Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

An album worth waiting for: Lowkey – Soundtrack to the Struggle

Lowkey and Jody McIntyre

As Lowkey says in the intro: it’s been a long time coming.

Twenty-five-year-old rapper Lowkey (aka Kareem Dennis) has been well-respected on the underground hip-hop scene since he was a teenager, winning notoriety for his humorous battling style and rapid-fire lyricism. But it was a few years into his career, in early 2009, that he really emerged as the leading voice in the “soundtrack to the struggle” – making music representing the hopes and dreams of oppressed peoples around the world; people struggling for freedom and equality.

A key moment in this process was the massive rally in Hyde Park on 10 January 2009, protesting against Israel’s brutal bombing campaign against Gaza. Lowkey’s impassioned acapella performance of the poignant ‘Long Live Palestine’ (which has since become a massive hit) caught a lot of people’s attention, and Lowkey quickly became a leading voice in the anti-war movement, one of very few with the ability to put radical ideas in a form that young people can relate to.

Since then, Lowkey has released a string of hits and established himself as the leading voice of political hip-hop on these shores (in addition to gaining the respect of some of the major radical voices of US hip-hop, such as Dead Prez and Immortal Technique). The reach of his singles has been unprecedented for a fully independent artist with no mainstream media support. His tracks ‘Terrorist’ and ‘Obamanation’, both hard-hitting pieces of political and social commentary exposing the lies and hypocrisy of imperialism, have received 1.6 million and 1.4 million YouTube views respectively. A generation of young people has been inspired and educated by these songs, which have successfully captured people’s imagination in a way that the many organisations bringing a somewhat similar message have failed to do.

And although there are a few that want to ghettoise him as a ‘Palestine rapper’, Lowkey has continued to make music about police brutality, about respect for women, about the music industry, Cuba, Diego Garcia and much more, and has collaborated with leading London rap voices such as Wretch 32, Klashnekoff, Akala, Black the Ripper and Sway.

In addition to his music, Lowkey has also spoken at meetings, rallies and pickets up and down the country, speaking out against war, racism, islamophobia, government cuts and police brutality. He has taken his skills and knowledge around the world, speaking and performing in the US (alongside respected anti-zionist academic Norman Finkelstein), Palestine and Australia.

Along with activist Jody McIntyre and rapper Logic, he has formed the Equality Movement, bringing young people from different ethnic, political and religious backgrounds together to learn and act in the struggle for a better future. A true activist-musician, he’s as comfortable with the megaphone as he is with the microphone.

Throughout these last nearly three years of intense activity, the anticipation has been growing for a Lowkey album – a body of work that sums up his experiences, and our whole generation’s experiences, over the past few years; years characterised by imperialist wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Libya; bombings of Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen; global economic crisis; massive cuts to public services in most of the affluent countries; and rising resistance to the status quo.

Although Lowkey’s debut album, Dear Listener, appeared in mid-2009, and was a very solid release, it was clear that it was a prelude to his first major album, which has finally arrived in the form of Soundtrack to the Struggle. And it’s a classic. No weak tracks, no cringe moments, no need to skip or fast-forward; just 20 exceptional pieces of thought-provoking and soul-stirring music. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that this album sits comfortably alongside the best UK hip-hop releases of all time (such as Skinnyman’s “Council Estate of Mind”, Rodney P’s “The Future” and Klashnekoff’s “The Sagas”). Furthermore, given the international relevance of the subject matter and the intensity and lyrical ability Lowkey brings to the table, I would argue that Soundtrack to the Struggle deserves a place alongside the best political/radical hip-hop releases (such as Dead Prez’s “Let’s Get Free” and Immortal Technique’s “Revolutionary Vol. 2”).

The intro track, ‘Soundtrack to the Struggle’, sets the scene perfectly, with its cinematic strings, choir voices and the chorus reminding us that “the system need fi change right now, too much yoot a go down inna grave right now”. Lowkey makes his mission very clear:

This album has been in the making a quarter century
Born to bless the beat and rap over recorded melody
I knew the truth since I was a small little boy
I am a product of the system I was born to destroy

The next track, ‘Too Much’, featuring the singing talents of Shadia Mansour, has a clear message about the dangers of our society’s obsession with money, asking “Do you possess money or by money are you possessed?”. The recently-released video, shot in Havana, contrasts this money madness with the simpler and more altruistic life favoured in Cuba.

Track 3 will already be known to most of you – ‘Voice of the Voiceless’ featuring radical New York-based hip-hop legend, Immortal Technique.

‘Hand on your Gun’ is a new track over a ridiculously funky Show’n’Prove production, exposing the sinister forces behind the weapons industry.

First in my scope is BAE Systems
Specialise in killing people from a distance
Power is a drug and they feed the addiction
Immediate deletion of people’s existence
Who says what is and what isn’t legitimate resistance

Next up is a skit based on a firing speech by Reverend Jeremiah Wright that, in two minutes, tells you everything you need to know about imperialist state terrorism. “Violence begets violence, hatred begets hatred, and terrorism begets terrorism”. This of course provides the perfect introduction to ‘Terrorist’, Lowkey’s biggest track to date, and probably the most widely-discussed piece of music of 2010.

After ‘Something Wonderful’, the video for which was released early last year, comes a new cut, ‘Dreamers’, a deeply personal track dedicated to the dreamers: not the people that “see things that are there and ask why”, but the people that “see things that aren’t there and ask why not”. The emotional lyrics and tight flows work perfectly alongside Mai Khalil’s wistful adlibs and the acoustic instrumental (which you will almost certainly recognise!).

A clip of a speech from well-known activist/journalist Tariq Ali, assessing the record so far of US President Barack Obama, sets the scene nicely for ‘Obamanation’, which, although released back in March 2010, only gets more relevant with the passage of time.

Next up is ‘Cradle of Civilization’ featuring Mai Khalil, a haunting and moving tune devoted to the homeland Lowkey has never seen: Iraq.

