Nas is bumping on the public-address system as T.J. Crawford readies the remaining National Hip-Hop Political Convention attendees for a closing session on the fall elections. “Can I have everyone’s attention?” Crawford says to nearly 60 people in UNLV’s Classroom Building Complex auditorium on Sunday afternoon. Deep-voiced, stocky and built like an NFL fullback, Crawford is a commanding presence, which helps him rein everyone in. After three days of meeting, intellectual jousting—and, yes, some partying—people are antsy to go home.
“We’ll be starting in a few minutes,” says Crawford, who co-founded the convention. “Until then, I’m going to get back to bumping Nas.”
Good choice. When it comes to mainstream, commercially viable emcees with a modicum of sociopolitical relevance, the Queens rapper is in elite company—and he could very well be in a league of his own. Hip-hop’s corporatization has effectively sucked the activism out of rap.
The big guns—Jay-Z, Kanye and 50 Cent—worship album sales. The talented B-listers (Common, Mos Def and Talib Kweli) produce thought-provoking work that rarely ships platinum. Legions of under-the-radar emcees, whose work is as insightful as anything you’d see on Meet the Press, toil on marginal labels and make it by giving their small, dedicated fans what they want: music without compromise.
So where has hip-hop’s activism gone, and why aren’t its champions urging the masses to rebel, à la Chuck, KRS, even pre-Hollywood Cube? “There are a few mainstream cats that have some political savvy, but not many,” Crawford says. “Lil Wayne made a political statement about government at the end of his album. On the underground, you’ve got Dead Prez, Immortal Technique, maybe Sage Francis. Back then, you had Public Enemy. Today, there’s really no big artist who represents the hip-hop community politically.”
Why? “Because there’s no money in it,” Crawford continues. “If they speak out, they’ll be a threat to the corporate system. Rappers have to be more accountable to the community.”
Working the aisles in the auditorium like a peanut vendor at a ball game, Maya Rise passes out copies of Snag, a periodical chronicling Native American culture. The copy she hands over doesn’t include a CD, but a check of the publication’s MySpace page yields YouTube footage of two Native American emcees: one rhyming passionately about tribal history, the other spitting in a rapid-fire, crowd-friendly staccato that invokes the playfulness of Eminem.
“I’m a proud Chicana,” says Rise, who lives in Oakland, “but I’m a supporter of all indigenous peoples. I’m not here for the politics, but for the spirituality, and this music is spiritual.”
Maybe today’s artists need to take a trip to Uganda or at least check out a handful of films (several screened at the convention) about their overseas brethren. The characters in a Ugandan film rap with the same passion and desperation as the genre’s East Coast forefathers. Then, as now, the message is the same: People are dying; words are powerful; we don’t have time to play around.
Shortly before the strategy sessions start, a group of older, New York-born hip-hop heads wax rhapsodic about how Bronx DJ Afrika Bambaataa’s breakbeats unified blacks and Puerto Ricans, by channeling their aggression into community-building activities. Today’s popular artists, they say, are missing an opportunity to influence the world à la Gandhi or Martin Luther King.
There’s a lamenting tone to the dialogue, a longing for hip-hop to recapture its activist roots, to return to the golden era (1988-1994) when Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, X-Clan and a host of other artists kept listeners dialed into the topics of the day.
Cesar Rivas, executive director of the Hip-Hop School of Arts in Los Angeles, holds out hope for a renaissance. Hip-hop is still the music of pain and progress, he says, no matter how corporate it’s become: “Hip-hop is in touch with what’s going in the community. You can listen to hip-hop and tell what’s missing in people’s lives.”