Friday, September 19, 2008

On "Conscious" Music

I pretty much only listen to hip-hop these days. The music I write leans more heavily towards hip-hop sounds. And my lyrics? Definitely based on a hip-hop flow.

But it wasn't always this way. In fact, it's only in the past year or two that hip-hop really took over my musical tastes. Before that, I was one of those "a little bit of everything" people. A little longer before that, and I would have said that "indie rock" was the most represented genre of music in my collection.

So what happened? Well, basically - I was politicized. And then I started really listening to lyrics. At that point, I was left with no option - it was get inspired and hear something worth being said, or settle for "loves lost" and interesting instrumentation. I chose the former, of course.

Because Portland has knocked the apathy right out of me in regards to politics. It's something about being in the whitest city in the country, surrounded by self-proclaimed "liberals" that causes a person of color to really start seeking out something MORE. To actively start looking for friends that run a shade darker than the omnipresent majority and are conscious of what's going on around them. Seeking white friends who are willing to acknowledge their own privilege and ignorance. And to look for a place or state of being where those things are the norm, as opposed to how the rest of life in this city can be.

And that led me to hip-hop. Or, more accurately, led me into a specific sub-set of hip-hop culture closest to its roots. The political brand that has come to be known as "conscious" hip-hop. Of course, that name is applied broadly, and I don't exactly agree with all the various artists that people call "conscious," but we'll move past that for now. The point being that hip-hop was the only genre of music that seemed to have something to really offer me when I was looking. Something for a person of color frustrated with a world dominated by white folks (or at least a white world-view). Somebody looking for the calming deep breath that being around other folks of color could provide.

And it makes me wonder - was there anywhere else to go? Now I'm more than happy with where I landed (and how that has been working out for me, artistically and socially), but I wonder if other genres could have offered me something similar. And I don't really know.

Because I'm not aware of too many other "conscious" forms of music. I wasn't alive for the punk scene of the 80s. Bob Marley has been appropriated by the very middle-to-upper-class white folks that he was originally fighting against. All the gods of the blues are dead, and their music has been appropriated, run-over, or put on the back-burner. John Lennon is dead.

So is there anybody else out there? Do white rock singers really only care about how depressed they are? The Dixie Chicks drubbed up such back-lash and press when they got a little political - but is that because they were the exception? What they said was a drop of water in the ocean of conscious hip-hop's messages, so did people care because it was so uncommon in the world of white music?

I want answers. I'm curious. Is there "conscious" indie-rock? Are there underground, struggling political rock lyricists fighting the good fight? If I knew where to look, could I find Asian-American singers with something real to say to mirror the Blue Scholars or Native Guns? Is there a stage in that setting where I could stand up and say what I often NEED to say and get a positive reaction?

Are there musicians outside of hip-hop that can speak to the politicized (i.e. aware) me?

This is the question I ask my new batch of readers (now that I'm really getting a lot of them coming through). And if the answer to all of these questions is a resounding no - then my back-up question is: why? What keeps that from happening (even in a small way)?

Music is an interesting social phenomenon, and this is likely to be just the first of a series of posts examining the politics and psychology of musical tastes. I hope to learn a lot from my readers in this regard, and I'm looking forward to it.


ansel said...

Great post. I went through a similar process two years ago when I discovered Blue Scholars. I've been in Austin a few years now, but I grew up in Seattle and their music evokes the city and its people with such tenderness and passion. I'll never forget riding the bus after midnight through South Seattle to the airport last summer. It was full of young men and women of color, some out late having fun, others going home after work. I couldn't help but sing "Back Home" and "Southside Revival" to myself, they spoke so strongly to that experience and to my frustration with seeing how Seattle had both changed and remained the same.

Anyway, they got me into conscious rap in a big way. I also can't find any other music (except for civil rights era R&B, e.g. Curtis Mayfield or Gil Scott Heron) that comes close to resonating with me on the same level. I'm turned off by punk because it feels like I'm listening to some white kid have a temper tantrum. For me, most other music can't measure up to the depth and relevance of conscious rap. I'm not sure if there's anything out there right now that can.

