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'Stakes Is High' | The Nation

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'Stakes Is High'

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Hip-hop feminism has been articulated by Joan Morgan as a kind of loyal but vocal, highly principled opposition to black (and brown and yellow) male übermasculinity. In the same way, neosoul dissects the attitudes and ideals projected in the hip-hop mainstream. Me'shell N'degeocello's compelling Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape opens with the line, "You sell your soul like you sell a piece of ass." The most commanding of the neosoul artists, Jill Scott, imagines reconciliation, no longer having to love hip-hop from a distance. On "Love Rain" she sings of meeting a new man: "Talked about Moses and Mumia, reparations, blue colors, memories of shell-top Adidas, he was fresh like summer peaches." But the relationship ends badly, "All you did was make a mockery of somethin' so incredibly beautiful. I honestly did love you so."

About the Author

Jeff Chang
Jeff Chang, a 2008 USA Ford Fellow in Literature, is the author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop...

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Neosoul personalizes struggles, but the approach has its limitations. India.Arie's Voyage to India, for instance, suffers from reducing black radical conviction to self-affirmation mantra. At the same time, the genre mirrors a deeply held conviction of the hip-hop generation: Revolution does not come first from mass organizations and marching in the streets, but through knowledge of self and personal transformation. "Back in the '60s, there was a big push for black senators and politicians, and now we have more than we ever had before, but our communities are so much worse," says Talib Kweli. "A lot of people died for us to vote, I'm aware of that history, but these politicians are not in touch with people at all. Politics is not the truth to me, it's an illusion." For a generation that has made a defensive virtue of keeping it real, the biggest obstacle to societal change may simply be the act of imagining it.

These are the kinds of paradoxes the silver-tongued Kweli grapples with on his second solo album, Quality, as masterful a summation of the hip-hop generation's ambivalent rage as Morgan's book, When Chickenheads Come to Roost. On one of his early songs, Kweli synthesized 1960s militancy and 1990s millenarianism in a phrase, rapping about the need for "knowledge of self-determination." At one point on the Nina Simone-flavored "Get By," he sees the distance his generation still needs to cover: "We're survivalists turned to consumers." Echoing Marvin Gaye's "Right On," he measures the breadth of his generation--from the crack-pushers to the hip-hop activists. "Even when the condition is critical, when the living is miserable, your position is pivotal," he concludes, deciding that it's time to clean up his own life.

Kweli never fails to deliver fresh, if often despairing, insights. On "The Proud," he offers a sage reading of the impact of 9/11 on the 'hood--"People broken down from years of oppression become patriots when their way of life is threatened." Later in the song, he cites California's Proposition 21--the culmination of nearly two decades of fears of gangs, violence and lawlessness--and ties it to the intensifying nationwide trend of profiling and brutality against youth of color. But he scoffs at a revolution coming at the ballot box. Of the 2000 Florida elections, he angrily concludes, "President is Bush, the Vice President is Dick, so a whole lotta fucking is what we get. They don't want to raise the baby so the election is fixed. That's why we don't be fucking with politics!"

But politicians can't stop fucking with rap and the hip-hop generation. Senator Joe Lieberman regularly rallies cultural conservatives against the music. Michael Powell's corporate-friendly, laissez-faire FCC has censored only the white male rap star Eminem and the black feminist hip-hop poet Sarah Jones. Texas Republican John Cornyn overcame African-American Democrat Ron Kirk's November Senate bid by linking him to police-hating (and, interestingly, ballot-punching) rappers. When Jam Master Jay, the well-respected, peace-making DJ of rap group Run-D.M.C., was murdered in October, police and federal investigators intensified their surveillance of rappers while talking heads and tabloids like the New York Post decried the music's, and this generation's, supposed propensity for violence and lawlessness.

Now a hip-hop parent, Kweli hopes to steel his young 'uns for these kinds of assaults. "I give them the truth so they approach the situation with ammunition," he raps. "Teach them the game so they know their position, so they can grow and make their decisions that change the world and break traditions." While he critiques his elders for failing to save the children, he knows his generation's defensive b-boy stance is not enough: "We gave the youth all the anger but yet we ain't taught them how to express it. And so it's dangerous."

Here is the hip-hop generation in all its powder-keg glory and pain: enraged, empowered, endangered. The irony is not lost: A generation able to speak the truth like no other before is doing so to a world that still hasn't gotten the message.

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