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The Decline Of The Conscious MC: Can It Be Stopped?

“This is the way of an artist

a purging, a catharsis

the emerging of a market

a genre on my own…”

- “Water Walker” by Djezuz Djonez

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBXSIan1l8o)

As many AllHipHop.com readers know I have been promising to write about what I have loosely described as the death or demise of the conscious MC. Last week, I received the final bit of inspiration I needed to pull the trigger – a thoughtful email from a regular and very careful reader who always makes great points, challenging me. Here is what I received in reaction to “Movement Music: From Coke Rap To Community Development” (http://allhiphop.com/stories/editorial/archive/2010/07/27/22311557.aspx) from “V W”:

“Do you really believe that some artists i.e. Rick Ross are truly thinking on that level of intellect? Are they really trying to start a movement? Or is it just a marketing tactic to sell more records and ringtones? You can say I am “profiling” but Ross just doesn’t come across as that type. If Jay Electronica or Lupe did a track like “B.M.F.” I’d be more inclined to think so. Even his “Free Mason” track with Jay-Z didn’t sit well with me. I’m waiting on an article about that (wink wink).”

Here is my response to “VW” which is a great place to start my critique of what is wrong with the current corps of ‘conscious MCs’:

“I believe your e-mail indirectly frames the challenge quite well – the balance between an artist’s personal intellect and a marketing strategy. ‘Movement’ potentially is a catch-all for both.

A street artist doesn’t have to have intellect to accept a righteous movement. And a conscious artist doesn’t necessarily understand how to market a righteous movement.

I wonder why the street artist is held to a standard of EFFECTIVENESS that the conscious artist is not.”

This is the first of five reasons why the American-based conscious MC of today continues to be irrelevant, while continuing to long for the golden era – (loosely identified as 1986-1992).

No Movement Energy (Conscious Artists Hustle The Struggle Too). In my response to ‘VW” I was responding to an important and common criticism of the more street-oriented mainstream rappers for shouting out crime figures and gang leaders and glorifying negative or destructive behavior. In their eyes, Rick Ross is the latest artist to ride this practice into commercial success. But what I have always felt is that conscious artists are hustling hard too. They shout out influential leaders and revolutionary icons like Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Brother Malcolm X, Minister Farrakhan, and Fidel Castro; and cite Teachings, Lessons, and quote books for their personal commercial benefit. Yet, just as I don’t see street rappers doing much in the streets – even the minimum good that real gangsters have done; neither do I see conscious MCs doing the good works or taking the real-life stances of the icons they celebrate on wax (or mp3). With the exception of Dead Prez and Immortal Technique – and David Banner in a different sense – I have felt no movement energy from any of the artists who have emerged over the last 10-12 years who were categorized or style themselves as ‘political’ or conscious. And certainly nothing like X-Clan, Public Enemy, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, Eric B. and Rakim and Poor Righteous Teachers whom I believe all realized it was as important to inspire and make people feel the urgency of the moment, as it was to just share information. My point to “VW” was that you don’t start movements just based upon an artist’s intellectual development. The vast majority of conscious artists don’t have movement energy – while many street artists do – because they (conscious artists) don’t respect marketing nor do they respect the laws that govern the human mind which revolve around the use of language, symbolism, and how efficient the brain and mind must be in categorizing and classifying information and concepts. And because people really don’t think until they are forced too (see Volume 3 of my book on ‘search behavior’) it is possible to get an ‘ignorant ass street rapper’ to lead a conscious movement, not based upon intellect in terms of the books he or she has read, but because it is an act of creative self-preservation. Remember, the movement energy was so strong in the 80s that even Eminem was rocking African medallions! You weren’t even relevant if you didn’t have some form of pan-African sensibility (or could fake it).

So this is more about marketing and understanding mass psychology than it is about making superficial judgments on face value of an artist’s personal level of positivity and negativity. And when the ‘conscious’ artist and activist understands that, she or he will understand the authority and credibility that groups like the Black Panthers once enjoyed and which – on a lesser level – the ‘gang’ approaches today on the street. But finally it is important to accept the fact that most artists no matter what they talk about on a track find it hard to accept a real leadership profile. In fact I have never met a rapper who wanted to be a leader as much as they wanted to be an artist. Not one. The closest was David Banner who I arranged to meet with his Congressman – Bennie Thompson, for a high-powered discussion on community development in his hometown of Jackson and his state of Mississippi. A conscious artist can sincerely desire to be a leader of a movement but unless they surround themselves with individuals who also want that for them and not just great ‘celebrity art’ it will not happen. Lyrical content is not enough. An artist must want to serve the people more than rise the ladder of celebrity status.