Native Guns rock too. I posted my interview with Blue Scholars last spring at my still-incomplete website, you might be interested:

L. said...

I was gonna mention Curtis Mayfield (my love), but Ansel beat me to it. He was seriously the first person I thought about when reading your post, but I'm an old-soul in the body of a 20 year old. No one else my age really gets into him. But in case you aren't/haven't been into him, may I suggest starting with "Kung Fu" and "Future Shock". My personal favorite is "We People Who Are Darker Than Blue."

Also, Erykah Badu's latest CD, New Amerykah, was on point. Incidentally, my favorites song off of that album has a Mayfield sample.

isityouorme? said...

Hi. I came over to your blog from racialicious the other day. I really enjoy your blog.

I went through a similar process of discovering different types of music when I was in high school. I went from listening to hip-hop and top 40 to alternative and rock. my tastes now as a black college student range from classical, indie, folk, punk, classic rock, and my new favorite, jazz.

You were wondering about white people and their ability to talk about something other than themselves in music. Have you looked into older folk music or older music in general (pre-Woodstock)? A few names that come to mind are Pete Seeger, Joe Hill, Country Joe and the Fish, Richie Havens (African-American), Woodie Guthrie, Tom Paxton, The Weavers, Phil Ochs, Buffy St. Marie (Native American), etc.

I generally listen to older stuff. I haven't listened to the radio in a long time. I think that anyone is capable of creating conscious music. The problem is people don't want to use their brains for much. I am guilty of this from time to time. Good music is out there. Just have to know where to look.

lxy said...

Here are some links to Asian American rap groups.

You probably know about Mountain Brothers, which was a pioneer AA rap group that disbanded in 2003.

One of their members, Chops, is a producer.

Far East Movement

Magnetic North

The International Secret Agents Concert

Hyphen Mag. on Asian American hip hop

CVT said...

Thanks for the comments/suggestions.

I actually haven't listened to Curtis Mayfield a whole lot, so I'll go back to the catalogue and really listen a bit.

Isityouorme? - I meant to throw Woody Guthrie into my list . . . However, I'm mostly asking about present-day - are there other "conscious" performers that could speak to me as a present-day person of color in America? Now that the "folk" movement has strayed far from its political roots, I'm wondering if there are still folks out there that could reach me.

Lxy - Thanks for the Asian-American hip-hop list. I'll definitely get to listening . . .

CVT said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
isityouorme? said...


oh, you meant modern? sorry about that. thing that comes to mind this group I heard about once called HEAD-ROC at a debate for the green party in feb. You might like them.

the afropunk band Cipher is pretty political as well. they are hardcore/metal.


Greg said...

As for non-hip-hop "conscious" music, have you ever listened to anything coming out of the industrial scene? Though to some it might just sound like "some white kid hav[ing] a temper tantrum", I think industrial has a lot to offer listeners (of all shades). At least in the early '80s, industrial was like a patchwork of evocative sounds, images, and words that encouraged critical thinking about the state of the world rather than spoonfeeding ideologies to listeners. Today much of industrial music is harshly critical of mainstream "truths" and "common sense." Like hip-hop, it is a counter-culture movement, and the style of music itself (not just the lyrics) is subversive of mainstream values, and therefore inherently political in nature. War, violence, social injustice, and religion are some of the major social/political forces contested by the industrial scene. A few soundbites for quick reference:

"Testure" (Skinny Puppy)
"Bodycount Proceed" (Suicide Commando)
"Welcome to Paradise" (Front 242)
"Non-Stop Violence" (Apoptygma Berzerk)
"Fortunes of War" (Funker Vogt)
"Civil Disobedience" (Leather Strip)
"Discipline" (Borghesia)
Test Dept. Interview & Live

jane said...

i guess people don't normally connect it but techno has its roots in detroit where it was originally middle-class african americans creating electronic music that was heavily influenced by who and where they were and the social goings-on of the time in the early 80s. like juan atkins/cybotron ... and the more radical underground resistance group. well i'm not very well versed in the history as i've just started reading up on it but you can go read about detroit techno; it's quite interesting, and the beats are tight. as far as current music, i don't know--i mostly see/hear pop and indy rock coming out, and that's not only from white people, either.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for introducing me to a new music term "conscious music." I guess I'm wondering how wide this phrase flows, in hip hop and in other styles as well.

