Is Conscious Rap an Outdated Concept?

As the decade comes to a close and a horizon awaits us with the ascent of 2010, my mind’s been active trying to think of something profound I can write to help usher in the next ten years of hip-hop. The more I delve into my thoughts to create something relevant we can all learn from as we close out Rap’s latest chapter, the more I start to question some of the many foundations we’ve constructed within the parameters of the genre. It feels short-sighted to merely recap the steps we’ve taken (a la cliché “Best of the Decade” lists) because what’s done is done and arguing about such elements doesn’t do the future any justice, and we just argue until we’re blue in the face about subjective opinions we mis-label as fact.

Instead I decided my talents were best utilized critiquing one of the most heralded substratum of the hip-hop culture, affectionately labelled by purists as “Conscious hip-hop” — a concept that needs some fine tuning if we want to continue to portray emceeing as a potent way of bringing society’s pitfalls to the forefront of our social awareness.

In this era of commercial, hyper-sexed, over-simplified media that’s engulfed the art of hip-hop (and music at large) it’s easy to forget the roots of the genre — a branch that grew from the tree of politically laden spoken word. Nikki Giovanni and Gil Scott-Heron, oft overlooked unsung pioneers of hip-hop history, were steadily crafting masterpieces lamenting the contrasts between the ghetto reality and the American dream. Fast forward nearly three decades, and revolutionary trailblazing has been replaced with a polarized civil war between mainstream and underground/indie rap that places unfair categorizations on the relevant artists of our times by establishing a black vs. white portrait of what it means to be a socially conscious artist.

The way I look at the next era of heroes, both within and outside of music and entertainment, has changed since my time as a residential counselor for juvenile delinquents. I already had a strong background in supporting the views of the oppressed as a student leader for a student group at Michigan State University (Multi Racial Unity and Living Experience), but working with the youth most affected by the currents of hip-hop music made me realize how conscious rap has betrayed its constituency for the most part.

When we think of conscious rap in context of the label, we think of Nas, Lupe Fiasco, De La Soul, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and similar artists of that mold. But through talking with the kids I work, with I realize nowadays that these artists are struggling to create relatable content to that age group. While half of that lies in the fact that the inundation of music with industry-machinated visions of materialism and redundancy has created a “dumbed down” snapshot of our world, the other half is that those artists are of an intellectual class that far surpasses those their music is truly meant to uplift.

That’s not to imply that all children and teenagers from poor/working-class families are unable to comprehend the works of those artists, but that in overwhelming numbers the message is going over their heads. Those of us privileged to attend high school and college are able to enjoy the content created by these individuals, and maybe even apply it to our lower-class counterparts. But how effective are we in bridging the gap so that the message is truly reaching the demographic in need?

The label of “conscious rap,” in many ways has devolved into an elitist tool to divide and reward/punish. The phenomenon that stems from that is that we reward those artists who think of social justice on a highly intellectual level, but neglect, or even punish, the thoughts of artists who find themselves rapping about the violent sub-culture that penetrates our inner cities everyday.

Compare and contrast two well-received hip-hop releases from 2008: Nas’ Untitled and T.I.’s Paper Trail. The former sees Nas tackling a bevy of issues that plague Black America, including self-hate, conservative propaganda, creative censorship, and the controversy surrounding the usage of the n-word. While these are all issues the intellectual class can identify as systemic flaws that block the progress of African-Americans, the message is going to fall short with many Blacks (specifically the never-ending n-word debate). You have an increasingly relevant body of work in the latter by T.I., that in its high points gives a dynamic view of recidivist behavior that provides a frightening match to the mind frame of today’s young juvenile criminal. Even the lack of remorse for past crimes depicted within certain songs is more indicative of that state of mind, opposed to simply giving critics an album mirroring a hackneyed 90s ABC after-school special.

The end result sees Nas receiving critical acclaim as a socially conscious artist, while T.I. fights the stigma of being a “street” artist who creatively offers little in the realm of provoking serious thought. But if the dictionary defines consciousness as “the thoughts and feelings, collectively, of an individual or of an aggregate of people,” why do we routinely shun artists whose music represent the thoughts of a demographic who’ve succumbed to a lifestyle created by the racial and economic disparity they suffer in this country? Are those thoughts not valid because they aren’t positive? Are they invalid because of how overwhelmingly they’ve been exploited by the media? One of my kids at work explicitly told me that after listening to “Paper Trail” he gave serious thought to turning his life around because he related to the content.

I listen to songs like “Represent” and “Street Dreams” by a younger Nas and I notice a lot of similarities between his bravado and the unabashedly “hood” mannerisms of the kids at my job. Shouting out hoods, talking about drugs and violence, and paying homage to friends and father figures who passed away over the years. Nas’ evolution into becoming a sagacious enough rapper to fight politically relevant battles in 2009 is a direct result of his crusade as a young adult to frame the in and outs of regular, everyday inner city life in a poetic sense. Likewise, if T.I. can continue to show maturation in his discography, maybe his willingness to condemn some of his own behavior will result in a shift from street punk to socially aware role-model.

