Hip-hop Roundtable
Round 1 | Round 2 | Round 3 | Round 4 | Round 5 | Round 6

Round 5: Gautham Nagesh

I agree with both your points in that I certainly don't expect hip-hop artists to express populist anger simply because others have done so in the past. Hua is right that as hip-hop has become part of the establishment; it has taken root in the American mainstream in a way I never would have thought possible ten years ago. By trading their anti-establishment poses for seats at the table, rap moguls have succeeded in penetrating every aspect of American culture. The extent to which they have enabled Obama's ascent is certainly an interesting question.

So perhaps my criticism of mainstream hip-hop is premature; there is clearly evidence that the historic events of the past year have not gone unnoticed by rap's current kingpins. I do think the materialistic obsession of many current artists is out of step with a country facing a severe recession, but perhaps we will see a shift in subject matter going forward.

Additionally, as evidenced by all the artists we've name-checked here, there are clearly still people making good music. No one is interested in listening to manufactured political outrage, but when it is formed organically such music can be a powerful tool for challenging the status quo. Luckily artists like K'Naan are doing exactly that. As a child he left for the U.S. on the last commercial flight out of Somalia; now he uses his music and profile as an artist to raise awareness about the condition of people back home.

Like K'Naan, Wale also represents the more optimistic view of the genre that both Hua and I seem to share. Rhyming with effusive energy and plenty of lyrical skill, Wale is one of the first rappers I've listened to in a while who seems genuinely excited about what he's doing. He also embodies the tremendous concentration of energy and optimism in Obama's new hometown, D.C., one of the few places in the country where the present seems promising.

While both of these artists are based in America, they are also part of the emerging global hip-hop scene that combines various cultural influences and musical genres to produce new, unique sounds. From Latin America to Africa, musicians across the globe are producing hip-hop using indigenous rhythms combined with modern beats. The resulting hybrid seems perfect for the post-Obama world.

With that being said, I question whether it's that easy to dismiss the political rap songs of the past as feeble and uncritical. Every generation has its own method for questioning the status quo, whether it's through music, protest or written word. It is hard to dispute that rap has played a key role in raising awareness of issues such as urban poverty and the collateral damage of the War on Drugs.

But more than that, I think it's important to acknowledge the extent to which the music of the late 1980s and early ‘90s served to inspire a generation of young people and expose them to a way of life they may have never experienced otherwise. Sure, it's easy to see formerly controversial gangsta rap group N.W.A. being played at frat parties today and think it was all for nothing. But without N.W.A. there is no Dr. Dre and without Dr. Dre there is no Eminem and no Asher Roth. If hip-hop has ceased to be a disruption to our cultural conversation that seems like something worth lamenting. I suppose I'll just have to wait for the next outlet for populist anger to emerge.

Next page: Hua Hsu
"Eminem might not make 'political rap' (whatever that means), but what about when he flies a planeload of unemployed Detroit auto workers to a TV taping in Hollywood?"
and solutions to them."


Page 1: Alyssa Rosenberg
"On Relapse, the album that he's releasing this week, Eminem's a pill-popping psychopath."
Page 2: Gautham Nagesh
"The days of hip-hop as a 'dispatch from the ghetto' are over."
Page 3: Hua Hsu
"It's a weird thing to acknowledge, the extent to which the rise of the hip-hop mogul facilitated the rise of Obama."
Page 4: Alyssa Rosenberg
"Because they've got a seat at the table, artists who want to make political songs are going to have to identify issues

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