When Hip Hop and Politics Collide



I really enjoy it when two of my favorite interests collide, like getting two for the price of one. It’s like watching an orchestra play live under the screening of a Charlie Chaplin film. Or having the New Yorker hand-delivered by Angelina Jolie. My day is made when such sublime hybrids manifest.


Lately international affairs and hip-hop have mashed to create some exciting reading and listening. Nothing new here, mind you. Politics and rap are not strangers. Back in the day, Public Enemy, De La Soul, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and others dipped into social commentary.


In Grandmaster Flash’s famous, “The Message,” for instance, the group is angered at the poor condition residents keep their neighborhood in (broken glass everywhere / people pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care), their poor educational system, lack of job prospects, bill collectors, drug addicts, and on and on. 



The Message

The mantle is carried on today with artists like The Coup, Immortal Technique, Dead Prez, Lauryn Hill, Jurassic Five, Mos Def, and a myriad of others. Sometimes rappers don’t even have to be in the studio or on stage to get political. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” Kanye West famously blurted out in a discursive, anger-suppressed lament during a live television broadcast for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts (so many emotions in this short clip: Mike Meyers looks uncomfortable with West’s meanderings, then startled at the anti-Bush comment. West looks like he wants to cry and punch someone the whole time, and Chris Tucker looks like he wants to burst into laughter before catching himself).

George Bush doesn't care about black people


New to the American hip hop scene, and totally stealing my heart lately, is Somali rapper K’Naan. I listen to this cat and his new album Troubador a few times a week. His music is a sublime combination of catchy beats and rhythms with thoughtful lyrics. Some songs make me want to rise up (against what?) like his anthem, “Wavin’ Flag,” while others, like “Fatima,” make me mournful (but who did I lose?). In “Somalia” he takes a jab at performers who rap about the tough life with these subtly barbed lyrics:


So what you know ‘bout the pirates terrorize the ocean? / To never know a simple day without a big commotion? / It can’t be healthy just to live with such deep emotion / And when I try and sleep, I see coffins closin’


K'Naan performing “Wavin’ Flag” and others in an acoustic set for Democracy Now! 


Imagine my delighted surprise when a few weeks ago Foreign Policy blogger Mark Lynch made a decent effort (from a Realist perspective) at comparing the Jay-Z vs. The Game feud to hegemonic stability theory. Here’s a tiny snippet:


"But still, the timing is odd for a "power transition" narrative, given that Jay-Z is set to release his new Blueprint 3 album in September and has done a whole series of verses with other leading rappers in recent years (including Nas, Lil Wayne, and T.I.) which is to hip hop as "alliances" are to International Relations.  He may be old, but hardly looks like a declining power.... although perhaps Game simply detects weakness in Jay-Z's age.  After all, he tweeted at one point that he "really don't hate jay's old music, but this new sh!t is convalescent home elevator music." He clearly understands the extent of Jay-Z's structural power, daring a long list of influential DJs to play I'm So Wavy.  


"…The Realist advice?  His best hope is probably to sit back and let the Game self-destruct, something of which he's quite capable  (he's already backing away from the hit on Beyonce) -- while working behind the scenes to maintain his own alliance structure and to prevent any defections over to the Game's camp.  And it seems that thus far, that's exactly what he's doing. We'll see if that's a winning strategy.... or if he's just biding his time getting ready for a counter-attack." 


Yes, Lynch’s argument has a few holes, but who cares!? It was the most interesting and entertaining blog post I’ve read on that site in two years! (go here and here).


Happiness is when politics and hip-hop collide.