Lyrical Hypocrisy?

Hip Hop have evolved with time. Arabic rapper, Deeb shares his thoughts on this: “I think the whole hip hop is American argument is not valid anymore”. Hip Hop has become a global phenomenon, and a bit more sophisticated, comparing to its hard knock streets beginnings, where it earned its hardcore reputation from. But has hip hop to a certain extent moved from being anti-establishment, to endorsing the same establishments that it has always attacked by its mightier pens?

The pen and the sword have always had a very interesting relationship. In North Africa/Middle East, Hip Hop’s role in the revolutions that took place in Egypt and Tunisia was openly acknowledged. Music Journalist, Andy Morgan says, “It certainly wasn’t El General who unleashed the Tunisian revolution, but El General and Rais le Bled was a significant factor amongst many others”. I can imagine Hip Hop being very rebellious and anti-establishment in that part of the world, due to the hardship that most of the people are subjected to. It almost sounds like American hip hop is more about for fame and riches, while hip hop from the rest of world, remains significant force for social change.

With that in mind, what role does Tanzanian hip hop have in the Tanzanian society? What significance has it had in the society thus far?  And what are the responsibilities of the people who represent it?

I remember writing a paper, analyzing if Dan Quayle (America’s Vice President at the time) claims that Tupac’s song incited a killing of a Texas Trooper were valid. The offender’s lawyer claimed the lyrics from Tupac’s song “Soulja’s Story” influenced his client’s action. But hip hop being no stranger to controversy, and attacks from the status quo, this did not force hip hop into exile. When hip hop started making its mark in Tanzania, it was labeled as the music of the hooligans. The music was strange to many, and probably its plain “speaking, blunt-speaking” was offensive to a culture where the youths are expected to be silent and obedient.

However, the lyrics were never as harsh as those of NWA, but their honesty and tone of frustrations that rhymed on every beat were enough to raise some eyebrows. But those were the days, and the society’s perception on hip hop has changed since then. The question is, with cultures always evolving, can we speculate what Tanzanian hip hop has evolved to?

Like I mentioned before, hip hop was partially built on the identity of rebellious, anti-establishment; therefore, its popularity growing among the have-nots, who in most cases are voiceless. And this as one of many reasons politicians like Dan Quayle have attacked hip hop’s harsh lyrics because they inspire people not to turn the other cheek, but fight on. But over the years, we have witness hip hop’s partnership with politics/politicians grow. That in its self is not a crime, because not every establishment is bad. Thomas Sankara’s government would probably be one of the best examples of that. But what happens when hip hop endorses an administration that seems to embrace the haves rather than the have-nots. An administration that turns a blind eye on the crimes committed by the rich, but punishes the weak. Even worse, endorsing a candidate(s) that is incompetent?

In the case involving “Soulja’s Story” song, I brought up the issue of personal responsibility (by the listeners) and the difference between the person rapping and the persona. For example, Joseph Haule and Professor Jay may not necessarily be the same persons. Similarly to “Soulja” who was a character in the song, and Tupac; although, he was the one who wrote and rapped on the song. “Soulja’s” views, don’t necessary reflect Tupac’s views, and that’s the beauty of literature, whether you hate it or love it, that’s the verdict. For example, Jay Z’s endorsement of President Barack Obama should not be confused with Shawn Carter, and vice versa.

Tupac Shakur was able to argue his case that he and “Soulja” are two different people, but in many peoples’ eyes, he was still guilty of being irresponsible with his lyrics. This brings another uncomfortable question about fairness.  How fair is it to question Tupac about being irresponsible, while the same politicians who do so, don’t walk their talk? And it almost seems sometimes that more people may rally against Hip Hop, but not against their politicians who are corrupt and irresponsible.

In Tanzania, hip hop artists and their endorsement of different politicians during the presidential campaign left some people talking. Their endorsement, at least that’s what it looked like, might have rubbed few people the wrong way. But why was that the case? Was it because some people felt betrayed by hip hop? But does that mean hip hop artists cannot have their own opinions, especially if they can defend their stance? Or this is where personal responsibility comes in? This is also where the line between a person (for example, Joseph Haule) and his persona (Professor Jay) becomes a bit blurry.

Jay Z himself publicly endorsed Barack Obama in 2008. Professor and activist Cornel West did the same. However, Cornel West has become a very vocal critic of President Obama’s administration, for not fulfilling the expectations of the have-nots, but instead, siding with the rich, citing the Wall Street bail-out. But where does Jay Z stand now? Those who love Jay Z music, but share Cornel West’s criticisms of Obama, should they boycott Jay Z music, or at least ask him questions? Isn’t he the same person who rapped, it’s a “hard knock life”? And if Cornel West’s argument is valid, then Obama has done little to deal with the have-not’s “hard knock life”. Then, is it fair to claim that Jay Z may have forgotten the hard knock streets that bred him, and which he continues to make money from.

