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The Three-Minute Challenge

Hip Hop should reflect the historical significance of our shifting political landscape

By Kevin Britton · September 30th, 2008 · Music


The Three-Minute Challenge Hip Hop should reflect the historical significance of our shifting political landscape


“Those songs on the radio may glorify violence, but in my house we give glory to achievement, self-respect and hard work.” - Sen. Barack Obama, June 15, 2008 (Father’s Day)

Before I launch into my political Hip Hop tirade, I’ll set the stage: Most of today’s radio-friendly Rap singles run about three minutes in length. And according to a 2005 USA Today article, a billboard in New York City’s Times Square funded by an anti-war advocacy group projected the cost of the war in Iraq to be, at that time, about $177 million per day, which comes to about $7.4 million per hour or $122,820 per minute.

So even without adjust ing for inflation, during the three minutes that your local FM voice-tracked DJ spins Soulja Boy’s tall tales of “super soaking” young women, about $368,000 has been spent on a mili tary action which most of the country believes needs to come to a swift and decisive conclusion.

I believe those three super-soaked minutes of pre cious commercial airtime could be put to much better use, and I’m reasonably cer tain that the presumptive Democratic nominee for President of the United States — the self-proclaimed “skinny Black kid with big ears and a funny name” — would agree.

So, if within the context of a highly contentious politi cal campaign all this rings of déją vu, you’re not alone. I’ve spent the better part of the last four years writing about Hip Hop’s untapped potential to serve as a conduit for social change and collective action. Back in the day, KRS-One and friends warned us about our impending “self destruction,” Paris condemned the “hate the hate made,” Brand Nubian encouraged us to stand “all for one” and Public Enemy assured us that brothers were “gonna work it out.” More recently, emcees/activists Common and Talib Kweli — both known for tackling politically-oriented topics — have dropped Sen.

Barack Obama’s name in their song lyrics, while a new single titled “Black President” finds Nas pondering the historical implica tions of the first African-American Commander in Chief.

Yet, as Obama’s meticulously executed e-mail and Web-based campaign has demonstrated, his success depends largely on the degree to which he can tap into America’s diverse and multi-faceted/multi-ethnic grass roots movements — in this case, the ever-changing and fickle Hip Hop demographic. Certainly, his populist approach fits neatly within the well-informed Hip Hop aesthetic of making music for the people and by the peo ple. A few days ago I spoke with my eldest nephew, an up and-coming MC on the local circuit, and announced that I was penning an open letter — a challenge if you will — to all MCs and DJs/producers to write and record a

three-minute track supporting the political process and encouraging people to vote. Assuming that he and I are on the same side of the ideological aisle, I even jokingly offered some sample rhymes to get him started on what could become the underground hit of the summer: drama, llama, comma — further evidence that I need to stay as far away from an open mic as humanly possible. But he got my point.

During these three minutes, I ask that all lyricists and emcees challenge the mainstream media’s cover age of the 2008 presidential campaign (what rhymes with vitriol and xeno phobia?).

Or perhaps they might drop some much-needed knowledge about the many women and people of color who fought for our right to vote through out the 20th century (what rhymes with gerrymander ing?).

As our courageous and selfless young men and women in uniform face, in many cases, their third or fourth perilous tours of duty, the voice of the intelli gent, conscious Hip Hop community can no longer be ignored.

Participants in this historic challenge can post MP3 files of their tracks to blogs and social networking sites or distribute mix tapes to anyone willing to listen. As Sen. Obama has proven, miraculous things happen when people rally around a common cause.

But wait — there’s more. I also challenge all urban formatted stations to add the best of these tracks to their summer playlists. Not “on the mix late in the night,” as Chuck D. once lamented, but during a period of the day where the general population (most of which has lost faith in the relevance of Hip Hop) can hear what we have to say about the issues facing our communities and fami lies. Now, my cynical self suspects that most mainstream stations will dismiss this suggestion. They might find it easier to continue promoting Rap music celebrating underachievement, criminality, and hypersexuality rather than — gasp! — music that encourages people to become engaged in the political process.

I also suspect that other stations and media outlets will hide behind their corporate-mandated playlists and choose to ignore independently-produced (and political ly-relevant) tracks in favor of those blazing hot Lil’ Wayne and Rick Ross singles.

Either way, our message must be heard — in the stu dio, on the airwaves and in the voting booth. Let’s show the world that our music, despite its shortcomings, can be informative and mobilize young people to meaningful collective action — and I don’t mean the Superman Shuffle.

I should mention that the prize for rising to this three minute challenge is no gold trophy, record contract or music video deal. Rather, the prize is a front row seat to an historic change in the direction of American politics.



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