On Friday 26 November, several hundred people chose to spend their Friday evening down the library – specifically, the British Library, for an event named ‘Voices of Rap and Hip-Hop’, part of the ‘Evolving English’ exhibition currently taking place at the library.
The event featured some crucial figures from the world of hip-hop and cultural activism: renowned poet, writer and actor Saul Williams; scholar, writer and film-maker MK Asante Jr (whose book “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop” was reviewed on this site recently); and two of England’s leading rapper-activists, Lowkey and Akala.
The legendary rapper KRS One had originally been billed to speak, but due to a schedule clash he unfortunately had to cancel. However, while he was in London a few weeks ago, he took the time to record a video message at the British Library, and this video message was played as an introduction to the event.
KRS spoke in particular about the theme of ‘Evolving English’, discussing the way that the English language and hip-hop have affected each other over the years. He mentioned the slang that has been popularised by hip-hop (for example, bad meaning good) that has now made its way into colloquial English in many different countries. He also pointed out that one of the inspirations for graffiti – an essential component of hip-hop culture – was the massive letter that you often see at the start of a chapter of an old book. (Incidentally, KRS One has been a prolific graff artist since the age of 14 (1979)).
Standing in front of a ‘Poetry is Revolution’ poster from the late 1960s with the names of legendary freedom fighters Huey P Newton and H Rap Brown and leading cultural activist Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones), KRS said of the poster: “this is what hip-hop is really about: poetry for revolution.” Discussing the origin of the term hip-hop, KRS pointed to the Wolof origin of the word ‘hip’ – to open ones eyes and see. He quoted from his lyric on ‘Hip Hop Lives’:
Hip means to know
It’s a form of intelligence
To be hip is to be up-to-date and relevant
Hop is a form of movement
You can’t just observe a hop
You got to hop up and do it
Hip and Hop is more than music
Hip is the knowledge
Hop is the movement
Hip and Hop is intelligent movement
All relevant movement
We selling the music
So write this down on your black books and journals
Hip Hop culture is eternal
Run and tell all your friends
An ancient civilization has bee born again
It’s a fact
He finished with an acappella rendition of his classic track ‘Stop the Violence’ – one of the best examples of cultural activism within hip-hop. It may not have been as good as having him there in person, but the video was nonetheless a great intro to the event.
MK Asante introduced the discussion by talking about the importance of “transforming observations into obligations” – he said that it is not enough to just *observe* something; one has to turn that observation into action. To see a problem is to have an obligation to do something about it. He gave the example of Afrika Bambaataa’s journey as a young man – Bam saw that people of colour needed to do something to break the cycle of violence. He had the opportunity to visit Africa, and this trip gave him massive inspiration and insight, which he used back in New York, turning the Black Spades gang into the Zulu Nation.
MK talked about Bambaataa’s concept of the five elements of hip-hop: MCing, DJing, breaking, graffiti writing and the oft-forgotten fifth element – knowledge. MK remarked that this fifth element informs all the other elements, and that we should make sure it isn’t left out.
MK went on to discuss the relationship between English and the African population in the Americas. He pointed out that slaves taken from Africa didn’t share a single language and therefore had little choice but to speak to each other in English. In order to speak in a way that the masters couldn’t understand, they developed some symbolic transformations of the language. For example, if they heard that a slave had escaped, they couldn’t say “Wow, Saul [the slave] is good”, because they’d be overheard and lashed; so instead they said “Saul is baaaaaaad!” This is the root of the verbal dexterity, the wordplay, the lyricism that is so central to hip-hop.
Asante also mentioned the cultural and linguistic continuity in the African diaspora – for example the culture of call and response, and words such as the Wolof ‘dega’ (from which the slang ‘dig’ is derived), ‘jev’ (‘jive’) and indeed the ‘hip’ in hip-hop.
Introducing the speakers – Saul Williams, Akala and Lowkey – he said that they were carrying on a great tradition of rebellion within culture, citing the example of the great Paul Robeson as a true *artivist*.
Next was a live performance by the legend, Saul Williams, of his poem ‘NGH WHT’. The performance was nothing short of mindblowing. The extraordinary richness of content, the depth of cultural and historical understanding, along with Williams’ flair for performance, left the entire audience amazed. There’s no point giving a summary of the poem – even if I transcribed the whole thing, you wouldn’t really get it unless you heard it. Luckily there’s a good quality video of Williams performing the same poem at a different event (seriously, watch it now!).