What I view on the news is making me shiver
Cos I look at the victims and see the same face in the mirror
This system of division makes it harder for you and me
Peace is a question; the only answer is unity

In ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’, Lowkey joins forces with UK hip-hop heavyweight Klashnekoff for a track reflecting on their careers and their roles within the music industry. Everybody around the scene knows that these two brothers could be living large off music right now if only they were willing to give up control of their minds and bodies to the major label puppet-masters. Both have opted instead to stay true to what they believe in over the course of their careers. Lowkey’s verse describes his mission to give voice to the voiceless:

I don’t do this for the happy ravers or the aggy haters
I do this for the warriors and the gladiators
Do this for those whose lives you never cared about
Can’t pronounce their names, their origins or their whereabouts
Those brought up around tragedy and sadness Who adjusted and found normality in the madness
Fight the power, til I’m out of breath like Malcolm X
You empower the powerful, I empower the powerless

In the new track ‘Everything I Am’, heavyweight producer Show’n’Prove again comes through with the goods with a phenomenal sample flip. Lowkey explores his own identity and how he is perceived, particularly by his fans.

Preferably the aim is equality eventually
Don’t relegate me below, or elevate me above, you
Needless to say, in either place I’m uncomfortable
I treat you as an equal I’m simply a man
Your brother in humanity is everything that I am

The next skit, introducing ‘Long Live Palestine’, is based on a beautiful and deeply moving speech by Norman Finkelstein, explaining why he, as a Jew, feels compelled to support the struggle of the Palestinian people. This will make you cry.

My late father was in Auschwitz, my late mother was in Madjanek concentration camp. Every single member of my family on both sides was exterminated. Both of my parents were in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. And it’s precisely and exactly because of the lessons my parents taught me and my two siblings that I will not be silent when Israel commits its crimes against the Palestinians. And I consider nothing more despicable than to use their suffering, and their martyrdom to try to justify the torture, the brutalisation and the demolition of homes that Israel daily commits against the Palestinians. So I refuse any longer to be intimidated by the tears [of Zionists absolving themselves of any crimes by making reference to the Nazi holocaust]. If you had any heart in you, you would be crying for the Palestinians.

The next new track is ‘We Will Rise’, an optimistic tribute to those fighting against empire, in particular against its disastrous impact in the Arab world over the course of the last century. The track ends with a powerful poem from young Yemeni-British poet Sanasino.

After ‘My Soul’, the video for which was leaked in July, comes another deep new track, ‘Butterfly Effect’, produced by the highly-respected New York production team Beatnick and K-Salaam. Lyrically a very deep and unique track, ‘Butterfly Effect’ sees Lowkey giving voice to a disabled homeless war veteran and exploring how events and decisions have repercussions that we can never predict. The beautiful sung chorus, solemn instrumental and powerful storytelling make this one of the standout tracks of the album.

Next comes ‘ObamaNation Part 2’, the video for which was released just a few days ago, and which has become an instant classic. Three intense verses – from M1 (Dead Prez), Black the Ripper and Lowkey – over an epic Nutty P production.

Then we have another new BeatNick and K-Salaam produced banger, ‘Dear England’, featuring Mai Khalil. The grime tempo/feel is a welcome change of pace and gives Lowkey a chance to show off his double-time skills, very appropriate for this insightful track about the recent London riots.

Britannia lit the match but Britannia fears the flame
Where blood stains the pavement, tears stain the cheek
When privilege is threatened, the fear reigns supreme
Where bankers are earning from shooting and looting
The nervous are shooting, we search for solutions

‘Haunted’ is perhaps the most personal, reflective and fragile moment of the album, as Lowkey gives the listener an insight into some of the psychological conflict he deals with daily, haunted by the memory of his brother, ground down by the stress of his ongoing court case, and lied about and misrepresented in the press. He ends by urging the listener to remember: “When I go, just know, that I did it for the people”.

The penultimate track is the long-awaited ‘Terrorist Part 2’, featuring the young London-based Iraqi rapper Crazy Haze taking the role of a barrister defending Lowkey against charges of ‘inciting terrorism’ with his music, and then as a prosecuting barrister cross-examining Lowkey. An innovative and interesting track over a tasty Last Resort beat.

The final cut of the album is the impassioned ‘Million Man March’, which encapsulates the sentiment of Che Guevara: “I don’t care if I fall as long as someone else picks up my gun”. Mai Khalil (whose contribution to this album cannot be underestimated) sings:

My back’s against the wall
But you can’t kill us all
Even if you take my life
Still we will survive
We shall overcome
And the tables will turn
Today I die as one but as millions I’ll return
But as millions I’ll return
But as millions I’ll return

And there you have it. Twenty phenomenal tracks that make you think and make you feel. An album worth waiting for. I’m sure there will be many more albums to come from Lowkey (who at 25 years of age displays a remarkable musical, lyrical and political maturity), but it’s not going to be easy to top this.

The album is released on 16th October. Here is the iTunes pre-order link. If you are a Lowkey supporter, please do your best to spread the word about the album far and wide! There is no multinational corporation sponsoring this music; it is our music; music for the people. If we don’t support it, it can’t continue.

Album review: Saigon – The Greatest Story Never Told

Buy the album on Amazon UK
Buy the album on iTunes UK
Buy the album on iTunes US

I tried very hard not to get too excited about this album. It almost seemed too good to be true – one of the best rappers in the game alongside one of the best producers in the game, on an album that has been in the works for several years and which really seemed like it was never going to see the light of day. Once it finally got a release date, I prepared myself for the probability that it wasn’t going to match its promise.

Turns out I didn’t have to do that.

Accuse me of hyperbole if you want, but here’s my assessment: The Greatest Story Never Told is the best, most consistent, most heart-felt, most radical, most banging hip-hop album since Let’s Get Free. Yup, I said it. You can disagree, and that’s fine, but to me this is a phenomenal piece of music.

