The Politics Inside Black Pop

Will black pop artists still see themselves as outsiders now that a black person is President? Will they use their cultural platform to criticize him if need be, just as they did to help elect him?

For a moment, it seemed as though Nas would dominate the rap landscape of 2008. Much of the talk a year or so ago centered around whether he’d actually title his new CD Nigger, and incur the wrath of all manner of critics, not to mention vague threats against his parent label Universal and their investments. In the end he backed off, issuing the CD without a title, sufficing with a cover picture of the letter “N” lashed onto a black man’s back, presumably by any number of blows from a whip.

The music itself wasn’t all that incendiary either: aside from the anti-corporate media “Sly Fox”, it was mostly a series of paeans to the besieged brothas of the world (“You Can’t Stop Us Now”, “Hero”, “Y’all My Ni**as”, “We’re Not Alone”). Worthy sentiments to be sure, but they hardly made for compelling fodder for talk radio and barbershop banter, much less elevation of the black man’s plight onto this year’s broader sociopolitical agenda.

Indeed, in 2008 that portion of Hip-Hop Nation not busy cataloging Lil Wayne mixtapes and remixes was dominated by Barack Obama. Rappers recorded and participated in more one-off tracks in support of Obama than for all presidential candidates in the seven campaigns since the first rap record (“Rapper’s Delight,” 1979) combined (this doesn’t count all the songs decrying what the candidates did once they got into office). Nas contributed the 2Pac-sampling "Black President", which went against the mostly viral, online-and-mixtape grain of this mini-genre by landing onto a proper CD. Its placement as the final track on a release celebrating the spirit of the Black Ghetto Everybrotha suggests that Nas envisioned an Obama victory as a crowning symbolic achievement, a representation of the full glory a black man can accomplish.

Within the song, Nas issued a sober endorsement of Obama’s run, sounding more like a quote from an op-ed than a rap lyric (“ On the positive side I think Obama provides hope and challenges the minds of all races and colors to erase the hate”). Sentiments like that were all over the place in hip-hop; both Vibe and The Source placed Obama on their November covers. Of course, hip-hop was far from alone within the pop music universe in praising and supporting Obama’s historic run. But the level of pro-Obama cultural activity by rappers represented a new iteration in the age-old discussion of hip-hop’s political meaning and impact.

A brief recap: while one can make a case for the New York City graffiti writers’ reclamation and repurposing of public space in the early '80s as a statement on urban policy priorities, most first-generation rap music didn’t support such sociopolitical extrapolations. It was straight-up party music, at least until Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” (1982) proved that the genre could contain weightier subject matter. Run-DMC and Schooly D, in their respective ways, set the tone for grittier lyrical content, but the genre as a whole didn’t earn its social commentary bonafidés until the beloved 1987-1992 “golden age.”

That era, as any rap fan over 40 will gladly boast, is characterized by piercing social critiques, not only from Public Enemy and N.W.A., but also from a legion of pro-black Afrocentrists, Five Percenters and the first wave of funky bohemians (in a sense, Nas’ 2008 cd recalls that era’s mindset). That was when it became received wisdom that rappers were canaries in the urban coalmine, that they spoke truths representing the realities of life in the street (i.e., Chuck D’s rap-as-black-CNN analogy).

The needle hasn’t really budged much from that point, even as the music has moved through various moments acknowledging (if not celebrating) the drug trade, launching Internet dance crazes, and passing the Couvoissier. Indeed, the most newsworthy thing about the Nas CD is that in 2008, someone who isn’t normally associated with rap’s left wing (a big tent encompassing major label-affiliated veterans like Common, the Roots and Talib Kweli, and indie stalwarts like Paris and the Coup) made any effort at all to place discussion of broader societal issues at the heart of his release, not just a throwaway cut to satisfy an audience demographic (like the posse cut, the club-banger, the pop hit, etc.).

As it stands, although Nas’ various bromides could have used some fact-checking, to say the least, his fighting-the-good-fight, at-least-he-cracked-open-a-book approach is far more useful than, for example, Lil Wayne’s zooted rambling about Rev. Al Sharpton on “Dontgetit”. How many hearts and minds were changed, or even nudged a little, by the Nas CD is almost impossible to quantify. But the attention the effort received proves, once again, that many people continue to look to rap music as some indication of how black folks -- even those who hate rap -- are doing, to an extent that simply doesn’t happen with any other pop genre, or any other expression of black pop culture.

That tendency looks to become only more prevalent and widespread in the wake of Obama’s victory. In the immediate wake of the election, numerous news articles and commentaries probing for links between Obama’s win and black pop culture surfaced. Among other tangents, the pieces speculated on the effect of a black presidency on black stand-up comics, examined Obama’s relationship to hip-hop and vice versa, wondered if Obama hadn’t become the real-life embodiment of the “magic Negro” of Hollywood stereotypes and Rush Limbaugh denigrations, and even whether TV’s fictional Huxtable family of the ‘80s somehow paved the way for mass acceptance of a black presidential candidate (In the November 11 Los Angeles Times article that proposed this notion, Bill Cosby himself shot it down, but that didn’t stop the Times from running with it anyway).

Such consideration didn’t happen without just cause. Rappers and others of the ever-growing hip-hop generation aren’t the first black pop artists to engage big-picture issues in their art. Black pop culture has always had something to say about American social conditions, sometimes through sly entendre and sometimes through outright agitprop. But up until this moment, those comments have always come from the perspective of speaking truth to power as outsiders to the political mainstream. Will black pop artists still see themselves as outsiders now that a black person is President? Will they use their cultural platform to criticize him if need be, just as they did to help elect him?

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