Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Other Side of Hip-Hop

A little non-ATC aside...

I recently I had a discussion with some friends about hip-hop/rap. Most of them listen to only rock and electronic music, and to them anything categorized as rap is automatically about "hood life", "pimping", "bling", the overall glorification of violence, and the degradation of women. For the most part, they're right: turn on the radio, and that's what you're going to hear. From NWA to 50 Cent, the production may have improved but the negative message stays the same. As to be expected, the more misogynistic and violent the lyrics the more records are sold.

However, the terms "rap" and "hip-hop" encompass a wide range of artists. It's simply a style of music, spoken words delivered over a solid beat. But unfortunately, the "thug life" is the only viewpoint you'll hear on the radio. As payola is alive and well these days, underground or independent artists with opposing messages usually don't get heard.

With every genre of music I listen to - rock, reggae, electronic, hip hop, etc. - I always wander off the beaten path and try to find artists that are different and interesting, that bring more to the table than most of the acts you hear on the radio. I think a lot has to do with my involvement in local music, where I've met plenty of extremely talented bands and musicians who work hard but don't get the fame they deserve.

On the rap/hip-hop front, these are some artists I've been listening to:

K'naan: This skinny little Somalian kid makes most gangster rappers pale in comparison with his background. G-rap glorifies the ubiquitous 9mm, but this guy grew up in a country where children carried AK-47s and the gangsters had RPGs. If you've seen Black Hawk Down, that's the environment he grew up in. And instead of glorifying warlords in his music (unlike, say, Bounty Killer), he talks down on his country's problems with powerful, positive, and witty lyrics.

My Favorite Tracks:
  • "Soobax" (Come out with it): A challenge to Somalia's warlords, blaming them for the destruction of his motherland. The video was filmed in Keyna amongst crowds of exiled Somalians.
    Video / Lyrics
  • "Hardcore": A direct call-out to gangster rappers who talk about being "hardcore". The video is a live show. No DJ, no massive production - just a few acoustic instruments and hand drums.
    Video / Lyrics

    we begin our day by the way of the gun,
    rocket propelled grenades blow you away if you front,

    we got no police ambulances or fire fighters,

    we start riots by burning car tires,

    they looting, and everybody starting shooting...

    So what's hardcore?
    Really, are you hardcore? Hmm.

Michael Franti & Spearhead: This man's been in the socially conscious hip-hop arena for nearly two decades. He brings to the stage thoughtful and colorful lyrics concerning current and long-standing social issues - race, community, war, politics, social responsibility. His message is delivered atop the music of his backing band, Spearhead, and is all organic instrumentation - none of the sampling that popular rap is so prone to use. His style has evolved over the past 15 years, from the straight-up rap style of 1994's Home to the concept album Stay Human to the solid reggae-meets-U2 of 2006's Yell Fire!

A prominent peace activist, not only does he talk the talk, he walks the walk. In 2004, he went to Baghdad, Israel, and the Gaza Strip to see what things are really like over there. As he puts it: "After years of watching and reading about war in the Middle East, I began to grow really frustrated with the news, hearing generals and politicans explain the economic cost and the political cost of war, without ever talking about the human cost of war."

The result is a fascinating documentary called I Know I'm Not Alone, where he talks to all kinds of people: a Christian family living in Baghdad, an Iraqi metal band, Israeli soldiers, Palestinian teenagers, mothers - both Palestinian and Israeli - who have lost children to the violence, and American soldiers in Baghdad. At various points in the film, he attempts to bring people who normally consider each other enemies together so they can speak openly about their situations. The different perspectives are fascinating and enlightening.

My Favorite Tracks:
  • "I Know I'm Not Alone": A 10 minute preview of the film.
  • "Time to go Home": If you're all for the Iraq war and think that we should be there indefinitely, don't watch this video.
    / Lyrics
  • "Hello Bonjour": A great live performance of a song from his newest album.
    Video / Lyrics

El Producto / Aesop Rock: A couple of New York artists that I stumbled across recently. I've been slowly looking into their catalog. Aesop is signed to El-P's record label and they perform together pretty often.

My Favorite Tracks:
This last act isn't hip-hop or rap, but I thought I should mention them nonetheless:

Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars:
I just watched the documentary on these guys by the same name. It's the story of a band whose members were all refugees from the Sierra Leone civil war, a decade-long war where atrocity was the name of the game. Tens of thousands of people in that country were killed or mutilated, and millions more were displaced to camps in neighboring countries. They came together as a band in one of these refugee camps and began writing songs about their plight and the loss of their homeland.

To lift the spirits of their fellow refugees, they began playing neighboring camps. After the civil war ended they returned to their country and were given the opportunity to record an album. Eventually, with the help of the U.N. and the film's producers, they were able to a secure passage to the USA for a brief tour. After they played the huge South-by-Southwest (SXSW) festival, they were signed to a record label and are now playing all over the world and using their income and notoriety to support the rebuilding of their country.

If you watch the video without seeing the movie, you will see a bunch of goofy guys acting like dorks on stage and having a good time while playing what sounds like light reggae music. However... keep in mind the horrors these people witnessed. One of the band members watched his parents killed in front of him, was forced to beat his own child to death with a mortar and pestle, and then - as if that wasn't enough - had the fingers of one hand hacked off with a cutlass. The very fact that these people can get up in the morning, much less sing and play music, speaks volumes about their strength.

I've always felt that music has power, that it can lift you up and see you through hard times. I think these guys are living proof of that.

My Favorite Tracks:
  • "Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars": A trailer for the documentary.
  • "Live at Fuji Rock": A live concert performance in Japan.

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