The next speaker was Akala, who picked up where MK Asante left off with the theme of cultural continuity. He emphasised the importance of understanding that rapping over a drum beat is not something that started in the South Bronx in the early 1970s – MCs (poets performing with beats) are known to have been existed in some form in Africa for at least 800 years and probably longer.
Akala spoke about the Mandinka people of West Africa, who have a rich oral history tradition stretching back for almost a millennium. This oral history is passed down through jelis (griots) – wandering musician historians – via poetry accompanied by drums and kora (a 21-stringed instrument). These jelis were responsible for educating the population about their history and about current affairs.
Akala pointed out that samba, reggae, hip-hop and other musical forms of the African diaspora are derived directly from this jeli culture – even the rhythms of bashment are traceable to West Africa. Akala explained the importance of understanding this history as a means of informing the music we make today and understanding the role of music in wider society.
The last speaker was Lowkey, who picked up the theme of the importance of the English language in hip-hop. He challenged the audience: “Why is the English language so widely spoken anyway?” The answer: imperialism. The British Empire. He pointed out that, these days, a lot of the best hip-hop is not made in the English language – increasingly people are rejecting cultural imperialism and choosing to express themselves in accordance with their own history and traditions. “The rejected people of the world are speaking; we must listen.”
Lowkey said that hip-hop at its best poses a challenge to power. However, much of what we listen to *serves* power. If the US government likes the music we listen to, then we have to ask ourselves some questions. Hip-hop is being exploited and used as a vehicle to put forward negative ideas, particularly crass materialism and individalism. Who does that serve? Does that build for freedom or oppression?
Lowkey concluded by saying that hip-hop is currently at the forefront of cultural imperialism. The contradiction, however, is that it’s also at the forefront of resistance – people all over the world take up the rebellious element of hip-hop culture and use it to further their struggles. He pointed out that we all have a responsibility to encourage and promote the hip-hop that is challenging power, not the hip-hop that is serving power.
After the speeches, it was time for questions from the floor. I got the chance to put a question to the panel: Given the way hip-hop has been and is being sabotaged through mass media and corporate record deals, what should we say to aspiring young rappers who want to make a career out of what they do? We know that they’re much more likely to get signed if they’re willing to talk negativity and nonsense, so do we say that it’s ok to compromise for the deal or do we say they should stay independent, even if it means not being able to make a living out of their craft?
Lowkey replied that we need to focus on empowerment – taking power away from the music industry and bringing it back to the musicians and the audience. He said that we’ve come to believe that artists have a responsibility to make rich people (record company execs) even richer; we don’t. And with the emergence of new forms of promotion and marketing, particularly internet-based forms such as Youtube, Twitter and Facebook, it is actually possible for artists to make a living and retain their independence.
Saul Williams took a slightly different approach to the question, saying that artists need to get creative. “Be so good at what you do that the industry has no choice but to play it.” He pointed out that Public Enemy’s beats and lyricism were so innovative, so fresh, so exceptional that the radio had to play their tunes, even though the industry hated the message. Regarding his own career, Saul said: “I get invited to the White House, I have a record deal with Sony, and I say what the fuck I want!”
Saul also pointed out that an awful lot of ‘conscious’ rappers focused a little too much on being ‘conscious’ and not enough on being exceptional. Ultimately, you have to make people dance. The responsibility is on those artists who want to say something worth saying to say it in a way that people *have* to listen to.
Akala noted that we must lead by example. He has just finished his fifth fully independent UK tour, and has recently released his third album on his independent record label. He emphasised the need for persistence and hard work – keep pushing, keep exploring ideas, and trust that word of mouth is a very powerful promotional medium. He also pointed out that Exodus was Bob Marley’s ninth album – it took Bob Marley nine albums to ‘blow’. We can’t expect immediate success; if it takes Bob Marley nine albums, the rest of us can expect it to take more!
MK reinforced Saul Williams’ point about the need for creativity, originality and persistence. He also pointed out that a message for freedom could be pushed in original ways. He made a comparison with the freedom quilt – quilts made by slave women during the days of the Underground Railroad that contained secret symbols with information to aid escape. MK said that the freedom quilt brought together four major themes of the African experience in the Americas: resourcefulness (they were made from any and all available materials, much like the culture of DJing, which grew up in the context of the government stopping funding for musical instrument lessons); beauty; practicality; and symbolism.
