By CALVIN PATTEN
“A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown / And not the other color so police think / They have the authority to kill a minority,” rapped Ice Cube on N.W.A’s 1988 iconoclastic “Fuck tha Police.” Whether or not N.W.A encouraged social progress is debatable (the same song featured Easy E rapping about, “a sucker in a uniform waiting to get shot”), but they at least helped publicize issues facing an underrepresented community. In the wake of Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent protests/riots, it occurs to me that rap, with only certain exceptions, has lost its way as a voice of the people. This vacancy has been especially notable given the platform for expression that rap has gained in American culture in the past 25 years.
Musically, rap has never been better, with a constantly evolving range of sounds breaking down the walls between rap and other genres. And thematic content has not suffered either — Drake and Kanye’s introspective breakdowns, Kendrick’s “short film,” Danny Brown’s unflinchingly documented debauchery, etc. have quickly and deservedly been labeled classic by hip hop heads and dilettantes alike. But hip hop as “a voice for the revolution,” as Common referenced at the VMA’s, has generally lost its credibility. While some, including Common on this summer’s Chicago-focused Nobody’s Smiling, have continued to pursue social awareness, rappers are alternatively turning the camera inwards or reveling in excess and violence. I must emphasize that I see neither as lacking in merit, I simply see an absence of the political and socially inspired rap that helped bring rap to the forefront of American consciousness.
As a result of the aforementioned evolutions and improvements in the genre, rap has gained major exposure in present day American music. The biggest rappers have transcended music, allowing Kanye and Jay to be something close to American royalty. Platinum rappers and mixtape hustlers alike are praised by music blogs and in turn consumed by suburban (primarily white) kids and adults. I cannot help but wonder if the gradual change in rap fan demographics has contributed to the decline of social consciousness. Rappers and companies alike must be wary of alienating the very people that are handing over the dollars that keep them in business.
Inspired by the rampant media coverage, some rappers have taken time to address the events of Ferguson. J Cole visited and recorded a song (“Be Free,” which unfortunately captures everything that makes J Cole’s rapping cringe-worthy), in addition to publicly lamenting the cynicism that has come to dominate police interactions with African Americans, in an interview with Complex. Game got together with 13 others (including Rick Ross, Wale, 2 Chainz and Diddy) to record “Don’t Shoot,” with sales proceeds going to charity. Still, these efforts feel more pandering than they do sincere.
The most impressive response has come courtesy of Killer Mike. Mike first wrote an essay on Instagram that focused on the loss of a human and the collective pain that should be felt in light of such a horrific incident. He then followed that up with an Op-Ed on Billboard where he discussed the abuses of police power. He reiterated his sentiments in an incredibly articulate interview on CNN, connecting the militarization of the police and the general failures of institutions in many communities. Largely what was so refreshing about Mike’s statements was that this was not a change in direction for Mike — he has rapped and talked extensively about such issues previously. Furthermore, I thought he did a wonderful job of utilizing 2014 media resources. A combination of Instagram, a mainstream music website and major news media allows Mike to reach a massive audience.
The impact of Killer Mike’s writing and appearances makes Kanye West’s absence even more unfortunate. West has the intelligence and credibility to address issues of institutional racism (having rapped and spoken about it for years) but has apparently gotten shy of late. While it may not be his responsibility to serve as a social leader, he could at least help shape the way we discuss issues of police and communities. His failure to use his significant platform to advocate for matters outside of himself is an unfortunate culmination of his rise to superstardom.
Notably, some musicians outside of hip hop have stepped forward, at least in regards to Ferguson. Cat Power and Billy Bragg both played quickly planned benefit shows in St. Louis while Sky Ferreira (inspired by Cat Power) donated the proceeds from a concert to protesters. Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) is always thoughtful and open in regards to racism and abuses of power, being even more so since he was assaulted by security at Lollapalooza.
Ultimately though, I cannot help but believe that part of rap is serving as a voice for the voiceless. Every song, or even every album, does not have to be an exercise in political rhetoric, but rap is rooted in a sense of community. From Chicago to Atlanta, L.A. to New York, it is inherently tied to groups of people whose existence is often ground down to statistics. For the benefit of millions, hip hop cannot afford to abandon the very corners from which it arose.