The I Have To Be The Smartest Person In The Room Syndrome (Ideology Matters More Than Strategy). If there were one major criticism that I would make of 95% of all conscious artists it is that they make music only for themselves or people who already think like them, or agree with them. Preaching to the choir is one of the best ways to limit your appeal leading to what I call ‘demographic death’ (have you ever noticed how all of the conscious artists in the Northeast are in their 30s and 40s and have no following among teenagers? They could all learn something from the example of Wise Intelligent and his latest ‘Djezuz Djonez’ project: http://www.djezuzdjonez.com/. Another talented artist to watch is the always witty and on message Jasiri X: http://www.youtube.com/user/jasirix).

Too many conscious rappers allow their ‘book knowledge’ to overpower their street knowledge, natural grasp of wisdom and common sense. That is why conscious artists aren’t very strategic (even though they shout out and quote great revolutionary warriors), while the more mainstream artists can be (why didn’t a political activist-artist rather than 50 Cent write a book with Robert Greene?). They allow ideological purity to become more important than effectiveness and influence. In my book I write about the Ideologue – a person who is loyal to principle and sincere but who literally can’t think on their feet, make any kind of necessary compromise in negotiation, and who mistakes a change in language with a deviation in core principles of belief or ‘dumbing down.’ In addition we all have insecurities and I find that many of us use book knowledge as a way to keep people from seeing our own imperfections, flaws, and shortcomings. In a sense, ‘being smart’ is a shield that keeps some of us from ‘being real.’ It also is the only way some of us would get attention, admiration or respect, we mistakenly feel. If conscious artists would develop their personalities or let more of it show, their popularity would increase.

And here, again we run into a problem because it appears that the ‘conscious’ audience actually demands that you remain unpopular in order to be authentic. It is crazy – the less people that claim you, the more ‘real’ you are in the eyes of the supposed ‘alternative,’ ‘underground,’ artistic fan base.

Many in the underground rap community write to me to tell me I have failed to mention a particular artist they like (but which very few people have heard of). Many of these artists have been around for years and their following has not grown beyond the underground circuit. What I realize more and more each year is that the ‘underground’ wants to be just that – not in the mainstream (and that is fine if they can accept that means their audience will not grow beyond a critical mass) and because of that any ‘conscious’ artist who seeks their constant approval has to accept the marketing limitations that come with the endorsement and association.

It’s All Political Now (Eff The Science of Business). This is something I have been building on for years – the influence that mistaken or limited interpretations of Karl Marx (and the terminology he popularized) have had in causing many progressives and socialists to confuse historic and natural economic, business and trade and commercial activity with ‘capitalism.’ My personal litmus test for this continues – out of all of the great communist influenced opinion leaders of our generation in Hip-Hop that I have met or built with not one of them has really read the Das Kapital or Capital book series of Karl Marx. I don’t blame them, it is thousands of pages worth of material and my engagement of Volumes I and III has taken place over months and years, not days and weeks. But I’m sorry, with all due respect to the sincere Leftist – reading the history of the Cuban revolution, watching independently-produced documentaries, listening to progressive talk shows, and having a basic acquaintance with the terminology of the Communist Manifesto is great but it does not automatically make you an economic historian or anthropologist capable of explaining every aspect of reality and human cooperation through the lens of socialism. Entrepreneurial activity and economic pioneering (which is actually what produced Hip-Hop) is rooted in universal order and natural law and has nothing to do with any ‘isms’ – capitalism or socialism. This confusion actually causes conscious artists to disrespect their natural ally – economic understanding which would inform their lyrics and business moves. I believe that things have gotten so bad in terms of the reckless and inaccurate use of socialist and communist terminology that if Karl Marx (and the others before him who shaped his thinking) were to return today he would be forced to address the bad students of his school of thought with a message and tone similar to that used by Ghostface Killah on the Shark N***** (Biters) skit (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WN0HBGpVH-c).

As many of you know I have written about this economic ‘blindspot’ in a controversial piece called ‘The “Consciousness” Of Wu-Tang Clan, Suge Knight and Jay-Z”(http://www.blackelectorate.com/articles.asp?ID=529). Rallies, elections and protests are important, but they don’t substitute for an economic blueprint.

