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By Mark Anthony Neal, PhD.

Monday, August 2, 2010.

The recent debate between critic Mychal Smith and rapper Talib Kweli, brought into focus long-standing contentions about the responsibilities of artists who have been marked as political. Among this generation of so-called conscious rappers, Kweli has been among the most honest about the pitfalls and constraints of being labeled a “political” rapper. Kweli’s point was borne out on the track “The Beautiful Struggle” where he raps emphatically “I speak at schools a lot cause they say I'm intelligent/No, it's cause I'm dope, if I was wack I'd be irrelevant.” Yet Smith’s point is well taken; communities have a right and should be expected to hold artists accountable for the work they produce—work that ostensibly represents the communities that produced the artist and offer the most loving support of their art.

To be sure this is not a new debate; early 20th century thinkers W.E.B. DuBois (“
Criteria for Negro Art”), George Schuyler (“Negro Art Hokum”) and Langston Hughes (“Negro Artists and the Racial Mountain”) had spirited exchanges in 1926 in the pages of The Nation and The Crisis where DuBois argued for an art that served the race, Schuyler rejected the notion that “Black” American art even existed, while Hughes carried the blood-stained banner artistic freedom. DuBois’s critique, in particular anticipated the emergence of a younger generation of artists including Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent and Aaron Douglass, who coalesced around the short-term publication Fire!, who offered a fuller view of black life, that some Harlem Renaissance figures found offensive.

At the crux of Hughes’s argument and ultimately Kweli’s is that the artistic process is fluid. Artists may have specific political commitments and passions, but good artists are also expected to portray the fullest range of human emotions—the revolution might be digitized or pitched to a 24-hour news cycle if you will, but people do not sustain themselves on revolution alone; neither do so-called political artists. Ultimately are we holding artists up to criteria that doesn’t fully recognize how the “political” functions in everyday life?

There is no denying that there is such a thing as political music. The music of folk artist
Woody Guthrie or black bluesman Josh White are among those whose legacies stand out in this regard. In their day though, no one referred to Guthrie (best known for “This Land is Your Land”) or White, (who like DuBois and Paul Robeson testified in front of the House Un-American Committee in 1950), as a “conscious” folk artist or blues musician. The fluidity of their lives and their politics was reflected in their art, where they passionately expressed resistance, patriotism, and a full range of civic, spiritual, secular and even carnal emotions. The notion of a “conscious” artists speaks less about the reality of politics, but more so the imposition of market forces on art. Calling somebody a “conscious rapper” is about reaching a buying demographic.


Because we often take a limited view of how politics function in the everyday or how political resistance plays out on a daily basis—as the late Raymond Williams or Stuart Hall might describe it—we often miss the more nuanced links between politics and art. In his classic text Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, historian Robin D.G. Kelley highlights the significance of what anthropologist James C. Scott calls “infrapolitics.” According to Kelley, “the political history of oppressed people cannot be understood without reference to infrapolitics, for these daily acts have a cumulative effect on power relations.” These infrapolitics also inform what Clyde Woods, in his book Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta, calls a “blues epistemology…a longstanding African-American tradition of explaining reality and change.” Critical to understanding Kelley and Woods's concepts are notions of politics as organic, as opposed to contrived; informal in contrast to formal.

Let me be clear, political art and artists have always existed, but our investments in so-called conscious rapper strikes me as one of the first times that we’ve held artists accountable and responsible for providing political commentary and agitation in the absence of the kinds of broad-based political movements that previous artists felt compelled to contribute to regardless of their political orientation. Our desire for political rappers or celebration of the political gestures of R&B artists like Raheem DeVaughn or even Jill Scott is borne out of a frustration with the lack of visible broad based political movements in our era and a nostalgia for the historical moment that hosted the most important social and political movements of the 20th century, in the struggle for Black civil and human rights.

The labor movement of the 1930s, the struggles against segregation in the south, anti-lynching activism, resistance to anti-Communist blacklisting and the pursuit of voting rights offered black artists myriad ways to imagine themselves, without simply being defined as “political”—they were artists, not "technicians" taking direction from the NAACP, The Black Panther Power or the
Politburo, even if their political beliefs might have been aligned with such organizations. A cursory glance at the careers of Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley is instructive in this regard.

Though Billie Holiday was one of the most influential vocalists of the 20th Century (you hear Holiday in artists as diverse as Abbey Lincoln, Frank Sinatra and Erykah Badu), she is perhaps most remembered for the drug addiction that ultimately led to her premature death at the age 44 in July of 1959. Few though ever think of Holiday as a political artist, though her recording of the
Abel Meeropol (Lewis Allan) composition “Strange Fruit” is likely the most important anti-lynching song ever recorded. Holiday’s recording of the song and the song’s proximity to leftist politics in this country (Meeropol would later adopt the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were executed in 1953 spying for the Soviet Union), likely caught the attention of the FBI, who by the end of 1949s maintained a dossier on Holiday, primarily concerned with her narcotics consumption.


In contrast Nina Simone is generally thought of as the epitome of a political artist, largely on the strength of her work during the 1960s with recordings like “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” and the scathing “Mississippi Goddamn,” a song that she wrote in response to the bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham in September of 1963.

