In 1970, the godfather of hip-hop proclaimed that “the revolution will not be televised.” Less than 40 years later, Gil Scott-Heron’s political vision has largely been lost.
Turn on mainstream rap radio and the ears will be bombarded with messages of misogynism and materialism. The purpose of life is to get crunk, bust caps, sell rocks, and fawn over lovely lady lumps. Someone who disagrees is a “play-uh hate-uh,” misunderstanding the thug life and its perks.
Socially conscious emcees are often ridiculed or ignored by their more commercialized peers, alleged to lack the street creds of a serious rapper. Nonetheless, when the standard of what makes an artist is not his work, but his criminal record, the product sold cannot be appreciated as art.
This is why mainstream rappers are so disposable, with a new crop every other week to serve our short attention spans. The same themes are repackaged over and over again, only the names change. By the end of his career, if a “gangsta” rapper stays popular, he will devolve into a parody of himself.
Just look at Snoop Dogg, saying nothing in “Rhythm N’ Gangsta” that hasn’t been repeated ad infinitum since “Doggystyle.” And don’t get me started on Nelly, that Band-Aid on his face better represent the pain caused by selling himself out for dental jewelry.
I understand why someone straight out of the projects would do anything for a record deal. But the members of N.W.A. grew up in middle class homes, and that didn’t stop them from glorifying the ghetto to make a quick buck.
When Tupac and Biggie died, mainstream rappers started to tone it down, making the lyrics more bland and accessible. But I’d rather hear the harsh realities of the street than how everyone in the club should “get tipsy.”
I have no problem with art imitating life, so the concept of “gangsta” rap isn’t what bothers me. It’s how safe these rappers have become, playing to the fantasies of white suburbanites rather than voicing meaningful truth about what it’s like to live surrounded by violence and poverty.
With “Illmatic,” Nas came closer than probably anyone else to making “gangsta” rap a respectable art form. Since then, we’ve seen him crucified on album covers for reasons that not even God’s sure about. Too often, a promising rapper comes ashore in a sea of no-name hoodlums and lets fame and prestige get to his head.
Think of what could happen if socially conscious rappers became the mainstream norm. The 18 to 24 demographic, notorious for voter apathy, would be informed on issues that are important to the future of our country. The kids are already enticed by a good hip-hop beat; why not rhyme on geopolitical economics?
Of course, political rap is nothing new. When Flava Flav is done with the reality TV circuit, perhaps he’ll train 50 Cent to eloquently preach social and political change instead of mumble how he loves you “like a fat kid loves cake.” Until then, expect talentless criminals to make millions as positive emcees struggle to make ends meet.