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Mike Kaveney Messages Music Can Provide

   Recently I took the opportunity to attend a lecture given by rap icon and hip-hop activist Chuck D. Chuck gave the lecture at Syracuse University and spoke on a range of topics all concerning hip-hop culture, the stereotypical rap aesthetic, and how music can spread a message other than "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" and "another rap star has been shot." (My headlines, not his.) I do not intend to "cover" Chuck D's lecture in this column, but rather use it as a spring board to discuss the motivations behind music and the power music can have within American culture and politics.

   I was never alive in the 1960s, and barely for the 70s, but it seems as though music has died sense then. We of course still have music, but it is never used for the progressive reasons it was when the women's rights movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the drug movement, and others were full steam ahead and banging on the capitol doors. Sure Eddie Vedder sang about a misguided youth in Pearl Jam's "Jeremy," and The Verve Pipe sang about something (I'm told teen pregnancy) in "The Freshman," but did the 1990's produce an equivalent to Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin'" or Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth"? (Dare I mention something as sacred as "Imagine"?) Certainly Britney Spears's "Stronger" cannot tread water among feminists. And while Rage Against the Machine certainly produce powerful anti-establishment music, the fact that they suck off the Sony teat, produce videos, and show up to several MTVish events does not help their "down with the man" message.

   So can music still have this kind of change-the-world meaning? Chuck D seemed to think so. Unfortunately, according to Chuck, the most successful artists, and he was addressing primarily those artists from the hip-hop and rap communities, are the artists that end up in situations similar to Sean "Puffy" Combs's current debacle. If you have been living under a rock, Combs is in the middle of a trial right now in which the New York City District Attorneys office is seeking to prove Puffy concealed a gun at a Manhattan nightclub, and that his buddy Shyne shot a young woman in the face. Unlike Puff Daddy and Shyne (along with a number of others) though, there are hip-hop artists that not only live upstanding lives, but also fill their music with messages of hope and change for others.

   A couple of specific examples are Dead Prez and the artists featured on No More Prisons. Dead Prez's debut album is fueled by messages of political disasters including the expanding problems concerning America's prisons, ghettos, war on drugs, racial divides, and cultural identifications. The album also, in non-typical rap form, offers solutions to these problems, in addition to the poignant messages of injustice as opposed to the "keeping real message" other rap and hip-hop heaves out. Also fairly recently, Raptivism Records released No More Prisons. This progressive album is a compilation of tracks composed by, and featuring, over 70 hip-hop and rap artists. Inspired by hip-hop activist William Upski Wimsatt's book, No More Prisons, the album is a cry out against a nation which imprisons one out of every three black males between the ages of 15 and 25, overwhelmingly for non-violent drug offenses, and which, with over 1.8 million people incarcerated, is the world leader in putting its own citizens behind bars.

   This activism is not new to the 20-somethings now studying, working, and roaming in America. While the last decade of the 20th Century will be remembered for many things, one element of remembrance should be a return to activism. With the largest demonstrations since the 1960s taking place in Seattle, Washington D.C. and the Republican and Democratic Conventions, the 1990s and year 2000 are calling for change. Music can be, and historically has been, a messenger to the people of the world. This messenger aspect of music seemed to be one of Chuck D's principle topics during the lecture, along with his call for better communication between all people. It was also evident that Chuck D was attempting to separate the music that is hyped from the music that is meaningful (ala Puffy vs. Dead Prez).

   Many music fans have a cavalier attitude towards music. In other words, they believe music entertains and should not be considered of any value beyond pure entertainment. "Music should just be fun," according to all the "Thong Song" lovers out there. Music shouldn't just be fun. Music is one of the most effective ways, if not the most effective way, to reach the general public with any message an artist (or political activist, or parent, or teacher) wants. Why would you be upset that Rage Against the Machine pushes their politics on you? Why would you be upset that Bob Dylan pushes his politics on you? It makes sense that President Bush would tout his politics, but Dead Prez can't promote their views? I would argue Dead Prez do a better job of spreading their word, by the way. My point is that any person or persons can push their ideology. You do not have to listen but do not give the music's politically inspired motivation as a reason for dismissing their music. Pushing your apathy on a person is worse than that person pushing his/her politics on you.

   During his musical career Chuck D used his music talents to spread his views on American life. And along the way he became a huge force in the hip-hop and rap worlds. As we push further into the new millennium we should encourage musicians to speak up on so called "radical" issues; meaning issues besides thongs, drugs, pimps, whores, and how it sucks to be rich and famous. The progressiveness within songs does not have to create social unrest, or satisfy the radical wings of ideology. They should, though, provide new views of the world, new perspectives on peoples, and serious musicians with serious goals.

   Now, I'm not calling for a moratorium on all forms of music, and nor is Chuck D. We can still play Alice Cooper's classic "School's Out" at the end of the school year, and the Beastie Boys's lyrically masterful tune "Fight For Your Right" when we want to party. What I am saying is that music, from the blues played on plantations to the rock and rap played in today's modern arenas, has traditionally had two purposes: one is to entertain, and one is to educate. We can not lose site of that second purpose and the power it holds.

Mike Kaveney
Columnist, EMPYRE Lounge

Agree or Disagree??? Let me know what you think, email me at kaveney@empyrelounge.com