Check this phenomenal track from Durrty Goodz (a brilliant and massively underrated rapper) about the trials and tribulations faced by many kids on the estates: friends getting shot, relatives addicted to hard drugs, schools teaching nothing but irrelevant facts, broken families, and lack of opportunities.
The concept is very innovative: you hear Durrty in conversation with various young people from his area, discussing their problems with them. Here’s an excerpt from the first verse (child’s voice is italicised).
So what d’you wanna be? Mmm, I ain’t sure yet, but trust me you ain’t asking no fool
I just passed my SATs, soon be in the last year of school
Probably go college, go uni, do my masters and all
Gwaan blood, that’s what I like to hear
So what’s your school sayin’, does it teach you about life out here?
Does it teach you when you leave there will be strife out here?
With peeps breeding and conceiving off the white out here?
Ya laughing, but it’s not right out here
Every day’s another struggle and a fight out here
They’d better teach you how to stand up for your rights out here
Cos they don’t teach you how to go to sleep without nightmares
Do they teach you this? No, they don’t talk about that
Or talk about crack, or talk about black,
Or how we can try and make our way out these flats
They give speeches on the death of Macbeth and that
(Oh my gosh) And I couldn’t care less cos that be wack
I’d rather listen to rap, then teachers should get the sack
Yeah, I feel you blood, but ‘ere wot, don’t get all flared up
I’m a give you a lickle advice to get prepared up
I see you got the hustle but for you to get the bread up
When you see the feds, duck, but walk with your head up
Towards the end of the track, you find out that instead of speaking to other young people, he is in fact speaking to himself, reflecting on his own childhood and how he made something of his life in spite of poverty and prejudice.
They don’t know that mathematics for me is a quick task
But to flow poetry I used to ditch class
But you can make a pretty future out of shit past
Do you believe me, kid? Kid?
Shit, I’ve been talking to myself again
Daydreaming as I been walking by myself again
Thinking what I came to be, cos that kid was me
‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’ sees two UK hip-hop legends, Klashnekoff and Lowkey, reflecting on their careers and their roles within the music industry.
Everybody around the scene knows that these two brothers could be living large off music right now if only they were willing to give up control of their minds and bodies to the major label puppet-masters. Both have opted instead to stay true to what they believe in over the course of their careers.
K-Lash breaks down his role as a cultural leader who has never given in to the industry:
As lightning strikes and thunder pounds
Over the grey skies of London town
Prophesy K returns from the underground
Signified by the people’s trumpet sounds cry
Yeah the system it tried to shut me down
But I’ve been on my ting before Onyx was flinging guns around
Blood, sweat and tears for years
Feels like my career’s been in the dumping ground
Yeah this is how hunger sounds
And I’m the hunter now – Lash the lionheart
AKA the man behind the iron mask
For ten years straight I’ve been raising the iron bar
Trying to breathe the life back into this dying art
So why try and par when you’ll meet the same fate as the lion scar
This game’s fake, full of two-faced lying raas
Who would sell their soul and arse just to climb the charts
But me, I put in too much time in the graft
Refining my craft, for majors to sign me for a minor advance
Picture K-Lash miming on trance
Now picture Dr Dre beats, Lash rhyming with Starks
It’s all fate, and I’ve got mine in my grasp
They’re all snakes, let them die in the past
Who knows what the future holds
These NWO soldiers will probably shoot me cold
All because the truth was told
You should know I did it from the heart
Lowkey’s verse focuses on his mission to give voice to the voiceless:
I don’t do this for the happy ravers or the aggy haters
I do this for the warriors and the gladiators
Do this for those whose lives you never cared about
Can’t pronounce their names, their origins or their whereabouts
Those brought up around tragedy and sadness
Who adjusted and found normality in the madness
Fight the power, til I’m out of breath like Malcolm X
You empower the powerful, I empower the powerless
They’ll play you on the radio if you rap about a Gucci belt
But rap about the government and you might as well shoot yourself
Industry fairies say I rap about conspiracy theories
Just to hide the fact they lyrically fear me
Got the eye of a tiger, the heart of a lion
The mind of a lifer, my stance is defiant
I rise like a phoenix, immediate from the ashes
My existence is inconvenient for the masses
Though we are equal I despise an imitation
I live for my people and die for liberation
I stand as a visionary, some have got plans of killing me
To literally vanish me physically like Aborigines
Hannibal with the mask, an animal with the bars
I’m grappling with my shackles, I channel it through my art
Feel it in the ambience, champion, heavyweight
My life is nothing, but my pride is something you can never take
They think I’m elusive or think I’m a nuisance
I swear these major labels must think that I’m stupid
Keep your 360s you’re convincing these dudes with
Like I’ll give you the blueprint for pimping my music
I say that like K-Lash, he’s another lion
Every hardship from getting scarred to my brother dying
I spit all of it, with or without a big audience
Through the blood, sweat and tears I stand victorious
And the chorus brings it together nicely.
