Don’t Sterilize It

Tupac Shakur was often called a contradiction because he had songs like “Keep Ya Head Up” and “I Get Around” on the same albums. These same “contradictions” are what made so many fans consider him the realest artist in the genre. Tupac didn’t just tell one story or use a singular perspective. He covered a broad range of topics, which gave him appeal to a variety of hip-hop fans.

Essentially, he was a metaphor for the genre. The beauty of hip-hop is that it is not any one thing. There’s room for goofy dances, black revolutionary ideology, drug dealer tales and spiritually uplifting poetry, as well as many other stories. When we shut out certain styles because there’s too much partying or the beat isn’t tailor made for clubs, we’re missing out on knowledge as well as different perspectives.

It’s easy to dismiss BET and the artists that get the most play on it because the channel has a history of playing to the lowest common denominator (Remember when they wouldn’t play Little Brother for being “too intelligent?”). However, that doesn’t take into account the bigger picture. BET is owned by Viacom and plays a majority of songs and videos that glamorize cars, jewelry, alcohol, etc. because these are the things that coincide with the products being advertised in its commercials.

Using this analytical understanding can help listeners appreciate hip-hop in its entirety. Too often we don’t give listeners, especially youth, the credit they deserve in being able to read between the lines.

A prime example occurred a few years ago when prominent leaders like Al Sharpton pressured Def Jam  to make Nas change the name of his album from “Nigger” to “Untitled.” The purpose of the title was to analyze the word and the mentality that accompanies it, which would seem right in line with the work of leaders like Sharpton, but instead these people offered for sterilization to appease fans supposedly too stupid to get it.

Hip-hop has a history of being misunderstood and specifically, being perceived as violent. The stories told in hip-hop music are no different from television shows, movies, the nightly news and even some cartoons.

What separates hip-hop from a nightly newscast is that it comes from a perspective of the people involved in the stories rather than a media owner conveying his biases through reporters. This is one of the great strengths of the music because it makes it more engaging to listeners and helps outsiders get perspective before casting blanket judgments.

One of the most important albums I’ve ever heard was Ras Kass’ “Soul on Ice.” Particularly, the song “Nature of Threat” inspired me to become an obsessive and analytical reader because it displayed the connections between Greek history, the Roman Empire, colonialism and the current racial situation. The same album with this history lesson on wax contained a club anthem “Drama,” where Ras raps, “I played into this bitch’s Cinderella complex. Anything you wanna hear, I can say. Forget the bitch the next day. Instant replay.” These kinds of stories have inherent value as well because they address problematic relationships that happen too often in all communities. If the album was all “Nature of Threat” and no “Drama” then it wouldn’t be nearly as dynamic and the educational value of the stories would get lost in the constant bombardment of a singular message.

Hip-hop came from youthful expression and whether we agree with artists or not, the music is their chosen method of communication. Instead of trying to undermine voices, why not open up our ears and minds? Consider these words from a recent editorial written by Lupe Fiasco:

“My faith is in the youth. So I find myself constantly observing and trying to empower and support the youth in any way that I can. No matter what they create. Through the youth expressing themselves you have a golden opportunity to communicate and gain a new perspective on the ever changing world around us. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Sometimes we need the revolutionary message of Tupac’s “White Man’s World” and others we could use some comedic relief in the form of The Pharcyde’s “Ya Mama.” Even when an artist like E-40 simply refers to himself as “E-40 Belafonte” on a song like “She’s Mine” it can direct a flock of young listeners to look up Civil Rights legend Harry Belanfonte and his accomplishments, which they won’t hear about in their school curriculum. Hip-hop has something for everyone and when we limit the ability of the music, we’re ultimately limiting ourselves.

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