The liberating aspect of being a songwriter is realizing how open the possibilities are for creating an expression that no one else can say in the exact same way. The words come from a mind that has collected its own opinions and formulated questions and solutions that reflect the individual’s character. Character is groomed or mauled by experience. I could never write about something I haven’t seen or dreamed. I could never convince listeners if the experience that I am singing about is not my own.
In hip-hop music, the question of ownership is a fiery debate when it comes to lyrics. If an artist is suspected of delivering ghost written material he/she is discredited and ridiculed. Listeners often feel cheated when they discover that their favorite emcee is only a performer, a pretty face that may be more marketable than the writer himself. The fact is there are hardly any writers left in the hip-hop music that presents itself through videos and three-minute radio singles in this new millennium. Some people get offended when they hear the jeers from underground hip-hop gurus who claim that the music has been commercialized. But the truth is today’s hip-hop is more about marketing than it is about lyrics. The songs are not motivated by experience or even clever modern approaches to written and spoken word poetry any more. Famous fashion designers are saving loads of money on advertisements. Why dip into the budget when rappers are willing to promote their lines for free in music videos? What was once a powerful art form that gave voices to the unheard protests of the black youth in America has now been gobbled up by our nation’s evil twin, capitalism.
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I was performing at an open mic at the Blue Note, a venue for live hip-hop performances in Chicago, when a guy approached me and asked me when I was going to give up hip-hop. “Rap is dead. You gotta start trying something else if you wanna be for real.” I told him, “I’m a writer. If I stop rapping I’ll just have stacks of poems all over my room that will never be heard.”
Ralph Ellison writes about an era when black people and their achievements went undocumented in history books. Invisible Man is a novel that touches on many aspects of the African American’s struggle to be heard and included in the great documents that would allow the future generations to see evidence of the black man’s existence in society. For the first time in history, a black man’s thoughts and political opinions could rant over airwaves and through speakers declaring to the world “I am here. I am not invisible.” For the first time in history, blacks are the ones who decide what is documented in their sixteen bars of declaration. This phenomenon is called hip-hop, and even though the version we get through videos and “radio friendly” mixes is watered down and commercialized, the potential and possibilities that hip-hop has presented to African American writers and visionaries are still present.
I will never discard hip-hop for a new title or genre just because it is being victimized and exploited. I’d rather embrace the possibilities that hip-hop gave birth to. When I was influenced by the culture it was new and powerful. In its original form hip-hop has always been a revolutionary attitude, a political state of mind. And when the modern day minstrel shows close their curtains hip-hop will be where the revolution is. “THIS IS PROTECTED BY THE RED, THE BLACK, AND THE GREEN…WITH A KEY, SISSY!!!”
Hip-hop nation, there’s potential in this. So why we playin’ with it?