Viewpoint: The (political) evolution of rap

BY HARSHA PANDURANGA

Published December 7, 2010

Gucci Mane is a stereotypical rapper. He raps about drugs, women and money on synth and bass-heavy beats while sporting garish “bling bling” on his shirtless torso. But while Gucci serves as a caricature of the hip-hop culture that’s continually decried, a growing civic clout and artistic respect are emerging as important characteristics of the genre. The culture is transforming in a way that allows its members to be heard in mainstream public discourse. As a result, hip-hop has carved itself a political niche in the 21st century.

Take Kanye West, for example. In a fundraising telethon for Hurricane Katrina victims in September 2005, Kanye indignantly proclaimed, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Was this just another throwaway example of the brazenness that characterizes hip-hop? George Bush didn’t think so — in fact, in his memoir, he called it the worst moment of his presidency.

The fact that the president took West so seriously is astonishing enough. But what’s even more striking is West’s somber and tremulous apology for the comment last month on the Today show, admitting he didn’t have “the grounds” to call Bush a racist. It almost goes without saying that it’s generally unbecoming for a rock star persona to apologize for a five-year-old outburst in response to the prodding of a talk show host. Yet West’s apology is especially notable because he broke out of the rapper mold and moved into the realm of traditional citizenship by holding himself accountable to the public for his unfiltered mouth.

Given Kanye’s uniquely audacious character, Jay-Z is perhaps a better example of a messenger of hip-hop on the political scene, as seen by his relationship with President Barack Obama. Obama met with Jay-Z for several hours to get a feel for what the rap community was thinking politically, the rapper writes in his autobiography “Decoded.” After playing “get out the vote” concerts for Obama, he had — along with fellow rapper and hip-hop mogul Diddy — front row seats to the president’s inauguration.

Jay-Z symbolizes how hip-hop’s ever-growing less-abrasive side earns it the ear of the president outside of his iPod — though Obama does jam to Lil’ Wayne and Nas, according to an interview in the Oct. 15 issue of Rolling Stone. Such relationships between rappers and a president would have been inconceivable even 10 years ago. The formerly maligned community has come far from the greatly anti-establishment attitude it exuded in late 80’s Compton hip-hop group N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police” days. It’s important to note that Obama’s hip-hop associations aren’t solely for the sake of what may be perceived as good politics: Obama campaign spokesperson Bill Burton had to condemn rapper Ludacris’s distasteful election rap that insulted both Hillary Clinton and President Bush during his 2008 run.

So where does this discussion leave Gucci Mane? Though he might not be politically active, he’s still well-reviewed and his music is respected. According to the review aggregator site Metacritic, Gucci Mane’s body of work is characterized as having received a “generally favorable” critical response. In effect, Gucci — whose highest-charting single is a track called “Wasted” about using drugs and alcohol — has made it. He’s not seen as just a run-of-the-mill rapper confined to the playlists of hardcore southern rap genre followers but rather spends his (not-in-jail) time featuring on Mariah Carey and Usher songs while enjoying commercial success. Gucci exemplifies the acknowledgment and acceptance of rap as valuable music. In essence, the labeling of hip-hop artists as crude or uncouth no longer automatically stems from their genre — they have to earn those tags.

As this more widespread political recognition is the product of both societal acceptance and change within hip-hop, it won’t be limited to the current administration. Though no hip-hop star has currently reached, for instance, Bono-level political recognition, the respect for the art has reached a point where a rapper could conceivably be such a figure in the future.

Bill O’Reilly can have rapper Cam’ron on The O'Reilly Factor and chide Eminem for his crude Sarah Palin references all he wants. But constant criticism of hip-hop culture — though it’s sometimes, maybe even often, valid — misses the point. As rap has evolved into a respectable art form, hip-hop as a whole seems to have mellowed out and broken out of the periphery into mainstream political discourse. Perhaps John Stewart said it best in his Jay-Z interview: “As rap grows up, they go from fuck the police to, where the fuck are the police?”

The socially active and outspoken Tupac Shakur would have been proud.

Harsha Panduranga is an assistant editorial page editor.