You can be a positive rapper. You can be a rapper that puts messages in the music. It's the same thing if you're an actor. That's what you are. You're not a politician, you're not a political leader, you're not an activist. You're a professional entertainer. And unless you take care of that first, nothing else really matters. By the way, I'm just a cartoonist.
Every time I speak, I want to shiver.
Last week you may have read bits (or all) of a Billboard cover story in which Kendrick Lamar, responding to a question about the recent police murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, said that the tragedies in Ferguson and Staten Island should never have happened but "when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us?" For good measure, Lamar also briefly defended hip-hop pariah Iggy Azalea, who "God wants" here to "do her thing," said thing including the ridicule of hip-hop's forebears and founding concerns.
Suddenly we find the most radical poet of a generation defending a blonde culture vulture; and for his minimal input in this one regard, Kendrick Lamar has earned our digital wrath.
What Kendrick said didn't come from a place of finger pointing or condescension like other celeb comments have. Dude is just misguided.— Larry Beyince (@DragonflyJonez) January 10, 2015
This earliest stretch of 2015 is a tender sort of aftershock. Following a year of marathon tragedy and flagrant unaccountability of the U.S. justice system, no one's tryna hear an eloquent, compassionate rapper endorsing the politics of respectability. Despite society-at-large, hip-hop has long proven a refuge from such concern-trolling about sagging and whatnot. If you think 2014 was a dispiriting year, consider that in 1989, at Public Enemy's zenith, a New York jury convicted five black men and then incarcerated them for 6-13 years, for felonies they didn't commit. Blackness was disastrous in 1989. Blackness is disastrous today. Justice is an enticing myth.
Hip-hop has always had a thing or two to say, or shout, about justice and other matters. KRS-One is hip-hop's irrepressible superego, and Chuck D is its General Washington. 2Pac was a radical entertainer, though not a revolutionary in the full-time, professional sense. Judging by his music and interviews, he was well-read but not a rigorous academic. He was, however, a full-time Negro. He was as qualified to scream "Fuck the police" as I am today, as some random blogger who happens to be black and justifiably aggrieved by the events of last year (or any given year, really). As much as critics love to condescend that rappers are rarely equipped to speak on politics, I prefer the world in which rappers theorize too loosely and ramble too far rather than not at all.
Rap is a genre; hip-hop is the culture. It's that latter, more robust context in which rappers' political priorities fascinate us, as ambassadorial representations rather than mere celebrity trivia. Ted Nugent's reactionary screeds and Randian lifestyle are a matter of self, whereas 2Pac's declarations are, to fans, restatement's of hip-hop's values and mission.
Schisms between art and politics predate hip-hop. Much has been made of Migos' ironic triumph over the Beatles' legacy, though it bears remembering that John Lennon, not unlike 2Pac, was a troublesome, utopian socialist and proud Brit who nonetheless antagonized Western governments via song, rhetoric, and action. (Your move, Quavo.) From the Beatles' break-up in 1970 to his death in 1980, Lennon was irreverent, optimistic, and, arguably, misguided.
Within fanbases, not all politics are welcome, and not all declarations are the genre's gospel truth. For every John Lennon, there's a Ted Nugent. There is 2Pac, and then there is Tupac Shakur. And now there is Kendrick Lamar, who apparently believes that police brutality and system-wide injustice are rather a matter of black people learning to love themselves, protests and rallies be damned. Kendrick is wrong, and that's a shame.
Insomuch as this angst is particular to hip-hop, music critic dream hampton has long warned fans that rappers—yes, your favorite rappers, even—will likely disappoint you when they start talking politics. This isn't always the case, of course—2Pac is one inspiring example, and lately Kanye rouses the rabble like none other. dream's advisory does come to mind, however, as Lupe Fiasco crashes through another mirror. Worse yet, T.I. has halted our regard with his repeated, self-interested defenses of Iggy Azalea, who is signed to Atlantic Records via Tip's Grand Hustle imprint.
A musician's two cents is as chipped and rusted as everyone else's: take it or leave it. Throughout the '90s and early '00s, dream hampton spent a career demanding respect and spiritual renewal of rappers, especially men, while tempering her expectations of people who've dedicated their mindshare to music rather than advocacy, academia, criticism, or the study of blackness otherwise.
There's narcissism at play when fans or critics overlook that education and privilege are often what separate them from the subjects of their thinkpieces. Lamar was an ace student at Centennial High School in Compton, so give him that much credit; no more, no less.
In any case, it's a full-time feat to reconcile these divergent perspectives on the world: the figurative static between fans, musicians, and critics. dream, for one, works frequently with Jay Z, whose presence is subversive in some ways, but whose politics are "hyper-capitalist" (her words) and gruesomely, well, American. The official, textbook history of the United States is vicious lies and dangerous misdirection; we are born into it, raised to recite it, and quizzed to death regarding the many dubious "facts" of the nation's past and present. Kendrick Lamar is but another casualty.