I’m still here, pushing after several years
I’m still here, standing strong, never in fear
I’ll be still here after the dust settles and clears
I’ll be still here after the blood, sweat and the tears
It’s that time of year when people start to think about new year’s resolutions. Personally I don’t do them any more (if you have an idea for improvement, why wait until next year?), but nonetheless the end of the year is a great time for reflection and planning.
With that in mind, I thought I’d share a few suggestions for 2011.
Try to read a book every fortnight.
Every book you read, do a short review and post it online. It’s a good way of sharing the knowledge, and it’ll help you process the ideas in the book.
Every book you read, write a list of the 10 most useful ideas in it. Again, this is a good way of actively engaging with written material.
Meet regularly with friends and discuss how to solve problems that affect you (at family/community/society level). It may seem like nothing, but it’s how meaningful social change starts!
Watch a good documentary or lecture every week. This is especially important if you’re not a big reader.
Support music that’s worthy of support. Reject bullshit. There are so many artists making phenomenal music out there; let’s carry on supporting and promoting them.
Think about finding a way of making money that is socially useful and not destructive.
Address your own prejudices. Every single day. We all have prejudices (social conditioning is a powerful thing), and by admitting their existence, giving them a name, we are better placed to deal with them.
Get adequate sleep, exercise on the regs, stretch daily, eat sensibly. This basic stuff will help you get everything else done.
Drop that bad habit of interrupting people. Listen more than you talk. (And yes, I’m a terrible culprit on this one).
Prefer unity. Differences are inevitable. We unite on the basis of a simple common platform for progress. Unity is really difficult, and it requires courage, persistence, vigilance, tolerance, compassion and patience to make it happen.
Do some youth work or some mentoring. Break down the generation gap. Young people are the future; learn from them and they will learn from you.
Engage with your kids. Give them a moral/cultural base that society can’t destroy.
Learn how to touch type! You’ll save time.
Don’t let shyness or lack of confidence get in the way of doing the right thing.
Learn a musical instrument instrument (I’m thinking about learning trumpet! Am already ok at guitar and keys)
Be sure to download the brand new EP from Bobby Whiskers, ‘Broken/Dreams’, on Funkatech Records. Bobby will be familiar to those who have seen him perform as part of innovative electro-punk-hip-hop band Where’s Huey? WH? have been stirring up a storm with their performances at various gigs over the last few months (including Hip Hop History and Love Music Hate Racism), and I for one am fully looking forward to their album early next year.
‘Broken/Dreams’ sees Bobby going into deep introspection, painting a painfully real picture of his past, while moving towards an optimistic future. The promo is very accurate: “A dark twisting narrative from prison to protest; broken to dream; journeying back to the melancholy basics, where it all began”. Hardly the typical subject matter for a modern-day hip-hop MC, but most definitely real and relevant.
The lyricism and the dramatic edge are excellent, as anyone familiar with Bobby’s rapping would expect. The production, courtesy of Phil Jones – one half of dubstep/breaks monsters Specimen A – is slick, banging and brutal.
Nice freestyle from Jasiri X. The instrumental is from Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y’s recent track ‘Huey Newton’ which has caused a fair bit of controversy, mainly as a result of the fact that the song has absolutely nothing to do with Huey Newton! Jasiri provides a healthy and mature response to Wiz and Curren$y’s record, pointing out that the racism that inspired the birth of the Panthers has not gone away.