‘They’ Did It To Me (‘So What That I Have No Swagger Or Progressive Business Team …I’m Not Hot Because The ‘Industry’ Is Against Me’). This is the factor that hurts the most to write. But I must be honest. Most conscious artists because they lack a full economic consciousness and disrespect the science of marketing too often blame the corporate industry establishment for their own shortcomings. Don’t get me wrong I know the 10% is real (no one over the last decade has written more about the hidden hand and COINTELPRO-like activity in rap than me), and that there is a ceiling that exists for artists willing to speak certain truths and associate with certain truth-tellers and revolutionaries but anything that you are a reaction to, in fact, controls you. And many conscious artists are ‘controlled’ or limited by their fascination and resentment of the success of ‘mainstream’ corporate America-approved artists. Take a look at what I wrote about the music industry’s power pyramid and ‘caste system’ (http://www.cedricmuhammad.com/chris-lighty-is-not-a-sell-out-the-music-industry-caste-system-hip-hoppreneur-%E2%84%A2-commentary-november-4-2009/) where I explain that in certain ways conscious artists are unsuccessful not because anyone is stopping them but because their career planning betrays their lyrical content and they fail to build the kind of team infrastructure that will market them in a way that is in harmony and alignment with their marketplace brand-reputation-image as ‘political,’ ‘conscious,’ or ‘positive.’ It is the most backward thing to see so-called revolutionary artists who rail against the industry publicly trying to attract the kind of business team that the mainstream corporate-approved artist has. It is as if the conscious artist lives in a world that only exists in their head. They preach independence but won’t get a lawyer or business manager from outside of the music industry. They claim to have an ‘alternative’ image but won’t hire a publicist who does ‘non-industry’ things. They rap about Africa but have no real on the ground connection in Africa. The street and mainstream artist is partially more successful than the conscious one because their creative work; brand-image-reputation and team infrastructure are in better harmony and alignment.

Made In America. (The U.S.-Based Conscious MC Lacks Music, Message or Model To Attract The World). On a musical level, of the major ‘conscious’ artists, Mos Def is the exception here. Keep your eyes on him as he continues to experiment with new sounds that will expand his appeal abroad. But for the most part, consciousness in rap, from a creative standpoint has become a religion that has not updated its sermons to be equal to the time. Its political message has not been updated. In other words, if I don’t live in America the conscious artist has very little to offer me that I can relate to. This reality is why the most interesting, progressive, radical and innovative political rap is coming from regions of the world outside of the U.S. – Central and South America, Palestine, and Africa – who claim to inherit the legacy of the conscious rap of America from the latter 80s and early 90s. And these artists aren’t just quoting political leaders like we do here – they are influencing them, even entire elections like in places like Senegal. In Palestine rap is resistance. And that’s the difference, much of the conscious rap here is non-threatening and really establishment-oriented, as much as it tries to act like it is not.

When American progressives hear an album like Distant Relatives by Nas and Damian Marley they are “inspired” and encouraged and brag about the album on an artistic level but it doesn’t inform or engage any existing movement that they or “conscious” U.S.-based artists are at the vanguard of; while for those who are part of movements pertaining to real issues in Africa, like Brian Chitundu, the Interim National Youth Director, of The Citizens Democratic Party of Zambia [www.thecitizensdemocraticparty.com], Distant Relatives is a soundtrack for the work they are already doing to change the political climate of a nation that Britain once colonized. In a sense the American-based political rap community is romanticizing over revolution more than they are doing revolutionary work. It is why I have said that I feel in fact America has colonized rap, and the rest of the world is now liberating it (http://www.cedricmuhammad.com/what%E2%80%99s-next-for-hip-hop-the-end-of-its-american-colonization/). Here the disconnect between the intellectual and scholar whom the American conscious rapper claims and the struggle that the conscious rapper abroad (and even the street rapper based here) lives is apparent. One of my favorite readers from Africa (who also studies entrepreneurship and anthropology) – “Dalitso” – made this point in relation to what I wrote last week regarding Rick Ross:

“One of my biggest critiques with a lot of “Hip Hop intellectuals” is they don’t understand that the [street] artist’s message (which like you show in your article) is a [threat or] source of concern for larger America. Just the same way public intellectuals are the voice of “educated society,” artists are the voice for us – the wretched of the earth. There is a difference between an artist struggling to get out the environment and a scholar struggling to graduate. They both rep their alma mater when they “graduate” but neither can understand the other until they suspend their beliefs and critical listening to the realities that they have each endured to become who they are without condescending attitudes, that’s why few artist can cross over or few “hip hop intellectuals” can be taken seriously – neither has a monopoly of truth. But when knowledge from both sides of the spectrum can be pooled together it creates multiple avenues of addressing an issue and most importantly like Jazz its movement music.”

