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As night gathered on January 6, 2011, thirty plainclothes cops swarmed the home of a young rapper. He was taken away and detained for questioning, with no explanation given by the authorities. The rapper had become a problem. His lyrics were too unflinchingly honest and aggressive about poverty and hardship among his people, about police brutality, joblessness, and a government which didn’t seem to care about the suffering.
The rapper was Tunisia’s El General, and just a week after his arrest the Tunisian people rose up and removed President Ben Ali from power. It was the first successful revolutionary movement of the the hip hop generation.
From there it spread to the much larger Egypt, where guys like El Deeb were rapping about the economic problems and the brutal regime of (Washington-supported) Hosni Mubarak. The Arab Spring had begun.
This video by Deeb was shot in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, just four days before tanks and soldiers would meet citizens in one of the most important political revolutions in decades.
The Arab Spring then spread to Bahrain, where Flipp was spitting to DJ Outlaw beats. There’s young Boge in Libya. There are Syrian rappers. Iranian. Palestinian. In fact, rap has long been a voice of the Palestinian youth. Many Palestinians, though they hate the American government’s actions, love and respect American hip hop, made by rappers who are in opposition to their own circumstances of injustice. The documentary film Slingshot Hip hop follows Palestinian MCs in one of the most dangerous and oppressive places on earth.
Hip hop is now global rebel music. A recent report by NBC News did well in highlighting the role of hip hop throughout the Arab Spring. Surveying the wave of revolutions sweeping across the Middle East, the reporter found hip hop to be a mouthpiece for the rebels in the uprisings. Hip hop is where the anti-government feeling was most fearlessly articulated before the revolutions and where the rebellions found energy and propulsion during the protests, government crackdowns and media blackouts.
These are rappers who came up listening to NWA, 2pac, Nas, KRS-One, Immortal Technique and others. They’ve added a Middle-Eastern, Maghreb vibe and made it rebel music. The youth from Middle Eastern countries recognized a kinship with American rappers who told vivid tales of government repression, hardship and poverty. While Washington exported war and economic exploitation throughout its empire (perhaps most pronouncedly in the Middle East), North American rappers were simultaneously exporting messages from the belly of the beast, establishing a global cultural network of resistance.
Hip hop is many things, but it has always been political. The foundations of hip hop culture were born out of the dying post-industrial cities of the late 20th century. Left with little, inner city youth made music and art out of what was around: parents’ turntables, spray paint and the beautiful simplicity of musical speech. To make something out of the nothing you’ve been given is a rebellion of a sort, an expression of resistance and redemption in the face of impossible odds. It is an assertion of one’s humanity in the face of dehumanizing conditions.
Then came the 1980s. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 signaled a decisive turn toward institutional neglect of the poor and working class (especially those already vulnerable due to race, ethnicity, or gender) in favor of the wealthy elite, and rap music followed with a grittier, angrier vibe. Melle Mel’s verses on one of rap music’s first mega hits “The Message” spoke of the growing desperation and anger of people left behind by Washington and the elite.
You’ll grow in the ghetto livin' second-rate
And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate
The angry anthems of Public Enemy and NWA spoke of police brutality and a US prison system on its way to imprisoning a larger percentage of its citizens than any Arab or Persian regime.
American rappers were articulating narratives from the forsaken underbelly of the American empire. Consider 2pac, an international lyrical laureate, whose mother was hunted by the FBI during her time as a Black Panther. The FBI most likely maintained a large file on Tupac Shakur as well. 2pac’s mother was part of a freedom movement in America, and for that she was a target. Middle Easterners know all to well the story of the government putting down freedom movements. 2pac told a familiar tale.
This is for the masses the lower classes
The ones you left out, jobs were givin', better livin'
But we were kept out
Made to feel inferior, but we’re the superior
Break the chains in out brains that made us fear ya
Pledge allegiance to a flag that neglects us.
The song ends with a shout out to comrades in the Black Panther Party, and a warning.
