Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Hip-Hop In Progressive Activism: dead prez?

Some hip-hoppers are making a name for themselves by mixing dope beats with a political message. New groups in this space are dead prez, cee-lo, and Kanye West.

I first caught wind of controversial dead prez via this New Republic article which is fairly critical of dead prez, but not of the movement in general. The old Sony site for dead prez has a link to an audio clip of earlier song of the group's entitled Police State which talks about the Ashcroftian-type surveillance U.S. citizens are being put under these days, especially in the cities. And it starts out with a line about hurling a firebomb at a police station. I guess if you want to attract attention, that's one way to do it. Check out some of the lyrics for that song below:

I throw a Molotov cocktail at the precinct, you know how we think
Organize the hood under I Ching banners
Red, Black and Green instead of gang bandanas
F.B.I. spyin on us through the radio antennas
And them hidden cameras in the streetlight watchin society
With no respect for the people's right to privacy
I'll take a slug for the cause like Huey P.
while all you fake niggaz {*UNNNGH*} try to copy Master P
I want to be free to live, able to have what I need to live
Bring the power back to the street, where the people live
We sick of workin for crumbs and fillin up the prisons
Dyin over money and relyin on religion for help
We do for self like ants in a colony
Organize the wealth into a socialist economy
A way of life based off the common need
And all my comrades is ready, we just spreadin the seed

The average Black male
Live a third of his life in a jail cell
Cause the world is controlled by the white male
And the people don't never get justice
And the women don't never get respected
And the problems don't never get solved
And the jobs don't never pay enough
So the rent always be late; can you relate?
We livin in a police state

The dead prez's new album and video - presumably about to be released on MTV - are pretty shocking. And totally different from the above screed. At least, their title track is. I preserved the full video as published on their website, here (~15 MB), as I suppose it was meant more to garner attention than to actually be released via MTV. Some part of the video will be released, but not the car-jacking in the beginning. Yes, car-jacking. The song is about trying to 'get paid' while being oppressed by 'the man'. I have to say, I'm very disappointed. I thought these guys were gonna be like a hard-core, militant type PE, but seems they sold out. Not blaming them - that cash has to be crazy tempting, but I'm allowed to be disappointed.

These guys talk about a lot of the early movers in the civil rights movement, especially the more militant ones, and I really respect that because I feel that's where I would have been if I was black back in the day. I'm almost positive I would have felt as though MLK was selling out to the man, and I would have stood behind the teachings of Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey and others like them.

In David Adler's New Republic piece, mentioned above, he says this ('M-1' is one of two lyricists that make up dead prez):

In the RBG liner notes, M-1 also offers a shout to the late Khalid Abdul Muhammad, the former Nation of Islam spokesman and founder of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. During a speech in 1997, Muhammad said, "There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate, to prove that six million so-called Jews lost their lives in Nazi Germany." It's not clear whether M-1 means to endorse Muhammad's anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial specifically; perhaps he's saluting the "fallen soldier" who spearheaded the Million Youth March and protested white supremacist violence in Jasper, Texas. But the tribute is unqualified, and thus troubling.

This is just another double-standard. A couple of week's ago, at the Republican National Convention, the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, offered this:

I finally arrived here in 1968. I had empty pockets, but I was full of dreams. The presidential campaign was in full swing. I remember watching the Nixon and Humphrey presidential race on TV. A friend who spoke German and English, translated for me. I heard Humphrey saying things that sounded like socialism, which is what I had just left. But then I heard Nixon speak. He was talking about free enterprise, getting government off your back, lowering taxes and strengthening the military. Listening to Nixon speak sounded more like a breath of fresh air.

This ode to one of the biggest criminals in U.S. history, Richard Nixon - a man who disgraced the country and the Presidency, escalated the nation into a losing war - which, coincidentally, killed several thousand more U.S. military personnel and several tens of thousands of innocent civilians - was not shouted down universally, as I imagine dead prez will be when they finally hit it big. dead prez is black - and their militant heros are black - so they'll be castigated. Schwarzenegger is white, and his criminal hero was white, so he won't be castigated. Double. Standard.

Members of the elite classes don't often feel compelled to use hateful rhetoric (unless they're Republican - and therefore, just a little off-balance), but members of the oppressed are angry, because they're oppressed, and they're not comfortable, and they want change. The elite are comfortable, so can afford to act comfortably - it comes naturally. What's there to be angry about when you're living off of other people backs? So I'm wary of any high-minded authors who automatically attempt to discredit an artist because they give a shout-out to a controversial leader from the past, even if that leader sometimes preached hateful, racist rhetoric.

After all is said and done, I wonder about rising unrest and militancy in the black community. Is it there? Is it happening? And if it was, would anyone care? Foreign wars help distract the American public from domestic problems, rallying everyone to 'the cause' as laid out by our corrupt leaders, but what happens if/when Iraq and this phony war on terrorism goes away? Well, I guess there's our answer - don't count on that happening anytime soon.

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