In other words, if the phrase "conscious music" can be applied to other genres of music, then does it also apply to other types of social justice practices?

I'm asking because in one of your reply comments you specifically asked about contemporary musical forms that could speak to you as a person of color. So I was wondering whether you were specifically looking for other musicians who tackled anti-racist elements in their music as part of a "conscious music" framework.

I have to admit that my itunes list is fairly eclectic and has more than a fair share of musicians you'd find at a Lilith Fair event. Which means that the "conscious musicians" I'm aware of, people like Cheryl Wheeler and Jill Sobule, have taken on songs about sexuality and, in Wheeler's case, gun control. And Vienna Teng (AsAm indie artist) has a great song about a lesbian couple getting hitched in SF. And Rilo Kiley (LA indie rock band) have some political songs that are clearly anti-Bush. But none of these artists, I think, have specific anti-racist songs in their repertoire.

But the place to head out to find conscious Asian American artists would be Oliver Wang's website (which you can access through Poplicks on my blog)--because Oliver definitely knows what's up in terms of contemporary music, esp. among Asian Americans and he definitely knows his hip hop (he has a book coming out about Filipino DJs in the Bay Area that is going to be pretty exciting).

CVT said...

Wow - I've got some work ahead of me to listen to all of this. Thanks for all the suggestions - maybe I'll have to do a critique post at some point.

Jennifer - quick note of explanation:
When I say "conscious," I'm actually referring to just being conscious of something bigger than the band (or singer) themselves - and having something to say about it. I then modified that to ask for a more self-centered version that would more directly apply to me (a person of color). So - "conscious" music doesn't have to have anything to do with race (or even identity) at all - but just has a better chance of appealing to me if it does . . .

Kate said...

I was thinking about this this morning. I think I've come up with a bunch of Australian bands that I think qualify. This is loosely int he order that I thought of them, and also the order that I like them.

There's Powderfinger. I haven't heard their new albumn, but their old ones definitely qualify. Try 'Double Alergic' and 'Internationalist' (possibly my favourite albumn EVER) Although a lot of the stuff is specifically Aussie, and might nto read as politically aware for others. But they are definitely not 'I love you, why don't you love me' songs.

The Whitlams are, I would say, semi-conscious, although the lyrics are obscure enough that if you don't know what they're talking about you won't know that they are conscious. For instance, 'Little Cloud', off of the latest albumn, is about our stupid, horrible policy of locking refugees up, kids, women, families and all. But if you don't know that, you wouldn't guess it.

There's the Beautiful Girls, who I don't know very well, but I enjoy what I know.

There's John Butler and the John Butler Trio (although I think their songs all sounds the same, and I think he is a bit arrogant, but it's not like I actually know, you know?)

What about Beirut? Lila Downs. Now I am just trying to think of people who've played at WOMAD - probably not a bad place to start, really. Here's the line up for one I went to this year

They tend to have a variety of different music styles at womad. I'm fairly boring - I know what I like, sort of thing. I like my music smart and for the words to make sense, and not to be the same old love-schtick, but also comfortable and nice. Which is why I like me some Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. In fact, most of the bands i have said here are pretty much in a similar category. Sort of folky, with whiny white boys singing.

I also like all those skinny, ironic white-boy comedy acts, for similar, comfortable, reasons. Although, actually, some of them can be pretty conscious sometiems, too. Like this or this

Sorry if I am blog-stalking your comments, btw. But I am mouthy, you know? I just can't help myself...