I remember Joshalyn Lawton police put a gun to her head
She was 7, all she could see was the weapon
How could this sweet little girl be threatening
6 witnesses, the cop wasn’t even questioned
Although it sounds simply insane
That officer killed a man who was mentally deranged
6 months later this is my city where the mayor
Fought a cop then got off a half hour later
And I say a prayer for Fredrick Germaine Carter
Found hanging from a tree in Mississippi
And I ain’t talking bout in the 60s
This was last week
They called in a suicide so they can keep the blacks asleep
Keep puffin ya hashish and sippin on champagne
A guarantee that niggas won’t do a damn thang
Demand change my pen comes from a hand grenade
And this ain’t a diss to Wiz and Curren$y
Cos I was burning trees every day to age 23
And look what the lord made me
All praise be to the God that raised me
You don’t crush the seeds you water them
If you wanna see your sons shine, father them
Huey was just 24 when he stared the panthers
F a problem lets start with the answers
So happy to see a track about enjoying fatherhood and taking it seriously. Most rappers claim to be about “representing reality”, but all too often they represent the most commercially viable side of reality – a thin reflection of “road life”. Fatherhood on the other hand is something that many of us really deal with, and it’s great to have one of the best rappers talking clearly and positively about it.
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.
Did you ever give any thought to that chorus: “It’s bigger than hip-hop”? The line is so catchy, the flows so striking, the bass so overwhelming, that I wonder how many people have taken the time to consider what the classic Dead Prez track is really saying.
With that song, I think M1 and stic.man are trying to tell us that the struggle for freedom is alive, is real, and that participating in it is about more than listening to – or making – great music. The movement for progress is “bigger than hip-hop”, and would exist if hip-hop wasn’t there. “It’s bigger than all these fake-ass records.” Indeed, there are plenty of forces within hip-hop that are working *against* the struggle for freedom. “I’m sick of that fake thug, R&B-rap scenario, all day on the radio.” stic.man demands of the listener: “Would you rather have a Lexus or justice, a dream or some substance?”
With his remarkable book, “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop”, MK Asante Jr takes the sentiment of the song and turns it into a manifesto; a discussion document for a new generation (the ‘post-hip-hop’ generation) to help define and develop its role in the struggle for a better future.
Asante starts by examining the current state of hip-hop – the music that is generally considered as being representative of young Black people in the US. He points out that hip-hop, especially the kind that gets major TV and radio coverage, has largely moved on from being a voice for the Black community. The likes of Public Enemy and KRS-1 are sidelined in a scene that has “been lulled into being a conservative instrument, promoting nothing new or remotely challenging to mainstream cultural ideology.” Asante is scathing in his criticism: “Even in the midst of an illegitimate war in Iraq, rap music remains a stationary vehicle blaring redundant, glossy messages of violence without consequence, misogyny, and conspicuous consumption. As a result, it has betrayed the very people it is supposed to represent; it has betrayed itself.”
Asante remarks that hip-hop has effectively been colonised. It has become a key part of a music industry that is entirely controlled by rich white men (while Jay-Z gets to be considered the ‘CEO of hip-hop’, the sad fact is that not a single Black person sits on the board of directors of any of the main parent companies that own labels such as Def Jam). That music industry has been busily trying to turn hip-hop into its opposite – from a tool of freedom into a tool of oppression, projecting an image of Black people that the white supremacist ruling structures are entirely happy with (that is, an image of simple, primitive, hypersexualised people only too willing to kill themselves with drugs and guns).
“Under the banner of ‘keeping it real,’ the hip-hop generation has been conditioned to act out a way of life that is not real at all. The hip-hop *industry* (as opposed to the hip-hop *community*) has been successful in framing an authentic Black identity that is not intellectual, complex, educated, or diverse, but a monolith of violence and sexism.”
MK Asante Jr opines that the current generation of politically/culturally/socially active youth does not identify with hip-hop in the same way that young people identified with it 20 years ago. Therefore, Asante argues, the post- hip-hop generation has to move beyond the limited discourse of current hip-hop, using it as a voice where possible, but not being constrained by it.
Asante goes on to analyse in depth the wider social, economic and cultural problems facing this generation – the issues that hip-hop *should* be engaging with, starting with the changing role of mass media and the part it plays in shaping the thoughts and activities of our generation.
