Photo courtesy of Hip-Hop Archives.
Part Deux: Can Rap Revitalize The Weaponization Of Hip-Hop?
Words written by Hip-Hop Chess Federation founder, Adisa Banjoko.
This is part two of our series involving the Weaponization of Hip-Hop. What is that, you ask? It is how hip-hop—from the artists to those involved in other aspects of the culture—can be used to directly spread truths that have been suppressed by the mainstream media and give a voice to the voiceless. In order to understand why rap (the vocally expressive part of hip-hop culture) is so scary, you have to understand that America has never been comfortable with black men having a voice. No type of voice: militant, conservative, liberal or even moderate. In my 46 years on this planet, I have never seen a time when the opinions of black men were invited into any mainstream discussion. Any voice or utterance the black man has tried to exercise was immediately and always shut out. Even black jazz artists in the '50s and '60s were attacked by the mainstream media because their music alone, without words was enough to scare white America.
Rap music, unlike jazz or rock, is the unfiltered voice of black people unrestrained. This is why rap has always been a nightmare for the American mainstream establishment. This is also why rap's weaponization has no counterpoint. It is that very reason why the culture must be weaponized and presented as such on a consistent basis. Don't get me wrong... having fun, party rocking and enjoying rap is good, but it is also crucial to its weaponization. No rapper should ever allow themselves to be commodified and sold like slaves to the masses without mentioning one real thing that matters to them. It does not have to be police brutality or war, y'know? It can be something as easy as healthy living. Or it can be about something deep like loving your significant other and family instead of having these things and pretending that you are a playa or a pimp. It can be something as simple as being a good father.
Anything that forces the mainstream to see black humanity as a real, tangible thing, is a weaponization. Understand that this series is only meant as an outline for what can and should happen within black culture. It is not meant as an end all, be all, but many artists that you love will not be listed. If you think folks are missing, add their work in the comments page and let's discuss the merits of the argument.
Rap can, at times, be deliberately violent sometimes. This stems from the fact that rap and its lyrics come from the lives and personalities of dangerous neighborhoods. The most militant or gang-related rap you can think of is still simply an artistic expression. No matter how murderous any lyric by 50 Cent or Young Jeezy may be, in the end a person got mad and picked up a pen instead of a gun. For that reason (and a few others) — rap music still stands as a testament to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s missions to use words over force. It is also important to keep in mind that what mainstream America hates you for today will be awarded to you in spades tomorrow. From King to Dr. Huey P. Newton to Malcolm X to Ice Cube to the Geto Boys to Public Enemy — they were examples of "back then you didn't want me, now I'm all hot and you're all on me" type rap. Now, if you do your research, you'll see that they're honored in halls of fame, the hallowed pages of history and considered iconic legends for the fearlessness they had in bulk.
And those master teachers inspired others to lace their notebooks with lyrical napalm to destroy the barriers that restrict black-and-brown people from placing their hands on that elusive mistress, Freedom. Whether male or female, these MC, such as Sistah Souljah, were able to make cracks and dents in the thinking that rap was just a trend or that hip-hop performers weren't intelligent observers of human nature. Listing the woman born Lisa Williamson as the first rap artist you should check out + who should return to the front lines was conflicting for me. Her first album, 360 Degrees of Power, was not that good lyrically, actually. She started off as kind of a smarter version of Flavor Flav. I remember hearing her way back on Terminator X's album on the song, Buckwhylin'.
With that said, there are an ocean of female MC's that are better than Sistah Souljah. She wasn't wack by any means, but she didn't have that umph on the M-I-C like Queen Latifah, Monie Luv, Shorty No Mas and the countless others who brought more lyrical wrath, style and finesse. However, even if you added all of them together, they could not match Sistah Souljah's wisdom or courage on paper, TV or radio. It was her debates on the Phil Donahue Show that showcased her informative panache and inspiring demeanor. Before Kanye West had the balls to say "George Bush doesn't care about black people," Sistah Souljah said it in her fashion, more consistently and courageously than any other black male in hip-hop possibly ever has. She was so scary to white people that Bill Clinton tried to have her shut down. Today, Sistah Souljah is known for her amazing work as an author, but the O.G.'s who love hip-hop remember that her fury on the mic went far beyond rap. She defended black men more openly, consistently and effectively than many black men even defended themselves.
Amir Sulaiman is an amazing voice who excels at placing historical context within each bar + line. His skill set is beyond the beats, as he showcases how lyricists weave rhythm into their words between the bass drum and the snare. Amir Sulaiman is nothing like those spoken word artists who are visually dull and lyrically like Charmin. While those batch of hapless wordsmiths come off like clones of The Last Poets or caricatures of people from that era, Amir Sulaiman sets himself apart by adding in references that are easy to spot, while coming with diction and enunciation that pegs him as the spoken word's alpha male. His album, Change Gonna Come, isn't like anything else that you'll hear in poetry and if you haven't watched the video above, please know that Come to the Hills is a chilling effort that will inject truth like healing serum through every bone in your body. Sulaiman captures black death and black pain like nobody else and uses rap as a weapon to help those find brevity amidst the warring trenches.
