The Coup’s Boots Riley is an incendiary poet – a Maya Angelou level verbal antagonist. Teamed with with Pam the Funkstress, a DJ/Producer who makes some of the funkiest tunes in all of hip hop, The Coup have made five albums of politically charged hip hop. This week Boots Riley was pulled off a Virginia festival stage and charged with “abusive language,” putting an end to the set.
Riley immediately pointed out the racist and gentrification dimensions of the prosecution in a statement on The Coup’s myspace page. The statement partially reads: “Obviously, since no one has been charged with this in 26 years, profanity IS tolerated. The statement they are making is that the culture and the people they feel I represent won't be tolerated.”
I don’t know if it was selective persecution, but the choice to blatantly violate the free speech of a poet seems to depend on the message they speak. Riley’s case reminds us to consider the changing condo dynamics of places like Newport Beach (and Arcata) and the function of quality of life complaints to make sure nothing disturbing enters the sanitized public air.
In an era of war, we ought to be used to this. Michael Franti and Spearhead have been under federal surveillance – a fact they discovered when an emcee’s mother was visited by federal agents in 2003 and flashed their full Spearhead dossier. Dead Prez got rounded up and charged during a New York video shoot by police, the outcome was a $50,000 settlement to the band for wrongful arrest.
I don’t doubt that there are some obscene hip hop tunes – in fact I consider most of the corporate rap music to be obscene. But the choice to arrest activist/musicians isn’t about what they say, but a not-so-subtle threat to the hip hop community.
In the world where hip hop messages aren’t welcome, but the diamond-studded walking advertising are everywhere, we need to consider the history of musicians who get invited to dinner but only to play in their modern-day minstrel uniform. The brilliant drummer Jab’O Starks, who provided the backbeat for James Brown among many others, remembers the rules of segregation that said to musicians of color that they were welcome to perform, but not to eat. He describes the experience in the Wax Poetics anthology volume one:
“There was the times you couldn’t go into the department store and try anything on. Either you took it and left, or you didn’t get it. If you were in town for a Black club owner you played that job but they would book you for a White club too. You went and played, then you left and came back. You didn’t mingle.”
I think that the modern incarnation of this is welcoming rap stars to fame, so long as they fulfill some of the most ignorant elements of public fame. Hip hop are the art forms that emerged from young peoples expression of exclusion. These days hip hop is pulled in two diametrically opposed directions – the corporate mass media success story and the underground, limited distribution, authentic expression pathway.
The result is a dual-channel mass-media process that pumps out destructive crap music and at the exact time arrests the conscious musicians. If you wanted to know more about hip hop music or culture, then the pre-packaged blueprints of cultural expectations will push you to believe that cable television can show you real hip hop.
Smaller acts struggle to balance authentic music making with the acknowledgment that hip hop has traditions, language and formats. A good example of the balance between these two impulses is talented local Hiway, who’s new album Wayhi Certified has just dropped in Humboldt.
Underground and hungry, Hiway has a good series of verses that talk about his struggles and difficulties. He is beat-savvy, and able to discern which tunes will fit his rhymes. “Take a look at life,” is a sparse hyphy-leaning creeping tune that gives a chance for him to match his point of view with space noises and hand claps. “Dine and Dash” is a tune suggesting that breaking out of a diner becomes an extended metaphor for getting one over on the rap game. It is a good album from an artist whose fight comes through clear in his verses.
Boots Riley rhymes on “My favorite mutiny,” I spit street stories 'til I taste the pavement/ Tryin' to stay out the pen while we face enslavement.” Finding real hip hop means looking beyond the representations that you can see on T.V.. Real hip hop artists, like The Coup, Dead Prez, and Immortal Technique are saying stuff that is so unsettling that they face arrests for it. The least we can do is to listen to what they are saying.