The Messengers

by Quentin B. Huff

11 October 2009


The Boy Who Cried Rap

The Boy Who Cried Rap
Rarely are we treated to an African giving us a firsthand account of Africa. Accounts of African life are typically relayed by “outsiders”, interpreted and filtered through layers of culture, and sometimes bias. Fela Kuti’s willingness to share his “African-ness”, something like James Brown’s proclamation “I’m Black and I’m Proud”, represents a revolutionary step in terms of identity, self-concept, and social awareness.  When it comes to confronting and subverting expectations, the last full song on the Fela Kuti episode is “Africa”, drawing a surprising analogy between a woman and the continent itself. Kind of clever, actually.

Episode One’s insistence on helping us to revise our image of the African continent runs counter to the prevailing isolationist streak in US hip-hop. Back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, connecting with Africa as an “African-American” was a popular trend. It was reflected in the style of dress, from Nefertiti earrings and ankh necklaces to Queen Latifah’s regal headdress and attire. At other times, the connection manifested in rhyme, as demonstrated by X-Clan’s discography or LL Cool J’s “Def Jam in the Motherland”. 

Every now and again, you hear that connection reemerging, as in dead prez’s “I’m an African” or in the Roots’ worldwide viewpoint for their Rising Down LP, or in benefits and charitable projects.  I don’t mean to suggest that people have been completely ignoring Africa, but there’s also been a change in outlook between now and the days of protesting the incarceration of Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s Apartheid regime.

Lately, there have been lyrics like the line from a guest rapper in Serengeti’s “Cauc’s Remix”: “The government is sideways / They’re sendin’ money to kids in Zimbabwe instead of those by my way”.  And although this lyric from the Hard Truth Soldier’s posse track “Down with Us” was aimed at the repercussion of a war in Iraq, and not at all about any country in Africa, it nevertheless illustrates our slight shift toward thinking locally but ignoring globally: “They already talkin’ ‘bout rebuildin’ their cities / I roll around the ‘hood and sh*t still looks sh*tty”.  Themes like “We are the world” and “we’re all brothers and sisters” aren’t necessarily automatic.

One last point about Western misinterpretations of Africa.  The function of art and music in African countries seems to be another example our (see: Western) disconnect. Somalia, K’naan tells us on Episode Two ‘s “War Through Poetry” interlude, has its share of war and violence, but it is also rich in art and poetry. The Somali people talk about war and violence, but they “prefer to talk about war through art and poetry”.

That’s a fascinating concept, because it positions art and music as forms of discourse, more of a dynamic process than an end result. The journey to create the art is more important, then, than the finished product, and since the process itself is alterable and cyclical, an artist’s songs are facilitating a marketplace of ideas in which sound and lyricism are traded in exchange for audience participation, inspiration, and critical analysis.

In the second episode, K’naan and J. Period switch gears to take on the legendary Bob Marley. It is here that K’naan reveals Bob Marley as his inspiration for sharing his own culture. Bob Marley spread the culture of Jamaica and the spirituality of Rastafarianism across the planet, a feat that K’naan says he wants to mimic with respect to his own experiences and background.  Intentional or otherwise, all of K’naan’s insights help to sell him to us as a rapper who identifies with the “true school” aesthetic of hip-hop culture, as a lover and consumer of music, and as a tour guide shouldering the task of interpreting the intermingling of sound and cultural significance. 

Let’s not kid ourselves. K’naan shapes our image of him with each episode in this series, simply by his choice of honoree. Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan are weighty subjects, loaded with historical importance and musical acumen. Critics don’t use the term “Dylan-esque” lightly, although there are a couple of magazine articles out there that arguably prove me wrong by comparing Lil’ Wayne to Bob Dylan and, in making a comparison to Prince, claiming Lil’ Wayne’s The Carter III is the Purple Rain of this decade. Wow.

But the point is that Kuti, Marley, and Dylan are important to us. Speaking of which, K’naan opens the third episode for Bob Dylan with his first encounter with Dylan’s music. It occurred after someone suggested a line in a song from the The Dusty Foot Philosopher was “Dylan-esque”. He admitted not understanding the term, and was subsequently “floored” when his research into Bob Dylan’s discography brought him a treasure trove of material.

