Hip-hop activism has been in the public spotlight the last couple of months. In the desperate, last minute effort to save the life of Troy Davis, whose case many (including the NAACP’s Ben Jealous) believed warranted enough doubt to stay, petitions and other actions went viral on social media.
Because of the involvement of several rappers thousands who may have never known about Troy Davis were activated to action. Houston rapper Bun B, one half of the southern classic duo, UGK whose best known for his collaboration with Jay-Z, “Big Pimpin”. Russell Simmons and radio personality Angela Yee all tweeted petitions for their hundreds of thousands of followers to sign.
Troy Davis himself reached out to Outkast’s Big Boi to help lobby for his life, and Big Boi took the charge seriously, sharing phone numbers of state officials to call and attending the rally outside the prison in Jackson, Georgia where Mr. Davis was being held. As his case got a last minute review (partly because of the many calls made to officials from people as a result of social media), Big Boi tweeted the mood outside the prison.
Big Boi remained with the crowd of his supporters until he was executed September 21, 2011 at 11:08 p.m. The day after he was executed Killer Mike, another rapper from Atlanta, gave an impassioned, impromptu sermon of sorts at an Atlanta gathering asking Troy Davis’ supporters to organize to eliminate the death penalty in Georgia.
A few days before Troy Davis was executed, Occupy Wall Street organizers encamped on downtown Manhattan’s financial district to bring attention to economic injustice and growing corporate governance. From the very beginning, explicitly political rappers M1 of Dead Prez and Immortal Technique were front and center.
By the time Kanye West sauntered through the crowd of protesters four weeks later, escorted by Russell Simmons who like Kanye, owns a multi-million dollar condo in neighboring Tribeca, Talib Kweli had already been there and performed a freestyle.
Kanye along with Jay-Z, rightfully received public criticism from elder hip-hip statesman Chuck D for their usual wealth flaunting on their collaboration album Watch The Throne’s first single “Otis.” Whether or not Kanye considered his appearance at the protest a contradiction or a conflict of is unclear. It’s likely Kanye was genuinely curious. Online public mocking and condemnation of his appearance happened widely and quickly.
Because the Occupy Wall Street protest is itself a purposefully wide assortment of protesters who range from people calling for reasonable financial reform to anarchists, it’s unclear if the protesters themselves welcomed self-made millionaires like Kanye West and Russell Simmons among them.
But the problem with Kanye and Jay’s disassembling a Maybach for their latest video, is that it reveals the extent to which the very rich are not only immune, but possibly numb to the very real suffering most Americans are experiencing in what can only euphemistically be called a recession. At least they revealed themselves to have a tin ear. At best Kanye’s presence at the protest demonstrated that despite his wealth, his interests are aligned with the middle income and working poor, at worst, it was only so much more unnecessary stunting.
Bun B, Big Boi and Killer Mike organized around an issue that certainly affects their fan base: the criminal justice system. They’ve not been typical organizers or advocates of political issues. Perhaps they were moved to action by Troy Davis’ compelling case, perhaps, in their late thirties, they’ve simply grown into more publicly responsible men. (I say this even as Big Boi was recently arrested for drug possession).
Bun B who teaches a class on religion at Rice University, has been quite a revelation on Twitter. Whether or not he was always a man whose interests included current affairs and foreign movies is unclear, but he’s definitely more than most of his fans could’ve anticipated based on his music alone
Talib Kweli, M1 of dead prez and Immortal Technique have a more consistent record of activism. M1 and Immortal Technique have both traveled to Palestine in support of those protesting Israel’s embargo and Talib Kweli frequently does benefit concerts for far left, “fringe” issues, including the campaign to free Mumia Abu Jamal. That they are not household names to most hip hop fans may or may not be related to their long history of taking hard political positions.
Chuck D, as always, reminds us that hip-hip has always had a chamber that advocated for activism. New faces, even those whose prior music and/or positions directly contradict their new, mature inclinations, are a welcome addition. Evolution, as personified by longtime hip hop hero Malcolm X is after all, the ultimate goal.