NIGHTMARE, that’s what I am
I am what you made me
The hate and evil that you gave me
I shine of a reminder of what you have done to my people
For four hundred plus years
You should be scared
You should be running
You should be trying to silence me
But you can not escape fate
Well it is my turn to come
Just as you rose you shall fall
By my hands
You reap what you sow
Chickens Home to Roost
Given the power of Hip Hop as global rebel music, why hasn’t anything like the Arab Spring occurred in the United States?
Maybe it has. The Occupy Wall Street protests may quite possibly become the most promising youth movement in the United States since those seen during the civil rights era. And Hip hop was from the very beginning central to the movement’s popularization and power. It was mega-star Lupe Fiasco who devoted his Twitter feed to organizing and advertising the protest in the lead up to its September 17 birth.
Immortal Technique visited the protest encampment in its first days, offering his wisdom and revolutionary perspective.
Professor Cornel West visited the protesters shortly thereafter, blessing those gathered with his wisdom and christening the protests a potential “American Autumn,” a reference, of course, to the Arab Spring. Dr. West is much beloved in the Hip hop community and among many youth, having recorded radical Hip hop with such artists as Talib Kweli, Black Thought, Andre 3K, dead prez and others. Even Russell Simmons visited the encampment in support. Rappers like Chuck D, M-1 and others spread the word on Twitter. Other Hip hop-oriented academics and journalists did the same. Just like in Tunisia or Egypt, this American youth movement was being born with a Hip hop soul.
Already there is a significant kinship between Hip hop and this incipient movement. The calls for economic and social justice are long-running themes in Hip hop. The merciless winds of economic injustice sweeping through the American middle-class tore first through the hood. Young activists and future leaders receive a history lesson on American injustice from artists like Public Enemy, dead prez, The Coup, Talib Kweli and others who have made a discussion of injustice the primary focus in their work. Others, such as Jay-Z, Ice Cube, Goodie Mob, Outkast, Mos Def, 2pac, Scarface, Bun B, Game, Common and Kanye West have devoted no small number of bars to injustice in their communities and others.
Moreover, the police violence against the protesters woke many in America to the types of behavior that rappers had been warning about for nearly 30 years. In the first days of the protests, the brutal excesses of the NYPD surprised many protesters and figures in the corporate media. It was certainly startling to communities not yet acquainted with how police-state shit works. Since NWA at least, Hip hop has maintained critical discussion of police brutality, whether it be Rodney King, Fred Hampton, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, and no telling how many that never get press.
The new generation of rappers is politically conscious in a way we’ve never really seen. The brief age of radio candy rap has been extinguished by increasingly bad times in the US. Nearly every up-and-coming rapper around involves a political message in his or her music. B.O.B., Lupe Fiasco, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Electronica, Pill, Cyhi Da Prynce, Lil B, Freddie Gibbs, Das Racist: each new rapper brings a political critique alongside other lyrical topics. “2pac back,” says Meek Mill and the Maybach Music Group crew. Freddie Gibbs wears a full back tattoo of Black Panther Chairman Huey P. Newton. Atlanta’s Pill often speaks on the crisis in his city, where authorities have destroyed all public housing. Kendrick Lamar shouts out Black Panthers. Even Soulja Boy offers a political critique.
Many are asking, what is going on Lower Manhattan? Why is it spreading like a wildfire? Why such anger? It’s simple: that which American rappers have been describing for 30 years is now widening to affect everyone—or, everyone except the super-wealthy elite. The third world conditions in the hood are creeping out to the suburbs—this is the new America. Injustice and negligence in the United States used to be confined to the hood, and relatively comfortable middle-class Americans could feel secure knowing they were safe from that sort of desperation and danger. For many white Americans, their race was another degree of protection—or as Das Racist’s Heems says, “White people’s skin is their jewelry.” It turns out that police brutality can become an equal opportunity abuser. To the Hip hop fan, this growing protest movement makes sense, as we’ve known for some time the sort of desperation and anger that plagues those left behind in America. Now that desperation has spread. “Pressure busts pipes”, reminds Killer Mike. The pressure is growing.