Tef Poe is a national treasure and should be saluted as such. Rewind the track to when Mike Brown was killed and his body was left to scorch in the sun. Those views and those actions by the powers that be incited St. Louis to erupt into chaos. I had been on the ground there as part of the World Chess Hall of Fame, training their curatorial staff and their film producers and while there his name kept coming up. He was a living embodiment of the connections between hip-hop and chess, which doubled as the themes we were building out for the record breaking Living Like Kings exhibit. RZA and I were in St. Louis in an effort to speak to the youth about utilizing non-violence and chess to help them think and act with more clarity.
The night before the exhibit opened, another man named Vonderitt Myers was gunned down. At that moment, RZA and I, dedicated to keeping peace strong in the community, spoke to about 400 free youth (with half of them originating from Ferguson alone) and others who were incarcerated at a local juvenile hall. On the night of the speaking event, my friend Bgyl4life (who is a notorious speaker in St. Louis) brought by Tef Poe. I remember how tight his jaw was locked. It was probably due to the fact that he was not having a lot of fun at that moment. Our Living Like Kings exhibit was in the Central West End, where many of the white, rich and affluent people love to have fun, dine on good foods and do their thing. Elsewhere in black areas such as Florissant and Ferguson, those places were on fire mentally and sometimes physically because of all the issues between police and people of color. Tef Poe probably felt strange in the midst of so many people who were having fun and enjoying themselves within the same borders where so much death and destruction was going on.
I totally understood it.
In that trying time, Tef became one of the key national faces of Ferguson's struggles to find its truer, newer self. Armed with a vicious rap style + a keen take on everyday events, Poe's lyrics and his beats are dope. He really works hard to make sure that he never has any of the same stone age stale beats that so many other political rappers have been known to use. War Machine III is such a powerful testament to the voices of resistance in Ferguson. If you haven't heard the project yet, please don't hesitate any longer and press play immediately! Outside of rap, Tef Poe does a lot to feed and educate the people about the struggle for justice in St. Louis.
Quadir Lateef is probably the best lyricist walking up-and-down the streets of North America right now. Physically imposing, his lyrics come just as hard as his credentials. The Buffalo, New York MC has freestyled and battled his way to a new deal with the one, the only Ruff Ryders rap label. As one of the only politically-minded battle rappers in the game, Quadir Lateef is that dude who is creative enough to battle and freestyle in a manner that real rap fans and artists can respect. His last release, The Voice of Biggie, Mind of Malcolm, finds this imaginative MC just smashing mic after mic with topics ranging from police brutality to the prison pipeline system to poverty and more. Trust me, if you're not sure if there are any dope political MCs, it is because most of them are probably fearful of and love the lyrical stylings of Quadir Lateef.
Women have never had it easy at any point in hip-hop's illustrious career. Over the past few decades, they have certainly carved out moments of lyrical greatness, as Lauryn Hill, the aforementioned Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and even Nicki Minaj (can't front, she's a spitter, even if I don't like a lot of her content) have decimated mics from sea-to-sea. Sa-Roc from Atlanta, Georgia is emerging as one of the most original voices of truth in the rap game. Fueled by all the beauty, pain and love that black women have in their souls from birth, Sa-Roc is as equally alluring as she is entertaining and enlightening.
Last, but certainly not least, I have to highlight the attempts by YG and Nipsey Hussle to spread the word and weaponize hip-hop to the larger masses. In all of my years watching the culture, the most dangerous thing that can happen is when a street rapper becomes political or spiritual. The most prominent examples of this were when Ice Cube took on George Bush Sr., and most recently with Killer Mike. Their street ties, real life lyrics and activism have made the combo of YG and Nipsey Hussle an unexpected and electrifying experience for hip-hop and rap fans.
Specifically, the politically charged cut, "FDT," also known as "Fuck Donald Trump," has a banging beat, high energy lyrics and an unapologetic attitude that even Eazy-E would get behind. It also showed black solidarity at a time when we are being executed by the police almost on a daily basis. Add to the fact that we are shown riding with our brown brothers and sisters in the Mexican and Latino community, and it is very apparent that no matter the climate, hip-hop will stand tall as a testament to the sacred nature of our lives. It will record our lives for eternal prosperity, our willingness to battle anybody who stood in the way of our wisdom, strength and beauty.
A few honorable mentions go out to The Game and Nas's "Letter to the King," Dilated People's "Neighborhood Watch," Brother Ali's "Gather 'Round," Eminem's "Mosh," and T-KASH's "War Syndrome". In the next installment of The Weaponization of Hip-Hop, also known as Part Tres, we will cover the use of graffiti, also known as aerosol art, as a guerrilla tool to spread ideas suppressed by the American mainstream media.
Adisa Banjoko is founder of the 501(c)3 Hip-Hop Chess Federation, and author of the new book Bobby, Bruce & the Bronx: The Secrets of Hip-Hop Chess on Three Lions Press.