On the one hand, Simone’s willingness to actively contribute to the movement via her songs and performances is unmatched—Simone was brought into the movement her friend the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who she later eulogized with the anthem “Young, Gifted and Black”—but to only read her career through that lens is to misrepresent her artistry. Simone was one of the great song interpreters of the 20th century, whether putting her spin on The Gershwin’s “
I Loves You Porgy,” The Bee Gee’s early hit “To Love Somebody,” Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” or “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” Simone’s PG version of Bessie Smith’s “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl.” The “politics” of Simone’s music was implicit, in her willingness to view the world via a distinct womanist lens, both before and after her singular contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.

Marvin Gaye is another artist who complicates our sense of what a political artist is. With the release of What Going On in 1971, Marvin Gaye created one of the most cohesive and timeless collections of protest songs. Indeed songs like “What’s Going On?” which critiqued the war in Vietnam, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” which anticipated the Green energy movement and the self-explanatory “Inner City Blues” are as relevant today, as they were in 1971. Gaye recorded What’s Going On, more than a decade into his career as Motown’s most bankable male solo artist. Label founder Berry Gordy initially rejected the album, famously telling Gaye that it would kill his career (and presumably Gordy’s bottom-line). Gordy only relented, when the single, “What’s Going On?” became a pop hit.

Gaye was a deeply impressionable artist and What’s Going On was produced in what was a perfect storm of personal and political crises in his life including the premature death of singing partner Tammi Terrell in 1970, the riots that ripped through Detroit in 1967 and instigated Gordy’s relocation of Motown to Los Angeles, Frankie Gaye’s (Marvin’s brother) tour of duty in Vietnam, Gaye’s drug addiction and the general malaise found in his hometown of Washington DC and his adopted city of Detroit. After the release of What Going On, Gaye quickly transitioned to a more carnal concerns, releasing Let’s Get It On in 1973. With the exception of the single “Who’s the Man?,” Gaye would never again recorded explicitly political work. The lead single from Gaye’s final studio album, recorded before his murder in 1984, was initially titled “Sanctified Pussy.” One wonders how critics might have viewed the trajectory of Gaye’s career if he was a “conscious” contemporary artist?

The point is that politics and arts is not as seamless as some critics would have us to believe; even a figure like Bob Marley, whose art clearly was informed by his politics and his spirituality, recorded an album dedicated to “ganja” with Kaya (1978). The album’s first song, “Easy Skanking” begins with the unforgettable line, “Excuse me while I light my spliff,” which provides another vantage to consider a recording like Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (1992) a generation later. Despite the highly problematic nature of Dr. Dre’s work in the era, The Chronic also contains tracks like “The Day the Niggaz Took Over” and “Lil Ghetto Boy” (sampling the Donny Hathaway classic) that provide some context for the Los Angeles riots that broke out months before The Chronic’s release.

Though no one would ever equate Dr. Dre’s political sensibilities with Bob Marley’s, the fact is you’d be hard-pressed to find a political song that resonated among the masses of black folk (and quite a few whites) more than NWA’s Dr. Dre produced “Fuck tha Police.” For example, it was NWA’s track that raised the ire of law enforcement and the FBI, not any of the politically sophisticated music produced by Public Enemy in the same moment. While the scholars and the activists highlight the legitimate political impact that Public Enemy had a generation ago, it is basic everyday concerns expressed in black music that often resonates most. Arguably the most meaningful reference to everyday life in Public Enemy’s catalogue (“Fight the Power” notwithstanding) is the Flava Flav led “911 is a Joke” a song in which Chuck D’s voice is notably absent.

While many of us seek political commentary from our conscious rappers and more often than not, express disappointment when those rappers don’t live up to the, perhaps unrealistic, expectations we have for them, artist we would never consider “conscious” can provide the kind of insightful commentary that we desire. The recent release by Rick Ross, provides such an example. While much of the discourse around Ross’s recent Teflon Don
centers on his seeming celebration of professional thugs Demetrius “Big Meech” Flenory and Larry Hoover, the recording also includes the track “Tears a Joy” which features a minute long snippet of Black Panther Party founder Bobby Seale. The song makes implicit and explicit connections between the kind of political agitation that the Black Panther Party was famous for and the so-called black proletariat and black lumpenproletariat that filled the ranks of the organization at it’s peak.

This is not to say that Teflon Don isn’t problematic on a number of levels, but if we are going to be honest about conscious music, the masses of folk will more likely to be introduced to the politics of the Black Panther Party via Rick Ross, than they are the music of so-called “conscious” rappers. Clyde Woods argues that by definition all black music is conscious, “that is they still must explicitly, or, implicitly address African-American consciousness of this period and the intellectual/performance traditions that emerged during it. They are popular in the true sense of the word: generated by and for an evolved community of consciousness and memory.” Under this definition, virtually all black artists are responding to the material conditions that produced them and in many ways there’s not much more that we can ask of them.


Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, NC, USA. He is the author of five books including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (New York University Press). Neal is also the co-editor with Murray Forman of That’s The Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (2nd Edition) which will be published by Routledge in January of 2011.

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