There’s a Message in the Music

Every February, the United States is slated to commemorate Black History Month. With each passing year, the efficacy of our commemoration rests on the diligence and energy we’ve put into it.

There’s a certain fast food chain that, in addition to its claim of serving billions, makes a point of highlighting some event or historical figure pertinent to “Black History” in its advertisements and commercials. Some schools make an effort to do the same, although the results tend to be limited in scope. In the end, we often find ourselves with ritualized bits of information concerning a routine group of people and facts. All such information is significant, to be sure, but we seem to be missing the depth and breadth of true historical exploration, not to mention the sheer thrill of discovery.

These missing elements could operate on both sides of the fence. One the one hand, it might mean we need to be more vigilant in our study and celebration of history. On the other, there’s the argument that, in a post-racial society, “positive” and compensatory gestures such as Black History Month are simply outdated. The election of Barack Obama to the United States presidency has certainly impacted this discussion of post-racial politics.

It’s not my intention to debate whether the “post-racial” era has indeed descended upon us. I’m still trying to define the term “post-racial”, actually. Nor am I advocating the continuation or dissolution of Black History Month. Rather, my interest concerns the power of music and of hip-hop in particular. I’m of the opinion that hip-hop can, and should, promote the historical and cultural ideals that underscore the value of historical study.

To some extent, this is something hip-hop has already been doing. Contrary to what the naysayers will tell you, hip-hop’s lineup is not solely populated by pimps, thugs, and ne’er-do-wells. Yes, I said “ne’er-do-wells”. However, the recent musical climate and the current state of the industry may have converged to provide hip-hop with a prime opportunity to channel at least a portion of its energy in this direction. There are several reasons why hip-hop, as a culture and a musical genre, should do so.

First, hip-hop should capitalize on its educational and motivational impact. Message-oriented songs such as Stop the Violence Movement’s
Self-Destruction, spearheaded by KRS-One, seek to guide and instruct while inviting positive action. Currently, artists from all categories, including hip-hop, are uniting, musically and financially, to aid the Haiti relief effort. This unification and activism is an important humanitarian effort that also educates listeners about Haiti’s history.

No doubt, the flipside to the “edu-tainment” mindset is that these songs will be too heavy handed in delivering their messages. The preachy approach may turn away as many potential listeners as it inspires. However, thanks to the trend of “introspective rap” in the past decade, this sense of overkill can be mitigated when the rapper explores his or her personal connection to the subject at issue. Think of Kanye West’s “All Falls Down” or “Jesus Walks” as examples.

Another counterpoint is that these motivational songs are just straight up “corny”. That’s a big problem, too. The last thing I want to hear is somebody trying to sell me a jingle filled with clichés and hackneyed slogans. We still want to be entertained. We still want to be wowed by the artistry. So regardless of the subject, it’s gotta be fresh.

Other songs seek to directly inform, more for the sake of knowledge than to spark a movement. Run DMC’s “Proud to Be Black”, much like James Brown’s “Say It Loud — I’m Black & I’m Proud”, was boldly dedicated to vindicating the meaning and significance of cultural heritage to offset a sense of perpetuated racial stigma. “Proud to Be Black” connected the achievements of folks like Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, and Jesse Owens to the struggle for identity and self-actualization.

Implicit in the song’s cultural mission statement is the theme of being connected. “Proud to Be Black” suggests that one should be proud of being connected to a history of achievement, to others who share in this legacy, and to one’s own family. That familial connection helps to explain why, on Run DMC’s
Raisin’ Hell, the 30-second beat boxing track “Son of Byford” precedes “Proud to Be Black” with a brief rundown of Darryl “DMC” McDaniel’s family history. “I was born… son of Byford, brother of Al” is his classic opening line. Later, DMC’s discovery that he was in fact adopted provided a powerful real-life example of how knowledge of our connections deeply affects the way we relate to the world and how we function within it.

But, hey, “Proud to Be Black” was back in 1987. Listen to 2006’s “Uncommon Valor (A Vietnam Story)” by Jedi Mind Tricks with R.A. the Rugged Man, showcased as a first person account of life on the frontlines during the Vietnam War. Or more to the point of cultural history, Ghanaian artist Blitz the Ambassador takes a Dylanesque approach in his 2010 track “Emmett (S)till”. The song presents the story of Emmett Till, a black teenager who, while visiting Mississippi in 1955, was kidnapped, beaten, shot, and mutilated for having allegedly whistled at a white woman. Two men, both white, faced murder charges but were acquitted by the local jury. Till’s death is frequently cited as a spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement.

Honestly, it’s a little unsettling that the beat makes you want to nod your head to this, since Blitz’s narration is as dramatic as it is vivid. Plus, Blitz has a gruff-voiced delivery that makes him sound like a long lost member of Onyx. In true griot fashion, he ties Emmitt Till’s fate to the larger community and nation with the oft-quoted advice that if we don’t know our history.

Next, hip-hop, like any field of high profile entertainers, enjoys a certain credibility factor with its audience. It emanates from the image of a rapper who writes his or her own rhymes and is passionate about those rhymes. Rappers who “bite” other people’s rhymes or recite ghostwritten rhymes are not supposed to be held in high esteem. It’s true, of course, that rappers sometimes violate these cardinal rules.