“Any 21st century discussion of our world, across race, gender and class lines, must acknowledge and take seriously the notion, the reality, that young people of today derive the bulk of their ideas not from traditional institutions, but from the growing number and more intrusive forms of mass media.”
Regarding the way media affects specifically the Black community, Asante writes: “Where the Black church, community centers, and family were once the primary transmitters of values and culture, today it’s a potent mass media concoction of pop music, film, television, and digital content – all of which are produced and disseminated through a small handful of multinational corporations.”
This is a critical point that few radical writers have engaged with – the ability of the ruling classes to control people’s minds is *increasing*, not decreasing; the ability of the older generation of oppressed peoples to transmit their values to the younger generation is *decreasing*, not increasing, for the same reason. This is a disastrous situation for all oppressed people, but particularly for Black people, who have practically zero representation at the ownership level in the mass media.
Asante writes: “Images of people of African descent remain virtually unchanged from the racist stereotypes promoted before and during slavery.” And these images are not just consumed by people whose interests are served by perpetuating racism; they are also consumed by the victims of that racism. “Images produced by and for whites to justify Blacks’ oppression, images of savages, of laziness, of pimpism and gangsterism, have been embraced by Blacks. It means that the images that taught white people to hate Blacks, to oppress them, have ultimately resulted in Blacks hating Blacks.”
MK Asante Jr moves on to the closely-related problem of the generation gap, which is more prominent than ever before, and which stands in the way of unity for progress. The media has been a major force in creating this problem, on the one hand reducing the power of the traditional community institutions where different generations would interact, and on the other hand presenting the older generation with a crass, warped view of the younger generation (via MTV, BET, cop shows, etc).
As Michael Dyson often argues, the generation gap between the Hip Hop generation and the Civil Rights generation has created a shameful disunity over the last 30 years. The media, the fear culture, the social paranoia arising from the crack explosion, the breakdown of communities, the changing nature of racism and exploitation, the rise of unemployment, the defeat of the Black Power movement, the changing values of the youth – all of these have fed into the problem. Asante points out that this gap must be analysed and overcome if the major problems of our society are to be fixed.
The only thing worse than fighting with your allies is fighting without them” (saying)
Arguing for a broad unity of all oppressed people, and all those struggling for a better future, Asante points out that all struggles against oppression and exploitation are connected, and that all attempts to disrupt the unity of the oppressed must be defeated.
“It was Malcolm [X] who knew, toward the end of his life, that the fundamental problem is not between Blacks, whites, browns, yellows, reds, or any other racial category, but rather, between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing, the exploited and those who do the exploiting – regardless of skin colour. Malcolm realised that the only way to fight oppression is to unite with people who share the same spirit of resistance against inhumanity and injustice – and those spirits may, and in fact should, have different colours, genders, religions, etc”
Asante quotes Martin Luther King on the same issue of unity against exploitation:
“One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society…”
Another issue that is rarely touched upon in the mainstream political discourse is that of prisons. There are currently 1.5 million Black Americans in prison. There is no precedent for this level of imprisonment anywhere in the world, ever. WEB DuBois wrote over a hundred years ago that “the courts have become a universal device for re-enslaving blacks”. If this was a problem in 1903 (when The Souls of Black Folk was published), it is a much bigger problem now, where the so-called War on Drugs (in reality the War on Black and Latino Youth) has been going on for forty years.
Asante cites then-president Richard Nixon: “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. They key is to devise a system that recognises this while appearing not to.” Nixon defined a clear strategy for dealing with this ‘problem’: pump drugs into the Black community, create anxiety, create fear, create crime, create a context in which many people are actively calling for a greater state presence in the community, and then target that same community in a ‘war on drugs’.
The result of that ongoing war, forty years later, is that the US prison population has risen from around 300,000 to around 2.2 million, the vast majority of which is Black and Latino. The oppressed communities have been clearly targeted for imprisonment. Asante points out that, “according to Amnesty International’s definition, the vast majority of African-Americans imprisoned today are political prisoners.”
The prison industry is one of the biggest industries in the US. It is the main employer in hundreds of towns, and prisoners constitute a deregulated ‘Made in America’ work force, where there is no unionisation, no strikes and very little pay. As Robert King of the Angola 3 wrote: “Let’s call prisons exactly what they are: an extension of slavery.”
