Fuck LSD. If you want a deeply psychedelic experience, just turn on the radio. First, tune in to KPFA at midnight this Friday and catch progressive hip-hop journalist Davey D's "The Friday Night Vibe" show. He usually opens the program with half a dozen or so antiwar songs. Then start your computer and fire up the exact opposite, at least politically: KMEL.com, the station that plays hip-hop to more Bay Area people than any other. Click on the link "War on Iraq" and scroll down past the Honoring Our Heroes section, below the numerous images of Saddam inside the crosshairs of a gun scope, under the "Helpful Links to Support the US Troops Overseas" and "Tribute Songs for Our Troops," and check out the Opinions section. As of this writing, you'll find a pullquote from an editorial that muses, "Instead of marching through the streets, how about [protesters] putting some energy into something that would make a difference, like sending money for humanitarian relief, or offering assistance to families with loved ones in the war?" In other words, objectors, why won't you just start supporting the war?
The editorialist, Cliff Albert of fellow Clear Channel affiliate KOGO, continues, "Instead, many of the antiwar protesters act like a little kid who's lost an argument and everyone has moved on, but the kid sits in the corner with arms crossed and a scowl on his face just to show everyone he's still unhappy. You know what advice a kid like that would get? It's time to grow up and move on." The banner ad to the right of the article blinks back and forth between "Big Baller" (originally street slang for drug dealer) and "BECOME ONE NOW!"
Then turn off the computer and fire up the station itself: KMEL, the "People's Station." Chances are about fifty-fifty you'll hear a song by either Nas, Puffy, or Jay-Z, rappers who have all come out publicly against the war. You might even catch "Rule," on which Nas spits, "Call a truce, world peace, stop actin' like savages/No war, we should take time and think." The occasional antiwar track like this is frequently bookended by piped-in rah-rah war updates from Clear Channel central. Clearly, there's a disconnect between the medium and the message.
According to the UK's Guardian, Clear Channel, the media corporation that owns KMEL, has been funding and organizing impromptu-seeming pro-war rallies across the country. In addition to owning eight other local stations, Clear Channel owns R&B oldies station KISQ (98.1 Kiss FM), making it the largest purveyor of music targeted to blacks and Hispanics in the Bay Area. Remember that hip-hop grew out of anti-gang, pro-peace street movements in New York. Add on top of all that an incident last July when Mikey Esparza, a shock jock at KSJO (another Clear Channel station), offered tips for kidnappers on how to bind children with nylon rope and where to buy the necessary supplies. Schlock and Awe, indeed.
It's also trippy to recall that one of Clear Channel's VPs is a massive Bush campaign contributor. Bush, of course, ran against Gore on the platform of integrity and good family values. Hip-hop, in its early days, advocated a similar value system, although from the underdog's eye view. Now, a few Nas tracks and indie backpackers aside, rap is as embedded in the corporate structure as the Bushies and Clear Channel.
When Dubya first declared the War on Terrorism in the first days after 9/11, he said it would be waged on American soil, right under our noses, often without us even knowing it. Well, it's happening right now, on the airwaves, in the streets, between friends, and even within individuals. There's a massive information war under way for your mind, and both sides are treating things like hip-hop as a weapon. From within the hierarchy of the entertainment industry, those who ultimately profit from hip-hop often are finding their own viewpoints antithetical to the genre's original thrust. From the outside, there are eerie reports that the NYPD and other police departments have rap task forces, and even stranger bits of evidence surfaced in the Biggie-Tupac slayings that implicate the LAPD as involved at very high levels. Bizarre times indeed.
The bottom line is that the bottom line is always the bottom line. Ying-Sun Ho, co-head of Freedom Fighter Music, an explicitly lefty-revolutionary label out of Oakland and San Francisco, remarks, "What's so interesting about the example of Nas is that he's so big, he can say shit and if he says it's his next single, they have to play it. There's real power in having that popularity."
