by Courttia Newland 

Has the Hip Hop Generation found its voice? It’s possible it has. For those who care, this does seem like a vintage year for R&B and Rap music. Late in 2014, D’Angelo released Black Messiah, his third studio album, after a 14 year hiatus. It received rave reviews and commercial success, selling over 117, 000 units in the first week. The following promotional tour, The Second Coming, sold out internationally and was reviewed in stellar terms. At a London performance, D’Angelo appeared visibly moved by both the size and the adoration of his audience, who hailed him during an epic revamped rendition of the quirky, unconventional ‘Sugah Daddy’. The album was originally slated for a 2015 release, but after the controversial cases of Mike Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York, D’Angelo was inspired to release it earlier to catch the mood of the time. The timing worked.

Last week, under similar circumstances, Kendrick Lamar released his third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly, 9 days earlier than planned. The long player was almost as anticipated as D’Angelo’s, albeit for a shorter period of time. Once again he was awarded the twin honours of rave reviews and astronomical sales figures. Music critic Greg Tate notes the obvious connections between their albums, including an adherence to fearless artistic expression, saying; ‘Thanks to D’Angelo‘s Black Messiah and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, 2015 will be remembered as the year radical Black politics and for-real Black music resurged in tandem to converge on the nation’s pop mainstream.’

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D’Angelo performing in Amsterdam Photo: PAUL BERGEN/EPA

The impact on the popular music buying audience is indisputable. When D’Angelo performed at the Hammersmith Apollo the crowd was not only full of regular Hip Hop and R&B heads, but also the type of audience usually associated with Beck. Lamar’s recording broke a Spotify streaming record previously set by Drake, clocking a staggering 9.6 million plays on its first day of availability. What’s also apparent is the emergence of the uncompromised Black artist who speaks their mind.

For many fans this has been sorely missed. Why were so many artists silent in the wake of unflinching atrocities towards the Black body? Who speaks for a community? Who can be honest about the transition from working class nothing to millionaire something, and what it does to the psyche of sensitive human beings? For many who look on from the sidelines, these questions are largely met with silence from the very people who could provide answers. The few who choose to forgo major labels and mainstream popularity in an attempt to raise their voices and speak radically are often muted to the point of censorship.

All this matters because not so long ago the gulf between the politics of Black expression and the commerce of popular art was deemed wide, almost impossible to bridge. Black arts of all kinds from one side of the Atlantic to the other were branded with a damaging ideal of two mutually exclusive art forms: art that speaks to the people (the community), and art that sells to the masses (the mainstream). Since the dawn of African heritage music created in and consumed by the West, Black artists have faced struggles whichever side of the gulf they find themselves on.

The underground, as it’s sometimes called, battles against poor sales and promotion, while the mainstream fights increasing irrelevance and the dissolution of their core audience. In former times this gave rise to visible consequences; in America, the segregated charts and Chitlin Circuits of Blues, Jazz and early R&B; in the UK, the blues dances or house parties where early African diaspora immigrants came to hear Calypso, Ska, Reggae, and Funky Highlife. While a few political incursions took place – Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On? (1971), and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions (1973) are two notable examples – for the most part, political-artistic discourse in Black music occurred beyond the mainstream arena.

Despite the recurring refrain that art, and in particular music, saw no colour, it became common parlance to accept that Black artistic expression should be relegated to the underground clubs and basements of the neighbourhoods from which it came. ‘Popular’ or pop music, seemingly free of political expression, made simply to dance to, was embraced and given the exposure it duly deserved. This was ‘safe’ music, apparently free of political agenda or malice. Music that helped people to forget the world outside the dance floor. Black music from the opposite side of the gulf was scary, aggressive, in your face. As sound system culture began to take hold across the diaspora, this music began to boom from speakers that looked more like concrete pillars, emitting a throbbing low end that rattled bones. It wasn’t timid, politely requesting attention. It was uncompromisingly there. Perhaps this was the most terrifying thing for record company execs and their marketing ilk. Their inexplicable fear certainly wasn’t due to the inability to rack up sales.

It’s well documented that the Rap generation went through a transition that evolved from braggadocios songs about girls and parties, to the political fervour of the 1980’s and early 90’s, to expletive filled, true life gangster tales of the here and now. Some would argue that it’s devolved. It’s interesting to see how this is mirrored in the gradual transition of Reggae into Dancehall, Raps closest and eldest neighbour. Louis Chude-Sokei, writing in Dr Carolyn Cooper’s anthology Global Reggae, cites badmanism as an artistic phenomenon that emerged ‘in the vacuum between political ‘independence’ and social-economic and cultural freedom.’ (p.221)

Similar forces were at play in the cultural production of Black expression by way of Rap and R&B. In the US it would seem that the Rap generation won (by tenacity and merit) a limited social-economic ‘independence’ that allowed a new form of class mobility. As the majors bought up mostly Black-led, independent labels during the late 80’s to mid-90’s, and Hip Hop – Breaking, Graffiti, DJing, MC’ing and Beatboxing – was cleaved from Rap music production, so the part was made to represent the whole. Black cultural expression became secondary to gifting the mainstream (read mostly white) audience with what they wanted.

What white audiences seemed to want was music they could party to, and music depicting violent ghetto living that many hadn’t experienced. If they could have both in one song, that was even better.

