Hip-Hop’s Healthy Skepticism of American Power: A Reminder From Lupe Fiasco

This week the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, was sworn in during the country’s 57th inaugural. That Americans engage in this process without threat of coup or violence is the hallmark of our experiment with democracy. However, the peaceful transition of power that the inaugural represents is not indicative of how the American government has maintained power over our history. Lupe Fiasco’s inauguration concert that was stopped early serves as a reminder of Hip-Hop’s long suspicion when it comes to American power. It was widely reported that Fiasco was removed from the stage because of the song’s anti-Obama lyrics. The event organizers deny this and wrote in-part, “This was not about his opinions. Instead, after a bizarrely repetitive, jarring performance that left the crown vocally dissatisfied, organizers decided to move on to the next act. Lupe Fiasco repeated the one song for more than 40 minutes”.

On stage Lupe rapped from his song “Words I Never Said”:

Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist
Gaza strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit

The song is a powerful piece about public complacency, dissatisfaction with an unsubstantive news media, a failing school system, and conveys a healthy skepticism of government and other institutions that structure the contours of American life. I was not there so I cannot comment on what happened on stage, and I can imagine that hearing this particular song for 40 minutes could be described as bizarre, repetitive, and jarring. But sometimes it takes the bizarre, repetitive, and jarring to wake people up from complacency regarding the not-so-pretty side of American power.

Rappers have long been skeptical of governmental authority, largely because African-Americans and other folks of color have too often seen the brutal end of that power. The police and prison systems have served as the means by which the American government has protected their own interests at the cost of the freedom of others. Chain gangs and the convict lease system, the lynchings that were never prosecuted, police dogs and fire hoses during the Civil Rights era were just some of the ways the State and Federal authorities used their power to restrict African-American social and economic freedom.

These policies, however, did not end with the Civil Rights triumphs of the 1950s and 60s. The police and justice systems continue to play an intrusive role in the lives of black Americans into the Hip-Hop era. The Los Angeles riots of 1992 following the brutal beating of Rodney King were as much a response to the abandonment of inner city black America as they were to the police brutality and mass media narratives that deemed black people as dangerous, deviant, and a threat to society.

In the 1980s gangsta rap rose up as the voice of marginalized youth in these communities and countered the image of deviant black youth by exposing the economic and social marginalization facilitated by the policies and politics of the American government. The deindustrialization of inner cities, police brutality, social and economic marginalization, the rapidly expanding prison industrial complex, joblessness, along with the fiction of the “welfare queen” made up the narrative of gangsta rap in its early years.

The dissatisfaction of black youth can be found in N.W.A’s classic “Fuck Tha Police” and Ice Cube’s “A Bird in the Hand” in which he raps:

Now you put the feds against me
Cause I couldn’t follow the plan of the presidency

I’m never gettin’ love again
But blacks are too fuckin’ broke to be Republican

These early songs successfully made the connection between the social conditions in Los Angeles and the limited choices African-Americans were left with in rapidly crumbling urban environments. In spite of its hypermasculinity, misogyny, and its own perpetuation of stereotypes of black youth criminality, early gangsta rap was crucial in conveying to a mass audience the conditions that black folk have had to endure and especially the harassment young African-Americans received at the hands of urban police forces like the LAPD. Although much has been written about gangsta rap, it seems to me that we have yet to really understand its broader implications for the American experiment with democracy and how it has failed so many for so long.

I cannot speak to Lupe Fiasco’s motives, but it seems to me he was reminding Americans that for the majority of these inauguration days large swaths of the population were by law unable to participate in them. He was reminding Americans that even on inauguration day, a day when we celebrate the best of ourselves, we should be reminded that American power is neither benevolent nor absolute.

For more Hip-hop analysis check out Windsor Jordan Jr. on Rap Genius, follow him on Twitter @wordsmithlesson, and check out his blog The Lesson