#Ferguson Critics Roundtable: Is Hip-Hop Doing Enough?
“Do I love the glamorization of gun violence in music? Not particularly. But no number of Chief Keef videos gives police the authority to play jury and judge instead of officer of the law.” —John Kennedy
“It is oxymoronic to say rappers should be socially responsible, and then say that hip-hop hasn’t contributed to the way our people are viewed.” —Iyana Robertson
“Politics in hip-hop music has certainly changed as the music has become mainstream, but it has not gone away.” —Dave Bry
“F**k 2014 celebrity. I’m more concerned with everyday folks making a stand.” —Keith Murphy
Earlier today, J. Cole stepped up to the plate and released “Be Free,” a song that speaks directly to the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown and the ongoing issue of police brutality against black Americans. Rappers from Killer Mike to Talib Kweli, Jean Grae and David Banner have been vocal and active on Twitter. But do we need larger input from hip-hop’s higher-ups?
VIBE rounded up several music and culture critics to discuss the issues, including VIBE editors Clover Hope (@clovito), John Kennedy (@youngJFK), Keith Murphy (@Murphdogg29) and Iyana Robertson (@sincerely_iyana), as well as Alvin “Aqua” Blanco (Hip-Hop Wired Deputy Editor, @aqua174), Dave Bry (former VIBE editor and author of Public Apology, @davebry9), Andreas Hale (Writer/Life + Times contributor, @andreashale), Dr. Robert “Biko” Baker III (Writer/Political commentator, @bikobaker), Chloe Hilliard (former VIBE editor, comedian, @chloe_hilliard), Gregory Johnson (Writer/editor, @cigarcitypro) and Hillary Crosley (Jezebel.com Staff Writer, ParlourMagazine.com Co-Founder, @hillarycrosley).
CLOVER HOPE: I want a Kanye rant. As melodramatic as this might sound, we work in industries where silence can be costly: media and music. So on the surface, it’s disheartening to see so many rap stars who have voices and big bullhorns remain speechless. On Mike Brown, but also on police brutality against unarmed citizens, excessive force and muffling of journalists, which continued for days in Ferguson without meaningful interjection.
It’s heavy and complicated, and some artists (reasonably) don’t want to express uninformed opinions, or speak at all out of fear. But I would think the burden of articulating rage to a culture at large goes to those who’ve chosen a stage as vast as music as their profession, especially considering past decades when rappers like Public Enemy (I know, cliche) rhymed about these things with conviction in actual songs—the tangible stuff that can spark thought and heal. I’d love to see/hear more of the younger generation reacting and tackling this weighty subject in a way that millennials can relate on a peer level—particularly the ones who have that lyrical gift, like a J. Cole or Kendrick Lamar.
That said, I’m a fan of processing emotions and taking time to reflect, which might lead to meatier, more impactful material, a la J. Cole’s very raw new song, “Be Free.” That shows leadership. I don’t want a bunch of artists making songs out of “obligation” if they don’t feel like it. And I kind of hate that we live in an “instant” age and everyone’s expected to respond much quicker to events (Some people were pissed that Nelly tweeted about Honey Nut cheerios instead of the police violence in his hometown).
Has the response been adequate or are you disappointed that bigger hip-hop acts aren’t playing a larger role here?
ANDREAS HALE: I’m extremely disappointed that the bigger hip-hop acts have refrained from playing a larger role in this. Some of hip-hop’s most visible artists can beef with one another over the most trivial of things (money, women, who’s more macho) but won’t beef with law enforcement over killing our children? We were “outraged” with Cristal for not valuing us as consumers but where is that outrage now? Hip-hop was created as an anti-establishment art form. But have the artists been compromised by being more concerned about offending their supporters? To me, that’s not hip-hop.
Considering that the most popular African Americans in this country just so happen to be entertainers and athletes, we need their voices to be heard now more than ever. When N.W.A. said “Fuck The Police,” a mirror was held up to society as American shifted uncomfortably in their seats. We need that energy today in the form of a Kanye rant, a “Self Destruction” type of song uniting against police brutality, their presence at the protests and their opinions on social media.
Anything to bring about more awareness. But, more importantly, we cannot continue to be reactive and have to be proactive in these efforts. This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. And we haven’t been finishing the race as strongly as we start it.
IYANA ROBERTSON: Good point about the “instant” age, Clover. I have wondered for the past few days if social media is highlighting how seemingly inactive our hip-hop artists have been. Is our now-standard continuous influx of thoughts, information and visuals making rappers seem more desensitized than they actually are? Am I being too hard on the likes of usually socially-conscious artists like Nas, Wale and Kanye for not offering their 140-character two cents? Then I answered myself with a resounding “NO.”
The bottom line is, our instant age prompts an overload of imagery and “information” that we are now tasked with the responsibility—yes, responsibility—to respond to. News outlets and naysayers will waste no time riling up these Internets, and tactfully manipulating public opinion (see: Mike Brown’s “robbery.”) Spending too much time to reflect will leave us scurrying to combat all of the false stories and pretenses.
Kanye has rushed to his rant session-filled timeline for lesser things. Wale is quick to cry about being misunderstood in the form of wordy Instagram captions. Where’s the haste now? No surprise that Cole was the first to jump in the booth. Hopefully he starts a much-needed domino effect. But not just anybody can follow suit.
