[15 January 2009]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
It’s the night of the election and while much of America, depending on presidential predelictions, is either celebrating in the open air or drowning sorrows behind closed doors, New York rapper Jim Jones is making an early New Year’s resolution. In the middle of rehearsal for the Off-Off-Broadway production of “Hip-Hop Monologues: Inside the Life and Mind of Jim Jones,” a theatrical re-enactment of his hard-bitten Harlem life, he makes a pledge.
Because of Barack Obama’s election, he would no longer use the “n-word.”
One of those there to hear his promise was Benjamin Chavis, the former executive director of the NAACP who now runs the activist group Hip-Hop Action Summit Network with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, and had a part in “Monologues.” “We were studying for the play and when the results came in, he was so happy,” Chavis recalls in a phone interview, recalling that Jones vowed to address his friends differently. “He said he would say (the phrase) ‘This is my Obama,’ not ‘my (n-word)’.”
Fast forward 10 days and Sean “Diddy” Combs is appearing on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.” After some goading from the host about the state of hip-hop, Combs says recent events might change things. “I think that you will see another level of consciousness and also another level of responsibility,” he responded. “We appreciate everybody that put race to the side and voted for him. You know, we never got the 40 acres and a mule - we didn’t get a lot of other things promised - so we’ll take this one. So maybe we’ll clean up the lyrics now.”
While these two incidents are not directly related, they point to what some sense may be a sea change in black youth culture and hip-hop culture in particular. They feel that a newfound sense of pride and respect may spill over from the political arena into the cultural. Even those on the other end of the political spectrum have taken notice. In a piece written for New York magazine called “Revenge of the Black Nerd,” conservative black writer John McWhorter enthused that it might be cool now to be a black geek.
“Barack has set a new standard,” says Navarrow Wright, president and CEO of Global Grind, a hip-hop-oriented social networking site. “They feel obligated to show a higher side of themselves ... Diddy and Jay-Z, there was so much heartfelt emotion when they were out campaigning, you can’t help but change when you feel inspired. For the first time in a long time, we feel inspired. And hip-hop may be inspired to tell a different story.”
Of course, hip-hop - a movement that began on the tough streets of the South Bronx in the ‘70s - has long had a political and socially concious edge as evidenced by such early groups as Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy. It’s just that, in the last two decades, that side has often been muffled by the rat-a-tat-tat of so-called gangsta rap and the party-hearty style of such chart-toppers as Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and Flo-Rida. What’s become known as more positive or conscious hip-hop, as practiced by the likes of Common, Mos Def and Kanye West, is not as pervasive.
It’s a topic that has fueled discussion in at least one of the classrooms at Virginia’s George Mason University, where adjunct professor Andrew Ryan, editor of “The Journal of Hip-Hop” and author of the upcoming book “The Responsible Use of Hip-Hop in the Classroom,” teaches a class about hip-hop.
“There were two groups: one felt that as long as there are poor people and a need to hustle, you’re going to have music that reflects that regardless who the president is,” he says. “Another camp says a lot of the conscious rappers will have a platform to say ‘what we’re talking about can turn out to be true’ because the knock against (conscious rappers) was that they’d say ‘change is coming’ but nothing happened.”
For some, the change happened Nov. 4.
“For African-Americans and Africans, this gives us a reflection of ourselves in the media and undoes a lot of (the damage) that has been done,” says Dallas rapper Alejandro Perez, who goes by the name of African Personalities. “Having that icon as an image and reflection makes everyone reflect inwardly.”
“(Jim Jones) is not a conscious rapper and he doesn’t strike me as a super politically aware person,” says writer/critic Toure, who interviewed Jones for Tina Brown’s The Daily Beast political/culture Web site after the rapper’s anti-“n-word” revelation. “It just speaks of the ubiquity of the impact of Obama on everybody - regular guys in the hood feeling like this guy is so transformative that he matters to me.”
In his Daily Beast piece, Toure, who’s African-American, wrote that he was “blown away” by Jones’ admission: “Black men have used nigga for more than three decades as away of expressing a certain gallows humor. It is a way of saying, ‘Hey, if America thinks we’re the national boogie monsters, then fine, we are. Boo! ... But the election has done more than just usher in a black president. It’s begun creating a new America where black people feel like the country perhaps doesn’t hate us the way it once did, and black men no longer feel a need to identify ourselves as America’s monsters.”
If nothing else, Obama’s election has sparked a cottage industry in rap songs about the new president. While Jones was having his epiphany in a New York theater, a fellow Big Apple hip-hop heavyweight, Nas, was ducking into a studio during a tour stop in Oslo, Norway to record “Election Night.” (He already had one Obama-themed track, “Black President,” that was on his last album.)
