Hip-hop: from public enemy to public spirited

The language of rebellion is being translated into political protest. From fund-raising for Hurricane Katrina victims to addressing the problems of Africa, has rap found a new global voice? David Usborne reports
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The Independent Culture

Kanye West may have be this year's hottest hip-hop act - earning no fewer than eight Grammy nominations on Thursday - but he also sees himself as a political commentator.

Remember what he said during a national television fund-raiser for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. "Bush doesn't care about black people!" Blunt, certainly. But how you take West's wisdom about the current president may say something about how you respond to the notion, increasingly discussed, that hip-hop has become a new mainstream medium for political discourse, activism and change. And that it is a phenomenon not limited just to the United States.

On the contrary, hip-hop - the music genre that first emanated in the Jamaican, Puerto Rican and African American neighbourhoods of the Bronx in the 1970s and has since grown into a whole culture embracing fashion, its own slang and a style of dancing - may have become America's most potent and potentially most disruptive cultural export.

That hip-hop has attained a global reach is beyond much argument. Aimed essentially at a demographic spanning 13-34-year-olds, it transcends borders and religions. American soldiers listen to it in Iraq off duty. And so do Iraqi insurgents.

The statistics of the industry tell the story. By most recent estimates, global merchandising connected to hip-hop draws about $10bn (£5.7bn) a year from consumers, who number about 45 million. And, taken together, they have spending power of around $1 trillion. So says Forbes magazine anyway

Travel to almost any continent and you will hear the hip-hop sound, see the breakdancing on the streets and the rap fashions in the shops and markets. And you will hear the words - either from rap artists from America or sung by indigenous artists, such as Clotaire K in the Middle East or Disiz La Peste in France, who has risen to prominence recently with lyrics about decay and despair in the suburbs.

"For France it matters nothing what I do / In its mind I will always be / Just a youth from the banlieue," he sings in a recently recorded track.

Lacing popular songs with a political message is hardly novel. Listen to West's newest album, Late Registration - itself a reference to the need to get blacks into the voting booths - and you hear him riff about the black community being 'Merrill Lynched'. Yet, it is 65 years since Billie Holliday belted out Strange Fruit, a ballad decrying the actual lynching of blacks by whites in America.

West even takes on some of his peers' fascination with bling - the over-sized, over-priced jewellery that became the vulgar emblem of rap-star success - in another of his new tracks, Diamonds from Sierra Leone. Built around Shirley Bassey's Diamonds are Forever, it explores the links between the diamond trade and civil war, child soldiers and political upheaval on the African continent.

Nor is all this entirely new to hip-hop either. It was all the way back in 1989 that Public Enemy released the monster hit Fight the Power. "Our freedom of speech is freedom of death," they rapped. "We got to fight the power that be." Even then, it is sometimes argued, hip-hop was beginning to take the place of reggae and the music of protest.

Its impact on other countries is not always considered benign. In the civil war in Sierra Leone rebel army soldiers took to wearing T-shirts bearing the image of Tupac Shakur, the Los Angeles rap star whose fame only grew when he was murdered. The intrusion of hip-hop to the Arab music scene has angered some conservatives.

In the United States, however, political hip-hop is gradually become more than just a language of protest and rebellion. Some political scientists are urging politicians to take notice. As artists such as West, Eminem, Talib Kweli, Common and Nas increasingly infuse their tracks with socio-political rhetoric, progress is also being made to harness the energy of hip-hop fans into something like a political movement.

Crispin Sartwell, a teacher of political science at Dickinson College in California, put it this way in a conversation with the Los Angeles Times last month. "If Thomas Paine or Karl Marx were here today, they might be issuing records rather than pamphlets."

Not everyone agrees. John McWhorter, of the conservative Manhattan Institute, argues that this so-called "conscious" rap, as some have termed it, is just "gangsta rap" in another form. It is barking about another subject - from street violence, women and guns to politics - and ignores the fact that a whole new class of middle-class black Americans has emerged without stopping to berate or lash out at anyone.

He says it is "ultimately all about spitting in the eye of the powers that be. But that is precisely what the millions of blacks making the best of themselves in modern American have not done. And contrary to what we are often led to believe, spitting is not serious activism. It's merely attitude".

Yet there are signs that activist hip-hop is beginning to make an impact on the political landscape.

For example, West's famous outburst did not die in a vacuum. Rather, his assault on Bush was credited with inspiring other artists, including Big Boi of Outkast and Young Jeezy to stage a concert soon afterwards in Atlanta to raise money for all those chased out of New Orleans by Katrina's deluge.

Or take the campaign this summer by Russell Simmons, founder of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), to oppose budget cuts promised for New York City's schools. He harnessed the people-power of about 100,000 students, teachers and parents - as well as a few celebrities. Its main event was a rally outside City Hall on 5 June with an appearance by Chuck D, the founding member of Public Enemy. Shortly afterwards, Mayor Michael Bloomberg changed his mind on the issue - and admitted that the HSAN mobilisation had been a factor.

