The confessions of a conscious rap fan

Some time after Jay-Z wore a Che Guevara T-shirt for his MTV unplugged performance in 2001, the “urban” clothing store in my local mall – the place where I bought all my Enyce, Sean John, Ecko and Marithé+François Girbaud – started selling them. Soon after, they had Malcolm X t-shirts. Then there were the Black Panther Party ones. There was no branding behind any of them, just screen printed shirts with radical icons on the front. They cost maybe $20. Soon, these personal billboards made up about 90% of the T-shirts in my wardrobe.

Everyone in my high school wore them too, but I dismissed them as fashion hunters. I didn’t believe they had self-knowledge. Their third eye was not open. They couldn’t understand. They haven’t even listened to Dead Prez.

If you are (God help me) “awakened” now, then you were “aware”. Being aware partly meant choosing to listen to “conscious rap”, as opposed to “mainstream”, “gangsta” or “bling bling” rap. Conscious rap was the ‘real’, while everything else was an abdication of the artist’s responsibility – to hip-hop and to black people.

At the turn of the century, listening to conscious rap gave you an identity, an identity that contrasted with the materialistic, selfish culture that my generation was constantly accused of perpetuating. It meant something to us, to me, beyond ideas of ‘knowing yourself’. Accepting awareness meant defining myself as different, or providing an explanation for never fitting in: surely all the illnesses of teenage life had everything to do with the fact that I preferred to listen to Mos Def and learn the hypocrisies of America’s war on drugs, and nothing to do with my own social awkwardness. It wasn’t the fact that I couldn’t dance (and therefore no girl would dance with me) that caused my disdain for Lil Jon – it was because I was operating at a higher level of consciousness that saw “going crunk” as a distraction from the political project of black liberation.

But this joyless commitment to being “conscious” was never accompanied by incisive political analysis or in-depth historical reading – it was mostly about believing conspiracy theories about alleged slave owner Willie Lynch. and wear a red, black and green bracelet. I was “aware” in scary quotes while having no awareness of the world I was meant to change.

I’m thinking about conscious rap right now for two reasons: the return of Black Star and Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, Mr. Morale and Big Steps. Black Star’s Mos Def and Talib Kweli helped define conscious rap as a subgenre in the late ’90s, and Kendrick was one of the most successful heirs to that legacy. As much as those rappers meant to a past version of me, the thrill is now gone. It may have more to do with my personal growth than theirs, but there is the fact that I have grew, while the conscious rappers who had some influence on me remained stagnant.

“The Message”, the 1982 classic by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, was the first major conscious rap record, in that it departed radically from the party roots of hip-hop and chose to describe the destruction and despair that plagued the ghettos of the early Reagan era. It spawned a number of imitators, such as Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That” and “Hard Times,” as well as The Furious Five’s “New York, New York.” You could include “If I Ruled the World” by Kurtis Blow as a more optimistic version of this theme: “If I ruled the world, I was king on the throne / I would make peace in all cultures, I would build a shelter for the homeless.”

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