Wednesday, April 9, 2008

It's Tricky to Rock the Vote

Pham Binh recently posted on his blog, Prisoner of Starvation, regarding Obamamania's effect on the hip-hop world. Readers may recall that I released an article on a similar topic not long after the Will.I.Am video took off.

As Binh explains, the trend has only deepened since then. Russell Simmons' announcement of an "Obama mixtape" seems to be a bit of an "I wonder how" moment until it's revealed that heavyweights like Common and Q-Tip will be contributing.

In recent weeks, there has been a big push on the part of African-American leftists like Danny Glover and Bill Fletcher to encourage progressives to vote for Obama. There is no doubt that he has positioned himself as the candidate for anyone looking for an end to war and racism. But his success is much more contingent on his ability to tap into an energy for change that is emerging independent of his narrow aspirations. That's why the most encouraging moments in the Obama phenomenon are when endorsers insist that his election is not enough, and that those who voted for him will have to hold his feet to the fire.

Such is the case with the hip-hop community. Reading Binh's post, it is easy to surmise that some of rap's most eloquent voices are those demanding fundamental social change beyond the mere act of the vote. The paragraph summing up the exchange between Rhymefest and Lupe Fiasco seems to illustrate this drive quite well:

"...The debate started when Lupe said he wasn't impressed by Obama and brought up the latter's hawkish stance on Iran. Ironically, Lupe went on to say that he hoped Hillary would win, the same Hillary who sponsored legislation to label part of Iran's military a 'terrorist organization.'

Rhymefest had a fit and took Lupe to task for implying that Obama was in favor of launching an attack on Iran and dissed him for being arrogant and ignorant. Lupe backpedalled and stated that he was against the whole system. He went further, arguing it didn't really matter who was running the system and said that the reason he wanted Clinton to win was simply that 'I believe the act of a woman leading the strongest nation in the world will have unforeseen side effects and may act as a catalyst for change the world over more so than that of a black man.'"

Lupe's frank criticism of Obama and Clinton, and his insistence the system needs to be dismantled no matter who is running it gets it exactly right.

(As a side note, Lupe is a practicing Muslim, and his view shatters the Imus/Fox News logic that both Muslims and rappers hate women.)

But, as always, best ideas are the ones being articulated in the actual rhymes. The ability to have a debate within the music is one unique to hip-hop, from street-corner battle rapping to the Nas/Jay-Z beef. Now, we're seeing talented MCs like Joell Ortiz and Papoose raising well needed criticism of Obama, even if (in the case of Ortiz) they're appearing on a mixtape endorsing the man!

In a more broad sense, it has been some time since we have seen such fervent debate coming from within the hip-hop community about how to best change society. Whether this is solely due to Obama's candidacy may oversimplify the shift in US culture we are seeing right now. But if this debate continues past November (as it very well may), then we may finally see hip-hop take its rightful place at the forefront of a movement for radical social change.


Binh said...

Fletcher is a member of Freedom Road Socialist Organization, so if he jumps on the Obama bandwagon I guess that means FRSO has as well.

Alexander Billet said...

Well, I don't know what they're up to. But Bill Fletcher, as their most well-known member, carries a lot of weight.

The way Obama has picked up on a lot of the progressive energy in the US is, one has to hand it to him, pretty savvy. That bodes well, not because of who or what Obama is, but because of that energy.