For one thing, the beats are *amazing*. Just Blaze never fails to bring the heat. The sampling is impeccable and the drums are banging; the soulful instrumentals provide the perfect platform for Saigon’s penetrating lyrics and emotional delivery.

With the beats out of the way (hey, I’m a producer!), let’s talk about Saigon. To me, Sai is a lot like 2pac in terms of his passion and what he represents. Saigon is most definitely a ‘conscious’ MC in the sense that he talks about stuff that matters and makes an important, radical analysis. However, like ‘Pac, he represents the kids on the corners rather than the intellectuals and the university-educated radicals. He is a voice within the ghetto, encouraging his peers to understand the situation they’re in and to rise above it.

This type of consciousness, so common in reggae, is really only represented by a handful of rappers in the US hip-hop scene (Nas, 2pac, Dead Prez and KRS-One come to mind). Saigon is a very welcome addition to this group.

Saigon talks about ghetto life, about the drugs and the violence that are designed to keep black people down, about the easy route from the projects to the system of modern-day slavery they call prison; he talks about the preacher that exploits his congregation; he talks about the single mothers struggling to feed their children; he talks about the dangers of a life of crime. Essentially, he tells his life story – the story of a kid from the gutter who fell into selling drugs at a young age and who served several years in prison. Unlike many others, Sai doesn’t glorify his life story in order to sell lots of records; he places his life in the context of the brutal racism and exploitation that characterise US society. In doing that, he starts to carve out a path away from the violent nihilism of street life – once you understand the forces acting on you, you gain the ability to act against them.

A few standout moments of the album:

The Invitation. At the moment, this is my favourite track of the album, talking about how the underground economy is society’s invitation for young black men to join the “party in the penitentiary”. Sai’s lyrics are clever and hard-hitting, and the beat is just plain banging – classic noisy soulful blues-sampling Just Blaze (reminding me a bit of ‘Public Service Announcement’).

The party is in the pen and the government is promoting it
That’s the reason I don’t be believing in all this voting shit
They bring the coke in this bitch, ain’t no poppy seeds in the Ps
Please, nuttin but a whole lot of hopelessness
That’s where all the focus is
Making sure the blacks stay in the back
It’s a damn shame, we placed in a no-win situation
The party’s in the pen and the blow is the invitation

Q-Tip on the chorus is a nice touch!

Enemies is a deep, wistful track about Sai’s relationship with street life – the attractiveness and destructiveness of a life of crime. Addressing himself to the street, Saigon says:

Don’t flatter yourself, it don’t take a genius to spell Thug
Convince a kid at the mere age of 12 to sell drugs
If you really had cheek you’d have them white kids like you had me
It was their great-granddaddies that created you
They was the ones that flooded you with gats and liquor stores
Match pimps with the whores to trade cash in for intercourse
And of course these young ni**as stay sucking you off
But I know the truth, so pooooff, I’m cutting you off

The title track, The Greatest Story Never Told, sets the tone for the whole album with some amazing lyricism, thought-provoking ideas and fresh production:

I rap about politicians, how money’s their acquisition
To get it they gotta keep us without a pot to piss in
Strugglin’ to survive, 9-to-5, ain’t making it
Turn on the TV, all I see is celebs taking it
Feeling like they got all the bread but they ain’t breaking it
I’m taking it as soon as I find the oven where they baking it

We was brought here to pick the cotton
Now we picking the music for massa to listen to
The clothes in which he rockin’
We don’t drive a hard bargain
All we want back is crack, some more gats
And some more of that bullshit rap
The crime rhyme is still black on black
We need a leader like me to get us back on track
When y’all make them dis records do you know what you’re doing to black community?
Market and promote the fact that we lack unity
Them white people look at you and laugh
You look like a porch monkey boy dancing for cash
Wanna get on a record and talk trash
See him at the awards and don’t do shit but walk past

If I bust a gun in the hood I get Attica or the Cat
I bang a gat in Iraq I get a pat on the back
Best believe I know better than that
This a lesson for all my listeners Ð shit ain’t just regular rap
It’s the greatest story that ever been spat
It’s gonna teach the hood and at the same time make my pockets elephant fat
Go ahead with all the irrelevant rap
Me and my ni**a Just Blaze bring the true element back

Clap, featuring the considerable vocal talents of Faith Evans, is probably the most feel-good track of the album, and has Saigon in optimistic mood:

We gotta start helping each other, quit hurting each other
Money’ll have a ni**a start thinking about merking his mother
How does it feel being slaves to a dollar bill?
I’m giving you something you can feel, are y’all for real?

Do away with the hip-hop police force
Fuck the pigs, I was taught not to eat pork
Clap your hands if you ain’t forget where you came from
Clap again if you ready to see a change come

It’s Alright is another deep track, taking the form of a letter to god, asking why he doesn’t do more to relieve the suffering:

It’s alright, I write a letter dedicated to god
First I thank him, without him I’d never have made it this far
But it’s hard, trying to think of why he not getting involved
There’s a lady with a new born baby living in the car
The police is beating us up, the hurricane eating us up
Katrina floodwater was deep as a fuck
Dear lord, are we ever gonna receive a reward
For all the suffering and misery and pain we endured
It’s like the transatlantic slave trade, the AIDS, the crack
When are we ever gonna get paid back?

To all the ladies having babies on they own
These ni**as ain’t shit, ma, for real, you better off alone
If he ain’t smart enough to know why he should stay
Then what could he possibly teach a seed anyway?

Raise your kid, you don’t need no man
Especially one that need to be deprogrammed
Type of brother that think he righteous cos he don’t eat no ham
But he keep playin’ and fuckin’ wit some kilogram
Girlfriend, you know what you doing, the time is right
You tell your little one that it’s alriiiight.

The track ends with a shout to the political prisoners rotting away in US jails – each of them incarcerated on trumped up charges; each of them victims of, and fighters against, an unjust system. It’s a great touch that the prisoners get shouted out individually, including Mumia Abu Jamal, Herman Bell, the Cuban Five, Leonard Peltier, Sundiata Acoli and Dr Mutulu Shakur (Tupac’s godfather). Sai’s message to the prisoners: “Peace! Hold your head, soldiers.”

