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By Ádìsá Ájámú | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Friday, August 31, 2012.

I admire Lupe Fiasco for offering us another contemporary example of what conscious artistry merged with rooted activism looks like. I respect his unwillingness to use black pathology as a scaffold to climb to success. Trafficking in Black pain and sorrow and then using some miniscule portion of the profits for uplift has been used so often by everyone from politicians to drug dealers to preachers to aspiring media moguls and rappers that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was used as case study at Harvard Business school. But if you gotta bleed me to feed me, I’ll pass on the meal.  I appreciate that his music asks more of us than to just bob and weave as if high from the last hit of a bangin bass line, that it asks us to join him in a conversation. Which is what I think his song “Bitch Bad” is: an invitation to a conversation.

I love the message in “Bitch Bad” more than the song. And I applaud any brother or sister trying to illuminate the ills that hide in the shadows of white supremacy that reside in regions of our minds especially with so much negativity clouding the airwaves. But here’s my discomfort: With so much work for brothers to do on themselves within this patriarchal order I am still a bit uncomfortable with men instructing sisters on the finer points of womanhood, no matter how well intended.

Is the tradition of brothers challenging other brothers on and off wax around patriarchy so storied and grounded in our ethos that we are now free to instruct women? Because I haven’t seen very many brothers correct each other about what their sons listen to? Nor have I seen very many brothers challenge each other around respecting women with the same alacrity they seem to have received this song. Nor have I seen brothers challenge one another about listening to songs that are clearly misogynistic. I hear an awful lot of brothers talk about the artistry of Hip Hop while equivocating on the misogyny of Hip Hop: “Well, that track about rape and murder, that’s just one track”…”he aint talkin about all women and you know some women really are bitches.” And was it not brothers who elevated the word bitch to damn near a synonym for Black woman, and managed to go platinum doing it? That’s not a critique of Lupe's efforts. I’m simply a participating in the conversation and sharing my discomfort and concern about who is best positioned to give certain messages, and the ways in which patriarchy empowers men to speak forcefully on women’s behavior—to excoriate and correct them—and the ways in which men and women are conditioned to accept that as progressive. Just ask Congressmen Akin and Ryan; just ask folks who want to hold forth on women reproductive liberty.

Patriarchy is premised upon women being told by men who they should be and how they should act: It’s about situating them in the world according to men's whims. Sometimes who brings the message is as important as the message because it conditions how we receive it and examine it for its quality of truth. Don’t believe me: How well do you think Black folks would receive a white rapper doing a song instructing Black folks on the ills of using the N word, especially given that Europeans introduced the word in the first place.

I love Hip Hop and in many ways it is our Rorschach test. It was the first art form in which I grew up and the first art form that grew up in me. I'm of that generation of brothers that grew up celebrating in hip hop even as it gradually morphed into a more materialistically grotesque misogynistic apparition, only to later challenge it without really changing or challenging our participation in the patriarchy that created it. The very patriarchy that created the foundation for our manhood—this ain’t aqua boogie, you cant swim in the water of patriarchy not get wet. Funny thing about foundations is if you destroy them, then everything you built upon them also falls. Which is why a lot of men (and a whole lot of women) have a vested interest in retrofitting patriarchy rather than demolishing it. And because the demolishing of a foundation, no matter how unstable, is too uncertain, our equivocations on patriarchy are what allow us to sleep in house built on faulty foundation standing on a white supremacist fault line. And in this society when it comes to meaningful manhood and womanhood: We are in collusion with our confusion.

