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.