From Young Jeezy’s “My President” to Ludacris’ “Politics: Obama Is Here” (which the Obama campaign had to distance itself from because of the derogatory language used for candidates Hillary Clinton and John McCain), Obama has become nearly as much a hip-hop lyrical mainstay as “rims” (car wheels) and “shawties” (slang for “shorties” or women). New York rapper Mekka Don and DJ Mick Boogie last week released an online project “All Eyes on Me,” a mash-up of sorts featuring tracks from 2Pac - who often painted lyrical pictures of urban despair - with lyrics reflecting Obama optimism.
But it remains to be seen what happens once the inaugural glow wears off and Obama gets down to the grinding, numbing work of the presidency.
“One thing Barack doesn’t have going for him is that he wasn’t the darling of a regional scene. Even in Chicago, (local rappers) Kanye and Common weren’t (rapping about) Obama when he was a senator,” says George Mason’s Andrew Ryan. “He didn’t come up through the movement but the bigger issue will be if he maintains his connections to rap. He did an interview with Vibe. Will he continue to speak to hip-hop through media outlets? Will he have hip-hop at his inauguration?
“Then there’s the notion of class and Obama, while he’s African-American, doesn’t come through the same urban experience. That being the case, it might be easy for some MC’s to say he’s cool but he ‘ain’t from where I’m from.’ ... His hood pass might be challenged if folks don’t see that immediate change.”
There’s also the age factor. The most prominent of those making pronouncements of change - Diddy, Jones - are elder statesmen in the world of hip-hop. “It’s always going to be a youth-based culture,” says Ryan. “In about two years, there’ll be a whole new crop of rappers speaking to the youth.”
Even conscious hip-hop might not get the massive bump some expect. “People who are already stars may have to shift what they’re talking about a little bit to meet the way people are feeling but I don’t think (rappers like) Common are suddenly going to get hot,” says Toure.
And not everyone buys the idea that geekdom will take on a new sense of cool. Many of the online comments to McWhorter’s “Revenge of the Nerd” essay ranged from disbelieving (“true nerds will always be at the bottom of the totem pole”) to derisive (“this oversimplified ‘article’ is dumb on so many levels”).
But for D-Nice (Derrick Jones), a rapper whose roots go back to hip-hop’s 1980s glory days in New York and who’s now a DJ, producer and photographer, Obama’s ascension has already had a profound impact no matter what the future holds.
“I see in Barack what I could become and what I still can do, getting more involved in helping people. I need to pay it forward. My mission is to become more presidential, in my way of being, the way I live, the way I relate to my kids, treat my wife,” he says. “Even as far as the music I play, when I started deejaying, I played records from my heart. No songs with the ‘n-word.’ Then I started to become more popular and played what (audiences) wanted to hear but I didn’t feel good about it. I was contributing to what’s negative about hip-hop.”
But that’s changed now. “I need to change my life and become more presidential,” he says. “Hopefully, there are other people who want to change as well.”
‘ALL EYES ON’ OBAMA
While Obama has been name-checked in many rap songs, it’s still rare for him to be the subject of an entire album. But that’s exactly the case with “All Eyes on Me,” a nine-track, free-download-only set by New York rapper Mekka Don and DJ Mick Boogie.
The twosome overlay vintage beats from the slain rapper 2Pac with lyrics about Obama and excerpts from his speeches. For example, the 2Pac hit “Dear Mama” becomes “Dear Obama.”
“I supported him in so many ways, helping people register to vote, and donating to his campaign,” says Mekka Don, a 27-year-old former attorney whose real name is Emeka Onyejekwe. “I liked what he represents.”
So when Boogie - best-known for “Adele 1988” (his mash-up of up-and-coming singer Adele with ‘80s hip-hop grooves) and “Viva La Hova” (a mash-up of Jay-Z and Coldplay) - approached him about doing a 2Pac/Obama project, Mekka Don was intrigued. “I would be the person to do it because people think my voice resembles 2Pac,” he says.
The initial track, “Dear Obama,” sparked enough interest that Boogie wanted to do more. “At first, I was hesitant,” Mekka Don says. “I wasn’t fully on board but as the idea got fleshed out, I got into it.”
The resulting album, whose title is a slight twist on 2Pac’s classic 1996 release “All Eyez on Me,” reworks such songs as “Life Goes On” and “How Do You Want It.”
It’s the latest gambit from the New York University Law School graduate - who, two years ago, left his position at the NYC law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges to pursue hip-hop full time - for exposure. He and his business partners created a YouTube reality show last year, “Mekka Don: The Legal Hustler.” No doubt, he’s one of the few rappers who has been featured in the American Bar Association’s ABA Journal: Law News Now magazine.
But he wants to turn the focus on his original music and prove he’s not just a lawyer who happens to rap. “From a career standpoint, this is my passion, so it wasn’t difficult (to leave law). From the standpoint of potential ridicule from colleagues, it’s difficult,” he says. “People think I’d never rapped before but I’ve been rapping since 1999 and I’ve been in the studio a lot ... I want people to know who I am and what I represent.”
‘All Eyes on Me’ is available for free download at www.mekkadon.blogspot.com