Even as we rush to pronounce ourselves progressive anti-patriarchalist (it is no longer cool for progressive brothers to overlook patriarchy under the guise of artistic expression one now has contextualize their complicity for proper cover before pressing play); even as we pat ourselves on the back for finally acknowledging what should have been as obvious as oxygen from the giddy up: that women deserve our respect; even as we celebrate those brothers in hip hop who have addressed misogyny in their records or in their writings as critics (despite the rhetorical distinction patriarchy is misogyny; it’s the velvet gloves over the fists of woman hatred): We often overlook that we, progressive brothers, didn’t so much arrive at this luxurious progressive space so much as we were brought here by sisters like dream hampton, Joan Morgan, Raquel Cepeda, Imani Perry, Tricia Rose and many others, who loved us and the music enough to expect both of us to reach for our higher vibrations. We may pride ourselves on the space we are in now, but we should remember the meter is still running and we have yet to pay the full fare to those sisters who brought us here. So much of how we receive and celebrate Lupe's message with regard to women is more a product of their efforts than that of progressive brothers.

It is one thing to celebrate and applaud a message that is long overdue; it is another to support it by putting our principles in practice in ways that do more than cheers from stands. What good does it do to applaud Lupe's efforts if our spotify/ ipod/pandora playlists could pass for the soundtrack for a Luther Campbell biopic; if our best moments are spent playing cumulonimbus clouds in a strip clubs— if your soul is attached to a pole; if our best idea of womanhood is shrinking them to fit into our most microscopic conceptions of ourselves; if our ideas of loving and partnership begin with the Bible, the Koran or Odu and put always end up in the adult movie section.

I’m not hating on folks choices or what folks legally do to keep their paper game strong. You do you. I am merely pointing at that we live in world of connections, that it’s all connected, that were all connected. We are all a part of the problem and a part of the solution. That everything we do says some things about us, about who we are, about what we value, about how we really feel. Our values are not given to us nor are they inherited (what we get from our parents are their values, not ours). Our values are earned in the Octagon of life, by what we are willing to sacrifice to preserve them, by how far we are willing to go to advance them, what we are willing to do to defend them and how consistently we live them.

Pushing yourself forward, while simultaneously pulling yourself back is an exercise in inanity. You see we, Black folks, want to be free, as long as we dont have to change the things we enjoy that also enslave us. We love sharing our religious faiths, just dont ask us to give up the things that undermine our spiritual growth. We love tolerance, just don’t ask us to give up our hard earned prejudices. We love judging, just don’t judge us. We love equality, just not for the folks whom we feel are unequal. We love our music, so what if it denigrates us, disrespects us, provides permission for others who don’t know us to do the same…That shit was mad disrespectful but yo I was feelin’ that joint…You see that’s the inanity of our insanity: We want to be free as long, as we don’t have leave the plantation.

Hip Hop has always been more than street journalism latticed over sixteen bars, we never needed MCs to tell us what we were living on the daily, no matter the weak-kneed excuse some rappers and their apparatchiks put forward for trafficking in black pain and sorrow for profit. At its higher vibrations hip hop, like jazz and the blues, is quintessential Blackness—celebration, cerebration, confrontation, improvisation, transformation and transcendence—disguised as sound waves reminding us that we “begin in earth and last”, as Neruda would say. True creative genius for a people at the bottom is about converting those sixteen bars into sixteen rungs on a ladder of liberation.

This is the beauty of Lupe’s artistry, here is an artist committed to using his sixteen bars as a GPS helping us locate himself-ourselves, to orient himself-ourselves and invite us to have a discussion about the best route to the reclamation of our best selves. As artist sometimes you have to follow your inspirations and seems to be following his—and I love him for it—but I just think this would have been a more forceful song if it had been directed to the brothers, who so often are producing the music that so many sisters self denigratingly vibe to.

I love Lupe and dig the weight he has decided to carry. Love the message, I’m just not sure brothers are the most effective ones to carry it forward to anyone other than other brothers. Some things are better left to be worked out in circles of women. I love hip-hop because is it for us, by us and about us. I just love Black folks more. And if you ask me to choose between something that sounds good but disrespects us, I’ll choose us every time, and look for my sixteen bars of bliss somewhere else.

Ádìsá Ájámú serves as the Executive Director of the Atunwa Collective Community Development Think Tank located in Los Angeles and is co-author ofThe Psychology of Blacks: An African Centered Perspective and the recently published fourth edition of The Psychology of Blacks: Centering Our Perspectives in the African Consciousness (2010).

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