Follow the Leader: In Search of Hip Hop’s Talented Tenth

“I’m here to break away the chains, take away the pains, remake the brains…” “Follow the Leader” -Eric B & Rakim (1988) Twenty years ago the members of Public Enemy announced that they were going to raise up a nation of 5,000 black leaders. For a time it seemed to be working as many black […]

“I’m here to break away the chains, take away the pains, remake the brains…”

“Follow the Leader” -Eric B & Rakim (1988)

Twenty years ago the members of Public Enemy announced that they were going to raise up a nation of 5,000 black leaders. For a time it seemed to be working as many black folks started reading Afro-centric literature and listening to lectures by black scholars for the first time. This is not much different than Dr. WEB Du Bois’s efforts a century earlier to cultivate a “talented tenth” that was supposed to uplift the black race. But in 2009, when ignorance is produced in mass quantities, the question that we must ask is where are they now?

If Du Bois’s challenge was to uplift a people just two generations up from slavery, why do we find it so difficult, in the 21st century, to organize against ignorance?

During the era 1988-92, members of the Hip Hop Nation tried to develop a massive mass education project . For example, KRS  not only tried to organize H.E.A.L. (Human Education Against Lies) but also released the timeless track, “My Philosophy” which, till this day, is still one of the greatest arguments against anti-intellectualism ever recorded.

Groups like the X-Clan moved a whole generation towards Afro-centric thought and exposed a nation of black youth who had only known of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King to the philosophy of Garvey-ism via songs such as “Funkin’ Lesson.”

The impact of the 5% Nation (NGAE) cannot be overstated as groups such as Brand Nubian and Poor Righteous Teachers saw it as their spiritual mission to “civilize the uncivilized.”

However, by 1992, the age of enlightenment gave way to Hip Hop’s Dark Age, in which, we still find ourselves 17 years later.

The reasons for this backwards journey are many.

However, we must start with the nature of the beast, the music industry ,itself,  and it’s relationship to “revolutionary” music a generation prior to the “conscious” Hip Hop age.

In his book, “There’s a Riot Going On,” Peter Doggett writes of a meeting of advertising agencies and entertainment conglomerates that was held in October of 1968 called “Selling the American Youth Market,” which was followed two months later by a Columbia Records marketing campaign called “The Revolutionaries are on Columbia.” Thus, the revolutionary energy of the Vietnam  Era was quickly co-opted and transformed into a Capitalist marketing scheme. The music that was once radical became politically ambiguous, at best.

If we juxtapose this with progressive Hip Hop music, we see that with the commercialization of the politically charged rap it began to loose it’s militancy , attempting to attract the coveted crossover market. This was also exacerbated by an American political structure that has always seen intelligent African Americans as threats to national security. Not to mention a corporate America that has grabbed every opportunity to “dumb down” the youth in an effort to make them more vulnerable to marketing schemes and corporate exploitation.

While many of the causes have been external, they have been internal, as well.

Although, members of the era of conscious Hip Hop waxed poetic about the conspiracy to dumb down black youth, they were ill prepared to do anything about it. So why should we be surprised in the 21st century that the fruits of this labor have come to fruition? Also, we must admit that too many in that era gave VIP (Very Ignorant People) passes to the early gangsta rappers in the name of Hip Hop unity. This has produced the dilemma in which we find ourselves, today.

While Kwame Ture’ spoke about “making the unconscious, conscious” until his dying day, what has developed is an “anti-conscious” movement. Biblically speaking, they are those who are destroyed not for their lack of Knowledge but for their rejection of it.

This is the target audience of today’s representatives of what is passing for a black consciousness movement, many of whom were either in elementary school or not even born at the height of the political rap era, 20 years ago.

The problem with the new school Hip Hop intelligentsia is that they have so much dumbed down their messages that they have become the antithesis of the mission to uplift black people.  Many of them have become less disciples of Rakim and more so followers of Nas, whose lyrical contradictions oft times outweigh their potentially, powerful impact. Also, because of the misuse of social networking sites such as youtube and Twitter, they have tried to out-gangsta the gangsta rappers , often bitterly attacking those who should be their comrades in the struggle.

Perhaps the biggest fault lies at the door of those who Du Bois would have referred to as his talented tenth; the college educated, as many of the music moguls with higher education are the main purveyors of the worst examples of anti-intellectualism; Sean Combs, Dame Dash, Suge Night, David Banner, etc.

While the call for 5,000 black leaders in the 80’s was admirable, what we need now is a call for 5,000 black poor righteous teachers who realize that, despite all the rheatoric, the greatest threat to global racism is not a gun but a book.

The battle for the minds must start in our own communities as we must dedicate our lives to raising the consciousness of those around us.

Because, as Du Bois wrote in 1903 in “The Negro Problem,”  “if you do not lift them up, they will pull you down.”

Paul Scott writes for No Warning Shots He can be reached at To learn more about The Intelligence Over Ignorance Campaign visit