Desperate Times/ Desperate Measures: The Joell Ortiz and Erykah Badu Version

Editor’s note: The views expressed inside this editorial aren’t necessarily the views of or its employees.“Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is … to make freedom real.” —James Baldwin When up against the wall, swing—hard. Two of the finest from the Hip-Hop community, Joell Ortiz and Erykah […]

Editor’s note: The

views expressed inside this editorial aren’t necessarily the views of or its employees.“Societies never

know it, but the war of an artist with his society is … to make freedom real.”

—James Baldwin

When up against the wall, swing—hard.

Two of the finest from the Hip-Hop

community, Joell Ortiz and Erykah Badu, last month proved that axiom

right—desperate times call for desperate measures. In their unique ways, with

their unique minds, both put down examples of the good a bit of courage mixed

with creativity always creates.

Let’s start with Mr. Ortiz and pick up

Ms. Badu somewhere along.

It was a predicament most are familiar

with. Nothing new to the industry. This time, however, a Rap artist put his

feet to the pedal and pressed on, never looking back. I speak here of Joell

Ortiz’s March 21 Twitter air-out of E1 Music, the label and independent

distributor, over a Pharaoh-like move to prevent his crew signing to Shady.

“[L]ittle known fact-E1 also jamming me

up from doing a major, major deal as part of Slaughterhouse. so they aint

getting FREEAGENT,” he began roaring that morning. “E1 is f**king c**kblocking

us from doing something monumental for our fans and our careers. I dont give a f**k

who gets mad. [It’s] the truth im sick of the behind the scenes politics. [It’s]

time to expose certain bloodsuckers to some light. enough is enough.”

Nothing Ortiz had to say broke new

grounds or blazed trails. For decades, artists have served as handkerchiefs for

snot-nosed label heads. (They even got Hi-Tek)

It’s 2010, so I assume most reading this fall under no illusions that major

record labels actually value Hip-Hop music as an artistic and cultural contribution

to human development. (Recue the laugh track.) There’s big money in it (though not

as much as before), and till this cow is milked dry, Black artists can sleep

tight—they’ll get their crumbs. (Of course they’ll rather ride on chrome 24-inch

wheels and tie silvery chains around their necks than put some pay away for

union dues; but that’s a topic for days ahead.)

Only difference with Ortiz was the

medium used, and the audacity of his posts—the unbridled nature. (We all

remember months back when Soulja Boy grew tired of the “crackers” in his ear,

and let them have it through Twitter. Like most, I laughed—then sighed: he’s much

too young for that kind of pressure. Chris Rock handled his

cracker-moment better.)

But to Ortiz goes the spoils—for capping

right at the midriff of his overlords. “E1 steady telling me I suck cause I

dont make DJ Khaled  music,” he went on. “[A]t

the same time they try to block me from eating elsewhere. … Mark my words. E1

holding good brothers up cause of my agreement. its not fair to Slaughterhouse

It’s all bulls**t.”

Before long one of his 32,000 followers

rang E1, and his manager fell into panic mode, trying to leash Ortiz. Didn’t

work out—not with the guy who wrote “Exhibit

H(aiti).” You’re messin’ with the wrong, Borinqueño!

And before long, E1 heads were running

through yellow pages, tearing out the private security section. “Sum labels

forgot about the goons… They’re alive and hungry.. Exec’s #thinkaboutdat,”

cautioned one of Ortiz’s minions. “[D]on’t let them stop you from getting the

shady deal, im with you if you wana start a riot in their building,” another

fired off. “[M]an if they blockin yall from goin to shady we can start a f**kin

protest outside they offices!” yet another proposed. And more and more and more

and more.

I’m sure the next time Ortiz walked into

E1 offices in New York, eyes stalked him like a bearded Arab strolling through

JFK airport with a black box tucked underneath his arm. But I’m also sure

respect—indeed fear—like never before addressed him through the lips of the


I think Hip-Hop artists—most of which

fair in worse deals than Ortiz—should wise up and begin calling out, individually,

whoever’s boot rests against their heads. You got the power. You got the

influence. And you got the nut-job followership ready to deliver the warning

personally to Pharaoh—let our artists go!


Then comes Erykah Badu, jolting this

anti-sex, order-obsessed, puritanicalism-pushing society, telling it to drop

the veil. When grown men face


for prancing around naked in their homes, you know insanity is on

the verge. Ms. Badu knows this. So she puts society at the window seat, before

flicking her hat, retiring to the cockpit, and hurling passengers up, thousands

of feet from land—the better to objectively observe reality: that not only is

promiscuity the cousin of puritanicalism, but attempts to police conduct only

further betray this fact. Regulate all you want, she is saying, legislate all

you please—but don’t for a second consider anyone but yourselves fooled. What

did Hafez say? “On the pulpit, at the time of ecstasy, and of the manifestation

of hypocrisy.”

Ms. Badu also had another point to make,

perhaps more sobering: most people don’t think, and believe all they hear and

read unquestioningly; most people are crowd-pleasers—group-thinkers. And if you

dare stand up, have on a strapped MTV vest. George Carlin would be proud. What

did Twain say? “The best of us would rather be popular than right. I found that

out a good while ago.”

Speaking with the Wall Street Journal late last month, Ms. Badu explained

the concept of her—for some reason my puny mind cannot grasp—controversial video, “Window Seat.” She

strolls down Dealey Plaza, in downtown Dallas, and sheds clothes, emotions, and

constraints, to represent “not conforming to what society would expect you to

do.” And so it is that upon reaching destination, the Grassy Knoll, at which that famous president bid farewell in

1963, a gunshot strikes her nude body down, as blood flows out to spell out “Groupthink.”

So can I get a window seat?/ Don’t want nobody next

to me/ I just want a ticket outta town/ A look around and a safe touch down/

Can I get a window seat?/ Don’t want nobody next to me/ I just want a chance to

fly/ A chance to cry/ And a long bye bye/

Right on cue, the puritans descended,

pot and pan in hand, clanging away: Erykah Badu is sullying society,

disrespecting decency. Didn’t she see kids around? What’s wrong with her?

Aren’t there better—less abrasive—ways to send the same message? What good does

this do? Does she really need the attention (and sales)?

But before Ms. Badu, had come Punk duo

Matt and Kim, with their innovative video single “Lessons Learned,” released

last year, in which both strip down on a stroll through Times Square. So the

grounds, as with Joell Ortiz, don’t necessarily open up. Only difference is the

courage and creativity with which her message was delivered. And for that, she

mightily threatens the lot who would prefer we all wore around turtlenecks,

khaki jeans, and thigh-high boots.

Drop the veil, society! Our eyes can see

you clean and clear. You want order, peace, and protection, but bomb at whim

and set foreign villages ablaze at will. You want a prosperous future, but

treat children worse than earth scum. You want piety and morality, but forget

so quickly the sins of the past: sins which women hanged and burnt, naked

Africans examined on auction blocks,

Native Americans driven off the planet, would keep forever at tip of your


Drop the veil, society—and clean the



Olorunda is a cultural critic whose work regularly appears on,, and other online journals. He can be reached at: