Smile Politely

A Need for Change

Thirty-five years ago, something big started.

With the critical, overflowing mass of disenfranchised people packing themselves into already overcrowded neighborhoods, something had to give. The outcry was deafening, but no one listened. It was too dangerous of a call for help to heed. Individuals were too deep in the measures of suffering that was created for them.

That is, until we learned to speak through the synthesized drum, 16-bar verse, and party-rocking with a message. In an unseen explosion of samba-infused, fat laced, four-finger ringed, record scratching, shell-toed fury, hip-hop broke out as a answer to America’s question of what occurred in the South Bronx and Queensbridge.

Thirty-five years later, the big thing that got started only made itself bigger. But, is big always good?

We earned the spotlight. There were enough battles, uprocks, movies, documentaries, records, shows, and protests to last us a lifetime. Hip-hop made room for itself, barging into the public spectrum, with the same lascivious controversy that Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips held for the parents of the sock hop generation of the 1950s.

So, with this said, and the space we made, there is still one question to be begged: what happened? It only seemed like yesterday when Chuck D told us about the injustices in Arizona, KRS-One was settled into his role as the “teacha,” and yet, they were still able to make us dance.

Chuck D and KRS are still around, but no one seems to regard their positions as elders in hip-hop. The message becomes a means by which to glorify the ghetto, and the life within it, as opposed to getting out of it. Rappers come a dime-a-dozen, variations upon a familiar theme, speaking in syrup-drawled tongues, with “the price of a house around their neck,” according to Lil’ Wayne.

Where’s the message? It’s still there, but you have to go looking for it. The practice of hip-hop has now feathered itself into as many denominations as the Catholic Church, but still rests along a single spectrum: underground vs. commercial.

Thirty-five years later, the world is still being told what’s going on in hip-hop’s head. Depending on the storyteller you’re listening to, you might be getting a different story.

So, what do we do to take it back to how it used to be? Honestly, there’s nothing we can do. The times where hip-hop finds itself call for different cadences of those weaving the stories of the age. So, what does hip-hop do for itself in 2008?

Demand something better. Of course, any listener (including this author) is going to want something to dance to, and something that everyone else can shake their butts to. Heavy is the art that cannot take itself lightly.

But, on the other edge of the sword, shouldn’t some of these artists be saying something that moves people in a positive direction? If you’re in the public eye, you have to have the gumption to make music to elevate, as well as make time for fun.

There can be the space for booty-shaking if there is a message to better the negative as well. There are more booties being moved in hip-hop than there are minds. There’s room for change, but that which is hip-hop needs to be redefined. The difference needs to be made apparent. So, to all the listeners out there, I make a simple case. Something that helped me, shall hopefully help you: Explore. Open your ears. Expand your horizons. Beauty is in the beat, and in the ears of the listener.

Strap your headphones on, and challenge your borders.

Nas said, “Sleep is the cousin of death.” Hip-hop is not dead, but it is sleeping.

Time to wake up.

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