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.

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