By Yvette Griffea-Gray
What a difference a day makes. Approximately two weeks ago, war was still a threat hanging over our heads. Protests for peace were being held all over the country — its participants hoping to make a difference at the grassroots level.
The protests continue, and we are now living in a time where all of the war talk has actually come to fruition. American soldiers are fighting for our country, and several have already died doing so.
While chatting with a friend, we marveled at how we as Americans go on with life as usual. Television programming such as the Oscars and American Idol are so trivial compared to the reports that constantly interrupt them. And as we get ready to head down the road to the Final Four, it seems crazy that young men — the same age as our college basketball players — are on the front lines.
I am sure there is nothing going on in hip hop that is more significant than that. Fortunately, there are those in the hip hop world who took a pause to speak out on the matter.
According to the Davey-D newsletter, several members of the hip hop community recently came out to speak their minds about the war. The most noted was Russell Simmons, who questioned how our country can find the money to support war but scramble when money is needed for education and social services necessary for young people. He also raised concerns about Bush’s true intentions, but hoped he was successful in liberating Iraq.
Simmons also discussed the issue of one-sided media coverage on the war by MTV — the network that claims to be the voice of young people. He went on to say that he and rapper Mos Def made a series of anti-war commercials but were not allowed to air them on MTV because of a policy that, if passed, would open the door to other political groups such as anti-abortionists.
In the article, Davey-D writes, “Russell [Simmons] explained that he felt MTV was being a bit hypocritical because they constantly run commercials from the Army, Navy and other military outlets.” Simmons said, “These ads actually encourage young people to sign and go to war so they can ‘be all that they can be.’” Simmons concluded his remarks to Davey-D by challenging the hip hop community, particularly those who have large audiences, to step up and present material that speaks out.
The war is having a direct effect on rappers such as Big Daddy Kane, who was unable to perform in Portland while on tour due to the protests that shut down downtown. Kane addressed Simmons’ point by stating that several artists have put out material about the war but have experienced being shut out by radio and media outlets.
Kane also stated, “Radio stations operate just like the government — they aren’t allowing groups like Dead Prez or Mos Def to be seen and heard so they blow up like a 50 Cent or Jay-Z.”
War has not only affected hip hop artists’ freedom of speech and performances, but some rappers’ lyrics are being closely monitored for links to terrorism. Source magazine recently dedicated a whole issue to this problem.
Davey-D was also visited by Afrika Bamabaataa and Professor X of the X-Clan who said, “As a community we need to stop allowing ourselves to be told and manipulated on how we should be perceiving things with respect to this war.”
Professor X went on to make a much more interesting point in my opinion. As many in the hip hop world are labeled and criticized for taking on the role of gangster rappers, Professor X asks you to reflect on the word gangster and ask yourself, “How much more gangsta can you get when you go before a body that sets rules of engagement and then decide that because they aren’t moving fast enough or doing what you want that you then decide to jump up, pull out your guns and step to a situation? Let’s look at who’s the original gangster. Let that word sit with you as you reflect upon the illegal activities of this country.”
Finally, Professor X makes note of the ethnic make up of the military’s front lines, which he believes is unfairly made up of Black, brown and poor people who joined in hopes of making a better life for themselves and to escape dire economic conditions.
One thing we can expect as the war continues is to hear different perspectives from both inside and outside of the hip hop community. But I believe Desmond Tutu said it best when asked what advice he would give to President Bush about the then-imminent war. He replied that oftentimes the voice of God is in the cry of the people. “Listen to the cry of the people,” he said.
[Editor’s note: Professor X of the X-clan died in 2006]