-- KRS-One, "Rappaz R. N Dainja" (KRS-One, 1995)
In case you didn't know, we're in the midst of war.
I'm not referring to America's military action in Iraq; rather, a battle much closer to home. This is the battle for the minds of our youth. Popular music -- Hip Hop in particular -- is the battleground.
In the early 1990s, veteran rapper/philosopher/lecturer KRS-One coined the term "edutainment" (i.e., education and entertainment) to describe his unique brand of Hip-Hop music that combined hardcore beats and loops with intense cultural and political commentary. In an interview with The Wakeup Show (www.thewakeupshow.com), he revealed some of the thinking behind his musical direction, noting that it was always the goal of Boogie Down Productions (the original crew he co-founded with the late Scott LaRock) to make it "cool to be intelligent." That seems like such a long time ago.
Today, naysayers such as ultra-conservative columnist Bill O'Reilly would have you believe that Hip Hop is an unvarying form of entertainment devoid of any redeeming social value or substance. Obviously, O'Reilly and others who share his views are unaware that other manifestations of Hip-Hop music offer far more than the familiar images projected by daily music video countdowns. But we know O'Reilly has simply failed to look beneath the surface
Meanwhile, theories abound that our youth are being "dumbed down" by the daily onslaught of negative imagery in music and videos. Even I will admit that balancing the "Hip Hop as pure entertainment" vs. "Hip Hop as a conduit for education and social change" argument has proven difficult, given the music's unprecedented impact on popular culture. And though I recognize that every song doesn't have to contain messages about politics, education and other issues critical to Hip-Hop culture's progenitors, I'm still dismayed by the triteness that plagues much of popular music today.
Instead, I see Hip Hop's potential to become the new Afro-Latino spiritual -- disseminating information, raising consciousness and guiding her people to "free-dome."
In a review of a West-African compilation CD, Africa Raps (Trikont, 2002), the reviewer noted that West African Rap music is regularly used as a "political weapon," in part due to the sociopolitical climate that exists in much of the region (specifically Ghana and Senegal). Political strife in other parts of the world has spawned similar underground Hip-Hop movements that serve as the mouthpiece for the rank-and-file citizen, as well as providing an outlet for artistic and creative energy.
Yet on this side of the pond, our most visible Hip-Hop artists settle for lyrics promoting brand-name basketball shoes, expensive alcoholic beverages, disrespect for women and "street cred" (gang affiliations, drug trafficking, multiple bullet wounds, etc.). With few exceptions, music representing the "each one teach one" school of thinking continues to be systemically excluded from every aspect of mainstream popular culture. Fear not, for, as X-Clan said in 1990, "When life enters doors, death don't return."
Like the fictitious Mau Maus from Spike Lee's dark comedy, Bamboozled, there are scores of artists rocking mics and raising consciousness well below mainstream media's radar screen. Topics such as a post-9/11 perspective of life in America, thoughts on our responsibilities to our children, a snapshot of the life of political activist Assata Shakur and the legacy of Marcus Mosiah Garvey can all be found within songs representing the often overlooked conscious Hip-Hop movement.
For some, Hip-Hop activism is more than just talk. An article in the June 2002 issue of Vibe magazine described a New York-based educational program called CYPHER (Community Youth Promoting Hip Hop Empowerment and Results), which endeavors to develop grassroots leadership through community activism. Other organizations, such as Conrad Muhammad's CHHANGE (Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment), RICANSTRUCTION and Third Eye Movement use Hip-Hop music and culture as a conduit to promote discussion, critical thinking and community/political involvement.
Locally, members of the conscious Hip-Hop collective Watusi Tribe have presented their "Education through Hip Hop Entertainment" program at several area schools, firmly planting their unrelentingly positive approach to music within an educational setting.
But the war drags on. Given mainstream Rap music's thinly-veiled alter-ego as a tool of mass marketing (i.e., cars, clothing, shoes, mobile electronics, etc.) and the unprecedented amount of wealth that Hip-Hop culture generates for a select few, is it any surprise that socially and morally responsible music would rarely see the light of day?
This battle for the minds of our youth, like all battles, will have its share of casualties. I hope when the smoke clears and the dust settles, a vestige of intelligent, relevant and thought-provoking music will remain for our youth to embrace.
KEVIN BRITTON is a freelance writer residing in Cincinnati with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter. He's compiling a collection about positive Hip Hop culture.