How Black Lives Matter Changed Hip-Hop and R&B
Amiri Baraka has a poem where he elaborates on the two constants in African-American life since the slave-trading 1600s: singing and fighting. By the end, the late poet convinces you that SingFight is really one word. Black American musical history is chock of full of amazing fight songs, overt and covert, and more than a few steady-aiming, freedom-fighting chanteuses. The racial justice movements of the 1960s and 1970s provoked a treasure trove of politically conscious songbirds and protest anthems — Nina Simone, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye, Philly soul’s Gamble & Huff, Labelle, Parliament-Funkadelic. When that sound revolution got Saturday Night Fever–ed off American radio, many a pan-Afrikanist turned to reggae and Fela for radical-oppositional soulfulness via Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Steel Pulse and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Then came hip-hop.
The Eighties and Nineties saw a resurgence of artists ready to take up the lyrical barricades in their own inimitable and rambunctious styles: KRS-One, Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, N.W.A, 2Pac, X-Clan, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, the Roots, Black Star’s Talib Kweli and Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Bad Brains, Fishbone, Living Colour, 24-7 Spyz, Rage Against the Machine, OutKast and Goodie Mob, among others – and then what? While the first 15 years of millennial rap (and rock) will be remembered for many things, good, bad and ugly, a surfeit of ditties decrying the status quo of systemic racism won’t be one of them. Hell, commercial rap’s boldest move after 9/11 was Kanye West on TV with SNL‘s Mike Myers meekly declaring that ”George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” during the Hurricane Katrina horrorshow.
Which brings us more or less to the present day. If you’re one of those folk like Afrika Bamabaataa, the entire Zulu nation and this mild reporter, who believe the commercial rap music industry and hip-hop proper are two radically different tings, then you already know that Black Twitter has been the most popular and vociferous hip-hop MC in this year of #BlackLivesMatter. Put another way, the most properly hip-hop-savvy displays of rhythm, noise and popular marketing to emerge in our time occurred on the front lines of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, in response to the victimization and police cover-ups of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray’s deaths-by-cops. Once upon a time, we defined hip-hop proper as “the voice of the voiceless.” Thanks to the communication revolution of #BlackLivesMatter, those once-voiceless masses no longer require rappers for their social-injustice priorities to be heard from the dogg house to the White House — or to alarm the Fox News anchor desk.
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