Hip hop, which officially turns 30 this month, has always had something to say--about the essence of music, about the beat, about streets mean and easy, about The Man, about the outside looking in. Except that it's not so much on the outside anymore. It's a dominant form of art and music that influences mainstream culture and--like it or not--is more and more being shaped by its own triumphs.
That may be one reason that for years now it's been all about the bling--nothing sells like success. It's also much safer to market than, say, Fight The Power. Pay a visit to the channels that earn their keep off the lust for stretch Hummers, all that glitters, the fabulously overdressed and the thong, and you'll see only a faint nod to hip hop's rebellious Bronx roots.
But there are signs at least that the era of hypermaterialism is fading. At hip hop conferences here and around the country to celebrate the music's 30-year milestone, there is a renewed emphasis on the sense of community and struggles for justice that were emblematic at the birth of the movement.
In the last election, you also saw a lot more emphasis on involvement through registration drives, get out the vote concerts and political networking. Even Sean Combs, not really that much of a politico prior to this year, got into the act.
It's a testament to how difficult the task may be to cut through all the glitter that Combs' group chose Vote or Die! as its chief slogan. While that got some attention, the long-term effects of celeb driven political movements are sketchy at best. Karl Rove will tell you that success in politics requires a lot of off-season work at the grassroots level. So while Vote or Die and Rap the Vote might have gotten some folks' attention, it'll be the locals that do the follow through.
There are some encouraging signs there as well.
In this issue, columnist Derek Jennings writes about conversations on the state of hip hop and the prospects for sustaining its renewed political and community involvement. The verdict is that in the wake of Nov. 2, the iron is hot--that perilous times and imperial arrogance has young people more aware of the risks of being lulled back into indifference. The message (Straight outta the Triangle) is that people need to get together and deal with the real world a bit.
Rock it don't stop it.