The Role of Politics In Hip-Hop

“dead prez means dead the fu**ing president” This ominous message greets visitors that venture to socially conscious hip-hop artist Dead Prez (DP)’s official web site. However, with all forms of music it takes more than strong statements to entice listeners to hear the message being conveyed. But after moving 400,000 units of their debut album […]

“dead prez means dead the fu**ing president”

This ominous message greets visitors that venture to socially conscious hip-hop artist Dead Prez (DP)’s official web site. However, with all forms of music it takes more than strong statements to entice listeners to hear the message being conveyed. But after moving 400,000 units of their debut album Let’s Get Free with little promotional support from their label, DP’s commercial viability is not in question. Their follow-up RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta received an impressive 4.5 mic rating from the The Source. So why is DP searching for a new label after being dropped by Sony/Columbia Records?

Well, the official reason given was Sony executives felt that the album would not be a commercial success. This is a very simple explanation that covers up a much more sinister logic. It could be argued that they were dropped or censored due to the strong political stances that they took in their music, which in turn could alienate customers and would make reaching sales goals a little more difficult. Which raises the uncomfortable conundrum of whether politics has a role in hip-hop today.

Ever since Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” gave vivid imagery of life in the inner city, the potential of a syncretic mix of hip-hop and politics has existed. With groundbreaking groups such as Public Enemy and Brand Nubian bringing a Black Power aesthetic to the masses, it seemed that politics would play an integral part for years to come. But then, for lack of better words, hip-hop completely blew up. It now stands as a billion dollar industry and outsells all genres of music save for Rock. While this has afforded those involved with hip-hop unprecedented opportunities in terms of endorsements, film, etc., it has taken the music that so many love, and made it into a product that is sold and exploited by large corporate record companies that have little interest in the music itself.

With corporate involvement in the music, a dichotomy has developed in terms of where politics can be successfully applied. By success I mean reaching the intended audience and producing tangible results. When trying to ascertain the role of politics in hip-hop, it must be viewed from two different perspectives, political and musical. In the political arena hip-hop has quickly made its presence and power felt. It is in the more important and far-reaching musical arena that there has been a disturbingly diminishing role for politics as hip-hop’s popularity has increased.

A Sleeping Nation Has Been Awoken

The explosion of hip-hop’s popularity has made many politicians aware of the voting power that the young hip-hop nation wields. To protect the interests of the hip-hop nation in light of the increased attention being bestowed upon it, hundreds of organizations such as Russell Simmons’ pioneering Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HHSAN) have been formed.

What these organizations have done in a short period of time has shown the positive results of combining hip-hop and politics. With assistance from hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z, P. Diddy, and LL Cool J, the HHSAN has held rallies that have raised awareness and protested issues ranging from the outdated Rockefeller Drug Laws to NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed school budget cuts. This garnered the organization nationwide recognition, but more importantly has shown the ability of the hip-hop nation to throw their weight around in the political arena.

Other notable political mobilizations included the numerous Million Youth Marches that were held in places such as Harlem, and reached as far as Italy. The march in Harlem took place despite the voluminous amount of attempts by former mayor Rudy Giuliani to prevent it from happening. Even more indicative of the growing influence of hip-hop in the political arena is the election of Kwame Kilpatrick as mayor of Detroit. The self-proclaimed “Hip-Hop Mayor” was instrumental in bringing this year’s Hip-Hop summit to Detroit drawing over 17,000 attendees with participation from Eminem and Nas.

With the musical genre becoming so influential and its brightest stars becoming so well known, gaining media attention and support from politicians has become increasingly less difficult. With more and more breakthroughs taking place, hip-hop’s influence should increase exponentially in the near future and its constituents will have an opportunity to really shape many of the policies that impact our everyday lives.

Politics Doesn’t Sell Records

The musical arena has not yielded such awe-inspiring results. This can be attributed to the business mindset of those that have discretion in what gets put into stores and played on the radio. With so much money being spent on nurturing and developing talented and profitable entities, the focus has shifted dramatically away from lyrical content, as evidenced by Dead Prez’s current situation.

Large record companies have made it clear that if they do not see an act achieving a certain threshold in terms of record sales (usually gold (500,000 copies) or platinum (1 million)), they will not release the album regardless of the musical quality of the product. Likewise, radio stations have concurred by only playing music by artists who already have very large followings and are considered very popular. In addition to music, many record companies have realized that they are selling a lifestyle to the record-purchasing public.

With much of the youth aspiring to drive high-end automobiles as opposed to proselytizing others to important social issues, record companies are simply following the age-old mantra “Give The Customer What They Want.” Even artists such as Talib Kweli or Mos Def, who do make songs addressing social ills, have found success and received radioplay from tracks that do not focus on political or social issues for the most part. This erects huge barriers in front of artists who are trying to get a political message heard by hip-hop consumers. Although nothing can be taken away from political hip-hop organizations, their influence does not have the same wide-reaching potential as a song that is played on radio stations across the nation.

Even though Nas’s “I Can” made tons of historical references and delivered a powerful message, it received radioplay on the strength of his previous achievements. If the same song was made by a new artist, one, would the record company have released it as a single?, and two, would radio stations have played it? That it takes an artist at the pinnacle of his career to make a commercially successful song dealing with social or political issues shows that with the current industry structure, politics does not have a viable role in hip-hop from a musical standpoint.

What Changes Can Be Made?

Now that the initial question of what role politics play in hip-hop has been answered, one must consider whether this is acceptable. Shouldn’t artists that choose to try and enlighten hip-hop listeners be given the same powerful musical forum as those who choose to push glamorous lifestyles and material possessions? It is important for measures to be taken so that the outlets for expressing political or social views, whether in the political or musical arenas, are comparable.

An excellent place to start would be with political hip-hop organizations. If a concentrated effort was made to lobby radio stations and record companies to give equal promotional and financial support to socially conscious acts, progress could be made quickly. The dollar is very powerful, but so is perception. The last thing any corporation wants is bad publicity and the general public perception that they are not concerned with putting out a quality product. If this led to more songs that spread political messages being found on the radio, it would help the overall causes that are currently being carried out in the political arena because overall awareness would be raised.

The most important and often overlooked factor of this problem is the hip-hop listeners themselves. More initiative must be taken to seek out new artists and find good music. I know numerous friends that have dramatically decreased the amount of time they listen to hip-hop or stopped listening to it altogether because they claim that “everything sucks right now.” This defeatist attitude must be changed. If one relies on radio as the only outlet for hearing music, then they will quickly become discouraged with the current 11-song playlist format.

With hip-hop becoming such a worldly art form, it must be preserved and controlled by those that care about it. Organizations such as HHSAN give encouraging signs of the potential that we as the hip-hop nation have and demonstrates all that can be accomplished when a stand is taken. Politics will always have a role in hip-hop as long as the listeners demand its inclusion and emphasize its importance. With indications that the bling-bling era is coming to a merciful close, hopefully politics and music with substance will become relevant again. But it will require a proactive approach from the hip-hop nation to inform the powers that be of our determination to listen to good music that also educates in some form or fashion.