Promise offers some great insight into the hypocrisy of the music industry:

The rap figures throwing money in the air like it’s pizza dough
People in the hood ain’t eating, no
I try to help the label see the vision
But they lowered me to a subdivision, you gotta be fuckin kidding
They’d rather me pretend to be something I’m not
I’m the new Public Enemy, I’m different than Young Jock
And nah, I ain’t dissing, this ni**as’s up in the falls
Shit, I ain’t made a dollar tryna rap for the cause
But in these next four bars, I’ll tell you about malevolent laws
They enforcing off America’s shores
Dawg, if they can have rifles on their farm
Then I can’t see why they knock TI for trying to bear arms

There are a few off moments, I can’t deny. ‘Promise’ starts off in unexpectedly misogynistic fashion which definitely doesn’t match the pro-unity vibe of the album in general (“I caught a bad case of smack-a-bitch-yitis / I came home and my wife got my daughter in shitty diapers / The rice is still raw and the meat is in the freezer / I hate that I’m too close to her to leave her”). But a couple of cringe moments shouldn’t spoil the album. Part of Saigon’s appeal and effectiveness is that he is a victim of the same issues he exposes. He is not perfect and doesn’t claim to be perfect (again reminiscent of 2pac).

All in all, it’s a beautiful album. If an album of this quality came out every year, I’d be more than happy with the state of hip-hop. Buy it, listen to it five times over, and let me know what you think (leave a comment!).

Buy the album on Amazon UK
Buy the album on iTunes UK
Buy the album on iTunes US
Follow Saigon on Twitter

Book Review: MK Asante Jr “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop – The Rise Of The Post-Hip-Hop Generation”

Bigger than Hip Hop

Bigger than Hip Hop

Did you ever give any thought to that chorus: “It’s bigger than hip-hop”? The line is so catchy, the flows so striking, the bass so overwhelming, that I wonder how many people have taken the time to consider what the classic Dead Prez track is really saying.

With that song, I think M1 and are trying to tell us that the struggle for freedom is alive, is real, and that participating in it is about more than listening to – or making – great music. The movement for progress is “bigger than hip-hop”, and would exist if hip-hop wasn’t there. “It’s bigger than all these fake-ass records.” Indeed, there are plenty of forces within hip-hop that are working *against* the struggle for freedom. “I’m sick of that fake thug, R&B-rap scenario, all day on the radio.” demands of the listener: “Would you rather have a Lexus or justice, a dream or some substance?”

With his remarkable book, “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop”, MK Asante Jr takes the sentiment of the song and turns it into a manifesto; a discussion document for a new generation (the ‘post-hip-hop’ generation) to help define and develop its role in the struggle for a better future.

Asante starts by examining the current state of hip-hop – the music that is generally considered as being representative of young Black people in the US. He points out that hip-hop, especially the kind that gets major TV and radio coverage, has largely moved on from being a voice for the Black community. The likes of Public Enemy and KRS-1 are sidelined in a scene that has “been lulled into being a conservative instrument, promoting nothing new or remotely challenging to mainstream cultural ideology.” Asante is scathing in his criticism: “Even in the midst of an illegitimate war in Iraq, rap music remains a stationary vehicle blaring redundant, glossy messages of violence without consequence, misogyny, and conspicuous consumption. As a result, it has betrayed the very people it is supposed to represent; it has betrayed itself.”

Asante remarks that hip-hop has effectively been colonised. It has become a key part of a music industry that is entirely controlled by rich white men (while Jay-Z gets to be considered the ‘CEO of hip-hop’, the sad fact is that not a single Black person sits on the board of directors of any of the main parent companies that own labels such as Def Jam). That music industry has been busily trying to turn hip-hop into its opposite – from a tool of freedom into a tool of oppression, projecting an image of Black people that the white supremacist ruling structures are entirely happy with (that is, an image of simple, primitive, hypersexualised people only too willing to kill themselves with drugs and guns).

“Under the banner of ‘keeping it real,’ the hip-hop generation has been conditioned to act out a way of life that is not real at all. The hip-hop *industry* (as opposed to the hip-hop *community*) has been successful in framing an authentic Black identity that is not intellectual, complex, educated, or diverse, but a monolith of violence and sexism.”

MK Asante Jr opines that the current generation of politically/culturally/socially active youth does not identify with hip-hop in the same way that young people identified with it 20 years ago. Therefore, Asante argues, the post- hip-hop generation has to move beyond the limited discourse of current hip-hop, using it as a voice where possible, but not being constrained by it.

Asante goes on to analyse in depth the wider social, economic and cultural problems facing this generation – the issues that hip-hop *should* be engaging with, starting with the changing role of mass media and the part it plays in shaping the thoughts and activities of our generation.

“Any 21st century discussion of our world, across race, gender and class lines, must acknowledge and take seriously the notion, the reality, that young people of today derive the bulk of their ideas not from traditional institutions, but from the growing number and more intrusive forms of mass media.”

Regarding the way media affects specifically the Black community, Asante writes: “Where the Black church, community centers, and family were once the primary transmitters of values and culture, today it’s a potent mass media concoction of pop music, film, television, and digital content – all of which are produced and disseminated through a small handful of multinational corporations.”

This is a critical point that few radical writers have engaged with – the ability of the ruling classes to control people’s minds is *increasing*, not decreasing; the ability of the older generation of oppressed peoples to transmit their values to the younger generation is *decreasing*, not increasing, for the same reason. This is a disastrous situation for all oppressed people, but particularly for Black people, who have practically zero representation at the ownership level in the mass media.

