Politics is Politricks?
“I don’t fuck with politics, I don’t even follow it.” -Talib Kweli on the Beautiful Struggle 2004
I love Hip-Hop, no for real, I love Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop has been one of the cultural forms that I gravitated towards since I was small. Hip-Hop has been more than beats and rhymes, it helped build my ideology. It provided me access to different perspectives on the social world. I’ll never forget when I heard NWA yell “Fuck Da Police.” Hip-Hop spoke for me when my voice trembled. Hip-Hop hasn’t been perfect, but it it’s been full of perfect imperfections. While some will say it’s all about the Beat, Hip-Hop WAS more than that to me. It’s moments like this that make me really miss Hip-Hop. Correction, it’s moments like this that I miss political Hip-Hop… or at least MY political Hip-Hop.
Now don’t get it twisted, Hip-Hop is political, arguably more political than at any other point in its history. The quote above by Talib Kweli in 2004 is the type of political Hip-Hop that I’m talking about. Kweli wasn’t advocating apolitical behavior, he was acknowledging the inadequecies of politics. But always, things change. I doubt Talib Kweli could even back that quote anymore, especially since he made a song about Hillary Clinton “falling back” during the primary season. With Luda freestyling for Obama, Big Boi sitting in the Oval office, and Daddy Yankee championing McCain we’re seeing so much political discussion it should be cause for celebration. Hip-Hop is finally coming of age and is forming a union with Politics. Unfortunately, like most weddings, there is always someone who is disturbed by the union. That someone is me! The marriage between Hip-Hop and mainstream politics is beginning to worry me.
Now I’m not someone who has a myopia or nostalgia about Hip-Hop that romanticizes Hip-Hop. I know Hip-Hop was a party before it was political. But as a Black man in America, the personal is political. I remember sitting in high school listening to The Goats as they railed on politicians like Bill Clinton. It was an odd moment because most people I knew, including progressive Black folks, were in support of Clinton and at first I was confused. I wondered, “How can they be against Clinton? Isn’t he a “good” president?” Their lyrics challenged me to see beyond a saxophone performance on Arsenio Hall and made me dig deeper to understand real politics: welfare reform, immigration, crime policy, and even the limits of politics. And yes, I began to dig into these questions in part due to Hip-Hop’s critical perspective. Now, I don’t think this occurred for most folks who listened to Hip-Hop (hell most of you reading this probably have never heard of the Goats) but for me, the questions that began to percolate in those years continue to power my critical thoughts today. As I got older and became more involved in social change, I realized that mainstream politics have more often than not been the enemy of social change, not the the ally. The placations that politicians offered people traditionally have come in response to serious pressures from folks outside of Capitol Hill.
I believe in grassroots activism. I believe in political participation. But I’ll fight for politics that are pushed to accountability by the grassroots. I vote, I have organized people to vote, and even admonish those who don’t participate in the electoral process, but I know a ballot will never be enough. I learned that from Hip-Hop. As I dug my feet into grassroots work in New Haven, Atlanta, Michigan, and New York Hip-Hop provided a soundtrack. A soundtrack that pressed me to think critically and act critically. But for some reason, right now, I feel like I’m missing that soundtrack. To be honest I don’t think I noticed it was playing for years, until it went silent.
For months, I’ve been waiting for a song that expresses an unease, disappointment, or at least concern that the election of a single political official is not enough. An artist that challenges us to think outside of a two party system. A joint that pushes us to see peace as not just as an idealized alternative, but a livable reality. A crew that knows we have to make politics work for the people. In the past, I was able to find that in the voices of Hip-Hop. My old Hip-Hop provided the perfect soundtrack to my struggle for social justice. I could pop in a tape or CD and know someone else felt my frustration with the state of the world, that someone shared my concern for change, that someone wasn’t afraid to question the status quo. These type of songs, questions, and challenges probably made Chuck D nearly 20 years ago call rap “CNN for Black people.”
Hmmm, maybe that’s just it. Maybe he was right. Maybe he predicted it. Maybe Rap/Hip-Hop has become CNN for Black people. No really feel me, the parallels are scary. It features the same stories, same shallow analysis, same three minute clips, and runs on a loop. Maybe I don’t need Rap to be Black CNN anymore.
Have I given up on Hip-Hop? Have I outgrown Hip-Hop? Am I living in the past? I think the answer to all of those is no, I’m still waiting. I still want more from Hip-Hop, I still demand more from Hip-Hop, I still believe in my Hip-Hop. Right now, the soundtrack to my struggle is silent. But I’ll wait patiently, because as Greg Tate once said, “the only known alternative to hiphop is dead silence.” And I’m not ready to do the work without my beloved soundtrack.