still reflects. We’re still a nation that refuses to acknowledge the remnants of history, and how they are still drastically relevant in much of our nation’s neighborhoods. In these days, hip-hop is a mainstream genre, reaching audiences that Melle Mel never dreamed it was capable of when he wrote “The Message” thirty-one years ago. Reaganomics have passed, as have the policies of Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush, and more than half of Obama’s, but Prospect Ave. hasn’t changed much, and neither has the music that ignited its block parties in the earliest years of our beloved art form. That perennial, ageless chorus, “It’s like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under,” remains a sentiment that defines the lives of many in that community, as well as others around the country, as it did in 1982. When, if not when it’s most artistically pleasing, will we be ready to listen?

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