Friday, February 15, 2008

yet again: on "political rap"

Couldn't sleep last night, which was kind of a blessing because i ended up having a long internal conversation with myself about politics in hip hop, or more specifically, hip hop artists who try to be political. I can't for the life of me remember what inspired it, but here are the main points:

I've heard heads deride political hip hop because it is, so often, "preaching to the choir." I think this is a fair criticism. Most political rap songs today ARE on some "fuck bush," " we need a revolution," "mainstream radio is materialistic," etc, and most of the people who hear these songs already agree 100% with that stuff.

There are exceptions of course; namely, high-visibility artists who put something subversive in otherwise pop or mainstream albums/songs. Kanye talking about blood diamonds, for instance. Chamillionaire. Rich Boy. Andre3000. David Banner (quite a few southern artists, actually). And this is great. I think already-famous artists, because of their wider audiences, make more of an impact even when the politics are subtle.

But i think there's a problem when lower-level artists strive to do the same sort of thing. See, i'm a lot more interested in artists around my level-- independent, underground artists, many of whom strive to inject politics into their music. In the midwest, we know who our audience is likely going to be: liberal, young, college kids, often white, often middle-class, etc. This is, of course, a generalization, but i think it's a pretty safe one. So when WE "speak out against the evils of the world" in a generalized sense, i think it's less likely that our words are really changing anyone's mind, or educating anyone, or whatever.

Again, exceptions. Slug rapping about date-rape. Sage Francis and P.O.S. standing up against homophobia in rap lyrics. The Coup talking about Marxism. Murs warning his white fans to take a step back and see what's going on ("we ain't the same color when police show up"). Macklemore's white privilege song (google it). While the average indie hip hop head is probably going to identify as "liberal," few seem to really be in the know when it comes to things like racism, homophobia, sexism and truly progressive politics based around collective organizing. So hats off to artists who make political songs that DON'T just preach to the choir.

And i don't think a "fuck bush" song is necessarily a bad thing. It's just that when you're constantly performing for people who already agree with you, that sort of song becomes just another topic, like "the weed song" or "the ladies' jam" or "the battley punchline song" or whatever. All in all, i guess a song like that is better than another song about how dope your crew is, but we shouldn't be pretending that it's something it's not.

I guess my challenge to underground artists, and to myself, is to think about who is going to be listening, and CHALLENGE them. I think that these days, there are two major ways for indie artists to make EFFECTIVE political music:

1. Telling a story that humanizes a particular issue and makes it real in a way that people might not have experienced before. Storytelling is such a lost art in hip hop. We all want to get up on our soapboxes and preach. But it's so important to use extended metaphor, to create characters that a listener can feel for. Telling a story about a single mother on welfare is ALWAYS going to be more powerful than saying "hey poverty is bad."

...and more importantly:

2. Preach to the choir, but talk about stuff they might not want to hear (like the above examples). So you know your audience is likely going to be liberal... but liberals don't know everything. For example, 2008 is going to be an election year, and ALL our attention is on Obama or Hillary; so what i'm rapping about these days is how no matter who wins, our job will never be over. Voting is great and everything, but no Obama presidency is going to SAVE us. We need to organize-- we need to form campaigns and organizations that have the power to push whoever is in office to do what our communities need them to do. You'll get a bigger crowd response by saying "let's get the GOP out of office," but that ain't for me.

IDEALLY, political music can inspire us to take action, it can educate us about issues we don't know about, and it can bring people together for a common cause. I don't think much political music really does any of that stuff though. I'd like to see more. It's possible, it's just more difficult.

And of course there's someone reading this and saying "if you get your news and politics from underground rappers that's pretty dumb." Sure. No one's saying that we should all just listen to Brother Ali and stop watching the BBC. But i think that as artists who are so often face-to-face with our fans, we have a unique opportunity to spread the messages we believe in. Hip hop doesn't have to be political-- there's nothing wrong with party music. But it can also be a higher form of communication.

Just a few thoughts. This is an ever-evolving topic in my head.

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