Economics beats politics every time. SoundScan figures still trump special-interest muscle. (When a police group or other activists mount a successful bid to pull CDs from shelves, such as the campaign against Body Count's "Cop Killer," it's usually after the song's popularity has waned.)
Jakada Imani, Ho's partner and co-label founder, concurs over breakfast at a local diner. "Capitalism in general works to decontextualize and strip away the characteristics of counterculture," he says. "Now they're using a Janis Joplin song to sell Mercedes Benz. What's ironic is that hip-hop was born out of the devastation of industrialism and consumerism."
"Now it's used to get people's minds off their problems," Ho adds. "It's a pressure valve, where it used to be a pressure cooker."
Imani and Ho sprinkle their explanations with plenty of "isms" and neo-Marxist analysis, which is not surprising for two cats who also make up a rap group called the Red Guard. When asked if they are outright Maoists, the friends exchange quick glances and give a firm denial. "But we are explicitly aligning ourselves with third-world revolutionary movements," Imani offers. "The original Red Guard grew out of a sort of Chinese Black Panthers, so for us it's about leading a movement of change."
Freedom Fighter is preparing to release Wartimes: Reports from the Opposition, the first anti-Operation Iraqi Freedom compilation to come out. It offers fiery sonic tracts from the Red Guard, Hanifah Walidah, Goapele, and other artists, interspersed with interviews with activists and commentary from Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Understanding the power held by Nas, the Freedom Fighters know that for their message to achieve some sway over the public, the CD needs to blow up. This of course raises the easy criticism: How can communist sympathizers feel good about bringing yet another product to the market, another chunk of plastic to the bins at Borders? Why not organize as an underground direct-action group, rather than a business enterprise?
For the label, tactics play a distant second to getting the message across. "We're in a pitched battle with corporations and government for the hearts and minds of the people," Ho says. "We're going to do whatever it takes to win. If it means putting together a business model and selling products, or setting up as a nonprofit and doing direct action, we don't care. When you look at the right, at what Pat Robertson's doing, there's no distinction between politics and entertainment -- one part of the machine feeds the other."
And indeed Ho, who is a lawyer by trade, is involved in his share of activism. He'd been arrested the day before the interview for helping to occupy the military recruitment center near San Francisco State. And the Red Guard has rocked mics on a fair number of rally stages. The challenge, they say, is not sorting out ideology but making music that has the instant appeal of a Nas and packs a punch politically.
"People think that political rap, or whatever you want to call it, must suck a little bit," Ho says. "So we want to compete with Jay-Z. We want people to bump it in their cars."
"We want to make music that sounds so good, people who don't give a fuck about what we're saying will like it," Imani adds.
So is Wartimes that bangin'? Almost. On the prerelease version, which has fewer songs than the official one, the out-and-out hot joints are "Soldierman" by Walidah and "United We Stand (Not Your Flag)" by the Red Guard, both of which are built on club-rockable beats from sun:A. "Flag Love," the rare political track one could imagine E-40 rapping on, is damn solid, too, and for indie neo-soul, Goapele's "Red, White, and Blues" and "Masters of War" by Samantha Liapes are impressive. The spoken-word screed "Warsick" by Meilodik doesn't get much past sloganeering, and "Hush" from Company of Prophets is less memorable. The commentary from Abu-Jamal, a controversial figure even within the left, adds little, and the interviews with organizers don't deviate from the "No Blood for Oil" party line. All in all, though, a recommended collection, and one that even the politically apathetic -- or those of us who raise an eyebrow at the historical implications of a group called the Red Guard -- would enjoy.Imani and Ho have been encouraged so far by their project of furthering KRS-One's philosophy of "edutainment." After a recent rally where they performed, a group of black adolescents from the Western Addition pulled them aside. "These were working-class thirteen-year-olds," Ho says. "They weren't telling us they liked the way we broke down the neocolonial underpinnings of this latest war. They were giving us pounds, saying, 'Damn! That beat was the knock! Y'all are about to blow up. That was hella tight!'"
That, to Freedom Fighter, is more valuable than getting 10,000 North Face fleece-clad protesters to nod their heads any day.
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