Lil Wayne, Hurricane Katrina, and the Future of Political Hip-Hop

“Instead of broadcasting how we smokin’ trees, on the radio, we need to hear more local MC’s/ Where you at? Come on where you at? This is the difference between MC’ing and rap/ Rappers spit rhymes that are mostly illegal, MC’s spit rhymes to uplift they people/ Peace, love, unity, and havin’ fun—these are the lyrics of KRS One/”

–          KRS-One, “Classic (Better Than I’ve Ever Been),” 2007

 

In

a recent exchange—packaged for Grammy Awards special—between CBS host,

Katie Couric and New Orleans-raised rapper, Lil’ Wayne, something

unprecedented, and truly disappointing, happened. Asked by Couric what

questions, about the handling of Hurricane Katrina, he would like to

ask the out-gone President Bush—if he could—he responded

that as “a gangster,” he can’t, because “gangsters don’t ask

questions.” Surely, this was meant comically, but on a deeper note,

perhaps the rapper who lost family and friends to the 2005 storm, and

the criminal ineptitude which followed it, should have exuded more

political courage than that. The bloods of the more than 2,000 killed,

and exterminated, would insist on a less-stereotypical response than

that Wayne afforded.

With Dr. Condoleezza Rice’s recent

“I was appalled” tour, anyone sincerely concerned about the plight of

those displaced and bankrolled should be reinvigorated in their fight

for a right of return

for Katrina’s ejected low-income victims. Rice, who claimed to be

“angry” at the “implication that some people made that President Bush

allowed this to happen because these people were black,” refused to

entertain the charges lobbed at her “friend,” because nobody “at any

level of government” was “prepared for something of Katrina’s size and

scope..” Dr. Rice also noted that Katrina was devastation on many

levels, because of its exposure of “an America that we sometimes don’t

see—people who are trapped in poverty.” Rice is, of course, in a moral

position to defend the federal government’s response, as one who was

shelling a few thousand bucks on the latest footwear at Ferragamo

(an Italian fashion store in New York), while her people were drowning

in the oceans of neglect and apathy. Lil Wayne, a multi-platinum

artist, could have easily grabbed the opportunity by its horns and

lambasted the former Secretary of State for willfully evading unearthed truths

about the National Hurricane Center’s warnings, to the federal

government, before Katrina’s landfall. Unfortunately, this expectancy

might be far-fetched, given the circumstances on the ground..

In

the Hip-Hop industry, the old saying that “Money talks B.S. walks” is

validated in perpetuity. Lil Wayne has been, for the last one year, the

top grossing rapper, and the commercial constraints of such prestigious

post are an impediment to any political expressions that fall outside

of the mainstream (white) discourse. Artists like Lil Wayne have very

little liberty to decide what is conducive to the marketed images

packaged by industry executives and A&R directors. At the signing

of their contracts, they lose all claims to the decision-making

process, and have no say over what complements their corporate

sponsorship and what doesn’t. Rappers are brands, and thus, marketed

with a specific intention—to make money, at all costs. When they

venture outside of the commercial realm, to make political statements

that might offend white listeners—commercial Hip-Hop’s major

patrons—such artists are reprimanded (Young Buck), and sometimes, punished (The Clipse). With studies

suggesting a 64% difference in the views of Blacks and Whites,

vis-à-vis the racial politics of Katrina, it’s quite easy to see why

the successful rapper would rather be muted, at the height of his

popularity, than speak up for the voiceless and defenseless.

Very

few listeners are aware that most commercial artists are not as free or

independent as they are depicted in music videos, or portrayed on wax.

The intentionality of big-money industries’ fixation on the Hip-Hop

world cannot be mistaken. They have found worthy accomplices, in

commercial artists, to carry out their nefarious agenda. The surge of beer and liquor companies

into the Hip-Hop community is an example of the completion of a

long-sought agenda to paralyze the political cord of Hip-Hop music.

With Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message,

released in 1982, a significant portion of society got introduced to

the righteous rage of Black and Brown youth—who had been rendered

invincible by a dominant society. The revelation of a reality which

consisted of human beings “livin’ in a bag,” and “eating out of garbage piles,”

was a shock to many who considered themselves well-learned and educated

about the world they existed in. They couldn’t comprehend a community

whose heroes—for lack of employment opportunities—had become “smugglers, scrambles, burglars, gamblers Pickpockets, peddlers and even pan-handlers.”

Sadly enough, the ‘90s would usher in an era of “Gangster rappers”—a

terminology devised by those uneducated about the Black and Brown youth

experience—with which came a great decline of political impulse in

Hip-Hop music.

The explosion of Ni**az Wit Attitude

(NWA), and a few other groups, classified as “gangster” in their

interpretation of the socio-political climates, helped arrest the

development of social-consciousness in the Hip-Hop community. Though

conscionable voices like Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, Brand Nubian, Gang Starr, Lauryn Hill, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, MC Lyte, Poor Righteous Teachers, Lakim Shabazz, and Tupac

prevailed, the age of conscientious Hip-Hop music seemed to be nearing

its death rattles. Ever since, the new millennium has been anything but

encouraging for listeners with an appetite for multi-dimensional,

creative, enriching, and thought-provoking content. Safe for a few

dedicated craftsmen and craftswomen, the bling-bling generation is, thanks to

commercial Hip-Hop, likeable to a lost cause. Bombarded with an

overload of misogyny, materialism, opulence, egoism, and indifference,

the upcoming generation has been reduced, by avaricious corporations,

to money-bearing ATM machines. Their usefulness now lies solely in the

ability to buy, buy, and buy, from the companies their favorite artists

promote. This is why Lil Wayne, who recently signed a deal with liquor specialists, Straight Up Brands,

cannot be expected to think, speak, or act outside the commercial box.

