VIRANI: Political rap is back, especially among millennials
Opinions Column: From Breaks to Bars
I was reading a book titled, "Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation" by Jeff Chang, and I came across a passage I could not get over: "It was not the rappers' message that brought the audience together, it was the things that the audience bought that brought the rappers together." Historically, rap music has gone through a myriad of styles and subjects. From the high-energy rhymes of Grandmaster Fash and the Furious Five to the gangster vibes of Ice Cube to the party beats of Future and PARTYNEXTDOOR, rap music has always been a mere reflection of what its listeners crave. But today's rap music is bringing back a revival in the importance of lyricism and political consciousness, and that emphasis is one that transcends the realm of music and carries an implication nobody can ignore.
Conscious and political rap have roots in the history of the genre. Legendary MC's like Nas, Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. contributed to bringing conscious lyrics into the mainstream music market. The 2000s, however, brought the rise of crunk music, and hip-hop and rap music placed lyricism on the backburner and shifted the spotlight on electronic sounds and catchy beats. And that music was supplemented with lyrics focused on parties, sex and money. Artists like Lil Jon, Nelly and Chris Brown dominated the rap game — and the values of the industry shaped around their mantra of sound over significance.
But that's taken a sharp turn in the past few years. Though this prioritization of beats over lyrics still exists in today's rap industry, a new movement is bringing rap music back to its roots of political consciousness. A new generation of rappers are taking inspiration from 80s and 90s music, creating conceptual albums that dedicate themselves to presenting a complex analysis and commentary on political, social and economic issues. But what's more important than these rappers re-emerging is the fact that people are listening to them.
Which brings me back to Chang's words. Music, like all business sectors, has to pander to its audience to make money — it's the backbone of this survival-of-the-fittest nature of capitalism. So the trends of rap music reflect the trends of the consumers listening to it.
When rap music came to the mainstream market in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it arose as a restructuring revolution. As hip-hop artists recorded over tracks, rappers saw a unique opportunity to share the stories of their struggle to people who, for generations, have been conditioned to not see them.
As rap and hip-hop music expanded to take up more space in the music industry, it found itself having to pander to its audience, as all businesses must. Audiences in suburban America gravitated toward the raw intensity of hip-hop culture, but the stories these rappers were telling, and more importantly, the political nuances of these stories, were not always necessary. Though the 2000s were partially lifted by conscious rappers like Kanye West and Eminem, it's safe to say hip-hop lost the political fervor that existed in abundance through the voices of Public Enemy, KRS-One and Nas.
But that has changed very recently. Artists are going back to 90s rap for inspiration. Kendrick Lamar is inspired by Tupac. J Cole is inspired by Nas. Logic is inspired by A Tribe Called Quest. Ab-Soul inspired by KRS-One. And the list goes on and on. And what separates the conscious rappers of the early 2000s and today's cohort of aspiring political rappers is the fact that the mainstream audience is following them now. With that, hip-hop has become much more political. And the fact that there is now more space for these rappers to build empires in the field means its audience, the youth of our nation, is political enough to want it.
Music is a reflection of its audience. Modern rap relies heavily on the millennial generation, its biggest market as well as its most common source of talent. Not only are millennial rap fans now reaching an age where they can appreciate political rap, but millennials are the primary source of new talent in the industry, and new rappers are taking the opportunity to send a message that matters. And the fact that their music is thriving in the industry means that this new generation sympathizes with their motives.
Regardless of what side of the political spectrum a millennial identifies with, almost all unite on one aspect — they veer outside of establishment politics. They are tired of the inefficiency of today's political process, and they crave something different and drastic. What we listen to, what we as consumers demand, is a reflection of who we are. And the rest of the nation needs to acknowledge that.
Jhanvi Virani is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in Computer Science and History. Her column, “From Breaks to Bars,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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