“Only a fool would let an enemy educate his children” (Malcolm X)
Asante, who is a tenured professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, also discusses the education system, which he points out is still deeply racist and which actively supports the prevailing system of exploitation and oppression. Asante calls on his readers not to leave their education purely in the hands of a state that doesn’t represent their interests. He calls on his readers to take an active role in defining their own education – studying relevant material, in a way that suits their culture and experience, and which directs them towards liberation, rejecting oppression, exploitation, racism, misogyny, eurocentrism and white supremacism.
Asante particularly focuses on the urgent need to use all means at our disposal to educate ourselves and others. He poses the question: how can we free ourselves without understanding society, without understanding history, without breaking our ideological reliance on the system that oppresses us?
Hip and hop is more than music
Hip is the knowledge / Hop is the movement
Hip and hop is the intelligent movement
(KRS-1 and Marley Marl – Hip Hop Lives)
So where does hip-hop fit into all of this?
Asante puts forward the idea that art is not an independent, isolated phenomenon; it is a part of the society it exists in. All art is to some extent political, because silence means implicit approval (to quote The Roots, “If you ain’t sayin’ nothin’, you a system’s accomplice”). Artists that wish to have a role in making society better therefore have a responsibility to be *artivists* – combining their talents with activism and using their voice in the interests of the masses. “The artivist must challenge, confront, and resist this otherwise inescapable fate of torture, injustice and inhumanity.”
Asante points out that the artivist has a particularly important job in a world where many people do not read books. For people with world-changing ideas, books have long been the chosen medium for conveying those ideas. Whilst it is positive to encourage people to read more, we also have to find other ways to get through to them. Discussing his own decision to become a film-maker, he says: “The artivist must not be afraid to learn a new language in order to inspire and empower new people – by any medium necessary.”
Asante calls for a combination of culture and activism in order to build a movement with the ability to seriously challenge the status quo and win freedom for all oppressed peoples. “No movement is about beats and rhymes. Beats and rhymes are tools – tools that if held the right way can help articulate the world, a new world, in which we want to live.”
Can hip-hop still be used? Of course. Hip-hop is a very powerful weapon. It’s a voice; it should be used widely, and people should remember that it is part of a continuous African-American (and, before that, African) tradition of using art as a means of changing society for the better, for guiding people, for inspiring people.
“It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop – The Rise Of The Post-Hip-Hop Generation” does a wonderful job of raising the issues that face young people today, and it lays the ground for a wide-ranging discussion about how we can address and solve those issues, using all the tools available to us.
Chuck D’s endorsement says it all: “MK Asante Jr combines drive, skill and a commitment that buoys us all. The hip-hop community should feel extremely blessed to have those qualities attached to its forward movement.”
“It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop” is a brilliant, well-written and thought-provoking book. Although its primary target audience is young people of African origin in the US, it has clear relevance for all those who want to participate in making the world a better place.
For those of you in London, please note that MK Asante Jr will be chairing a session at the British Library on Friday 26 November, entitled ‘Voices of rap and hip hop’. Speakers/performers include Saul Williams, Akala, Lowkey and Zena Edwards. More info here: http://www.bl.uk/whatson/events/event114077.html
This freestyle, recorded over Nas’s incredible ‘Made You Look’ beat, is a phenomenal example of radical street poetry. Williams passionately denounces the war on Iraq, and examines the irony of Black Americans becoming soldiers in the US Army: “We was the first type of oil that they ever stole … Now they want a deal and asking us to back them”.
Check the audio. Lyrics below.
Now let’s get it all in perspective
Shift the objective, you’ve been misdirected
What’s the purpose of another song to step to
If you stepping in the wrong direction
Mindframe in the fast lane
Through with cocaine
Time’s up, time to maintain
Before a n***a gets drafted
Cos you the number one pick, corn bread, cotton-crafted
Them people’s army shot another brown kid today
And all you strapped little boys let ‘em get away
So what you packin’ for
You packin’ for the war?