Whether mainstream Hip-Hop acts are willing to muster their innate

political courage, however, the examples of several Hip-Hop artists

provides ample hope to disgruntled listeners and critics of the culture.

In

2005, when Kanye West, alongside other entertainers, was invited by NBC

to read a teleprompter and contribute to the benefit, little was known

that the Chicagoan artist wasn’t too thrilled with the federal

government’s response to, or the media’s coverage of, Hurricane

Katrina. The live telethon would deviate from schedule about two-thirds through the program, when West began by castigating corporate press for “the way they portray us in the media.” West, who didn’t have to be prompted by Katie Couric, brought up the glaring disparities in the racially-tinged depictions of Katrina’s survivors, by mainstream media: “You see a black family, it says, ‘They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, ‘They’re looking for food’.” He would then remark that the government is “set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow as possible.”

Separating the lie from the truth, West would take it a step further,

in his analysis that the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars played a part in

siphoning resources from emergency-relief organizations like the

level-5 storm that ripped asunder New Orleans: “We already realize a lot of people that could help are at war right now, fighting another way — and they’ve given them permission to go down and shoot us!” NBC later apologized for his

statements, exonerating the station because “Kanye West departed from the scripted comments that were prepared for him.”

It should be noted that Kanye West’s endless legal, musical and

political problems began shortly after that historic appearance.

Another artist of impeccable courage is the Detroit-based Invincible.. A gifted lyricist, she has never wavered from expressing politically-charged sentiments in her songs. Being Israel-born, Invincible

feels a certain level of entitlement to speak out about the plight of

the Palestinian peoples. In a recent song, she addressed the

Israeli-waged assault against Gaza, which has claimed more than 1,500

lives, to-date. In The Emperor’s Clothes, Invincible, who is also an activist, argues that “Israel–

you should be ashamed/ Kill and maim 1,000’s of civilians in our name/

Claim you hitting terrorists but children in your aim/ Even murder

relief workers blood spilling from they brain.” Drawing a parallel between the execution of Oscar Grant, and the Israeli onslaught against innocent Palestinians, Invincible takes no prisoners: Shot

‘em in the back like the cops to Oscar Grant/ And in each case the good

ol’ united states sponsored that/ 7 million a day that we pay tax and

AIPAC’s lobbyists is robbin’ us/ Sometimes it feels like they’re ain’t

no stopping this/ BUT now nobody can deny it cuz you made it too

obvious/ Naked truth exposed like the emperor’s clothes.” She doesn’t end without offering concrete steps that send a clear message of solidarity with the oppressed: “Boycott, Divest, and Sanction/ Til there’s right of return for displaced and

reparations.”

Contrary to popular belief, Invincible

is hardly alone in engaging Hip-Hop’s listening audience in vigorous

discussions on the implications of War and imperialism. The

British-born actress, producer and vocalist, M.I.A. (infamous for Paper Planes), is an also towering political force in the record industry. Speaking recently with Hip-Hop journalist Touré, M.I.A. addressed the ongoing conflict

in Sri Lanka. Calling it a case of “systematic genocide, [and] ethnic

cleansing,” M.I.A., wants her fans to know that she is more than a

Hollywood celebrity with no emotional connection with the causes they

raise. She implicates U2 front-man, Bono, in her assertions:

“I want my fans to know I’m not tryin’ to be like Bono—someone Irish

talking about what’s going on in Africa. I actually come from there and

the fact is that this is happening now. The war has been going on for a

long time, but it stepped into the genocide bracket recently with the

new President [Mahinda Rajapaksa].” The Oscar and Grammy-nominated star believes that her accomplishments are worthless “if I don’t actually get to speak about this.”

Her contention that the repressed condition Tamilian people—the

ethnic-minority population—are forced to exist in is comparable to

“Nazi Germany,” is substantiated by her sobering description: “Tamil people are banned from the press,” she says,

“and there’s no international media allowed into the country. They get

shot. The government’s banned any independent observers, media, aid,

humanitarian agencies, NGOs—nobody’s allowed in to see what’s going on.” She goes further: “Tamil people were banned from doing the Census report,” which, according to M.I.A.., “means that you could wipe them out and no one would know. You can’t account for how many there are.”

The

courageous words and actions of Kanye West, Invincible and M.I.A., are

refreshing for many Hip-Hop listeners and critics. An unbreakable bond

of mutual support for activism-oriented artists can help in restoring

the political audacity of Hip-Hop, which reigned supreme in the ‘80s.

As a response to Reaganomics, Hip-Hop artists utilized their God-given

voices as megaphones for justice, in informing the world about the

undocumented realities they were (as people of culture/color)

entrenched in. It is the belief of this author that a resurgence of

such spirit would do Hip-Hop good in the years, decades, and hopefully,

centuries, to come.

 

Tolu Olorunda is a Columnist for BlackCommentator.com.

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