Taylor Swift is a real one.
Did I just put a match to my hip-hop head card, and lose all credibility on all rappity rap and artistic fronts forever? Have I forsaken the underground by mentioning such a ubiquitous and pop-entrenched name in the same sentence as the word ‘real?’ So be it: I saw Tay make some impressive moves last week and the girl deserves to be recognized.
Plus, T-Swift has a Kendrick Lamar cosign, so you can’t hate the “shake it off” star that much.
For years, Taylor Swift has been an outspoken critic of online music streaming services like Spotify; so much so that she ended up pulling her entire back catalogue from the site’s streaming library in 2014. Sites like Spotify have long been accused of mistreating artists and not paying musicians for the true value of their work, but when Tay pulled her extensive collection of hits from the site, a larger national discussion erupted about how we as consumers can value artists in the digital age. And that’s a discussion that Taylor sparked again last week, with her now infamous letter to Apple Music railing against their plans to skip paying artists during their new streaming service’s trial period.
Within days, Apple folded. Probably because of the discussion that Taylor re-ignited, and because losing a star as big as T-Swift before their service even launched was a bad look. Now artists will be getting paid. Everyone can agree that’s a good thing. So thanks, Taylor, for speaking up, and speaking loudly.
Ms. “Love Story” has an interesting relationship with hip-hop, to say the least…
Of course, Taylor Swift vs. Apple Music wasn’t the only thing to happen in the news last week. And in the grander scheme of thing’s, T-Swift’s successes are hard to enjoy, in light of the events that transpired in Charleston, South Carolina on the evening of June 17th.
On that night, a young white man named Dylan Roof walked into a black church and opened fire. Using a .45 caliber handgun, Roof killed nine people. He did so because they were black, and he was full of racial prejudice, and wanted to “start a race war.” Roof killed because of hatred; bringing violence into a place of worship because he passed judgement on a group of people due to the color of their skin, and deemed himself a worthy executioner. There is little gray area here. These are the facts, and we know them to be true.
What we don’t know is how to talk about the facts. As a community, hip-hop has not spoken loudly or forcefully enough about the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, or the litany of violence directed against black lives more broadly.
Yes, there were a handful of voices making themselves heard last week, on social media and through interviews and via other public channels. The O.G. Talib Kweli had something to say, as usual. Questlove shared his feelings on the massacre, getting emotional and questioning all of us. And Killer Mike spoke up with his usual provocative and insightful candor. Hip-hop wasn’t silent in the wake of Charleston, but the noise that was being made came from familiar places and familiar faces; an established vanguard of hip-hop artists and advocates that often find themselves carrying the responsibility of pushing a “conscious” agenda, whatever that means.
“Let it sink in. White dude walks into black church & murdered 9 people during bible study last night. Real thuggish. http://t.co/R3nxJroE3F
— Talib Kweli Greene (@TalibKweli) June 18, 2015“
“Everyday People are losing their lives w/ the uncertainty of a Russian Roulette game. do any of you care? really care? #BlackLivesMatter
— Questlove Gomez (@questlove) June 18, 2015“
“What happened in Charleston is an act of terror committed by a terrorist. Simple & plain. I wish those folks in that church had been armed
— Killer Mike (@KillerMikeGTO) June 18, 2015”
What we didn’t see was a popular outcry from the kind of hip-hop artists whose voices penetrate and deeply influence national discourse. Kendrick gave a long interview over the weekend about race and touched on Charleston a bit, but wasn’t as forceful or direct as you’d expect in the wake of TPAB. Kanye dropped a nice freestyle in Atlanta, talking about race and violence. But for the most part, hip-hop hasn’t been as loud or as focused as it should be in response to Charleston. J. Cole isn’t organizing in the streets; Drake and Jay and the rest of the chart toppers aren’t mentioning the tragedy at all, except to offer some condolences.
Black Lives still aren’t free from violence. But mainstream hip-hop has gotten less and less vocal about the issue, as #Ferguson fades into memory.
Do I expect too much from the artists I love? Perhaps; I know that there are considerations for every public figure when a tragedy like Charleston happens, and that speaking out is easier said than done. And I know that rappers like Killer Mike and Talib who do regularly speak out can take some criticism for their vocal views, and their popularity might suffer as a result of their politics. But I also know that almost every hip-hop artist, from Drake and Jay-z to Lil B and Young Thug, probably agree that the tragedy at Charleston was important. Almost every hip-hop star probably agrees that the kind of racial hate that led Dylan Roof to kill nine innocent people needs to be addressed.
So why haven’t most artists addressed that kind of hate? Why has our community remained mostly silent in the face of Charleston, and too quiet in the wake of countless other acts of violence against minorities in America?
It’s not just about the platform, though I believe that someone with a voice as loud as Drake’s should use that voice for good. It’s about hip-hop as an art form. Art has a responsibility to address injustice, less it squander it’s potential for revolution and impact. And an art form as steeped in revolution, race, and injustice as hip-hop is should produce a community that is loud, united, and angry. About Charleston, and about every other incidence of racial violence that has occurred over recent years.
If you are an artist, speak. Your voice is your craft, so craft responsive art. But your voice can and should be raised at other times, too; don’t wait six months and drop that conscious album. Rally your supporters now; speak loudly, and in the defense of justice, and speak as often as need be. That’s what the community deserves, and it’s an intractable part of being a true artist.
If Taylor Swift can speak up, so can you. Each and every one of you, from the indie rapper on their grind to the biggest, best-selling stars in the industry. Black lives matter: there is little gray area here. These are the facts, and we know them to be true. So let’s start talking about them more.
If you are an artist, speak.
What are your thoughts? Do artists have a responsibility to be vocal, in the wake of tragedies like the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church? Tell us in the comments.