Who’s Who in America: Hip Hop, and a Rebirth of the Artist Activist

            In the immediate aftermath of the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, commentators on culture and music cleverly opined that this sort of polarizing election could result in a resurgence of the punk rock protest genre that became so popular during preceding unpopular regimes. It has proven true that many of our societies beloved celebrities have come out as ardently opposed to the work of the Trump government. But while many celebrities offer hollow and often confusing messages, there is an interesting movement taking place within hip-hop.

            Hip-hop artists of late have eschewed the quick at hand tropes of their genre in favor of a more focused national poignancy. This can be specifically seen in what I believe amounts to a sort of video activism. The obvious example is most recent video by American rapper Childish Gambino, born Donald Glover. In his most recent video for the single “This is America,” Glover uses a familiar playful hip-hop style in order to address the lack of addressing. While the message is similar this in a way opposes the techniques of an artist like Kendrick Lamar, who was recently awarded the Pulitzer prize, who forgoes many of the popular conventions of hip-hop in favor of a more poetic style. Glover does not shy away from the beat driven lyrically devoid style of the summer hit. Instead, he uses these and identifies them as precisely what they are, distractions.

            During the opening of the video, Glover dances in what appears to be a mimicry of some sort of animalistic mating dance. Peacocking in the most literal sense. This all only to shock his viewers with an assassination style killing of a hooded figure. This introduces a whole new element to the video. From here on out we witness Glover performing his anthem as chaos, racism, fear and violence play out precisely in the background.

            A quick read of the lyrics let you know that it isn’t only the video which achieves this level. The song itself achieves a similar effect as the beat and tone appeal to one sense while the lyrics underneath send a much clearer message.

            All of this then, can be seen as a part of a large trend wherein hip-hop artists in particular are taking it upon themselves to make stands against what they see as the ills of society. It can be seen from videos such as Glover’s that the days of rapping about “Money, hoes and rims” is over. If you want to be taken seriously by the hip hop community you will have to become a platform for social change.

            This type of activism in a video can also be seen, in a more positive way, by the video for Drake’s “God’s Plan”. In this video Drake shuttles around Miami handing out money, groceries and other types of relief to families and the greater community. While not so intensely critical as Glover’s video, it indeed sends a message and puts the production budget to a much better use than some of the old rap videos where they pour champagne into hot tubs.

            As predicted, polarizing moments lead to polarized societies. In the recent weeks, the hip-hop community has been forced to deal with the apparent betrayal of Kanye West. His tumultuous return to twitter culminating with an endorsement of Trump and belittling of the legacy of slavery has clearly placed him in opposition to many of his peers. Despite what we think of West’s opinion, is it not much more productive and refreshing that the “rap beefs” are now about the political climate, instead of personal disagreement. I would be much more interested in the debate that swirls around West’s comments and Glover’s artistry than around a feud between two mediocre talents.

            With the sweeping social attitude shift falling over our nation, it does feel as if the days of “ballerific” videos are over. Maybe this trend can sustain itself and inspire more artists to do the same. To participate in a more productive conversation concerning the future of our country. In popular culture, we have, for a while now, conflated two terms: artist and celebrity. While artists have played a role for hundreds of years in overturning social norms and questioning what how people live, celebrity is a relatively new status that I see as more closely related to terms like bourgeois, or royal. Perhaps this awakening will help us sort out precisely who is who.

Jack Madock