Albums sales may be down, and hip-hop’s best and brightest may not be keeping it as real as in the days of
Yo! MTV Raps, but it holds true that people respond strongly to the passions and images of rap music. Sometimes the response is negative, like when we’re talking about violence, misogyny, or homophobia in the music. Still, the power to elicit concern and negativity might also be used in a positive way to bring important and complex issues to the fore.

When I talk about “credibility”, I’m not saying that rappers are, or even should be, historical authorities. We could easily raise the point that songs about history have the potential to mislead and confuse as much as they have the power to motivate and educate. I’m speaking of credibility in the sense that if a rapper speaks convincingly with passion and authority, then the audience is likely to respect the subject matter, to take it seriously, and think of it as “cool”. Hopefully, the listener will use the song as a launching pad for further study and discussion. The operative word, though, is “convincingly”. It’s equally possible for an effort to completely fall flat.

At its core, hip-hop thrives on history and tradition. Rappers are almost always aware, acutely so, in fact, of their influences.They often describe the locales they represent (see Tupac’s “California Love” and Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind”). They also pay tribute to the giants of the culture, as in Tupac’s “Old School” and Nas’s “U.B.R. (Unauthorized Biography of Rakim)”. Likewise, Joell Ortiz’s mixtape Joell Ortiz Covers the Classics finds Ortiz going for broke over some of hip-hop’s most recognizable productions.

This reverence for the lore of yesteryear gives hip-hop a rich, though sometimes familiar, reservoir of source material. It also places rappers in a unique position to reflect on the past while offering their views on the present and the future.

Similarly, hip-hop’s songs are uniquely situated to provide listeners with access to historical critique and starting points for dialogue. Sampling, for example, allows contrasting voices, instruments, and styles to be juxtaposed. Although it’s not always an affordable tool, considering the costs of clearing samples, the technique yields qualitative dividends when it’s handled right. Consider, for example, the inventive use of James Brown samples in “Brand New Funk” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Using the sounds of a legendary funk master to augment the rap group’s “new funk” is a stroke of genius, a way of melding past and present into something timeless enough to still be enjoyable in the future.

As for critique, consider Nas’ “Black President”, a single intent upon examining the viability of a Black president in the 21st century while sampling Tupac’s decidedly 20th century commentary, “Although it seems heaven sent / we ain’t ready to have a Black president”. More obscure crate digging, which we often get from folks like Madlib and Pete Rock, also serves the educational function already discussed.

Viewed in an optimistic light, the downturn of in-store record sales should prompt artists to reach higher, to aspire to create meaningful records, if for no other reason than to be distinct from the competition and survive these difficult economic times. What was once a fiercely centralized system has become increasingly, and in some respects delightfully, diffuse. Independent labels, plus a robust mixtape culture, help promote the projects artists enjoy most.

Internet distribution promises a wide audience at a lower cost. The whole thing has opened the entire game to a diverse selection of artists, leveling the field somewhat when it comes to getting noticed. Moreover, many of these artists have used their freedom of distribution to share interesting concepts that might have otherwise been shelved at a major label for lack of easy categorization.

Of course, there’s an argument to be made that so much consumer access makes it easier for artists to get lost in the sheer volume of voices. It seems like there’s a new beat maker or emcee waiting behind every hyperlink. Perhaps, though, this challenge might be met with creativity, and releases that embrace history and culture go a long way toward distinguishing the leaders from the also-rans.

Meanwhile, this independence of distribution gives artists the ability to explore less worn subjects without worrying as much about fitting into a company’s promotional campaign. Apple Juice Kid’s albums reworking music from Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong immediately come to mind, fulfilling the need for creativity by imaginatively reworking the material while also serving an educational need for those who are unfamiliar with these jazz icons.

“Oh, sure,” you say. “Internet distribution is all well and good. But e-fans are as fickle as the ones offline. You know they’ll hate on rappers that try to be creative.” Maybe so. Chamillionaire’s “Internet Thugs Attack”, from his
Mixtape Messiah, addresses this in a hilarious way. In it, the rapper gets blasted by an Internet fan(atic) who rhymes that he will “terrorize suckers on the Internet daily”, “click this mouse pad at your career so damn hard”, and commit all sorts of virtual mayhem.

Nevertheless, the point remains that rappers are more likely to release what they want through Internet sites and blogs, without worrying too much that they will lose out on the retail end. In fact, the retail agenda might be better served by taking advantage of Internet channels. In this way, historical and cultural rhymes will have ample opportunity to flourish, along with a better chance of reaching an appreciative audience.

I’m not suggesting that rappers lean exclusively in this historical direction. That could be just as monotonous as having too many songs involving sex, violence, or any other topic. Songs exclusively devoted to culture may be fine for a niche audience, but too much of it could be divisive. The use of historical subjects shouldn’t become trite or formulaic. For artists, however, songs tapping into a wider variety of source material have the potential to grab more listeners and gain the admiration of existing ones. Audiences, in turn, are (hopefully) entertained by creativity and a greater sense of conceptual balance.