Hip-Hop and the Burden of Politics

Question: What responsibility do you feel those in the public eye have to encourage or discourage certain behavior amongst their listeners?

Jay Smooth:  I think any artist’s responsibility is, first and foremost, to create good art.  I think hip-hop -- I'm certainly not the first to say this, probably not the first to say this on Big Think, but hip-hop has always been held to standards that I thought were unrealistic and unfair. Standards that now other modern pop music form has been held to as far as our lyrical contents and how much we deliver a substantive message, or whether we craft our music into a comprehensive handbook for how to live your life. 

I mean, I don’t think anyone has ever looked at the blues or jazz or country or any other form—no one has ever looked at John Coltrane and said he's failing as an artist because he didn’t provide a detailed blueprint for political change in our country, or a detailed blueprint for how to raise your children. Because people recognize that the value of John Coltrane’s music comes in its musical expressiveness. But with hip-hop a lot of people don't recognize hip-hop’s musical value, so they latch on to what's easier to them to understand, which is the lyrical content, and judge it strictly on that basis.

I think hip-hop gets a raw deal in a lot of ways, especially because right when hip-hop was beginning to be discovered by the mainstreamers, right towards the end of people call the conscious era, where groups like Public Enemy, who raised hopes very high for having this generation fill the void that had been left behind when the civil rights movement ended, the black power era had ended due to COINTELPRO and self-implosion and whatever else went on.

I think people were hoping for some kind of voice to rise up and when you had Public Enemy, and all the other groups around them, speaking so compellingly I think people got their hopes so high they had unrealistic expectations for how much these young musicians could really deliver as far as offering substantive social and political leadership.

Working in a left wing progressive circle of non-profit media, it's always been a struggle for me to get people to recognize that hip-hop should be recognized for it's musical value first and foremost, and if we're making great music then we've done our jobs.  If we're expressing something that's explicitly political or positive, that's great—but that's icing on the cake. If you don’t have the foundation of great music underneath that, you know, it doesn’t matter. If it was all about the message and only the message, Cornel West would be the best rapper in the world, which I'm sure he would agree, he is not.

Recorded on August 4, 2009

Jay Smooth discusses music and the value of aesthetic expression

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