Art – and especially music – is one way we understand people who are not like us. Because good art is an honest outpouring of another person's very being, our favorite performers often feel as close as friends, our favorite film characters become people we're sure we've met before. Reading a good book can be as rewarding as spending time with a close friend. Great art ushers us into minds that look very little like our own, and it somehow kills enough of our ego to convince us that this very different person is worth caring about, too. Our veils lifted, we should see the world differently, with more compassion and love.
It is not presumptive to say that the average attendee of the Festival of Faith and Music has never lived in or spent significant time around America's crumbling inner-city housing projects. These government buildings – the Marcy in Brooklyn, the Magnolia in New Orleans – are separate worlds within their cities, places where “economic bailout” and “stimulus package” mean next to nothing because, in these worlds, those terms affect nothing. These are places where the local drug kingpins give back to the community – they coach football teams, they buy groceries for their poorer neighbors. These are places where honor is placed on one's ability to keep it real, to stay true to one's roots. According to Nik Cohn in Triksta: Life and Death in New Orleans Rap, working menial jobs and serving rich folks is tantamount to losing all personal honor and dignity, to sell out to the system that's enslaved you from the very beginning.
It's a question that rappers – and anyone trying to make a living off of their art – has to ask themselves. The difference is that in popular rap music, the stakes have been dramatically raised by people outside of the game. In order to understand what makes Lupe Fiasco's music a pleasant and surprising bit of spirit, it's necessary to understand the culture which has defined him in photo-negative.
The visceral bullet play of gangsta rap grew out of honest expression of ghetto life but quickly diluted when discovered by white suburban audiences. These teenage kids were, after all, the ones with the money, the ivory hands that could shape the way the music industry conducted its business. And so, when rap music was only beginning to understand its potential as a poetic force, borne out of frustration with the injustices of America's cities, it sold its soul. Teenagers didn't want to hear about how their rich families had oppressed generations of black Americans, they wanted (and still want) the pornographic thrill of violence-from-a-distance, the kind that lets you feel like a true thug without ever having to touch a gun of your own, much less understand why you started firing it in the first place. As this trend took hold and then began to strangle the mainstream of music, there were plenty of rappers willing to lay down their hungry hearts in order to feed their equally hungry stomachs.
Of course, like all snakes, the cycle began to eat itself. Inner city rappers began to abandon all sense of conscience, canonizing names like Tupac and Jay-Z, A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy, without ever tackling the questions that those artists raised. And suddenly, rappers coming up in the ghetto had to answer a question: do you go with what sells, or do you go with what's soul?
Lupe Fiasco is one who chose soul. Born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco in Chicago, Lupe began making mixtapes when he was fifteen, releasing them on the internet and garnering so much acclaim that Jay-Z offered him a record deal. Opting instead to create his own label under the Atlantic Records umbrella, Lupe released Lupe Fiasco's Food and Liquor in 2006 to deafening acclaim. Explaining the title, Lupe mentions that Chicago's neighborhoods are dotted with Food and Liquor stores, each of which acts as a central gathering place for neighbors. The kids tasted their first bits of freedom; winos never made it off the sidewalk. “The 'Food' is the good part and the 'Liquor' is the bad part,” Lupe says on his website. “I try to balance out both parts of me.”
That same attempted balance is on display across The Cool, Lupe's 2008 release. A loose concept record, The Cool is the story of a boy whose father dies when he is a child, leaving him to fall in love with, alternately, The Cool, The Streets, and The Game. Though the three are physical characters across the album, they are clearly metaphorical takes on the idols that demonize most popular rap. Borrowing a concept from Dr. Cornel West, who will also be speaking at the Festival of Faith and Music, Lupe questions what has become standard-definition Cool in hip-hop. “Dumb it Down,” perhaps Lupe's most direct attack, skewers the reception that Food and Liquor received on the streets as well as mimicking an imagined conversation between Lupe and an unnamed record executive who is attempting to give advice on subjects worthy of Lupe's study. While a chorus barks the title phrase, the executive and fellow rappers tell Lupe that he's giving people the wrong idea, that he's inspiring people to take themselves too seriously, that their newfound desire to go to college is a negative thing. “They're starting to think that smart is cool, Lu,” the executive says. “Dumb it down!” shouts the chorus. It's not hard to imagine this conversation actually taking place in record company boardrooms on either coast. With an established image in place and so many rappers willing to sustain the status quo, not to mention the incredible profit margins that rap produces, record executives have a vested interest in keeping rap music dumb. When the guns clap on Lupe tracks, or when the ladies are implored to start dancing, more often than not they're all being undermined, stripped naked and exposed as money machines created by boring, unoriginal rappers. Don't let the message get drowned by the medium.
Faced with the same question that so many rappers before him were faced with, Lupe chose to remain true to hip-hop's unsold soul. In fact, one might argue that his patent refusal to dumb it down has set him apart from the pack, making him easier to like and – as the execs sign their checks – easier to market. Lupe has made wide waves in the world of hip-hop. Both Food & Liquor and The Cool charted highly on Billboard, and Lupe has been nominated for eight Grammy awards, taking home a statue at the 2008 awards for “Best Urban/Alternative Performance.” Additionally, The USA Network honored Lupe wit h the 2009 Character Approved award, given by the television network to people who are positively changing the face of American culture.
Maybe it's a bit surprising that conscious rap music can do so well, both in the marketplace and on the streets. But maybe, if we squint our eyes against the bling, we can see this desire in the grooves of most rap records. After all, people have been crying out to be who they were created to be since the gates to the garden were closed. Maybe, just maybe, the success of Lupe Fiasco is indicative of something most rappers share, which is a desire to see hip-hop changed, brought back to its poetic, justice-driven roots. At it's best, and often despite itself, hip-hop and rap unite people and celebrate the diversity of life, from the North Suburbs to Cabrini Green. Maybe behind all of it, there's a desire to see the culture beat its guns into computers, to see the gangsta and the geek lie down together.
- Marty Garner
April 3, 9.30pm
Van Noord Arena
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