Reflecting on Read a Book

The end of last summer I felt that I was in the midst of a perfect storm, that place where conscious/socially relevant art was clashing with commercial media and the on going battle that BET likes’ to call “Hip-Hop vs. America”. This storm is causing a shift in the movement to uplift blacks, and the FEMA trailers of the old movement that are not able to stand in this environment will only be able to hold on in our memories.

With the emergence of non-traditional black sports stars like Tiger Woods and Venus and Serena Williams, the business success of Oprah Winfrey and Bob Johnson, and the political clout wielded by Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama, the plight of the “poor Negro” is becoming irrelevant to the modern white America. Yes, there is still a legitimate case for government and and social institutions to aide “poor negroes”. There is still a battle to be fought, against this countries expectations and limitations, a battle against our educational and social enemies. All of these issues are an off shoot of the Imperialistic racism that caused us to be here, but expecting this country to solve this problem, especially after we’ve achieved so many token victories, is becoming more and more difficult.

The new battlefield is for the minds of our young people, specifically the battle over what it is to be authentically black. Unfortunately, the glorification of material things, the objectification of ourselves sexually, and the use of profanity has come to epitomize the essence of “realness” in commercial hip-hop. Most surprisingly, our young people are keenly aware of this fact, as evidence by the hundreds of emails and myspace messages I received from teenagers, they just feel powerless to change it. They’ve been programmed to think that popular culture happens to them, instead of something they can create the way the forefathers of hip-hop did.

Another major element of backlash that I received comes from the idea that nothing good can come from BET. The method by which the message was delivered probably had more to do with why it was effective and was it was rejected by some black intellegencia. This has led me to another valuable lesson. Yes, the major multi-media companies that hoard cable, radio, and record labels are life-sucking vultures that prey on the African American community. That knowledge does not negate the fact that real people, who want to find a way to change the message without affecting their companies’ bottom line, run these companies. You don’t understand how many record label A&R’s (my age and complexion) contacted me after seeing the video and then peeping my music on myspace saying that they would love to find a way to prove to their boss (a middle aged non-black man every time) that this is marketable in black society. Outsiders don’t think we want this, a message with our music, despite the reactions I get from middle school, high schools, night clubs and correctional facilities when I bring my music and message directly to them.

Honestly, I don’t always want a message with my music. To stretch around and pat myself on the back, Read a Book rocks no matter what your socio-political affiliations is, just because of how fun and live it is. This speaks to a larger issue, a level of compromise that needs to come from both directions. I’ll begin with a quick personal survey. How many positive, conscious (what ever you want to call them) message songs can you think of that you would put on when you want to start a party! What songs do you hear that actually motivate you, prod you to take action? Even some of my favorite conscious songs are for listening, dissecting and then agreeing with, but they don’t push me to anything. Music is a motivating force for me. It affects my attitude, my outlook for the moments while I’m listening and the moments immediately after until I’ve moved on to the next song.

Conscious artist have to start making pop songs! Most conscious cats think their music has to sound like Premo or Pete Rock did the track and that you have to rhyme like Nas or Thalib Kweli. No disrespect to any of those artist, I am definitely a fan, and they have paved their own lane and are still speeding down it from now until the foreseeable future. But many times when I talk to like minded artist, those who want to reach out to the youth, they send me to their websites where I hear a track that sounds like the “golden age of hip-hop”, which is completely irrelevant to the young people we are trying to affect.

Quick note to all edutainers, there is nothing inherently evil, anti-community or anti hip-hop about Mannie Fresh, Lil Jon and David Banner beats. The idea of equating real and potentially uplifting music with the digging in the crates style of production is what makes conscious rap irrelevant to under 25 year olds. Besides, the synthesized/live music feel of current commercial hip-hop has more in common with old school hip-hop than anything that happened in the Golden era. When I say old school I mean really old school, not 88 to 94, more like 78 to 85. The synths and simplified drum patters with claps for snares are a lot like the original stuff Bambataa was doing. The inability to embrace the style of production seems to come from adultism and regionalism. “There’s no way these young bucks know real hip-hop” or “That down south shit isn’t real, gimme an Alchemist beat!” Once again, every style has it’s place, but when was the last time a generation was able to successfully convince the next generation that their chosen style of music is some BS? NEVER!! So let’s embrace your 808 booms and thunderclaps, even that pitter-patter snare roll that you hear in everyone’s song now, for no other reason than to incorporate into our arsenal of tools to use when reaching our young brothers and sisters with music.

These are a few of the ongoing lessons I’m learning on this journey. I thank ya’ll for coming along for the ride!!

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