Kendrick Lamar "To Pimp A Butterfly
Kendrick Lamar “To Pimp A Butterfly

This is not to say those depictions were false, even when the storyteller wasn’t being entirely truthful about the extent of their involvement. Or to say that truth-telling about those lives or experiences was unwelcome. It simply means there was one view of a diverse place with numerous perspectives on being inner city and working class. Whether by design or accident, pimp mythology and hustler attitudes monopolised artistic expression until record execs and the good folk in marketing believed greater economic viability could only be gained by telling mainstream audiences one part of the story. Hence, that portion of the story sold faster, and easier.

Kendrick and D’Angelo know better. They also seem to know upon whose shoulders they stand. In contrast to the glut of badmanism that emerged in over two decades since N.W.A.’s political street ode Straight Outta Compton many prominent MC’s swum against the tide, providing uncompromised music for Hip Hop lovers, whatever their origins. Most notable is Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, who has remained true to his artistic expression despite record label woes and forays into Hollywood as an actor.

Bey notched up a win in 2009 with his critically acclaimed long player The Ecstatic, inspired by the Victor Lavelle novel of the same name. But it was on his 2006 album True Magic that he was at his most politically sharp. On Thug is a Drug he addresses the mainstream adoption of potentially dangerous imagery by way of the media. In the hauntingly brilliant Murder of a Teenage Life, Bey charts the hellish truth of thug life for young Black men who die on the streets, declaring; ‘Pressure pushed him to the earth like a raindrop.’ Dollar Day is a response to Hurricane Katrina, bemoaning the lack of direct action from George Bush and Sir Bono, Bey growling furiously over New Orleans’s rapper Juvenile’s Nolia Clap. The album was only distributed in the US and France.

There are others, of course. Bey’s long-standing ally Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, and David Banner, relative newcomers like Jay Electronica and J.Cole. Each has released music that critiques contemporary American racism and the current state of the Black psyche, expressed primarily through art.

Before late 2014, this standpoint might have seemed worthy, but niche. Revolutionary yes, commercial, no. In less than 6 months, the alleged superiority of commerce over art regarding ‘for-real’ Black voices in Rap has itself become compromised, questionable. In 2003 Jay-Z told the world;

‘I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars/They criticized me for it, yet they all yell ‘holla’.’

In 2015, is it possible dumbing down is counter-productive for Black artists both socially and economically? If so, that’s due to the grim determination of musicians who dare to fuse political intent with artistic genius at a time when it has never been more necessary; fuelled, in part at least, by the tenacity of those who came before them.

Whether this marks a sea-change or is nothing more than a glitch in the matrix remains to be seen. Some fans are not enamoured by Black Messiah or To Pimp a Butterfly, perhaps feeling that the shift towards more eclectic, less familiar sounding material is a step too far. Still, Kanye West, arguably the first rapper to meld artistic freedom with mainstream popularity, tweeted praise for Lamar, calling him an ‘inspiration’ and thanking him for his ‘gifts to the world.’ Since West’s ego-driven style has become less appealing of late, and contrasts with Lamar’s humble, soft-spoken lack of materialism, it’ll be interesting to see what the artistic outcomes of this influence might be. Not just for Kanye West, but for the Hip Hop Generation worldwide.

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Courttia Newland is the author of seven books and a PhD candidate in Creative Writing. His work focuses on Black British culture and its interaction with the African diaspora. His latest novel, The Gospel According to Cane, was published in February 2013. He co-edited IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain, staged 7 plays, and was nominated for the Impac Dublin Literary Award and the Frank O’Connor award. He is currently working on a non-fiction book for Bloomsbury on the short story, a play, Trim Palace, and a collection of speculative fiction. Buy books @courttianewland

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

4 thoughts on “The Butterfly Effect: Politics and Realism in Black Music

  1. Depressing to see this article because its not the work of a true expert. Not one clearly expressed idea; stylistically a disaster. But it’s not the lack of sparkling prose that irks so much as the assumption that ideas regurgitated from mainstream media will go unnoticed.

    They rob us. Doesn’t work in reverse. Mediocrity is not OK just because – especially because – you’re black.

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  2. It is interesting that you talk about Black artists but for some reason I don’t see any female’s here. This is typical of so many Black issues. I love and support black men and particularly love Kendrick Lamar’s new album even though it isn’t my typically my cup of tea. Seriously where are the women. This article is only half the story.

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  3. Reblogged this on wordstoofast and commented:
    I was literally having an argument last night about the greatness of Kendrick Lamar and J Cole’s albums (in that order) in this serious debate about the state of Hip Hop and it’s influence on our culture in America. In different ways these artists, and others like Yassin Bey who talk about real stuff beyond drugs and sex, are now educating the youth. I believe KRS-One said, “If Hip Hop has the ability to corrupt young minds, it also has the ability to uplift them”. That’s what this wave of artists are trying to do right now. I think part of the issue is that music overall has been dumbed down so much, that people are perturbed by something real. In the argument last night, one man who stated he hated Kendrick’s album was asked to describe to the group what the album was about…he couldn’t even answer. He had no idea and yet he was writing it off while telling others that Big Sean’s was way better. I can’t speak to Big Sean, but what I can say is that this politically infused music is a true to the culture of Hip Hop and I welcome its continued production.

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