Asante writes: “Images of people of African descent remain virtually unchanged from the racist stereotypes promoted before and during slavery.” And these images are not just consumed by people whose interests are served by perpetuating racism; they are also consumed by the victims of that racism. “Images produced by and for whites to justify Blacks’ oppression, images of savages, of laziness, of pimpism and gangsterism, have been embraced by Blacks. It means that the images that taught white people to hate Blacks, to oppress them, have ultimately resulted in Blacks hating Blacks.”

MK Asante Jr moves on to the closely-related problem of the generation gap, which is more prominent than ever before, and which stands in the way of unity for progress. The media has been a major force in creating this problem, on the one hand reducing the power of the traditional community institutions where different generations would interact, and on the other hand presenting the older generation with a crass, warped view of the younger generation (via MTV, BET, cop shows, etc).

As Michael Dyson often argues, the generation gap between the Hip Hop generation and the Civil Rights generation has created a shameful disunity over the last 30 years. The media, the fear culture, the social paranoia arising from the crack explosion, the breakdown of communities, the changing nature of racism and exploitation, the rise of unemployment, the defeat of the Black Power movement, the changing values of the youth – all of these have fed into the problem. Asante points out that this gap must be analysed and overcome if the major problems of our society are to be fixed.

The only thing worse than fighting with your allies is fighting without them” (saying)

Arguing for a broad unity of all oppressed people, and all those struggling for a better future, Asante points out that all struggles against oppression and exploitation are connected, and that all attempts to disrupt the unity of the oppressed must be defeated.

“It was Malcolm [X] who knew, toward the end of his life, that the fundamental problem is not between Blacks, whites, browns, yellows, reds, or any other racial category, but rather, between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing, the exploited and those who do the exploiting – regardless of skin colour. Malcolm realised that the only way to fight oppression is to unite with people who share the same spirit of resistance against inhumanity and injustice – and those spirits may, and in fact should, have different colours, genders, religions, etc”

Asante quotes Martin Luther King on the same issue of unity against exploitation:

“One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society…”

Another issue that is rarely touched upon in the mainstream political discourse is that of prisons. There are currently 1.5 million Black Americans in prison. There is no precedent for this level of imprisonment anywhere in the world, ever. WEB DuBois wrote over a hundred years ago that “the courts have become a universal device for re-enslaving blacks”. If this was a problem in 1903 (when The Souls of Black Folk was published), it is a much bigger problem now, where the so-called War on Drugs (in reality the War on Black and Latino Youth) has been going on for forty years.

Asante cites then-president Richard Nixon: “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. They key is to devise a system that recognises this while appearing not to.” Nixon defined a clear strategy for dealing with this ‘problem’: pump drugs into the Black community, create anxiety, create fear, create crime, create a context in which many people are actively calling for a greater state presence in the community, and then target that same community in a ‘war on drugs’.

The result of that ongoing war, forty years later, is that the US prison population has risen from around 300,000 to around 2.2 million, the vast majority of which is Black and Latino. The oppressed communities have been clearly targeted for imprisonment. Asante points out that, “according to Amnesty International’s definition, the vast majority of African-Americans imprisoned today are political prisoners.”

The prison industry is one of the biggest industries in the US. It is the main employer in hundreds of towns, and prisoners constitute a deregulated ‘Made in America’ work force, where there is no unionisation, no strikes and very little pay. As Robert King of the Angola 3 wrote: “Let’s call prisons exactly what they are: an extension of slavery.”

“Only a fool would let an enemy educate his children” (Malcolm X)

Asante, who is a tenured professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, also discusses the education system, which he points out is still deeply racist and which actively supports the prevailing system of exploitation and oppression. Asante calls on his readers not to leave their education purely in the hands of a state that doesn’t represent their interests. He calls on his readers to take an active role in defining their own education – studying relevant material, in a way that suits their culture and experience, and which directs them towards liberation, rejecting oppression, exploitation, racism, misogyny, eurocentrism and white supremacism.

Asante particularly focuses on the urgent need to use all means at our disposal to educate ourselves and others. He poses the question: how can we free ourselves without understanding society, without understanding history, without breaking our ideological reliance on the system that oppresses us?

Hip and hop is more than music
Hip is the knowledge / Hop is the movement
Hip and hop is the intelligent movement
(KRS-1 and Marley Marl – Hip Hop Lives)

So where does hip-hop fit into all of this?

Asante puts forward the idea that art is not an independent, isolated phenomenon; it is a part of the society it exists in. All art is to some extent political, because silence means implicit approval (to quote The Roots, “If you ain’t sayin’ nothin’, you a system’s accomplice”). Artists that wish to have a role in making society better therefore have a responsibility to be *artivists* – combining their talents with activism and using their voice in the interests of the masses. “The artivist must challenge, confront, and resist this otherwise inescapable fate of torture, injustice and inhumanity.”

Asante points out that the artivist has a particularly important job in a world where many people do not read books. For people with world-changing ideas, books have long been the chosen medium for conveying those ideas. Whilst it is positive to encourage people to read more, we also have to find other ways to get through to them. Discussing his own decision to become a film-maker, he says: “The artivist must not be afraid to learn a new language in order to inspire and empower new people – by any medium necessary.”

Asante calls for a combination of culture and activism in order to build a movement with the ability to seriously challenge the status quo and win freedom for all oppressed peoples. “No movement is about beats and rhymes. Beats and rhymes are tools – tools that if held the right way can help articulate the world, a new world, in which we want to live.”

Can hip-hop still be used? Of course. Hip-hop is a very powerful weapon. It’s a voice; it should be used widely, and people should remember that it is part of a continuous African-American (and, before that, African) tradition of using art as a means of changing society for the better, for guiding people, for inspiring people.

“It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop – The Rise Of The Post-Hip-Hop Generation” does a wonderful job of raising the issues that face young people today, and it lays the ground for a wide-ranging discussion about how we can address and solve those issues, using all the tools available to us.

Chuck D’s endorsement says it all: “MK Asante Jr combines drive, skill and a commitment that buoys us all. The hip-hop community should feel extremely blessed to have those qualities attached to its forward movement.”