BIKO BAKER: Hip-hop, as depoliticized as it has become over the last 15 years, is still the most influential art form in the world. I’ve spent a lot of time in Africa and Brazil in recent months, and our culture shapes the way the whole world thinks. We need rappers to continually speak out when these things happen, and most importantly, we need rappers to be unafraid to educate young people about their role as change agents in our effed-up system. Because sadly, things like Ferguson will continue to pop up. Rappers can empower young people with the information needed to be a transformative force in our very unequal system.
DAVE BRY: I think J. Cole’s “Free” is about as perfect a reaction as a musical artist can make. It’s so raw and painful and beautiful—with the audio of Dorian Johnson’s recounting of the incident providing the context for Cole’s emotion. And it’s so simple, doesn’t try to be any sort of grand statement or political manifesto. It’s just an expression of anguish—one that does its job in making one person’s experience of the world, the news, relatable to more people.
Cole lets us feel what he’s feeling. And at this early stage—within the week of the murder—that’s the best we could hope for. It reminds me of Lil Wayne’s “Georgia,” rebuking president Bush for his failure in the wake of Katrina. Different from the “deeper” or maybe just “more considered” work of, say, P.E. or KRS-One. But just as effective in its way. By being so very of-the-moment.
KEITH MURPHY: As a protest, socially-conscious outlet, hip-hop has long been dead. Basically we are talking about a musical genre that has been boiled down to catchphrases and a more party, affluent-worshiping culture. As the music industry continues to undergo an economic shakeup of dwindling record sales and more of a premium on social media relevance a great deal of the “artists” who are left to pick up the scraps from the table are basically pushing the status quo. Hip-hop no longer has any room to make a stand or make a statement beyond pushing a brand. Mr. Brown’s death is met with apathy and a tweet.
Basically, hip-hop has become as bloated and corporate as ’80s hair metal.
But the truth is this is what happens when folks depend on entertainment to make social changes in our society. The Bob Dylan’s, Stevie Wonders, Nina Simones, and Public Enemys of the world are an aberration….
DAVE: Oh Murph, I respectfully disagree strongly. Who is the biggest hip-hop star on the planet right now? I’d say Kanye. And his recent work, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch the Throne and, especially Yeezus, has lots of political material and, I think, power. Politics in hip- hop music has certainly changed as the music has become mainstream, but it has not gone away. The success Killer Mike has found lately, too, speaks to a real openness to (a hunger for, suppose) rap with political bite.
AQUA: I definitely don’t feel like Hip-hop as a protest outlet is dead at all. J. Cole’s song is an obvious example, while David Banner, Talib Kweli and Killer Mike, as just a few examples, continue to use their voice. Are their voices as powerful as say Public Enemy in its heyday? Of course not. But it’s still not fair to gloss over their sincere efforts. It would great for these big league rappers to chime in, but I’d rather they stay quiet if they have nothing substantial to say or contribute. Better yet, I would hope they are gathering intel to make a poignant statement rather than firing off a tweet and deleting it 20 minutes later.
However, if you are depending on an entertainer for guidance, you are already lost. Google is free (for the most part).
KEITH: Nah…I think the Kanye of a few years ago was more in line with a statement-making artist. Today ‘Ye’s hubris has runneth over to the point where he compares the plight of celebrities in the tabloid complex with the civil right struggles of the ’60s. That dude, god bless him, is GONE..
The irony is I’m not looking for any celebrity to take such a stand. I’m more worried about how apathetic we have become overall as a society. To tell you the truth I do a double take whenever I hear a mainstream act taking a socially conscious/political stand. I’m less surprised when I hear say Rick Ross using Trayvon Martin as a punchline in a rhyme or Nicki Minaj using an iconic photo of Malcolm X protecting his family for a “Lookin’ Ass Nigga” song.
This is hip-hop’s reality. It’s the reason people reacted like they just had their first taste of water in 10 years when Kendrick Lamar dropped.
ANDREAS: I agree with Keith when it comes to Kanye. He, like many other celebrities, become disconnected to the struggle once they reach a certain tax bracket. Hence why is ridiculous comparison between celebrities and the civil rights struggle. While I do appreciate the song J. Cole released and the dialogue on social media courtesy of Killer Mike, Big Boi, John Legend and others, the fact remains that many high profile artists are shying away from this issue that I’m quite sure has plagued them in some shape or form before they became famous.
And let’s be clear, a simple tweet to “pay attention to Ferguson” from a Nicki Minaj or Lil Wayne reaches a lot further than everyone in this roundtable combined. And that reach holds a great deal of influence for people who may be unaware to use that Google search engine to find out what’s going on. It’s all about awareness and knowledge at the end of the day.
When the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 happened, hip-hop was there. When it came to pushing Barack Obama into the Oval Office, hip-hop was there. But where is the follow through? Hip-hop as a collective has become soft on social issues. There are people out there doing work and spreading the message but it is alarming how passive we have become about racial profiling and police brutality that GREATLY affects our community. Me, personally, I don’t need celebrities to speak because I am abreast, but it sure would be nice to mobilize those who are not in the know.
Photo Credit: Getty Images