Analyzing his diatribe against the President and thoughts on what the Chicago MC can learn from Dr. King.

Written by David Drake (@somanyshrimp)

Yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, so it’s tempting to give Lupe Fiasco the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was taking the Reverend’s Letter from Birmingham Jail to heart. The piece was written, as the title suggests, from an Alabama jail cell, where King was being held for his part in the non-violent campaign against segregation. In the letter, King took to task the white moderate, who he saw as the greatest impediment to true progress for African-Americans in the United States. The white moderate, says King, is one who:

“Is more devoted to 'order' than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.'”

This is a landmark speech for activists because it makes the invisible privilege of the status quo visible; it argues against apathy, suggests that what seems radical in a given moment might be the most just course of action, that proponents of slow and orderly progress and "common-sense" approaches are using moderation as cover for their reactionary politics.

When Lupe took to the stage at the private StartUp Rock On inauguration event, it wasn’t the first time he felt compelled to take a very public and principled stand. For opponents of, say, President Obama’s endorsement of drone warfare in Afghanistan, failing to speak would be irresponsible. To paraphrase historian and Lupe Fiasco hero Howard Zinn, you “can’t be neutral on a moving train.” But like many public stands Fiasco has made, this experiment in revolutionary theater wasn’t particularly effective. Rather than a righteous stand against injustice, the stunt served only to marginalize him further. His was a failure not of principle, but of presentation. And as an artist, presentation is the very skill he should have mastered by now.

 

Like many public stands Fiasco has made, this experiment in revolutionary theater wasn’t particularly effective. Rather than a righteous stand against injustice, the stunt only served to marginalize him further.

 

According to the StartUp Rock On organizer’s official statement, it wasn’t the content of his words that they found objectionable: “We are staunch supporters of free speech, and free political speech.This was not about his opinions." So what was the problem then? "After a bizarrely repetitive, jarring performance that left the crowd vocally dissatisfied, organizers decided to move on to the next act. Lupe Fiasco repeated the one song for more than 40 minutes.”

This is the latest in a pattern of well-intentioned but ultimately tone-deaf maneuvers by Lupe. Consider his Twitter spat with 17-year-old rapper Chief Keef, which turned what should have been a teachable moment into an exercise in grandstanding, or his appearance on The O’Reilly Factor, in which the rapper appeared more concerned with the appearance of being a revolutionary than articulating his arguments. Or for that matter, consider his music itself: “Bitch Bad,” a song that addresses misogyny in hip-hop, takes a muddled view of the issue, vaguely indicting "The System" and criticizing women who succumb to it, without once mentioning male complicity.

There is an essay by George Orwell entitled “The Frontiers of Art and Propaganda” which addresses the complicated relationship between politics and art. All art is propaganda; it is impossible to divorce a person’s creative output from his or her political biases and ideological outlook. Orwell writes that “our aesthetic judgements are always coloured by our prejudices and beliefs.” But there is a flipside to this; the end of "pure aestheticism," in Orwell's era, caused “countless young writers to try to tie their minds to a political discipline which, if they had stuck to it, would have made mental honesty impossible.” At a certain point, the artist has to recognize that his job is to create effective art, and that requires a certain kind of honesty that pure “pamphleteering” undermines.

Dr. King himself recognized the political power of art. "In a real sense, you have paved the way for social and political change by creating a powerful cultural bridge between black and white," he told the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers in 1967. "School integration is much easier now that they share a common music, a common language, and enjoy the same dances. You introduced youth to that music and created the language of soul, and promoted the dance which now sweeps across race, class, and nation." He spoke of music and dance laying the groundwork for "a cultural conquest that surpasses even Alexander the Great and the culture of Classical Greece. But, my brothers and my sisters, we're only beginning. We still have a long, long way to go."

 

It's cool that he wants to address significant political issues and re-brand himself as a public intellectual to fight the stereotype of the "ignorant rapper." But he’s so caught up in these concerns that entertainment and art become secondary.

 

Lupe’s most effective public statements and his greatest works of art are the ones that balance honesty and politics by making a personal connection. While his Twitter exchange with Chief Keef resolved nothing and even appeared self-serving, his tearful moment lamenting lost friends on MTV's RapFix Live was truly moving, even for viewers who are otherwise distanced from the killings in Chicago. One of his most powerful tracks as a recording artist is “Hip-Hop Saved My Life.” The song details with eloquent specificity the hopes and aspirations of someone who feels marginalized and powerless in society. It builds empathy through effective characterization, rather than strident rhetoric.

Ironically, Lupe seems more convinced that entertainment and politics have an irresolvable oppositional relationship than his detractors do. It’s understandable, to some degree; for Lupe, politics isn’t just about the subject of the song, but about how he positions himself when performing it. It's cool that he wants to address significant political issues and re-brand himself as a public intellectual to fight the stereotype of the "ignorant rapper." But he’s so caught up in these concerns that entertainment and art become secondary.

Thus Lupe's performance of a 40-minute song at the inauguration isn't a spirited rallying cry; it's a self-righteous dirge. And he eventually runs up against not authoritarian censorship, but the very audience who had paid to hear him. Sometimes, being right isn’t enough; you also need to connect with your audience and build understanding. Or as Rakim once put, "to me, MC means move the crowd."

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