In the previous posts in this series I discussed the fact that there is an unspoken tension growing in the Black community. Author Lawrence Bobo has describe “The Worry” as a class issue. I agree that classism is a part of the issue but I submit to you that “The Worry” is multifaceted and more complex. In the last post, “The Worry”: Anti-Fragile, I explored the economic worries of Black Americans. This post I want to talk about the worry that Black Americans have about drinking the koolaid. Drinking the koolaid is a colloquialism I use to describe the pressure to assimilate.
In America we downplay assimilation as the way things are, it is what it is, or getting by. Instead of allowing ourselves to feel and articulate the violation, invalidation, and individual offense that it is for someone to demand that you to be anything other than what you are. So we play the game. The truth is, whether we speak about it or not, we know that there is something wrong with that. We feel it in the weight of our steps to work, our nervousness in majority white public spaces, we taste it when we wonder whether our child’s name will hinder their economic progress, we see it when little dark skinned children are made fun of, we know it when we are passed up for opportunities because of our hair or our clothes. No matter how deaf we pretend to be, the whisper is there asking us whether we will drink the koolaid: inviting us to choose death or destitution.
There have been waves of discussion, critique, and controversy surrounding recent musical releases from the Hip Hop community. Both Kanye West and Lauryn Hill have met media assault and public criticism regarding their latest offerings. The negative responses they have received are not founded in actual Hip Hop critique of the artists’ work, instead the comments are based on the controversial nature of the material and the artists’ step away from mainstream sound and production.
Lauryn Hill’s single Neurotic Society attacks a wide array of our society’s ills. Rap Genius, of course, has a very thorough decoding of most of the lyrics. Ms. Hill takes on America more comprehensively than anyone ever has in one song. The song is consuming, speeding, and every word is thought provoking. For the mindless mainstream this is both overwhelming and offensive. How dare a rap song make somebody think!
Kanye West, who is of course a fan of Ms. Hill, released New Slaves and, in standard Kanye fashion, performed the song with an intelligent, artistic, avant garde flair. Naturally the public knotted their brows — well the brows were probably knotted before he performed since it has become a pop culture expectation to dislike anything Kanye does or says. The content in New Slaves tackles the issues of The New Jim Crow (prison industry), capitalism, and censorship in the entertainment industry.
Both songs have a similar erratic production that seems to linger somewhere between electronics and Hip Hop. The passion (most use anger as the adjective) that both artists project reaches out and stands in the face of the listener demanding to be seen, heard, and felt. It should also be noted that the content in both songs (when studied) has all truthful and mostly factual references — just in case anyone still cares about honesty in Hip Hop.
Even fans of Hill and West have expressed some discomfort with the songs. However, any true Hip Hop head (as these are both Hip Hop artists which are a bit different than rappers) can attest to the long standing tradition of innovation, introspection, and articulation of Hip Hop music. If anything Hill and West may be helping to return the Hip Hop community to its roots. When I hear the songs I think about the time when Rap music wasn’t assembly lined produced and drive thru distributed. There is a long list of artists who veered from the production trends of the time and changed the Rap game because of it: Kool Herc, A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Outcast, Nelly, Nappy Roots, Cash Money, and the list goes on. It also must be stated that both Hill and West have previously done so in their respective careers (remember Lauryn’s Unplugged album and Kanye’s 808’s and Heartbreaks album) so it is not unusual or a surprise to see them at it again.
I see these songs as a movement that we can expect to see growing in Rap music (and hopefully the rest of America). The movement isn’t new. it was just a few years ago when Nas caught heat for wanting to title his album “Nigger.” Nas was adamant about renaming the album simply because it made people uncomfortable. The album was released “Untitled.” Following that incident Hip Hop artists, Erykah Badu was criticized for her video for “Window Seat.” Despite the depth of the lyrics and the power of the statement being made by the video, the major public focus was on Badu’s use of nudity and the legal charges she faced for not gaining approval for the location where the video was shot. The movement is one that is a long time coming. As United States citizens struggle against the country’s history of Puritanism, it is reflected in a number of artists speaking out against and protesting through their art and celebrity. The problem is that America has always had a way of punishing/ostracizing anyone who refuses to drink the koolaid.
Artists, especially Hip Hop artists, have traditionally been forerunners with the foresight and platform to expose the elephant in America’s rooms. This sort of risky, outspoken protest is needed now more than ever. And not just in music. But since America has chosen to entertain its citizens to death, what better place for a call to arms than through a part of the entertainment industry: music (Rap music being one of the largest selling genres). What is needed from the public is a an unflinching support for these activists. Even if we don’t completely agree, we should support our activists. If we allow them to drink the koolaid and be silenced we will be allowing the governing powers to continue to go unquestioned and unchallenged; the last time I checked that would be called an oligarchy not a democracy. Let’s be like Voltaire who once said,
“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”
I’m not sayin’; I’m just sayin’,
An Angry Black Man