Word on the street is that hip-hop is a message, the black CNN. Anyone who questions that winds up at the bottom of a verbal dog pile. Such traitors, we're told, just don't listen to enough of the musicâ€”that, in particular, the work of "conscious" rappers would change their minds.
Please. One can take a good dose of Talib Kweli, Common, Mos Def and Kanye "Bush doesn't care about black people" West and still see nothing that resembles any kind of "message" that people truly committed to forging change would recognize. Hip-hop, "conscious" or not, is music, and that's it.
For one thing, a lot of the "conscious" work sounds as much like street fighting as the gangsta stuffâ€”an upturned middle finger set to a beat. Yes, Mos Def and Talib Kweli decorate their raps with calls to stop smoking and drinking, starry-eyed timeouts when they sing the praises of their baby daughters and vague calls for black Americans to look sharp. But there's a decent amount of that even in so-called gangsta rap, such as Tupac Shakur's chronicle of the vicious cycle of urban poverty in "Papa'z Gong," or Nas' hope that he will be able to redeem his past through his child in "The World Is Yours."
Meanwhile, Kweli tells us that when he's at the mike "you get hit like a deer standin' still in the light" and how in one competition he "smacked them in they face with a metaphor."
OK, he means it in the abstract. But why so violent? Why, exactly, must "consciousness" so often sound like a street fight? The "conscious" rappers just relocate 50 Cent's cops-and-robbers battle from the street to the slam contest.
There is not a thing wrong with "conscious rap" fans enjoying the beats and the rhymes and even valuing the sprinkles of an awareness of something beyond guns, Hennessy and women's behinds. But if we have gotten to the point that we are treating even this "conscious" work as serious civil rights activism, then black America is in even worse trouble than we thought.