Among those who went along to the rally was 17-year-old Sollie Rose, a student from Queens. And she is glad she did. "When the Mayor changed his mind," she said later, "I got a warm feeling in my heart and thought, 'I would do this all again'. To be young, helping people my own age is very exciting."

More visible, perhaps, have been the voter drives orchestrated by Mr Simmons and others under a hip-hop banner in the two past presidential elections. In 2000, when Bush was battling Gore, it emerged in the form of "Rap the Vote!" partially launched by the MTV music channel. Last year saw major registration and voter drives both by Mr Simmons' HSAN and by "Vote or Die!" headed by P Diddy.

Both campaigns achieved a high profile in the media, fueled by celebrity-packed hip-hop concerts to encourage voters around the country and, more strikingly, by a series of so-called HSAN summits in different cities, attended by both accepted political figures and by music celebrities. HSAN plans another round of political summits next year. Meanwhile it has been joined on the scene by two other organisations specifically conceived to build political consciousness among young voters - especially black young voters - the Hip-Hop Caucus and the National Hip-Hop Political Convention.

In 2004, these efforts made a difference, notwithstanding the election result. The Centre for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement says: "Youth turnout increased substantially, and much of this increase was driven by an increase in voting among African American youth."

Meanwhile, Benjamin Chavis, the veteran activist who is also the chief executive officer of HSAN, said that, of those who registered to vote because of the network's activities, a full 1.3 million actually went to polling stations on election day. Of those, the overwhelming majority were under 30 years old.

"The election was really important. It was really the first time you saw this sort of effort on both the celebrity level and the grassroots level that came together around one big thing," Jeff Chang, a hip-hop journalist and author, told the alternative news website, AlterNet. But he, like others, says that the phenomenon is still far from coalescing into anything like a disciplined force.

"The hip-hop political movement is not something that has a monolithic look to it," he argued. "You're talking about folks working day in and day out on a range of issues. What unites them is the fact that there has been massive generational change since the civil rights movement. The question is, how to do you harness something that looks like entropy?"

To be sure, hip-hop will never be about politics only. You could not persuade anyone that P Diddy is concerned with social change more than he is about CD sales or fashion and the shifting of his branded merchandise. Moreover, if it is a movement whose greatest contribution so far has been to get out the young vote - an important one for sure - it faces a hiatus of three years before America chooses the next occupant of the White House. In the meanwhile, while Mayor Bloomberg might hear them, it is hard to imagine Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney hearing some rap and saying: "Wait a minute, they have a point."

But if hip-hop shows it can carve new political contours in the US, countries - and regimes - around the world may also have to take notice.

Indeed, it may already be happening. In Senegal in 2000, local rappers were credited with helping drive President Abdou Diouf from power with their music and today they continue their political efforts. In Ukraine, the band Greenjolly created a rap that became the anthem of the recent Orange Revolution.

From bad boys to good guys?

By Kate Thomas and Simon Usborne


A New York bike messenger in the 1970s, Chuck D was a founder member of the pioneering group Public Enemy. Now a radio host, he has become one of hip-hop's loudest political voices. He co-wrote the book of essays Fight the Power: Rap, race, and reality with Yusuf Jah and director Spike Lee.


A movie star, entrepreneur and marathon runner, P Diddy has recently turned political. He set up Citizen Change in Manhattan last year and set about "making voting sexy". University-educated, his rise to fame was not without controversy. His relationship with Jennifer Lopez faltered when he was arrested for weapons violations.


Reached an international audience when he performed on stage as part of Live 8 concert in Philadelphia, famously announcing that "George Bush doesn't care about black people". He has accused American politicians of insensitivity, claiming they "[ride] home in their Benzs and Bentleys while poor Africans starve".


The Ukrainian band shot to fame with the anthemic track "Kazom Nas Bagato" ("Together we are many") last year. The song became a soundtrack for the orange revolution, chanted by the thousands of students who gathered in Kiev's Independence Square.


The MC who grew up in France and the US but is of Lebanese/Egyptian parentage established a worldwide fan base with his fusion of American-influenced hip hop and traditional Middle Eastern taarab music. Working out of his Beirut studio, Clotaire's tracks transcend traditional religious and cultural boundaries and address the current Lebanese political climate.


The Extraordinary Stories of a Youth in the Suburbs was the album that confirmed Disiz la Peste's status as an icon of the French banlieues. Born to Senegalese/French parents, his lyrics talk about rejection by France, police harassment, despair and hopelessness. Already a huge star in France, with appearances at this summer's Paris Live8, Disiz gained greater exposure during the Paris riots when he openly campaigned for calm.


Since his death in a drive-by shooting in 1996, Tupac has gained legendary status in the hip-hop world. Despite championing political causes - he ran a project called "The Underground Railroad" that used music to keep youths off drugs - Shakur was the only artist to have had a number one album while in prison.