Against Uplifting Hip Hop

Now, many of you may be familiar with my loathing of uplifting Obama videos. On one hand, I think it’s nice that people are using their creativity for something that they believe in and feel strongly about. On the other, I find them to be condescending, smug, and preachy, while having a heart-warming vintage propaganda tone. Many of them tend to be from the hip hop/R&B world, like the most recent one I’ve seen, by MC Yogi:

If you don’t feel like watching the whole thing, fast-forward to about 3:09 where the sepia-toned MC Yogi gently places his hands together in a pseudo-prayer, as if say, “I’ve said my piece, now impart with the knowledge I have passed onto you and let’s change the world.”

That hand-gesture is why I’ve come to hate uplifting hip hop.

Hip hop is a culture, and like any culture there develops norms of speech and basic communication that people who identify with the culture will adopt. This is why white kids from suburbia will end conversations with, “much love”, or interject a few “true dat”s into a conversation. It’s not that they are “acting black”. It’s that they are adapting to their chosen cultural surroundings. It is no more artificial than a person living in a new area of the country subconsciously adapting their speech and accent to the regional dialect. That said, just because it may be largely inadvertent, doesn’t mean that some of those norms aren’t annoying, or ignorant, or close-minded. It’s a common practice to condemn gangsta rap and its offshoots for their use of bitch, ho’, etc. and their cynical and negative attitude. Well, I think it’s high time to recognize the issue of uplifting, positive hip hop and its naive and condescending attitude.

If Death Row can be seen as the label that broke gangsta rap into the mainstream, then Rawkus is the label that broke uplifting hip hop. It’s early lineup was a congregation of some of the best voices of hip hop, which shunned the superficiality of the mainstream and brought hip hop back to its roots of breaks, samples and well-crafted rhymes. Some of the early Rawkus stuff was edgy, brilliant, and often offensive work from visionaries such as Company Flow and the late Big-L, but their defining tracks and albums were from artists such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Common, whose work contained a measure of social consciousness and spirituality. These sentiments were similar to those of the neo-soul movement of the time, with artists such as Erika Badu, Jill Scott, and India.Aire, free from the tough-guy aesthetic of their hip hop counterparts, espousing these values even further, heralding intellect and inner peace as core values of their lives and work, as opposed to the rank commercialism and greed of contemporary hip hop and R&B.

While these are great values, the issue comes out of the style of delivery. The tradition of allegory and storytelling having largely left hip hop and R&B a decade earlier, the prominent mode of delivery of lyrics had become direct. Artist to audience. By the very nature of standing on a stage physically over your audience you are literally condescending. Thus, the communication of personal ideals and beliefs takes on a preaching tone, you are telling a large group of people how to act. No matter your personal humility or good intentions, the act is condescending, which isn’t in itself a bad thing. However, when the culture itself becomes infused with this practice, then the style gets filtered down into the modes of communication of the listener.

Just as gansta rap audiences began adopting the language of their larger-than-life idols, fans of this type of socially-conscious uplifting hip hop have adopted the practice of preaching to each other, and whomever they can get to listen. Erika Badu isn’t any more qualified to teach you about what is right and good than you are, or I am, or MC Yogi is, but while I once had to endure the new-agey talking points of uplifting hip hop from fans at shows, they’re now making YouTube videos about the guy I’m voting for.

Here’s why it’s dangerous. I was once at a show by an amazing hip hop group called Solilloquists of Sound. Now they would surely consider themselves to be socially conscious, uplifting hip hop. I was there because they are an awesome group: great rhymes, nice beats, a guy playing dual MPCs live. The problem was that in between the tunes they took it upon themselves to “educate” the audience, inform them of the “struggle”. They even went so far as to say that there was ‘one path’, and you were either on it or you were lost. At one point an audience member called out something in respectful disagreement, but was shouted down and dismissed. Now, this makes sense. Performances are in a sense fascistic – the performer is and should be in control – but this can become a bit sticky when politics are involved. It is easy to be told something agreeable and innocuous as “All you need is love”, but when you are being told a controversial viewpoint – and anything courageous should be controversial – then unanimity cannot be expected. If there is apparent unanimity, then either people are silencing their dissent, or you have a complete consensus, which should frighten anyone who values free thought.

The above video could easily be dismissed as a somewhat sweet and naive message of inspiration and hope that Barack Obama will win and usher in a brighter future. I hope he’ll win too. My fear is in the tone, though. These types of messages can serve to alienate those Americans (most) who don’t identify with this doe-eyed youth culture, reinforce the belief that Obama is a vapid idealist, recall the insipid Vote or Die failed pop campaign, and especially repel those wary of the idolatry of many Obama supporters. A counter-argument could be made that they simply do not appeal to cynics, which I’ll admit I am, but people are cynical of nebulous, feel-good sentiments in politics for a reason, and giving in to vague notions of hope and trust seems to be the antithesis of independent thought.

I have a general rule in life: the moment that I find myself in broad agreement with a large group of people is the moment where I force myself to reconsider to what I am agreeing.

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