Saturday, February 13, 2010
"We Are the World" and the death of rap?
Today, I headed over to one of my favorite hip-hop sites, Jay Smooth's IllDoctrine.com, and was shocked to find this message:
"It is with a heavy heart I must report that on the evening of February 12th, 2010, Rap Music died once and for all. After battling a long illness, our beloved Rap was too weak to withstand the overpowering shame of that We Are The World remake."
I then clicked on the link to another site that I'm familiar with, Rappers I Know, to see this:
"We Are The World 2010 was so terror-ible, that I am shutting down Rappers I Know.
"I am boycotting every artist, actor, personality that was apart [sic] of that project. I think they should all be sent to jail when Weezy goes.
"Haiti has suffered enough!
"Lionel and Quincy, you have failed us. Quincy, if it weren't for Off The Wall, Thriller and helping make Rashida I'd write you off for the rest of our natural lives."
Wow. It's not every day that a song is so bad, is such an insult to hip-hop and the entire concept of popular music, that it provokes intelligent commentators to shut down their websites! Sure, these comments can be taken with a grain of humorous salt, an acerbically witty jab at the powers that be, and Jay will thankfully continue his video commentary at his new Nil Doctrine. Still, calling "We Are the World" the death of rap is pretty damned profound! So, naturally, the whole situation is worth a few words here at RF.
First of all, yes, "We Are the World 25" was absolutely dreadful! I could only watch the video of it in thirty second bursts before I started to feel nauseated. Anything that starts out with Justin Bieber is guaranteed to be nothing less than torture! The seventy some-odd artists who participated notwithstanding, this was not an organic crossing of genres. It was artificial, a cheap, music industry imitation of the possibilities that arise when artists take genuine inspiration from each other.
And the politics of the whole thing weren't that much better. As I have written several times on this site since the disaster in Haiti, there is a wide chasm between charity and solidarity. It's the same distance that exists between seeing the Haitian people as as simple savages devoid of their own history (worthy of First World Pity), and acknowledging that the whole country has been and is exploited by the United States and other world powers (which reveals the common cause between Haitians and the oppressed of all nations).
The combination of artists participating in "We Are the World" definitely reflects how much the modern music industry buys into and benefits from the emphasis on "charity." Plenty of talent there, no doubt about it. Jennifer Hudson, Usher, Toni Braxton, and of course Lionel Ritchie and Quincy Jones. But these are also artists who (with the exception of Quincy) have taken an easy artistic route that can be marketed without incident. Then there were likes of Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Jamie Foxx, Julianne Hough, Fergie, one of the Jonas Brothers (I don't know which one... y'all look alike to me). These artists have made their own work practically inseparable from the agenda of the biz.
When Lil Wayne and T-Pain showed up about five minutes into the vid, their voices suitably auto-tuned, it was painful (I was surprisingly unsurprised to know Kanye was involved). This in essence, was the only thing that set this version apart from the original "We Are the World" 25 years ago: the inclusion of rap. In 1985, rap was still considered too controversial and dangerous to include in such a safe, polished song. Now, when hip-hop culture is undeniably dominant, that's clearly not the case.
And then came Smooth's "rapping choir." LL, Busta, Snoop, Wyclef (of course) and many others who, no matter how many contradictions they've embodied over the years, you never thought would stoop to this level. It might be pretty easy to see the "death of rap" in these thirty seconds like Smooth did, because I sure as hell died a little inside.
Viewing and listening to all of this makes one pine for the "good ol' days" when your hip-hop was brutal and threatening. Granted, most folks, when they talk of those bygone years, are idealizing a past era while ignoring that every musical epoch holds its contradictions. But there is something striking about rappers showing up in this song.
At its core, hip-hop culture, much like that of punk rock, has instinctually put itself in opposition to these kinds of attempts to gloss over the messy truth of oppression and exploitation. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle spent the late '70s and '80s doing away with inconvenient notions like "class," "poverty" and "oppression." Rap, coming as it did from the most ignored and neglected sectors of society, refused to let itself become another cog in the machine.
Like all forms of rebellious youth culture, though, it was only a matter of time until the business came knocking at rap's door. Over three decades, hip-hop has become a worldwide phenomenon, a multi-billion dollar industry that, at the same time, had opened the minds of disaffected folks all over the world. It's evolved. Some of that evolution has been a way to accommodate the pressures of capitalism, other moments have been an attempt to get away from big business.
There's little doubt that hip-hop has been "mainstreamed," and this can result in some rather surreal moments. Common is a movie star now. 50 Cent sells Vitamin Water. Ice-T, the rapper who was once boycotted by the Fraternal Order of Police for writing joints like "Cop Killer," is now playing a cop on NBC! Cube is starring in Disney movies. The manufacturers of Cristal champagne have openly tooled with the idea of shutting down because the brand's strong affiliation with rap (and yeah, that's a racist business decision). And of course, with all the respect in the world to Public Enemy, I'll leave you to insert your own rant against Flavor Flav.
The inclusion of such a throng of rap mainstays in "We Are the World 25" might be taken as a sign that the biz has finally succeeded in separating hip-hop from its own DNA. When a style based on giving a voice to the voiceless is diverted into a Kiplingesque attempt at denying an entire country its own voice, it certainly makes you shudder.
So is Jay right? Is rap now officially dead? Should we all gather in memory of the dearly departed?
Nope. Folks have been saying hip-hop is dead for years. It should be completely understood that Smooth, who remains one of the best commentators in the culture, could very well be laying on a bit thick (and given that he is continuing his work at another blog, it remains a confusing declaration). He, like few others, recognizes rap's ability to reinvent itself time and again, staying relevant and ultimately rebellious.
That folks like Smooth refuse to blindly accept "We Are the World" the way it is presented to us shows that this instinct remains intact. The operations in Haiti don't have such a massive stamp to public approval that we are lead to believe. Let's not forget that we live in the midst of grave economic insecurity, a time when mistrust of corporations and the government is at a low easily not seen for 30 years. Such circumstances make it a lot harder to sell the idea of "charity" while people are denied basic necessities here at home.
Two weeks ago, another hip-hop benefit was held for Haiti here in Chicago. It was a show called "Every Drop Counts" to get better water filtration services to the Haitian people. Proceeds from the show went not to the Red Cross or the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, but to actual grassroots organizations working with the Haitian people. A glimpse at the artists performing might also be a glimpse at the future of subversive and principled hip-hop. M1 of Dead Prez performed, as did Jean Grae, and these are two artists who have gained a real following without ever making compromises (sometimes possibly to their detriment). Then there were the Cool Kids, Rhymefest, Mic Terror and BBU, a diverse array of acts who have risen in the past couple years and showcase the new vitality of rap.
These are the kinds of artists that give one real hope. They don't buy the notion that liberation comes through compromise and making peace with the richest of the rich. They are also a lot more in synch with the real mood among ordinary folks today.
The condescension and banality of "We Are the World," ever-present though it may be, will not be enough to ultimately derail hip-hop future. On the contrary, the genre and culture have a lot more beautiful insurgent moments in store for us. And no, I will not be shutting down Rebel Frequencies. If "the death of rap" was really irresistible, it would pretty much signify the imminent demise of all rebel music. And this would mean that we're fucked. Thankfully, that's not the case.