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It's time to ask WHY

Published Aug. 28, 2005

The FM dial is set to 95.7 the Beat. The songs on a recent afternoon include P.I.M.P., 50 Cent's ode to players and promiscuity, and What's Happnin!, the gun-toting boasts of the Ying Yang Twins and Miami rapper Trick Daddy.

Out of nowhere, the bass begins thumping. A raspy-voiced man roars:

Why did Bush knock down the towers ...

Why did crack have to hit so hard ...

Why they let the Terminator win the election

Come on, pay attention ...

Why Halle have to let a white man pop her to get a Oscar

Why Denzel have to be crooked before he took it

"He doesn't offer solutions, but the questions are profound," said Erik Parker, music editor at Vibe, a magazine that chronicles hip-hop culture. "They have enough depth that they are implied that there needs to be some kind of wakeup call in this country."

The rap, titled Why?, is not the kind you'd expect from Jadakiss, a hip-hop artist who has penned songs such as Ryde or Die, B__.

And it certainly isn't the kind you'd expect in heavy rotation on mainstream radio stations or at the club; it breaks practically every rule of hip-hop, at least the formula that has catapulted the music into a billion-dollar industry. Sex, bling bling and thuggery, all the things that brought the genre to the attention of the masses, are absent.

Weeks before what many are calling the most important presidential election of our time, machismo and excess aren't getting national attention as much as politics infused into hip-hop lyrics.

This isn't the first time hip-hop and politics have married.

"Before, you had artists that were political," said Bakari Kitwana, former editor of the Source, the so-called bible of hip-hop culture. "The political hip-hop artists became more marginalized. It made it less fashionable for artists to be political because it diminished their influence."

By the 1990s, albums such as Dr. Dre's The Chronic were hot; Sister Souljah's more political 360 Degrees of Power was lukewarm.

And though political songs still take a back seat to songs that make people dance, something happened after the 2000 presidential election. Angered by the recount, the genre's heavyweights organized a grass roots movement that has made politics "more fashionable and accepted as part of what hip-hop is," said Kitwana, who also wrote The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture.

On BET and MTV, at cross-country summits and in magazines, iconic figures such as Russell Simmons, P. Diddy, Jay-Z and Eminem are imploring the Hip-Hop Generation _ the 18- to 35-year-olds who get their news from outlets such as MTV _ to register to vote.

But there's another influence besides the 2000 election: Hip-hop is getting old. This month marks 25 years since the release of the Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight, which eventually entered the Billboard Top 40, the first time a rap song achieved that feat. The pioneers of the genre are now fathers, mothers, husbands and wives. What may have mattered to them as teenagers and young adults _ cars, money, jewelry, clothes and women _ matters less as 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds. They want what is best for their families: access to good schools, good jobs and a good quality of life. The person sitting in the Oval Office determines if access is granted and more, Parker said.

"The issues that affect the world are directly the result of voting for or against a president," he said. "We have an Iraq war. That was a decision made by a president that may not have been made by another president. ... In voting for George Bush in 2000, in essence, people voted for what has happened; whether you like it or not, that's what it is. This is what we did as a nation."

On some level, Kitwana said, the hip-hop's political motives are self-serving. Songs have become formulaic and consumers are fed up.

"The music has done all it's going to do," he said. "We've had the multiplatinum sales, we've had connections made between hip-hop and education, we've had connections made between hip-hop and fashion, we've had hip-hop go to Broadway.

"This connection between hip-hop and politics has breathed new life into hip-hop itself."

Parker agreed.

"People have become tired of hearing just fluff music which makes you feel good but doesn't have any politically redeeming messages," he said. "The field is wide open; people are being reintroduced to one of the things that made rap so powerful in the first place."

Kitwana said that Jadakiss' Why? "does what hip-hop at its best does: It asks the hard questions."

The Golden Era

If the mainstream didn't know the ghetto before, it found out in the summer of '82.

It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.

The Message, by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, is widely regarded as hip-hop's first political rap. It painted the realities of ghetto life _ drugs, crime and despair _ in vivid detail.

Rats in the front room, roaches in the back, junkies in the alley with a baseball bat

"The Message was probably one of the first message records that was really powerful and talked about the condition of black America," Parker said.

Other artists followed Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's lead. Public Enemy urged listeners to Fight the Power in 1989.

Our freedom of speech is freedom or death

We got to fight the powers that be

KRS-One, whose name stands for Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Every One, rhymed about conspiracies at the highest levels of intelligence in C.I.A (Criminals in Action).

Yo this is the message to all that can hear it

If you got secret information now's the time to share it

Call your congresswoman, your senator, your mayor

It's time for all the scholars to unite with all the playas

Parker refers to the late 1980s as the golden era of hip-hop.

Kitwana says it was a time when "many of the record labels were independent."

That independence allowed artists "a lot more diversity and range in terms of the content of hip-hop," he said.

It didn't last long.

The formula

Kitwana calls it "the formula."

"The corporatization of the music industry and the consolidation of rap labels under five main distributors limited the range and the content of the music to one main theme: gangstas, playas, b__es and ho's," he said.

By the 1990s, substance no longer mattered as much as a catchy chorus.

"What wound up selling was tunes that had melodies and made people want to dance and made people want to party," Parker said. "And I think radio helped promote that because a song with a catchy hook will keep people listening (more) than a song that will take some time to ingest."

