BOOKS ISSUE: Three new lit releases by hip-hop greats put forth visions of change
LIT The Occupy movement, though it's been criticized by many for the lack of racial diversity among protesters, has certainly attracted its share of black rappers. Here in the Bay, Boots Riley has been a vocal supporter, participating in Oakland's November 2 general strike. On the other side of the country Occupy Wall Street has met Kanye West, not to mention music mogul Russell Simmons (okay, he's not a rapper) making space in his predatory debit card-selling schedule to stage rants over the influence of lobbyists on the federal government. And how could forget the furor that erupted over Jay-Z's line of OWS-inspired Rocawear T-shirts?
The admirable efforts of Boots notwithstanding, there was a time when all of hip-hop was going to save the world, not just sell its most vital revolutions for $22 a shirt. The time is ripe, it seems, for some books to pay homage to that fact. And although they vary in the specifics, there are a few that are doing just that.
THE PLOT AGAINST HIP HOP
By Nelson George
(Akashic Books, 176pp, paper, $15.95)
Hip hop academic par excellence Nelson George is occupying the bottom half of a computer screen for a Skype-conducted interview with the Guardian.
George's latest novel (his third, though he's better known for his non-fiction, including the seminal Death of Rhythm and Blues) follows the adventures of D. Hunter, a security guard from the projects of Brownsville, Brooklyn. Hunter is embroiled in the murder of Dwanye Robinson, a hip hop academic who bears more than a passing resemblance to George himself. To solve the crime, Hunter must plunge into the untoward world of the hip-hoperati — the movers and shakers and producers and makers that may or may not be out to annihilate the culture's populist powers.
George isn't an adherent of all the conspiracy theories in the book. But he is concerned about a "chill factor" that has artists considering the views of corporate sponsors before penning lyrics that speak truth to power.
"This stuff they're making," he says, speaking of today's radio stars in his characteristically familiar tone (he is, after years of writing about them and producing VH1's Hip Hop Honors awards show, on a first name basis with many of the big guns). "They're not even hoping for art. They're just hoping to sell sugar water, T-shirts — whatever Jay(-Z)'s selling this week. I don't think people were feeling that way about L.L., Eazy E.
"There was a whole period when every success, every commercial was a cause for celebration," he says. "Now, the whole game has to change."
And in Occupy, he sees an opportunity. Emcees have made their way down to Zuccotti Park — and not just Simmons and Jigga. Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, and David Banner (of "Whisper Song" fame) have performed and listened at their local Occupy encampment. "I think this will goose people to deal with a lot of things that are going on," says George.
Reading the rife-with-history Plot Against Hip-Hop can't hurt one's knowledge of the institutional forces behind what we hear on the radio. Says George before signing off: "Every book I write is a tool of education."
THE LEGENDS OF HIP HOP
By Justin Bua
(Harper Design, 160pp, hardcover, $34.99)
Of course, not every one believes in the institutional approach to social change. Hip-hop artist and author Justin Bua follows the personal habit gospel. "Veganism, that would really change the world," he says. "Everyone should have a garden if they can. When people lead, the leaders follow."