Saturday, December 1, 2007

Hip Hop; Politics; and Democracy: Democracy's Redemption Song

Democracy’s Redemption Song

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Hip Hop has ‘come under fire’ many times through these past years. And as such, in light of the Don Imus’s case: Hip Hop has once again been brought into the limelight as the infamous voice of gangsters; drug dealers; and womanizers. In response, B.E.T. has begun airing its highly publicized 3 part series on Hip Hop vs. America. This debate is in tune with the democratic spirit of Hip Hop and allows members of various panels and the audience to address their ideas on various issues confronting the Hip Hop community. This forum has brought light to the fact that Hip Hop is a large culture that encompasses various artistic forums and as such it gives voice to many different factions of society. Subsequently, it also might be silently pointing out the underlying reasons why Hip Hop has been getting all this attention. Being that it has become a powerful medium for the people’s voice, it becomes a risk to the government and the big businesses. There is a threat because public opinions and ideas can begin to sway public policies and governance in general. Perhaps this is the real reason why Hip Hop is risking censorship? Thus adding more censorship could eliminate this threat and drown the truest essence of Hip Hop: the voice of the people. This idea raises many questions on what exactly is a democracy; what’s Hip Hop got to do with it; and how could this happen in America? The answers lay in the understanding of what a democracy is and how hip hop has become its redemption song.

The term ‘redemption song’ was coined into the mainstream media by the legendary reggae singer Bob Marley. In his album Uprising, he introduced his Redemption Song. Within this song he urges people to awaken to the injustices around them: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds” and “How long shall they kill our prophets, while we stand aside and look?” While this song remains a classic, it does not stand alone in the message it shares. For redemption; the act of redeeming; has often been the subject matter of artists. Rhymes on deliverance from oppression have been and are still commonplace within the hip hop community. Countless rappers have lyrically charged their governments of being corrupt and biased against them and their respective communities. Nas outlines his struggle with the governing bodies in his lyrics: “Vote fo who now? You're red, white and blue? I'm American too, but I ain't with the president's crew. What you peddlin' and who you peddlin' to?” The artists as such as these have essentially challenged their nation’s core legitimizations and moral accountabilities. In effect, this generation’s songs vibrate the necessity for atonement through democratic ideals and have accordingly composed Democracy’s Redemption Songs.

The term democracy is heard constantly in our music; class rooms; general discussions and on the TV – but do most understand what it is or how it applies here in the U.S.? Democracy is a form of governance in which the power is vested within the people – where the majority rules. Hence it is a government ‘by the people, for the people.’ This open definition of democracy has left space for various interpretations of it (i.e. direct; representative; parliamentary; liberal; and totalitarian democracies…) Many of the democratic forms of government are held to have stemmed from ancient Greece; with Athens usually attributed as the focal point of direct democracy. In the hip hop song When Democracy Equals Empire, Mumia Abu Jamal’s voice quotes C.L.R. James about democracy in Athens: “Perhaps the most striking thing about Greek democracy was that the administration… was organized upon the basis of what is known as sortition, or, more easily, selection by lot. The vast majority of Greek officials were chosen by a method which amounted to putting names into a hat and appointing the ones whose names came out… What worked for them, was direct democracy, which means that they believed that all were capable of governing the society in which they lived.” These Greeks also produced many classical arguments surrounding the subject. The famous philosophers Socrates; Plato; and Aristotle, each opposed both direct and participatory forms of democracy. They favored strong centralized states with the power vested in a few elites, as did America’s founding fathers. Although the ancient Greeks have had great influence in molding democratic ideas; the various democracies that exist today are a confluence of post-colonial indigenous cultures. As such there is a fallacy in solely attributing the American forms of democracy to the antiquities of Greece; being that the founding fathers were also heavily influenced by the native Iroquois – “the oldest living democracy.”