Unfortunately it seems that while we cry for a revolution to give the oppressed a fair shot at balance, much of the music we support neglects to take into account those we seem to be fighting for. For every song that asks for freedom through tired rhetoric, we overlook shows like “The Wire” that not only convey the principal forces that create inner city chaos, but also give intimate looks at actual inner city people who have to navigate those muddy waters. Likewise, not listening to certain artists gives you a slanted view of what the pulse of the nation truly is — being able to hear music from all walks of life makes you more knowledgeable of what plays out in the minds of our nation as a whole collective. You can’t fight for someone with whom you share no sense of kinship and relation, and what better test of that bond is their than through the music they listen to and produce?

To put in the context of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” it seems that as a culture, hip-hop heads would be quick to note the words the Black nationalist spoke as a civil rights leader while forgetting that the book doesn’t make sense without chronicling his stint in prison and criminal activity. Maybe many of the T.I.’s of our world will live recklessly and receive that same wake-up call only to go on and contribute great scholastic efforts, whether through music or philanthropy, and reform in that same vein.

The day we start giving way to name recognition and not looking at socially conscious content in the broad sense is also when we stop truly being progressive about what it takes to solve our problems. I look at every artist under the same microscope and I feel every artist has the ability to produce music that can re-shape our world. Instead of labeling certain rappers “conscious” versus calling others “ignorant,” we can focus on whats really important — the actual musical content that each artist is or isn’t producing and effectively pinpointing that is included in the social soundtrack that will move the world to change.

  • Brittany Fudge

    First off, I’d like to say that this was a very eloquent and well written article. I feel as though conscious hip hop is still very much alive and thriving, you just have to look beneath the surface to find it. Everyone has a different reality, a different lifestyle, so I definitely agree with you as far as how we judge music and various artist. It may not touch every individual, but every song can be one step closer to changing the world we live in. Thank you for sharing!

  • L05

    I agree with Brittany. I too enjoyed the article and commend you for your articulate writing style. I do however feel that you’re underestimating the capability of youth to listen and grasp the meaning of many emcees’ lyricism. I too work with teens on a regular basis and have found that nine times out of ten when we engage each other in discussion about lyricism and content in contemporary hip-hop/music, they surprise me with depth and insight. What seems most important is for us to keep creating rich music and giving young people an opportunity to speak and discuss these topic in an engaging, thought-provoking environment.

    Thank you for sharing this!

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  • Naked Snake

    Obviously… good shit. The term “conscious rap” would be redundant if it was allowed to take the path that its founders had in store. Yet what could have happened, did happen. Black men in america exploited once again. Rap can return to its conscious state and beyond if only its representative would realize the state they are in and the power they have. They speak to the masses, and they are only “puppets” if they allow themselves to be. Rumor has it, 2pac died because he decided to do something about his “strings.”

    Yet when you think of rap’s pioneers, who influenced them? Poets did. They took as much from the Shakespeares, Kerouacs, Scotts and Pounds as they did from Dolemite, Richard Pryor, and their own uncles. Whether poet by trade or poet by heart, our pioneers stood on someone elses shoulders. Rakim wrote rhymes in Iambic Pentameter, Slick Rick has had his flow utterly and hopelessly duplicated by people who still cant touch him today, and Kool G Rap’s story is the same.

    When rap returns to poetry then it will inevitably return to conscious content. Thats my opinion, and im stickin to it.

  • sanamabbas

    NO such thing as conscious rap…only good and bad…calling it “Conscious rap” limits all types of artists way too much and puts them in a box. There are many main stream rappers are still socially conscious on many different levels…for example I considered Big L a Conscious rapper….so it’s best to stay away from that word and just judge based on levels of responsibility instead. Responsible rappers…as in socially responsible…

  • jaytee

    these artists aren’t “struggling to create relatable content” to teenagers. if anything kids today are smarter today than we were at that age. the difference is that these artists don’t have the same major label backing and visibility that their 80’s-90’s counterparts did. when we were growing up, the labels didn’t care what messages came out as long as the product sold, whether it be public enemy, brand nubian, paris, etc. then ice-t put out “cop killer” and they started paying more attention and stopped putting out anything revolutionary to avoid scrutiny. when artists put out overly violent or sexual music nobody pitches a fit that’s substantial enough to coerce the labels to chance anything.

  • Khay

    Common no fucking way.As for hip-hop its all underground not commericial success today.decent article with a hidden message.just dont disinform us towards Nas a Illumamnti freemason.

  • BongahChops

    Hi, I am an MC from the Caribbean, Barbados to be more precise, and I think your article is well put across since it deals with the two poles of the situation, which are both needed because they put the other into context. Your point was well made. I am referred to as a conscious rapper but i think that term is a bit limiting. I just bring my lyrics in accordance with how i view this world and the people of it.In the meantime check out my mixtape called THE REALEYEZATION, it can be downloaded here http://www.mediafire.com/?mmbv163ar1v7gjn
    Peace