Pacewon and Contemporary Rap Consciousness

Pacewon and Mr. Green “Can You Hear Me” (dedicated to the people of Tunisia)

The social and political consciousness that is evident in rap songs during the late ’80s and early ’90s is invoked by nostalgic admirers as a defining characteristic of rap’s earlier years. Its gradual decline in visibility and relative absence in popular contemporary rap is lamented and occasionally cited as a symptom of the genre’s degeneration, and spuriously linked to a related growth of apathy and ignorance among listeners. The “conscious rap” of the past is incorrectly assumed to be  a sub-genre that is diametrically opposed to the values and aesthetics of “gangsta” or “commercial rap;” the running story is that it faded from popularity because neither the music industry nor a critical mass of fans respected its cerebral content or capacity for exposing the truth.

This narrative is retold and embellished to justify the increasingly conservative tastes of a small but vocal minority of older hip hop fans who view politically and socially conscious lyrical content to be the exclusive domain of artists who match a narrow, increasingly outdated aesthetic. ((Including but not limited to: dreadlocks, twists, and other “natural hairstyles, loud “bohemian” clothing, production that samples heavily from bebop and fusion jazz, lyrics that proclaim a connection to the Black Power and Civil Rights movements and a kinship with imprisoned political activists, and publicly acknowledged dalliance in non-Christian faiths/belief systems/philosophies/dietary restrictions.)) Recent songs such as Pacewon and Mr. Green’s “Can You Hear Me” (see the video above), which do not resemble the militant songs of the past but are still politically themed,  are not widely praised for their content.

There is no reasonable consensus on what constitutes “conscious rap” in any era.  In reference to the late ’80s and early ’90s, the term has been used to describe expressions as dissimilar as Public Enemy’s hyper-militant agitprop, N.W.A.’s coarse dramatizations of gang violence and police brutality, Brand Nubian’s explications of Five Percenter philosophy, the Marxist-influenced world view of The Coup, and the whimsical Afro-centric musings of the Native Tongue. ((These are the most cited examples (assume Ice Cube to fall under the N.W.A. tent) but even when taken together they do no trepresent the entirety of social consciousness in the rap music of the time.)) This tendency to bundle only the most popular and overtly political voices of the late 80s and early 90s together into the “conscious” category disqualifies subtler, more carefully considered, album-length social commentaries ((Showbiz and A.G.’s Runaway Slave, Threat Sickinnahead, and Fesu War Wit No Mercy all come to mind immediately.))  from receiving similar recognition.

The romanticization of “the golden era” involves the arbitrary assignment of value to political expressions that resemble the most celebrated ones of the past. The “golden era” and its artifacts are treated as a sacred cow. This tendency is understandable given the amount of negative criticism the genre received from conservative and liberal watchdog groups during that time period.

But if we listen to the old songs uncritically and assume that the approach used to create them and the topics discussed in them loom tall as a an ideal model never to be revised, we blind ourselves to the new and innovative ways in which contemporary artists engage in political expression. In the case of Pacewon, for example, we can witness the widening of the often insular, domestic scope of rap music if we bother to pay attention.

Other than Stetsasonic’s “A.F.R.I.C.A.,” and Eric B. and Rakim’s “Casualties Of War” I can’t recall a single popular rap song that concentrates on social and political problems occurring outside of the United States. When Africa is invoked it is almost always in the abstract, without any mention of a specific nation or situation. I am not saying that a cosmopolitan perspective makes a song inherently better than one that is domestically focused, or that rappers should feel compelled to write about topics beyond their usual purview just for the hell of it.

Nor am I suggesting that the topics most frequently explored in rap music — racism, crime and poverty —  have been so thoroughly discussed that they require no more explication. Far from it. ((There are plenty of new, complicated developments in urban America that need to be addressed, the gentrification of metropolitan areas for instance.)) But I do find it curious that hip hop, the one form of popular music that consistently commented on social and political issues in the ’80s and ’90s — and an Afro-Diasporic music form at that—  had next to nothing to say about hugely significant events in Haiti, Rwanda, Cuba, or Liberia, to name just a few examples.

I have a faint memory of reading a blurb in a popular rap magazine back in the ’90s about Russel Simmons’s plan to distribute a newsletter covering current events relevant to the black community to rap artists and industry types via fax. He reasoned that this could result in a resurgence of politically oriented music. I don’t know what came of this plan exactly. Though it might be easy to mock its hubris in retrospect, it makes sense to assume that increased access to information might result in increased awareness.

Today, rappers have easy personal access to a wide range of global news sources through their cable and internet connections. Of course, access and awareness alone do not engender concern, analysis, or creative response, but at least a few rappers seem to be putting their pens to work in response to the news items they are digesting. Consciousness in rap is far from dead.

Pacewon’s “Can You Hear Me?” video depicts an artist who is moved by the bravery of ordinary people resisting oppression in a foreign land. He is frustrated by his relative powerlessness, but he is not paralyzed. He writes about what he is seeing and feeling  in terms that he and his peers can comprehend. He is saddened by the images of working people being openly abused by a hostile government, and angered by the idea that peaceful assembly and speech out against injustice is violently suppressed. He doesn’t attempt to overextend his analysis or telegraph some kind of self-serving parallel between his personal situation and that of Mohammed Bouazizi, he just relates a story by flowing nicely over a banging beat.

We might surmise that Pacewon’s concern for the participants of the Tunisian uprising is connected to his identity formation as a black man born in the years following a massive civil disturbance in his native Newark, New Jersey. Or we can just let the music do the talking. Pacewon’s lyrics have never been saturated with allusions to civil rights or black power, but if you listen closely you can hear the working-class pride and defiant spirit that lurks throughout his whole discography.