Being “real” or “true” is less of a challenge for K’naan despite the fact that his “socially conscious” rhymes and “positive” messages could be equated with “alternative rap”, “emo rap”, or being a “backpacker”. None of these labels are bad in and of themselves, but hip-hop listeners sometimes use them pejoratively. What has worked for K’naan is his back story, and in particular his upbringing in war-weary Somalia. As a witness to violence on a grand scale, K’naan asking “What’s Hardcore” on The Dusty Foot Philosopher resonates. It gives him a certain currency of character that buys him the sort of legitimacy we might equate with rappers who have been shot, arrested, or formerly involved in criminal activity.

Though not in the spotlight of the series, K’naan’s back story, already well-established by his retail output, figures prominently in the background. In this context, his comments throughout the series paint him as a musician concerned with the crossroads of music, message, and heritage. Sporting a select number of guest voices (Zumbi, Netic the Rebel, Kardinal, Steele, and Bajah), J. Period and K’naan clearly set out to guide the action.

At the same time, J. Period and K’naan weave samples from various artists and historical figures to accentuate the presentation. Episode One’s “Got a Dream” samples the Notorious B.I.G. and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Likewise, K’naan’s lyrics are heavily laced with references to famous rap lyrics—from Nas’s Illmatic, Slick Rick’s “A Children’s Story”, and Rakim’s opening line “I came in the door / said it before…” from “Eric B. is President”.  Bringing this back to the Bob Marley mixtape specifically, K’naan quotes Marley’s sage statement that rain doesn’t just fall on one person’s house. “[These are] the words of someone who understands the impact that unity and division have on the world,” K’naan points out.

Just as music can be used as a form of discourse, this series offers music as a tool for inclusiveness, providing geographical and stylistic unity. Otherwise divergent and varied voices, sounds, and genres are merged into glorious statements of tribute.

Finally, the Bob Dylan mixtape (Episode Three) finds its heart and soul in its theme of courage. K’naan’s reflection on Bob Dylan begins with what might seem like a bold admission; namely, that the rapper had not heard of Bob Dylan until after he had released The Dusty Foot Philosopher. It hardly seems possible that anyone would not have heard of either Kuti, Marley, or Dylan. But that’s where the educational effect of these tapes rears its head once again. There are some folks who simply must not be ignored. If, many years from now, there are people who have never heard of Justin Timberlake, I suppose I could live with that (sorry, Justin). But a world in which no one knows Bob Dylan, Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, or James Brown? Please don’t let that happen.

The real courage is Bob Dylan’s. K’naan takes us back to the murder of Medgar Evers, which prompted Bob Dylan to write and perform a song to chronicle the situation and the issues. In the midst of the United States’s struggle with human rights, K’naan marvels at Dylan’s skill in taking stories from “the other side” and putting them in his songs in spite of the potential repercussions for doing so.

I find it interesting to see how social climate and environment play out in music. K’naan’s research brings us an earnest Bob Dylan writing songs emanating out of the Civil Rights Movement, speaking as the “voice of America” in the process. He describes Bob Marley as a messenger who spreads his culture and faith on a global scale. Fela Kuti exhibits pride in his heritage. Meanwhile, K’naan himself is inspired by these messengers to share his own culture.

To me, the interesting part is how all of this resembles the familiar argument of the US rapper who says he or she is merely channeling their environment and upbringing. Joy and violence in rap, the argument goes, is a reflection of the joy and violence in the cities and the ‘hoods.  It just so happens that rappers are frequently met with skepticism when they advance this argument. I suppose that’s because the argument has been advanced too many times—a phenomenon I like to call “The Boy Who Cried Rap”. But I also wonder if it has something to do with our hesitancy to accept the “inner city” or rap as a whole as “cultures”, with accompanying traditions, rituals, and mores. 

Further, don’t you think it takes guts to mix folk and rap? C-Mone, a female emcee from the UK, worked the folk vibe pretty well into a few songs on her 2009 mixtape “C-Mone vs. The Indie Boys”, but it doesn’t match the intensity of K’naan rapping to a Dylan tune, sometimes alongside Dylan’s vocals. That’s kind of ambitious. Another ambitious project is Eligh and Jo Wilkinson’s On Sacred Ground.  On this release, Eligh, a rapper from the Living Legends crew, joins forces with his mother Jo Wilkinson, who brings the folk vibe. The result is a curious experiment. I’m not totally sure how I feel about it yet, but I do think it’s worth checking out.

As for The Messengers, it’s an easy project to admire, delightfully executed and chockfull of fresh ideas and stellar music. Download it, if you haven’t already.

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