“It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop” is a brilliant, well-written and thought-provoking book. Although its primary target audience is young people of African origin in the US, it has clear relevance for all those who want to participate in making the world a better place.

For those of you in London, please note that MK Asante Jr will be chairing a session at the British Library on Friday 26 November, entitled ‘Voices of rap and hip hop’. Speakers/performers include Saul Williams, Akala, Lowkey and Zena Edwards. More info here:

‘Bigger than Hip-Hop’ at Amazon UK
‘Bigger than Hip-Hop’ at Amazon US
MK Asante Jr’s Facebook page
MK Asante Jr on Twitter

Brand new video: Akala ‘Yours and My Children’

Check out this powerful and moving new video from Akala, for his track ‘Yours and My Children’. Shot on location in Rio’s favelas, the video is definitely a major step up from the average hip-hop vid. No bling, no phat cars, no bragging or bullshit; just regular scenes from the Brazilian hood, interspersed with clips from various live performances, all very slickly and professionally edited.

No doubt you’ve heard the track before, so I don’t need to tell you how deep it is. Akala kicks some of the realest knowledge, with breathtaking skill and passionate delivery. His simple message of unity is one that we need to take up! Here’s an excerpt of the lyrics:

Even the fact that I call myself black
Social conditioning and that’s a fact
The idea of races has no factual basis
It was made just to serve racists
To justify doing to some what couldn’t be done to others
But they all are all of our sons
BLack or white, all of our sons
Muslim, Christian, all of our sons
Look up in the sky, that’s all of our sun
Last time I checked, we only had one
So if some were inferior, others superior, based on exterior
Well then surely the sun would know and fall into line
It would rain on your crops and not mine
Air would prefer to inhabit your lungs
Food would prefer the taste of your tongue
If that’s not the case then nature’s declared
Despite what we say, the world’s in fact fair

Kids in Iraq, yours and my children
Kids in Iran, yours and my children
Afghanistan, yours and my children
Even Sudan, yours and my children
Kids in Brazil, yours and my children
Police drive by the favela and just kill dem

Spread the word! Let’s get the view count up and make sure the music industry knows Akala cannot be ignored.

Big ups to SB.TV for premiering the video.

Follow Akala on Twitter
Follow SB.TV on Twitter
Buy Akala’s latest album, DoubleThink, on iTunes
Read our review of the recent Dead Prez and Akala gig

Lowkey – Terrorist?

Lowkey is on a serious roll at the moment – everything he is putting out is lyrically, musically and politically on point. The latest video from his forthcoming (and much-anticipated) album ‘Soundtrack to the Struggle’ is called ‘Terrorist?’, and it explores the true meanings of the concepts ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’.

Lowkey starts off by quoting the dictionary definitions as follows:

Terrorist: the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coersion.

Terror: violent or destructive acts such as bombing, committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands.

He proceeds to compare some of the people that are labeled in the media as ‘terrorists’ (ie. Iraqis and others using primitive explosives against colonial domination) with the powerful states and corporations that are terrorising millions on a daily basis.

What’s the bigger threat to human society,
BAE Systems or home-made IEDs?
Remote controlled drones killing off human lives
Or man with home-made bomb committing suicide?

Although the ‘terrorist’ label has primarily been used to describe Muslims, particularly since the twin towers attack, Lowkey points out that resistance to imperialism isn’t limited to any one religion or racial group, and that all oppressed people are united by their opposition to the empire.

This is very basic
One nation in the world has over a thousand military bases.
They say it’s religion, when clearly it isn’t
It’s not just Muslims that oppose your imperialism.
Is Hugo Chavez a Muslim? Nah, I didn’t think so.
Is Castro a Muslim? Nah, I didn’t think so.

He brilliantly exposes the hypocrisy of western colonisers describing anybody as terrorists:

Lumumbah was democracy
Mossadeq was democracy
Allende was democracy
Hypocrisy, it bothers me
Call you terrorist if you don’t wanna be a colony
Refuse to bow down to a policy of robbery

The song is summed up by its beautiful, haunting chorus:

They’re calling me a terrorist
Like they don’t know who the terror is
When they put it on me I tell them this
I’m all about peace and love.

They’re calling me a terrorist
Like they don’t know who the terror is
Insulting my intelligence
Oh how these people judge

All in all, another very powerful track from Lowkey, with excellent production by the ever-reliable Red Skull and a highly professional, innovative video by Global Faction. Please spread the word!

Follow Lowkey on Twitter
Red Skull’s Facebook page

Invincible – The Emperor’s Clothes

This is a very potent and very slick track/video from Detroit rapper Invincible. Invincible smashes a *lot* of stereotypes, as a white female rapper, an anti-zionist from a Jewish family (she was born in Israel) who raps about gentrification, racism, Native American rights and the occupation of Palestine. Without a doubt she is a highly proficient rapper that people need to start taking notice of.

Check this interview for more details about Invincible.

Review: Mangaliso Asi – Heartbeat of the Street

Mangaliso Asi

Photo by Bruno Nguyen

Many London hip-hop heads (myself included) first heard of Mangaliso Asi at the Jay Electronica gig at the Jazz Cafe back in November 2009 when Jay hosted a short open mic segment. Mangaliso stepped straight up and, to the amazement of the crowd, absolutely merked it! Jay Electronica looked pretty much dumbfounded. “Daaamn. Most times you let people on the mic and they can’t really spit. This motherfucker can SPIT!” Jay went on to instruct Gilles Peterson, who was in the crowd, to get Mangaliso on his Worldwide show on BBC Radio 1.

A few months later and Mangaliso has released his much-anticipated debut mixtape, ‘Heartbeat of the Street’, an incendiary and emotional statement about the statement of the world and Mangaliso’s place within it.