The formula worked, even penetrating a demographic far removed from the experiences described in the lyrics: white suburban teens.

Whereas most hip-hop albums in the 1980s went gold (sales of 500,000 or more) or platinum (sales of 1-million), the gangsta rap and sexually explicit themes of the 1990s garnered hip-hop artists multiplatinum sales. N.W.A's Efil4zaggin sold nearly 1-million records in weeks and became the first gangsta rap album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Two years later, Dr. Dre's The Chronic sold 4-million copies.

Because of that success, the content of hip-hop lyrics has not changed in more than a decade, Kitwana said.

He compares the formula's staying power with that of corporations such as Wal-Mart.

"You don't try to redo Wal-Mart," he said. "The same thing happened with hip-hop.

"It worked."

Not that deep

Nelson George, a journalist and author of Hip Hop America, said the hip-hop evolution doesn't go that deep.

"Everything is a trend," he said. "Politics is a trend. Hip-hop is very trend conscious. Everyone is talking about politics. It's cool to talk about politics."

Films such as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 helped open that dialogue, Vibe's Parker said.

Agree with the movie or not, he said, it linked voting and its effect on people's lives for the guy who "normally doesn't connect those dots."

"It showed how politics relates to what we go through, and it was palatable for audiences of laymen," Parker said. "Whether you believe it or not is secondary to the fact that politics plays a role and affects our lives, and who our leader is affects our lives. It made that point very clear."

That message struck a chord with young people who did not go to the polls in 2000, "and rappers were not immune to that," Parker said.

Whether hip-hop artists continue to rap about politics depends on the election's outcome, George said.

"Political records tend to come in and out more," he said. "Two years from now, if the world is stabilized, I think you'll see fewer of them.

"If Bush is in office, you'll tend to see more. A lot of people in the black community will be pissed off, and it will come out in the records."

More than the music

Though that anger is coming out in songs more than it did in 2000, Parker said he does not know if politics is as "overwhelming through the music as much as the activist work that (hip-hop artists have) been doing as of late."

In recent issues of Vibe, color, full-page political advertisements have been sprinkled throughout. In one, rapper Q-Tip wore a black shirt with "ROCK THE VOTE" scrawled across his chest. "YOU HAVE THE POWER," the ad said.

South Florida rapper Luther Campbell, the former front man of the sexually explicit 2 Live Crew, started the Movement Tour to register 40,000 voters.

Kitwana, the author, helped organize the first National Hip Hop Convention in Newark, N.J., this summer. About 4,000 people attended, and the 400 delegates were required to register at least 50 voters.

The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, the brainchild of mogul Russell Simmons, has held confabs in Detroit, Houston and St. Louis, and used the hottest stars as draws.

This year, the network estimates that it has registered 2-million voters, group president and CEO Dr. Benjamin Chavis said. It plans to be a major force in Florida in the next six weeks, with stops in several cities, Tampa-St. Petersburg included. This weekend, the network and a coalition of faith and communityleaders will gather at the New Birth Baptist Church Cathedral of Faith International in Miami to register voters.

"Traditional politics may have underestimated the growth of hip-hop culture," Chavis said. "If we are successful and we have a large voter turnout, young people across America will be taken seriously."

Unfair burden

Not everyone is convinced that hip-hop is the appropriate medium through which political education should take place.

Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly called Jadakiss a "slanderer" and a "smear merchant" on a July 14 broadcast of The O'Reilly Factor. John McWhorter, a conservative social commentator, told the Washington Post that Jadakiss is "not an intellectual; he's a rapper. So, of course he's going to have stupid things to say in his lyrics. Jadakiss knows as much about geopolitics as someone shopping at Wal-Mart."

To some extent, that is true, Parker said. Unlike groups such as Public Enemy that were politically astute, some newer artists have not even registered to vote, let alone grasped who or what is being voted on. For example, Jadakiss is nearly 30 years old and only this year registered to vote. Common, a rapper out of Chicago who appears on the remix of Why?, just registered this year, too.

"The artists don't know that much more than their audience about politics," Parker said. "But they still tell them to go out and vote. Telling people to vote without telling them what to vote for is a hollow premise."

It's unfair to expect artists to educate their fans about politics, he said.

"Their main job is about making art," Parker said. "You don't ask your politicians to bust a rap."

George agreed.

"The job of the artist is to stimulate the listener," he said. "The job of the listener is to educate themselves. It's not spoon-fed to you. You have to work for freedom."

Kitwana disagrees somewhat. Not all hip-hop artists have to be politicians. For some, "their calling is to make people dance and have a good time," he said.

But for others, "hip-hop artists are the poets of our time, and I think as poets their challenge is the same challenge of any group of intellectuals, and that is to ask the hard questions."

_ Rodney Thrash can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or

WHY is the industry designed to keep the artist in debt

WHY they aint give us a cure for AIDS

WHY they stop lettin' n----- get degrees in jail

WHY them bullets have to hit that door

WHY all the young n----- is dyin'

Cause they moms at work, they pops is gone, they livin' with iron

Come on, pay attention

Chuck D, left, and Flava Flav of Public Enemy perform Sept. 9 in New York. In 1989, the politically astute rappers urged listeners to Fight the Power.