They gonna ship you out and put you and your mans on tour
Yeah, your Hummer came in handy
Son, your Air Force 1s are sandy
You’d better peep the plan, B
Before you call yourself a soldier
Get caught up on the wrong side and your little party’s over
Put your blunt down, no time to front now,
Put your drink down, time to think now
We on the brink now
Where my peeps at, where the streets at?
Same cats that stole you is using you to steal Iraq
[Gunshot] Yo, I say let ‘em shoot
My tongue is my gun aiming for the truth
They got a silencer and aimin’ straight at the youth
And all their talk of terrorism’s nothing but a spoof
We was the first type of oil that they ever stole
Nah, fuck the oil metaphor son, we was gold
But let the truth be told, we was platinum
Now they want a deal and asking us to back them
War, don’t start none, won’t be none
We fighting for freedom
Yeah they say they is but son I don’t believe them
Cos when there’s violence in the hood you never see them
Unless they starting it
They got their heart in it
Now they got you thinking money is power
You’re counting dead pres by the hour
And the one that’s living, the Bible thumping Christian
Like y’all n***az trying to cross out the mission
Listen, power is vision
You’re keeping it real in a neighbourhood that’s government sealed
Yo, let the truth be revealed
Before your freedom has failed and the innocent killed
[Gunshot] Yo, I say let ‘em shoot
My tongue is my gun aiming for the truth
They got a silencer and aimin’ straight at the youth
And all their talk of terrorism’s nothing but a spoof
I’m hip to your games
Hip to the science of war
Propaganda make me fight but what am I fighting for?
My way of life, means and rights, give or take less or more
See through the eyes of the poor, plus I’m black to the core
Ignorance is on tour, booking stadiums and more
The days of Hitler painted pictures patriotic with gore
You raise a flag on a land, snatch a bald eagle’s claw
And send a symbol on your currency to finance your war
I’m saying no
Not in my name, not in my life
Not by my hands, that ain’t my fight
Not in my name
You wage a war against terrorists and violence
And try to wave your guns and fear us all into silence
No. Not in my name, not in my life
Not by my hands, that ain’t my fight
Not in my name
You built your empire with natives and slaves
Like the truth on resurrect waging war from its grave
For those of you in London, please note that Saul Williams will be speaking at the British Library on Friday 26 November, at an event entitled ‘Voices of rap and hip hop’. Speakers/performers include Akala, Lowkey, MK Asante Jr and Zena Edwards. More info here: http://www.bl.uk/whatson/events/event114077.html (Even if the page says the event is sold out, try calling the box office, as there may be more tickets available).
I went with my son down to the demonstration and rally yesterday (Saturday 20 November 2010), and can attest to the fact that Lowkey’s speech was hugely inspiring!
Here’s the video. The transcription is below.
We are here – all of us are here – because we believe in the equality of all and the supremacy of none.
All of us are here because we do not believe in British imperialism. What has British imperialism given to the world? British imperialism has carved up the Middle East. British imperialism has left its scar on Palestine. British imperialism is the reason that Obama is sending drones today to bomb what we call Pakistan.
What people need to realise is that those drones are dropping bombs on the Pashtuns, who don’t recognise the red line which was drawn by the British. They do not consider themselves Pakistani and they do not consider themselves to be from Afghanistan; they are Pashtuns. What is the root of that problem? The root of that problem is British imperialism.
There is a reason that they call Afghanistan the graveyard of empires. There’s a reason. But what we have to ask ourselves is this: if we expect people around the world to resist British imperialism, who are we not to oppose British imperialism *here*?
They have an occupation in Kabul, but we have an occupation down there, in the Houses of Parliament. How can we combat those who are fighting humanity around the world?
Two words: *direct action*.
They want us to condemn the Millbank protestors, but they want us to commend those who drop bombs on people we do not know and people we do not see. They are quick to show soldiers with missing limbs (who of course I sympathise with), but they do not show babies born with deformities because of the depleted uranium that has been dropped; they do not show the soldiers that have babies with deformities because they were exposed to depleted uranium in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
Because the narrative that they are pushing forward wants us to commend imperialism. We say: no, we condemn imperialism, and no, we don’t condemn the protestors – I *commend* those protestors.
So we must take away the lesson from today, with all of us gathered together – all of us who have humanity in our hearts and equality in our aim. The lesson we must take from this is: we are not speaking their language. Their language is: direct action.