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and socially conscious lyrical content to be the exclusive domain of artists who match a narrow, increasingly outdated aesthetic.1 Recent songs such as Pacewon and Mr.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.2 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 commentaries3 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.4 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
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Showbiz and A.G.’s Runaway Slave, Threat Sickinnahead, and Fesu War Wit No Mercy all come to mind immediately. [↩]
- There are plenty of new, complicated developments in urban America that need to be addressed, the gentrification of metropolitan areas for instance. [↩]