Hip-Hop, Politics and Capitalism: From Jay-Z to 'Judas...'

Hip-Hop, Politics and Capitalism: From Jay-Z to 'Judas...'

Politics and popular art collide regularly.

And the past several months have pushed the conversation surrounding the politics of popular art into constant scrutiny. From the right-leaning Twitter posts of a fallen Star Wars actress, to the ability for popular recording artists to sway a national election; entertainment and politics are fused in our culture in a way that has proven to be both powerful and troubling. But when it comes to Hip-Hop, there have been so many attempts to discuss and dissect it's politics; when, ultimately, we have to accept that Hip-Hop's politics are wildly varying. 

Hip-Hop and politics is as complex, nuanced and broad a conversation as any discussion of politics and the Black community. As much as certain figures may want to present Black politics as one-dimensional, its quite multif-faceted, as shaped by regionalism and age differences as any other constituency. Hip-Hop is an extension of that same diversity of thought. The 2020 Election brought that reality into sharp relief.

Even as far back as 1992, when Hip-Hop's political leanings were at the forefront of pop culture discourse, it wasn't easy to put Hip-Hop's politics in a box. That year, Eazy E attended a dinner at the George H. W. Bush White House; Sister Souljah engaged in a war of words with Democratic then-Presidential hopeful Bill Clinton; as Dan Quayle demonized rappers like Ice-T and 2Pac for anti-police lyrics and LL COOL J rocked Clinton's 1993 inauguration. You couldn't reduce Hip-Hop's politics to a singular platform or persona, and it's no different almost 30 years later.

This Black History Month feels especially political: the recent election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris speaks to the urgency of our times and it comes on the heels of a year where police violence against the Black community, systemic racism, and Black Lives Matter have been at the forefront of virtually every national conversation. The release of Shaka King's highly-anticipated Judas And The Black Messiah doesn't feel incidental; it's a dramatic retelling of the betrayal and assassination of Illinois Black Panther deputy chairman Fred Hampton, after all. Hampton's legacy and the Panthers impact is especially topical right now, and the soundtrack prominently features Hip-Hop artists from across styles, regions and generations, offering music that ties in to the movie's themes.  

The soundtrack is solid enough, populated with major legends like Jay-Z, Rakim, Nas, the late Nipsey Hussle and Black Thought.

Like the star-studded soundtrack for Ryan Coogler's epic 2018 Marvel film Black Panther, this feels like a project meant to tie into the revolutionary spirit of the times in presentation, but it's slick approach and tendency towards big names speaks to the hopes of reaching the most mainstream audience possible. Not necessarily a bad thing, but this could have been something a bit more impactful if the movie's subject matter had been taken more to heart. 

Over the past year, some of Hip-Hop's most visibly socio-political artists have released music. Public Enemy made headlines after re-signing with Def Jam Records last summer, before releasing their 22nd album What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? Atlanta acts Arrested Development and Goodie Mob dropped new material as well; Goodie's Survival Kit arrived in November; and Arrested Development's Don't Fight Your Demons was available a month before that. Bay Area firebrand Paris dropped Safe Space Invader in September, with song titles like "Walk Like A Panther" and "Why Reconcile?" 

The artists who contributed to the soundtrack of Judas and The Black Messiah don't do the project a disservice and there are so many big names to guarantee the project's commercial viability.

But it would've been something to see a project that leaned more heavily into Hip-Hop's political ethos and tapped artists who have championed Black empowerment and education directly and consistently in their music. That's not to say that artists like Nas and Jay-Z haven't done so; but they are both pillars of and testaments to the ambitions of American capitalism; something Fred Hampton railed against. 

But also; this was a prime opportunity to highlight the legacy and ongoing virtue of political Hip-Hop. "All Hip-Hop is political" isn't wrong, but when so much of that political ethos is obscured by money, death and drama, this would've been the perfect reminder of what Hip-Hop has been when it's squared it's sights on principal and community. 

Obviously, The politics of dead prez and Jay-Z aren't always as far apart as they might seem. There's no doubt that Jay-Z isn't politically apathetic; he's been involved in high-profile initiatives over the past few years, addressing hot-button topics like prison reform. Again; Hip-Hop's politics are varied; as diverse as Blackness itself. The socio-political perspective of the upwardly mobile or Black elite is necessary and that perspective typically remains tethered to the communities from which those elites came. It's about the specificity of seeking to elevate the artists who represent rap music at its most revolutionary, and that might not always be the biggest star of the moment or even a widely celebrated legend.

With the current wave of trendy "awareness" and entertainment companies in a rush to co-opt revolutionary rhetoric for posturing and profit, there are anti-imperialist ideals that should be protected against mainstreaming. Without putting too much on Judas and the Black Messiah or its accompanying soundtrack, highlighting Black perspectives and experiences should always be rooted in recognizing the specificity of those experiences. Fred Hampton's socialist politics aren't tangential to his legacy.

In a year when Hip-Hop has been credited with (or accused of) everything from turning Georgia blue to furthuring Trumpism (due to the questionable endorsements of a few noteworthy rappers), the politics of Hip-Hop can't be reduced to one particular voice, mindset or political party. Sometimes its as capitalist as America iself; sometimes it's motivated by something nobler. In other words, as Mos Def famously stated, Hip-Hop is us.

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