Monday, December 13, 2010

By Lyrical

Violence is everywhere in our American culture, so what are we going to do about it? Who is “we” anyway? Does “we” include our Hip Hop leaders in our local urban communities? Our elected officials have all but thrown up their hands in bewilderment and confusion concerning what to do in these most desperate violent times. Does “we” include only those in the affected neighborhoods with the highest incidents of reported violence, or do we realize once and for all we are always governed by the rules of universal karma, and we are in fact all connected and in this together?

This question of responsibility trickles down to the emcee. Somewhere at this very moment, reading this determining whether to write another line about how he or she can be “found with the eagle on their arm like a bird trainer” or if he or she can be "found with their child in their arms like a good parent,” is an emcee about to make a decision with tangible consequences for us all. The other side of the discussion centers around the fact many rappers are just reporting on what they see around them. They will say they are not promoting violence, rather they are reporting on the violence that exists in epidemic levels in their communities. Is a child or adolescent lacking in critical thinking skills able to tell the difference? Or does it all sound like a lifestyle to today's average young emcee looking to be embraced with respect - if not fear- from her or his peers?

It is a sad reality when the reaction we get to violence in our communities can be directly correlated to the voter turn-out rate in the districts we live. We all know if there is a reporting of a single gunshot, let alone a shooting in a quiet, affluent, suburban town- say….Newton, the police will answer with multiple cars in record time, as compared to that of an actual shooting in Mattapan (or any other urban city with lower voter turn out). The outrage must be organized for it to be effective. People who complain, write letters and vote get heard. They also become more influential in their communities and perhaps wield more clout the next time the rally to be heard. Politicians who are responding to the wishes of their constituencies make change. Why then pass the problem of solving the epidemic of violence in our streets on to the local Hip Hop artist when our community and its leaders have in many cases failed us? Is an emcee actually able to make an impact where these others have failed?

If you were to ask "Is Hip Hop culture an effective way to reach people?" to any of the big five media monoliths- they would certainly answer yes. They all understand that rap music is one of the only genres on a world wide scale that young people are listening too. The same companies control just about every resource worth owning in terms of billboard advertising, network television stations, radio stations, sports companies, amusement parks, newspapers and magazines, movie companies, internet websites and search engines, and more. In fact the consolidated world of music distribution is down to only four or five major distributors for all of the labels in existence as well. With an influential messenger like today’s Hip Hop artists to disseminate information corporate sponsors have been paying rappers to mention their products in their songs. Guests on MTV Cribs don't just happen to have Vitamin Water and Red Bull in their refrigerators- it is "product placement," - a sponsorship and a commercial. Our local governments in some form do business with the outlets these messages are distributed across, and business people know –too well- just how impressionable our young people's minds are towards imaging, marketing and yes - Hip Hop song lyrics and videos.

To combat the growing Twitter-like trend of violence being overly forced and inserted into our videos and song lyrics, the term “conscious” rapper started to emerge for those who showed concern. People essentially were insinuating with this label one would have to be unconscious to consciously allow the studio killing, and pimpin’ to take place on records since all of this may lead to influencing our impressionable youth to commit some of these same actions in the real world. These gunplay and drug filled lyrics are argued to desensitize young people to violence and crime, which the big five are already doing on a daily basis at every possible turn. The debated question will rage on if these kinds of lyrics are adversely affecting our youth. The knee-jerk reaction and answer seems to be yes they do; why else would corporations pay millions just to flash a logo at us, or show us a commercial on a billboard that we only have a moment to glance at?

Killing is not as natural as some would have us believe, nor is witnessing such violence on our own species. People will say since prehistoric times we have been witnessing violence in the world, and that violence is in our nature as humans. Then again so is love and compassion, but the question is which will ensure our survival? The answer is obvious, as negative energy can influence weaker positive energy and draw it in, but why then do our elders in society allow it and corporations promote it? I think the answer lies with a lack of spiritual grounding of our morals, and the effect of greed in capitalistic societies. Greed is preached against vehemently by most religions, and in fact it is usually the opposite of greed, namely selflessness, that is taught to lead us to salvation.