“Can You Hear Me” is contemplative and personal but far from solipsistic; the narrator of the song focuses on Tunisia to the best of his knowledge and ability without sounding like a detached reporter. This is an exciting development that should be spotlighted and celebrated. — Thun

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86 Responses to “Pacewon and Contemporary Rap Consciousness”

  1. cenzi says:

    There are tons and tons of american rap groups that rap about shit going on outside of the US. Like you said, they are just no popular.

    Rebel Diaz – http://www.rebeldiaz.com/ – from NY, they report on South American issues.

    Psycho Realm have always rapped about political and economic situations in Honduras, El Savlador, Guatemala, etc.

    Hasan Salaam just came back from West Africa where he did tracks with Senegalese and Bissau- Guinean hip hop groups. He’s been rapping about actual African plights, and not abstractness… which I agree was the dose during the early 90’s.

    The Reminders, DOPE duo, http://www.myspace.com/theremindersfam, rap about punctual things happening outside of the US. They are amazing, check them out.

    Overhyped Immortal Technique drops international gems all over his songs.

    Two canadian hiphop acts, Nomadic Massive and The Narcicyst rap about arab countries and hit the money, spot on thanks to their numerous trips to the middle east where they do some shows. And if you haven’t yet checked out the PHATWA video, do it… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtoHCUMpNMY

    Sila Babaluku, http://www.myspace.com/coolbabs, not only still reps Uganda in his lyrics, but also lives there half of the year where he manages a none profit organization that teaches kids and youth to do various things, from hiphop to sports. http://www.myspace.com/bavubukasports

    There are even international hiphop events in the states.

    Trinity International Hip Hop Festival is coming up in Hartford, this April.
    I’ll be there hosting a forum with a few international MC’s.

    Rhyme and Reason is a conference in Jackson, Mississippi, where they have invited MC’s from Ghana and are now taking american MC’s back there.

    I also rapped in an Internal Indigenous Hip Hop Event in LA, but I think that it slowed down to a halt after it’s third leg. Still… lot’s of LA’s Mc’s rapping about Mexico and even deeper, Aztlan and other indigenous cultures. LA MC Tolteka even raps in Nahuatl.

    You also have Nomadic Wax, a small group of film directors, Dj’s and Mc’s from USA that are making BIG moves with their 3 Democracy in Darfur, Paris and Haiti documentaries, focussing heavily on hiphop acts in both countries. They also organized , and I cant remember the details, some event for the Smithsonian that brought together MC’s from Darfur and Nas, Rakim, Kool Herc and Damien Marley.

    I can go on listing them…. but you already said it, they aren’t popular. This is why no one has heard of them unless you are part of the niche hiphop genre.

    • Thun says:

      ^^ Well, damn. I have my homework cut out for me. Thanks. I hope people pay attention.

    • Strategy says:

      No go on listing Cenzi! 🙂

      I honestly am thirsty for this stuff. Considering how HUGE hip-hop is nowadays, and how frequently it is identifiied with a culture of resistance, I find it striking how few and far between real social commentary is in the music nowadays.

      You are right, the Reminders are really dope, as is the Narcycist.

  2. Strategy says:

    Word Thun. Very dope. Props for bringing this track to my attention. Please bring more. I’m thirsty for hip-hop that has something politically relevant to say!

    You are so right about the vague categorization of “conscious” hip-hop. The standards are so damn low! (I remember when Puffy first starting blowing up, he said his music was “positive” because it was “about having fun.”)

    Your insight about the lack of songs commenting on specific social or policital issues outside the U.S. made me think of this little known classic:
    Free South Africa Hip Hop Against Apartheid – Ndodemnyama
    (I’m sure its not new to you, but in my opinion its one of the best hip-hop songs of all-time.)

  3. […] Pacewon and Contemporary Rap Consciousness by Thun […]

  4. I think there is still a lot of “political” talk/feeling within rap music, just that a lot of it is more oblique than the “conscious” rappers of the late ’90s. IE; you can learn just as much about the problems of an impoverished existence from a boosie song as you can from any “conscious” track. When Gucci talks of coming home from school to a grandfather on drugs and sugar on bread for dinner, it’s as much a cry for help as it is hood bravado.

    And where the conscious rap fell off was when it came to it’s most obvious exstension, preaching/proselytizing. And that’s a fine line to tread because people are drawn to learn about things but when you start trying to tell them how to thing your audience, at least the part of it smart enough to form their own opinions, will immediately switch off.

    • Thun says:

      I agree with your first point about an oblique form of consciousness, which I think has permeated much of the genre since day one and is one of its proudest features, or one that I like to point out to outsiders. I probably could have done a betterjob expressing this point in the body of this post. I don’t think that all obliquely conscious songs are created equally, though, so I’m skeptical that Lil’ Boosie or Gucci Mane have some kind of monopolistic stranglehold on social insight.

      Not sure I agree wholeheartedly with your second claim. There is preaching/proselytizing that is electrifying and inspiring, just as there are obliquely conscious songs that are tepid and indecisive. The delivery matters. Also, I don’t know of any rappers prior to 1997 or so that ever elected to call themselves “conscious”; that seems to be a label that was imposed upon them. So I don’t see how “conscious” rap as a whole fell off. Seems to me that the very narrow aesthetic of self-proclaimed “conscious” rappers has decreased in popularity because its just another hollow fad that few people care to prop up anymore.

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