Although his music may still have some street representation, but how sincere are his lyrics now, if the same person is having filet mignon with the same people who have turned away from their responsibilities of fixing peoples’ problems, one could question. Contradiction, yes, and sometimes it feels’ like hip hop has become that, a contradiction. But again, to expect rich Jay Z to still hang around the corners of Marcy Projects — where he grew up in — will also be insane. Nonetheless, that’s not the issue — it is his ideology, his belief, his personality, what he stands for, etc., is what is in question.

Here is an example of a Tanzanian hip hop contradiction. The power rationing crisis that continues to go against the promises made by Hon. President, of bettering life of every Tanzanian is one of many issues. And if you remember, his campaign featured some heavy weight hip hop emcees, who became famous because of their vocal lyrics — lyrics that questioned the status quo. There was no confusion, at least to some of us who have loved Tanzanian hip hop since its infancy, that these people were our people. They represented our struggles, they spoke for us, and not otherwise.

But maybe we’re putting too much pressure on rappers, and even expecting too much from hip hop, which has its own weaknesses just like every other culture. Should we lower our expectations? The same may we have decided to settle for less, like settling for corrupt, incompetent leaders? But as a Tanzanian hip hop fan this is the question that continues to haunt me. What exactly is the role of hip hop in the Tanzanian society? And maybe the answer is unknown, because hip hop in Tanzania is still fairly new, just like the country itself that is only 50 years old.

In the Middle East, hip hop is probably looked at as a thorn by the status quo. Hip hop cheered on the revolutions, whose outcomes are still carefully being scrutinized. But what if the revolutions that hip hop cheered on, fall short; where will rappers like El General hide their faces? The same way, the rappers that endorsed CCM’s campaigns (stylishly rocking their green and yellow t-shirts), can they question the power rationing crisis?  But in their defense, they are entertainers, and they were probably there to do just that. So, trying to hold them accountable for not walking what they rap about will be unfair, right? After all, there are schools for providing education to the people; that’s why it may sound absurd to expect that to be hip hop’s responsibility even if the rappers maybe among the most influential people in the youth population.

In passing, all this may make little sense, but I will beg to differ, because the majority of people in Africa, who happen to be poor, continue to be marginalized, while the elites “crow about growth and an African renaissance”.

But that’s not all of it, “for example, over 78 percent of the population is younger than 34, and that population is growing at one million a year”. This is the case in many African countries, and this is the same group that “endures the daily humiliations of poverty, struggling to find jobs”, etc. My point being, if hip hop represents the have-nots, and also is popular among the youth, then with such statistics, hip hop has a chance of playing a major role in the African societies in the years to come. Since economic disparity between the poor and the rich is far from shrinking and most of the victims of this are the youths, then hip hop has a great opportunity to be a power broker between the older generation that’s in power, and the growing youth population.

I also understand, trying to make a case, that hip hop could play an important role in the society, simply because there are expected to be more youths than old people in the continent, can be characterized as naïve and wishful thinking. Nevertheless, almost everything starts from a simple dream and some imagination, and probably that’s how Senegalese “youth driven movement, Y’en a Marre” started. Hip hop needs to position itself well, and for those who represent it, should start taking themselves seriously, because it’s them with the mightier pen in their hands.

To conclude, whether hip hop transforms again and becomes something even bigger or falls into a ditch, this genre has already surpassed its expiration date. Hip Hop has proven its critics wrong, by jumping over all the hurdles that it was expected to fall on. The only possible demise I see for hip hop is if hip hop decides to self destruct. And although I may have sound a bit concerned with its direction, due to the contradictions growing in it, I’m still a fan and a strong believer in these Tanzanian rappers and their lyrics, that they will not let HIP HOP die or even take an extreme detour. And for that same reason, these hip hop artists shouldn’t be surprised if one day they will also be held accountable, but who knows.

P.S. :- One thing that I have been happy to see with the new upcoming hip hop artists in Tanzania is that, they are real Hip Hop. That means, them and their hip hop music may not change the world, but their lyrics will continue to diagnose the social ills; with their continuing efforts to give Swahili a breath of fresh air…

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  1. Posted August 9, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Very nice read! Some very tough questions in there and me hopes it would raise a constructive debate.

    If I am not mistaken, you intentionally decided to base on politics; and politics only. But I would like our emcees to do more than just ‘blast’ politicians for the sake of it – i.e. without offering any constructive advice. See what Senegalese rappers did a few days ago:

    They didn’t just criticize the status quo per se. Instead, they went on further and told people to “stop peeing on the streets and disposing trash everywhere”.

    After all, “Hip” is about being conscious; being aware of your surroundings, having that social awareness. And “Hop” is the movement/an act after observing something ill, as the writer puts it, in the society. It doesn’t have to be political – M. K. Asante clarifies this on the lecture posted here:

    In other words, you see the youth losing hope, make a song to uplift their spirits. Just listen to Dead Prez (Be Healthy & Fucked Up):

    My two cents for now…

  2. Faraja
    Posted August 10, 2011 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    Very insightful. As a proponent of free speech I see no problem with rappers/entertainers endorsing politicians or political ideologies. My issue is when the guy/lady you supported fails to deliver the goods, you start blaming other unnamed people for the things going wrong instead of taking ownership of problems you helped create. Hip Hop should be better than this.

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