Mangaliso Asi’s diverse cultural heritage clearly plays a major part in forming his style – his biog describes him as the “son of a Jazz singing father and a single mother raising her first child against the back drop of Apartheid South Africa.” Now living in London, the influence of Soweto is still evident in his music, as he deals with topics that the average rapper wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, such as AIDS (actually, if you think about it, it’s incredible that so few rappers are willing to talk about AIDS, given that it is one of the leading causes of death in the US ghetto – what happened to keeping it real?).

As indicated by the mixtape’s title, Mangaliso places himself firmly at street-level, representing the dispossessed and downtrodden. It’s not the type of ‘street’ that glorifies the crack industry or promotes a negative attitude to women; it’s the type of ‘street’ that rejects the suicidal prejudices that come from the corporations, the mass media and the governments.

Through me the street speaks
I am the voice that gives speech to the freedom we seek.

For a new artist, his voice is impressively well-honed and his lyricism appealing. I think it’s fair to say that his technique is strongly inspired by Rakim.

Cop the mixtape now – it’s a free download – and keep an eye out for Mangaliso. DOWNLOAD LINK

Mangaliso Asi on Bandcamp
Mangaliso Asi on MySpace
Mangaliso Asi on Twitter
Mangaliso Asi on YouTube
Mangaliso Asi on Facebook

Book review: Jeff Chang “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop – A History of the Hip-hop Generation”

Can't Stop Won't StopIn under 500 pages, Jeff Chang has managed to give a detailed, fascinating and relevant history of hip-hop culture, covering almost every important aspect: the social conditions that gave rise to it, the stories of the people and communities that pioneered it and moved it forward, its transformation from a primarily party-oriented movement to a culture of resistance, its re-transformation to a culture of individualism and consumerism, and a peek into its future.

While many (probably hundreds) of books have been written about the history and sociology of hip-hop and the people who listen to it, I can’t think of any that cover quite as much material as “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop”, and there are very few written in an accessible style. Jeff Chang combines the detailed knowledge and big picture understanding of the academic world with the passion and politics of the street (fittingly, he describes his location as “Brooklyn and Berkeley” (Berkeley is a university in California with a reputation for student activism)).

Chang devotes the first few chapters to exploring the social conditions prevailing in New York, particularly the South Bronx, in the years leading up to the birth of hip-hop. In many ways, although it is not directly about hip-hop, this is the most important section of the book, as this history gives some important clues as to what makes hip-hop so special, so important.

Chang describes one of the most crucial events that shaped the early hip-hop generation: the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, between 1948 and 1972. This single road, designed to decrease travel times for rich suburban commuters, forced the relocation of some 60,000 working class Bronx residents. While many white residents “moved north to the wide-open spaces of Westchester County or the northeastern reaches of Bronx County”, the majority of African and Latino residents had little choice but to move to the South Bronx, where there was a boom in social housing but a near-total lack of jobs.

The South Bronx was a place of rapid economic deterioration, having lost 600,000 manufacturing jobs in the late 60s and early 70s. Youth unemployment was said to be around 80%. “If blues culture had developed under the conditions of oppressive, forced labor, hip-hop culture would arise from the conditions of no work.”

Chang gives vivid descriptions of the social degeneration that followed the economic degeneration, as the most prominent face of the South Bronx became the gangs, the slum landlords, the insurance scam fires, the race tensions, and the drugs. The social policy response from the government was, basically, to ignore the ghetto, to pretend it didn’t exist. With the black power movement of the late 60s and early 70s defeated for the time-being, the state shut down the social programmes and replaced them with the fiction of ‘trickle down’ economics.

Gang life had become a central feature of many young people’s lives in the Bronx. “When African-American, Afro-Caribbean and Latino families moved into formerly Jewish, Irish and Italian neighborhoods, white youth gangs preyed on the new arrivals in schoolyard beatdowns and running street battles. The Black and brown youths formed gangs, first in self-defense, then sometimes for power, sometimes for kicks.”

Back in those days at least, the gangs and the major movements for political change were not a million miles apart. The Black Panthers, for example, had taken some important steps towards turning gangs away from the path of self-destruction and towards the path of revolution.

Chang writes that, in Chicago, legendary Black Panther Fred Hampton (who was murdered in his sleep by police in an unprovoked raid on his home) was “forming alliances with the powerful Blackstone Rangers, Mau Maus, and the Black Disciples gangs. He believed that the gangs collected the fearful and the forgotten. If gangs gave up robbing he poor, terrorizing the weak, hurting the innocent, they might become a powerful force for the revolution.”

In New York, the Puerto Rican revolutionary group The Young Lords had started as a street gang and had transformed themselves into an organisation for helping the community. They also had a powerful effect on the South Bronx gangs, especially when the gangs and the revolutionary groups discovered a shared enemy: police.

As the gangs found common ground in their opposition to police, to heroin dealers and junkies, and to poor social provision in their neighbourhood, a new era of unity started to emerge. It became suddenly possible for kids from different blocks, different gangs and different races to mix. All were drawn to the emerging block party scene, where young DJs like Kool Herc – generally considered to be the creator of the hip-hop movement – were making their names, putting on big parties much influenced by Jamaica’s sound system culture (which Herc, a first generation Jamaican immigrant, had grown up with).

The mix of African-American, Puerto Rican and Caribbean youth cultures – strangely vitalised by poverty, awash with rebelliousness, heavily inspired by Black Power and Puerto Rican socialist movements, in this North American cultural capital that had given birth to swing, be-bop, disco, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X – was explosive. Impoverished young people, struggling to survive in a deprived area that the world had chosen to ignore, gave birth to a culture of music, dance (breakdancing) and art (graffiti) which the world couldn’t ignore, and which it eventually would have no choice but to adopt.

Saying something

Having written about the social origins of hip-hop, the early innovators such as Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, the emergence of graffiti, the emergence of breakdancing, and other important topics related to the ‘early years’, Chang turns his attention to the emergence of ‘political rap’.