The Republic of the United States of America was also formed around democratic ideals; even though it rejected the idea of a direct democracy. Its foundation was based in republicanism because the founding fathers felt that governance should be left to the educated elite. A republic is “a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them.” Thus in theory the power is still vested in the people; but the power is truly retained by the elite. As such, citizens’ vote from a small selection of political parties and their chosen candidates/ slates during primaries (only those who are registered with a specific party can vote.) When election time comes these citizens do not directly vote for candidates; rather they cast their ballot letting their parties’ elector know who they would prefer to be President. Although this is democratic in theory, there is far from direct voting. There is space for vote dilution; which created serious issues during with the Bush elections. The citizens also do not vote on policies or public issues. Essentially, all the citizens have are polls and ballots – thus shifting the responsibility of self-governance to an overseer. They do not have the power to veto government action: for instance a war they may disapprove of. At best, citizens have to hope that there is a political party that best represents their interests. In America there is a two party system – the whole population chooses between these two parties. If citizens want to have some say in governance; then they do have the option to lobby for certain policies – granted they have the financial means too. Factions, as such as large businesses, which usually have the funds to both lobby and help finance candidate campaigns are more likely to have better opportunity to vote to their likings and have their interests met. Other than that, there is no real way that the general population can legitimately have say on any real issue – this power is entrusted to the politicians who were elected into office.

How could of this happened; how did a country that fought a revolution for the people lose its power to the elite? After the revolutionary war, America was signed in as a confederacy with loosely knitted states. The citizens still had reasonable amount of voice within this structure. Consequently, many of the founding fathers petitioned for a strong centralized federal government which would oversee the states; interstate issues; and collect federal taxes to develop a stronger military. In support of this new constitution proposing a federal government, James Madison; Alexander Hamilton; and John Jay wrote a series of articles in a New York journal. In the Federalist Paper #10, Madison wrote in depth about how he feared factions would arise within a system of direct voting that had no strong centralized form of government. He believed that people could be moved by whims and passions and would have too much opportunity to harm the state with their irrational decisions. The bottom line is that he did not think that the people were able to govern themselves intelligently. He described factions as pocket interest groups that did not have the majorities interest at heart - but which could move a large enough population to get themselves elected. These essays swayed the popular vote amongst the founding fathers and thus his contemporaries drafted safeguards as such as the Electoral College to act as buffers against shifting tides of public sentiment. For reasons as such, the power has always been distributed amongst the elite - while appeasing the population who believe the power is vested within themselves.

This is where democracy’s redemption songs come to play. Hip Hop has been screaming that the government is not concerned with the people’s needs – this concern can be heard in Immortal Technique’s 4th Branch: “Democracy is just a word, when the people are starvin'.” Hip Hop has been discussing how the system rooted in republicanism has been failing them. Mos Def lyricizes this in Katrina Clap, “You betta off on crack, dead or in jail, or with a gun in Iraq , and it’s as simple as that, no opinion my man it’s mathematical fact, listen, a million poor since 2004, and they got illions and killions to waste on the War, and make you question what the taxes is for, or the cost to reinforce the broke levee wall, tell the boss he shouldn’t be the boss anymore” Hip Hop has been conversing on its communal wellness and how it is rooted in a more direct democracy. As such Nas professes, “See, it's all about community, let's help ourselves… It's our turn, it's 'bout time we win. Need somebody as the hood as my councilman, uh.” As mentioned earlier, Hip Hop calls upon citizens to be able to function at various levels of governance. It understands that the people are not involved enough and need more education. Immortal Technique points this out in his songs Poverty of Philosophy: “Most of my Latino and black people who are struggling to get food, clothes and shelter in the hood are so concerned with that, that philosophizing about freedom and socialist democracy is usually unfortunately beyond their rationale.” Hip Hop has embraced the idea of public discourses; discussions; and debates with rappers as such as the Roots calling out, “They said one vote equals one voice… Every now and then you gotta stand up and shout about it. And I'll be shoutin' it too, as if a shout'll count.” Hip Hop embraces a societal model that would naturally nurture individual liberties - where one may find independence from oppressive bodies of government. Here, those as such as Kanye West, who do not approve of the current government (“George Bush doesn’t care about black people,”) would no longer have to adhere to its unfair governance. At the end of the day, Governments are instituted to act on the population’s behalf and if the government fails to do so; they loses their legitimacy and their right to exist.

Thus hip hop – the voice of the people - is democracy’s redemption song and as such Hip Hop is setting a precedent that could harm the present government and its big corporate sponsors. Perhaps these are the reasons why Hip Hop has been called upon to be censored. One must consider that once Hip Hop as an industry has been censored – rap will still live amongst the people as it has since the conception of this nation. What then or rather who will the governance censor than? The Brand Nubians present this understanding as they call on the people to wise up soon - “Proper Education Always Causes Elevation… It's time for liberation, we gonna put this plan in activation…”

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