Who then is to spiritually guide us, when many major religions have abandoned us through corruption and shame, and our elders go to work for large companies that value only the bottom line? Our family structure is under attack, drugs have become the crutch and alternative to high priced over the counter anti-depressants- available in more affluent communities under the care of a doctor. This further adds to the problem while illegal drugs are pumped into our communities as a short term fix, with the all too eager youth looking to cash in on the excitement, or those who think the have no other legitimate means to make ends meet. These images are preached through our musical heroes’ song lyrics and displayed by flashy jewels they wear as fruits of the labor of selling poison in one's own community. These material images of success are directly a result of selling the illegal product in our very same communities we live in, and reinforce the negative actions with positive end results. A short study of the numbers of Hip Hop artists with or without major deals will reveal only a very small fraction of them are making a decent living off of record deals. The rest are forced to masquerade as successful artists, when in fact the music industry is set up so an artist is always last to get paid, and the commercial rapper arguably has the highest cost to pay as well.

Many of the most successful (or at least in appearance those who look successful) are promoting their images as virtual rapping drug lords such as Jewels Santana or Fat “Joey Crack” Joe. It is as if rappers who do not possess the ability to speak what they “sometimes see” in society, especially the negative, fear they will be discarded or labeled conscious – which carries the stigma of less paid. The correlation in society is "less paid = less laid," and ultimately less successful. If a rapper wants to speak on some of the positive and provide balance they are labeled one step worse then conscious: they are either “happy rappers” or “backpack rappers”, and to some street emcees there is no worse title to be given. This high stakes gamble that rappers take by not speaking on the outrage of what is going on in urbanized areas leads to only further economic enslavement of people of color and lower socio-economic status. In other words, the poor get poorer.

The creative voices of the Hip Hop culture have been homogenized into a similar one voice, to speak for the global ghetto. The marketing and rebroadcast of this singular new world order is promoted for mass consumption through outlets such as BET and MTV. Creatively working towards a solution to problems is not often deemed a way to be successful on a street level. This is reinforced by the types of rappers signed to major deals, and the topics they are “allowed” or prompted to speak on. Ironically now, the independent artist has more creative control, promotion ability, and distribution possibilities then ever before. In some cases these artists stand to make much more then the major artist who is promoted with a much larger budget. Again, the irony is that corporate dollars that flood into rap music through endorsements and commercials already backs up the notion that the nation's most wealthy understand the power rap music has to influence the youth. It is as if we have been bought out; to not use our same power through rap music to help ourselves and do great work and self-police our own streets.

The corporate muffle is in-effect on emcees, and “rappers” essentially are under "gag order" from those signing the check. Others follow suit to potentially land the same eventual checks.  The voice of reality and creative energy has “sold out” to small paydays and big dreams the major label is still able to convey through its main tool – the music video. If Hip Hop is to be a solution for violence then the emcee of today and the future must be able to think freely and not be mind controlled into believing there is only one type of way to rap, and think.

Creative thought itself is ignited in the brain when both hemispheres are working together to form a spark, much like the one Hip Hop is able to ignite in the mind of people of all ages, sex, color and creed through graffiti art, the DJ, the MC and the B-Boy or B-Girl dancer. It is this type of excitement that can shelter people and provide respite from many of today’s societal ills when they are focused and practice the art of self expression. The power of creating something from nothing, which Hip Hop has always offered, hints at the same magic the finest scientists and mathematicians have never been able to solve about the origin of the universe itself. If you want to find these types of solutions and answers to life’s biggest challenges and riddles perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the principles of the of Hip Hop culture!

The emcee must know the true history of Hip Hop culture and how it was made to be a solution to the violence. It may be time to teach true Hip Hop culture in the schools (including all the elements) if we want to find a solution. Recall or recognize, it was Hip Hop positioned to be a similar solution in the seventies in the Bronx during the most violent of times that gave birth to the phenomena we see today across the world.

Lyrical is rapper, and college professor originally from Lowell, Massachusetts now living in Cambridge. He teaches mathematics full-time for Northeastern University in a freshman only cohort for accepted former Boston Public School students. He is also an adjunct professor of Entertainment Management at Bay State College, in Boston Massachusetts and teaches and has taught for various colleges all around the area. For more information on Lyrical go to

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