Hip-hop had originally emerged as a party movement. It wasn’t overtly political, although it was implicitly political in that: 1) it brought young people from diverse impoverished communities together and gave them a way out of a culture of self-destruction; 2) it gave a powerful voice to oppressed people who weren’t supposed to have a voice.

However, by the time the mid-80s rolled around, there was no escaping politics. Reaganomics – the set of anti-poor economic policies associated with the Reagan government – was in full effect, and social welfare budgets were being cut left, right and centre. The gap between rich and poor, and between people of colour and whites, was growing at an incredible rate, as was the prison population. US foreign policy needs (principally their desire to give financial support to the fascistic Contra movement in Nicaragua) had created the conditions for the rapid and devastating spread of crack cocaine in the black ghettoes of Los Angeles and elsewhere (“Nearly half of America’s largest cities is one-quarter black; that’s why they gave Ricky Ross all the crack”, says Mos Def in his classic ‘Mathematics’).

Now that the poorest sections of the population in urban US had a voice, it was natural to use it to decry the corporate/government attack on their communities, especially when the older generation of black radical politics – the civil rights and black power movements – had gone quiet (or had been ‘quieted’). “In the new crisis time, as it had been for Jamaica’s embattled roots generation, rappers were increasingly being recognised as ‘the voices of their generation.’ The centre of the rap world swung decidedly in a radical direction. Hip-hop culture realigned itself and re-imagined its roots, representing itself now as a rap thing, a serious thing, a Black thing.”

Chang gives a detailed coverage of the emergence of Public Enemy – without a doubt the best-known and most important political rap crew in history (I’ll write more about them when I review Russell Myrie’s biography of PE, ‘Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin’). He also points out some of the major milestones in late 80s and early 90s political rap, such as Run DMC’s performance at the Columbia University campus protest against apartheid, and KRS One’s co-ordination of the Stop the Violence Movement.

For many long-time hip-hop fans, that period of a few years when political rap was thriving is considered the ‘golden era’. Here was a vibrant, rebellious youth culture that spoke to the needs of working class and oppressed people everywhere.

The backlash didn’t take long to arrive. Upset by the pro-poor, pro-black lyrics of Public Enemy (and particularly their pro-Palestinian stance), mainstream journalists whipped up a frenzy of opposition to Public Enemy and other Afrocentric and black nationalist artists, labelling them as racist and anti-semitic. When certain comments made by Public Enemy’s Professor Griff regarding the Palestinian intifada were deemed to be anti-semitic, a national storm was created and numerous calls were raised for a boycott of Public Enemy’s music (what Griff actually said is still disputed, and this issue will be covered in depth in a future post).

Artist interviews were misquoted, lyrics were taken out of context, and rappers were demonised. The threat of boycott became a major establishment weapon. The big players in the music industry (still very much controlled by the old, rich, exclusively white corporates) got the message loud and clear: hip-hop could be exploited for financial gain, but it was not to be a platform for radical politics. After all, the FBI didn’t pursue its elaborate, expensive and murderous COINTELPRO operation just so that black and working class power could re-emerge in the form of rap music.

Funding and support for radical music disappeared, and the big deals started going to those willing to promote misogyny and black-on-black violence. While quick to point out that ‘gangsta’ rap is not a simple phenomenon and that many artists are highly contradictory (Jay-Z, for example, although considered as a misogynistic and ultra-consumerist artist, has made tracks opposing police brutality), Chang points out the sea change that occurred in rap music. Even NWA’s lyrics, although problematic in many ways, had a critical seed of rebelliousness; but by the time Dr Dre’s landmark ‘Chronic’ album landed in late 1992, it seemed like the time for “guiltless, gentrified gangsta” had arrived. “No Peace Treaties, rebuilding demands, or calls for reparations, just the party and the bullshit. The video for ‘G Thang’ seemed to ask: didn’t all boys everywhere just want to bounce in hot cars to hotter beats, hang out with their crew, party all night, and spray conceited bitches with malt liquor?”

The content swing within hip-hop reached a point where, “by the turn of the century, to be labelled a ‘conscious’ or ‘political’ rapper by the music industry was to be condemned to preach to a very small choir.”

Where to go from here?

Having given a brilliant description of the hip-hop generation, charting its highs and lows, Chang resists the temptation to give a prescription as to what needs to happen for hip-hop to regain its radical essence. Instead, he concludes his book with several important examples of grassroots activists from the hip-hop generation using the music and cultural imagery of hip-hop to positive effect in their communities. This at least gives a hint as to how Chang sees hip-hop heads re-developing music as a weapon.

In his introduction to the book, Kool Herc is less humble about making demands of today’s hip-hop artists and fans. Noting that “hip-hop is the voice of this generation”, Herc also points out that this is a role that comes with responsibility, a responsibility that many leading hip-hop artists are not taking seriously. “The hip-hop generation is not making the best use of the recognition and power that it has… We have the power to [change things]. If Jay-Z comes out one day with his shirt hanging this way or LL Cool J comes out with one leg of his pants rolled up, the next day everyone is doing the same thing. If we decide one day to say that we’re not gonna kill somebody senselessly, everyone will follow…

“I don’t want to hear [rappers] saying that they don’t want to be role models. You might already have my son’s attention. Let’s get that clear. When I’m telling him, ‘Don’t walk that way, don’t talk that way,’ you’re walking that way and talking that way. Don’t just be like a drug dealer, like another pusher. Cut the crap. That’s escape. That’s the easy way out. You have the kid’s attention. I’m asking you to help me raise him up.”

For Herc, it’s all about people within hip-hop taking responsibility and working to address the issues faced by their communities. “East, west, north or south – we come from one coast and that coast was Africa. This culture was born in the ghetto. We were born here to die. We’re surviving now, but we’re not yet rising up. If we’ve got a problem, we’ve got to correct it. We can’t be hypocrites. That’s what I hope the hip-hop generation can do, to take us all to the next level by always reminding us: It ain’t about keeping it real, it’s about keeping it right.”

If you love hip-hop, you should pick up a copy of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. It’s a beautiful book.

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