My personal experience shows me that many more of the youth, street artists, gang members and artists from overseas are open to “listening to realities” without “condescending attitudes,” than the American-based “conscious” artists and intellectuals who act like they know it all, and can be very close-minded. And largely because of that attitude and willingness to learn new languages, these other artists are becoming more and more relevant and influential.

My experience is that the “conscious” rapper despite their inability to build a mass following, rather than introspectively asking “what can I learn and do in order to be more effective?” very often arrogantly looks down upon those who may have less information than them (in terms of academic education, political history, and current events) but who are much more effective at reaching the masses through symbolism, music quality, personality, and the creation of caricatures and characters.

What matters now, in 2010, is not that you are “conscious,” “progressive,” or “political” in terms of knowledge but that you are relevant with a personality that can transcend language, borders, creed, class and color. When progressives criticize President Barack Obama purely on policy grounds and remain confused as to why he is so popular and appealing around the world, even though he is the American Emperor, it is because they don’t understand that he is reaching people with a personality and cultural identity that is universal and cosmopolitan. It is the same thing that made Muhammad Ali popular and claimed by the world, and what makes Minister Farrakhan a respected international leader. They authentically – through cultural kinship, religion, or careful use of language represent an identity broader than their current place of residence. If political and “conscious” artists would suspend their knee-jerk ideological criticism of the President long enough (again, this is one of their hang-ups – ideology matters more than strategy), they would see that the Personality of Barack Hussein Obama is what the conscious artist needs, from a marketing standpoint.

As I wrote in “Barack Obama: Diasporic Personality, Cultural Entrepreneur, American Emperor”:

“He’s mobile, cosmopolitan, sophisticated and a risk-taker. He embraces change – both technological and demographic. He deftly moves in and out of different perspectives and civilizations, which by the way dovetails nicely with the Aloha Spirit (which he absorbed in Hawaii, where he did middle and high school). His socialization skills and ability to adapt to different cultures is uncanny. But this also makes him the ultimate challenge to rigid forms of identity (tribe, race, religion, ethnicity, political ideology, partisanship, and nationalism). He is foremost a universalist. He resists and pushes back any time he is pigeon-holed or stereotyped.”

Here again, Immortal Technique and dead prez stand out.

Immortal Technique – who is originally from Peru is as capable of building on the block in Harlem or Down South, as he is of speaking at Saviours’ Day (which he did in 2008) as he is appearing on international channel Russia Today (giving an interview after the flotilla incident which brought Israel and Turkey at odds publicly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9WCrIWLKBY). And peep how Immortal does so while rocking his official T-shirt and a Yankees hat! His brand-image-reputation are in alignment.

And who but M1 of Dead Prez could be at the center of something as powerful as the Ni Wakati project (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVW4cTnpa6I) produced by the brilliant Michael Wanguhu that brought together rappers from East Africa and America for a real on-the-ground connection and collaboration? Although Dead Prez are socialist in political ideology, they respect something that I believe is even more powerful – cultural kinship. And I hope we will never forget the leadership and ‘creative risk’ Dead Prez took in doing a song with Jay-Z (the artist the conscious rap community may love to hate more than any other). I was one of the few willing to publicly praise them for ‘Hell Yeah’ (Pimp The System) remix (http://www.blackelectorate.com/articles.asp?ID=1087) and I still rock the hot ‘Revolutionary But Gangsta’ T-shirt in support.

It will be Diasporic personalities who are political but also marketable, like Queen Yonasda and Ana Tijoux, that will make it hot – in both the states and abroad this decade (http://allhiphop.com/stories/editorial/archive/2010/05/11/22213013.aspx).

****

It is so sad to see, at times, how superficial the conscious rap community can be.

Their/our narrow-mindedness actually repels artists and potential supporters more than it attracts them or influences them to say and do better.

If the decline of the US-based conscious MC is to be stopped, it will not begin by blaming a platinum artist or “the system.”

It must start with an honest look in the mirror.

Cedric Muhammad is a business consultant, political strategist, and monetary economist. He’s a former GM of Wu-Tang Management and currently a Member of the African Union’s First Congress of African Economists. Cedric’s the Founder of the economic information service Africa PreBrief (http://africaprebrief.com/) and author of ‘The Entrepreneurial Secret’ (http://theEsecret.com/). He can be contacted via e-mail at: cedric(at)cmcap.com

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