The first female voice of the evening came from an audience member asking a very pertinent question: what can we do about the level of sexism within hip-hop?
Akala responded by saying that back in the day, when hip-hop was independent, there were many strong female figures in the scene, such as Queen Latifah, Roxanne Shanté and Salt-n-Pepa. Akala said that African culture generally has a high level of respect for women; however, over the years, the sexism that prevails in western society has been injected into our music and culture. Yes, sexism in hip-hop is a problem, but it’s really just a reflection of a highly sexist society. How do we change it? “Turn off your television!”
Saul pointed to the need to actively support strong female artists – across all musical genres – who are putting forward a positive image and challenging gender stereotypes.
MK reinforced the idea of people collectively supporting the type of music and message they want to hear. He gave the analogy of McDonalds, saying that it’s often an easy option for a quick food fix. You might have a Big Mac, but deep down you know it’s not real food. And you might say “maaaan, food is dead!” The problem is you’re not looking hard enough. If you went to the little cafe around the corner, you might have the opposite reaction. The solution is simple: don’t go to McDonalds. Hip-hop is alive and well; you just have to go out there and get it.
This was a great ending for a wonderful and inspiring discussion. The only major criticism, echoed by many people I spoke to afterwards (including MK Asante and Akala) was that it was way too short and that at least another hour for discussion would have been great. Note to the British Library: more time next time please!
With the discussion finished, people moved across from the conference centre to the main entrance hall for a live performance featuring the brilliant Zena Edwards, Akala and Lowkey, hosted by erstwhile rapper and talented all-round entertainer Doc Brown. At this point I decided to stop taking notes and enjoy myself, so I can’t give you a blow by blow account, just a quick overview. Hopefully the videos will be available soon.
Zena kicked things off with her usual rich mix of song and spoken word, her wit and personality shining through and delighting the audience. If you haven’t heard her live before, I’d strongly recommend catching her next gig. In the meantime, check this video:
Next up was Doc Brown, a name familiar to anyone that’s been into UK hip-hop for a while. Doc was one of the top rappers on the scene, and a trailblazer who used to host the legendary Deal Real open mic nights. Doc treated us to his hilarious Slang 101 comedy routine, which had the audience pretty much in tears. If you haven’t seen his comedy before, then check out this video:
Doc then reminisced about the old days at Deal Real where he had helped to kickstart the career of a hungry, angry 17-year-old rapper by the name of Lowkey. Bringing Lowkey to the stage, Doc Brown said it was a great pleasure, seven years later, to see Lowkey getting worldwide attention for his skills and knowledge.
Lowkey gave an energetic performance, playing three of his most popular songs: Long Live Palestine, Hip-Hop Ain’t Dead, and Terrorist. For the last track, he brought on the up-and-coming 17-year-old rapper Crazy Haze, who Lowkey is pushing as part of the next generation of radical rappers. The two had the crowd bouncing to the epic ‘Terrorist’, probably the most important hip-hop single of 2009.
Last up was Akala, who came on with full live band – drummer, guitarist, bassist and, later, kora. Akala and his band gave an emotional and eclectic performance, from rock to hip-hop to a London take on traditional West African jeli poetry. With his sister Ms Dynamite and several other family members looking on, Akala moved the crowd with his intense passion, energy, complexity and intelligence. He is without a doubt one of the leading cultural radical figures of our time.
Overall the evening was pure inspiration, and I came away feeling that our culture is strong and our movement growing. Big respect to the organisers, and to the British Library for putting it on. It was great to have the opportunity to meet and connect with so many like-minded people, and to be able to discuss serious issues with some of the people at the cutting edge of the debate on how to use music to move society forward.
Also I must give a big shout to Octavia Foundation, for organising 20 teenagers to attend, thereby massively increasing the number of young people at the event. It’s worth noting that the day after the event, 27 November 2010, was the 10th anniversary of the death of Damilola Taylor, the 10-year-old boy killed on North Peckham estate by teenagers. If nothing else, this anniversary should remind us of the importance of engaging with, supporting, encouraging and helping to educate and organise young people. As fantastic as the British Library event was, it would have been of much less value had it not been for the presence of a decent number of young people, who were deeply inspired by what they saw and heard. The possibilities for meaningful social change are mainly in the hands of the youth. If people of my generation want to see that change, we must break down the generation gap, we must avoid the trap of blaming and judging young people, and we must work with them seriously to find answers to our common problems.