Eminem released Kamikaze a couple days ago, without promos, just out of nowhere. I'm a large fan of lyricism and Em's one of the TOP. The way he bends words and their sounds is impressive. He's not the only one in the rap game, Kendrick, Cole, Montana of 300, Joyner, YBN Cordae of the new gen and Tupac, NWA, Jay-Z, Dre, Wu-Tang, The Game of the old gen twist words and craft narratives in the most spectacular ways and I'm all about it. Further, what is particularly interesting about the genre of Rap is the way that it refracts Ancient modes of narration, oration, and story telling. With its roots tracing back to the Griots of West Africa, the form and content of Rap has also taken from the Rhapsodes of Ancient Greece, the Orators of Ancient Rome, the Storytellers of Native American tribes (perhaps most similar are the Cahuilla Bird Singers), and even aspects of Medieval Theatre.
Essentially, Rap speaks, conveys, relates; stories. That is a very defining characteristic that sets Rap apart from other forms of communicating stories. Historians and Writers recount or relay a story, which presupposes a distance from the story itself. Rap is interpersonal dialogues being performed through spoken word that flows to match the pace of music. Founded in the tradition of West African Griots who traveled and told tales of their history, they have counterparts in probably every world culture we have, the Greek rhapsodes, the court musicians of the 1700s, the medieval jesters, the Roman orators, Native American storytellers, the Japanese Rakugo and countless other I could list. The Griots differ most notably by their world counterparts because they were considered to be a social memory of his/her community.
Rap has always been a fascination to be because it has this capacity to pull influences from every single one of these things. Like the rhapsodes of Ancient Greece rap artists today, relate a story to a group of people assembled to listen. When Cicero spoke to the Roman Senate against Catiline the entire floor was enraptured. When Aeneas is charged by Dido in Book 2-3 of the Aeneid to sing the melancholy of the Trojan War all who were assembled wept.
The two verses below from Eminem and Kendrick Lamar reflect the same type of performative narration you see in the Cicero Oration, Aeneas' Rhapsode, and Siba's song. A narration that is set to music and relates a tale of strife. Both are speaking directly to the people about political ales and social issues that have always been and are still prevalent today throughout the world. They challenge stereotypes. They cut those stereotypes open and reveal the ugliness and extrapolation of human characteristics that they were founded on. They speak of frustration and a deep sorrow. Two sides telling similar stories through different lens'. Lens' which were created by experiencing life in different ways based on the environments they were born and raised up in.
It's not that political music is a new phenomena; especially when looking at the History of Rap. The term itself was said to be coined in the 1960s by H. Rap Brown, during that time it was a slang word which referred to an oration or speech. While the slang term was used during the 60s protest movements, evidence of Rap can be found in Blues music dating all the way from the 20s and mostly likely before we were to look into the 1700/1800s. In the 50s era Hayes' Black Moses album had three songs listed as "Ike's Rap I, II, and III", Joe Louis has a really cool verse in his song "Gotta Let You Go". Muhammad Ali even incorporated forms of "diss track" Rap during his fights as a way to trash-talk his opponent; a practice that Greek Homeric soldiers used before hand-to-hand combat; most notoriously Achilles' trash-talk of Hector.
The genre of Rap gained wider, some could say "mainstream", popularity with the 1980-90s "Gangster Rappers". There are endless tracks from old schoolers who speak orations in their songs: NWA's "F*k The Police" and "Straight Outta Compton". Tupac's "Brenda's Got A Baby" and "Ghetto Gospel". Wu-Tang's "Method Man" and "I Can't Go To Sleep". Dre's "Rat-tat-tat" and "Stranded On Death Row". These do not even touch the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
This is all to say that Rap is and has always been political. It is multifaceted and perhaps on the truly rare and unique forms of narration that exists today which has been able to meld multiple influences from all over the world into their genre. It is fun and currently it feels like this genre is doing exciting things. Things that remind me of turning-points I've studied in history. The spread of the French Revolution via the use of a song which is currently used their National Anthem and the Civil Rights movement of 50s are the two images of radical questioning of the "dominant status quo" that come to mind. Perhaps it is my bias of living in this era that is not allowing me hindsight, but, it feels like lately the energy of the United States has been charged in a way that it hasn't seen in a while. It's a feeling as if we are all on a precipice.
What our era is experiencing is unique because history has never experienced the instantaneous interactions between global communities on the scale that it is experiencing today. The explosion of social media has allowed for a reciprocal spread of musical influence on such a vast and quick pace. Childish Gambino's "This Is America" is one prime example of this [see stills above]. His track, a conversation about institutional social suppression, sparked a global musical movement. Within weeks the world was responding with This is Iraq, This is France, This is England, This is Africa, so on and so forth. The verses spoke of institutional racism, inequity between the dominant elites and
Kendrick's performance at the Grammy's 2018 and then U.K. Grime rapper Stormzy's performance at the Brits 2018 [see stills below] is another example of a political discussion happening on both a global and extremely public platform. Not only is the discussion taken to a public stage, but its occurring on a prestigious stage. There are endless tracks I could name drop from the new gen rappers who are bringing social injustice to the forefront of their rhymes. Joyner's "Dear America" and "I'm Not Racist". Cole's "1985" and "Crooked Smile". Kendrick's "Poetic Justice", "Backseat Freestyle", "i", and "Determined". This expands as well to our global world; in the UK, Skepta's "Shut Down" and "No Security". Stormzy's "Shut Up" and "Cigarettes & Cush". Bugzy Malone's "Gone Clear" and "Warning". In France, Black M's "Je suis chez moi" and "Je ne dirai rien". Stromae's "Papaoutai" and "Tous les memes". Lefa's "Paradise". The list is endless.
Maybe it's optimism speaking but I see a difference, there's this movement in the works. It seems like more and more these conversations are not happening on the fringes, they're not silenced by media and surpassed by a dominant party's overarching narrative. Parent's aren't saying as strongly: "Rap rots the brain." Children are growing up in diverse communities and slowly that is filtering into those Big-Name-Industry television shows and movies. There is also this newer understanding that there is good music and bad music within a genre, different musical preferences, which is different from saying: "That's Rap, Rap's bad." It suggests a changing of the dominant narrative. It is social change at a level of socio-cultural performance and it's exciting AF. It's exciting because this is how it historically happens: change, it starts at the cultural level, it filter's into the performative, the arts, and there the message gains pressure. That pressure turns into traction and traction sends it to the governmental level.
As the government is a representation of the society it, in theory, "protects", governments are obligated and must adapt. So adapt. Do not make the mistake that historians have been recording for eons. Thinking that a document written over 200 years ago is still wholly applicable to our society now. A document that the authors even said was supposed to change according to the will of the people who's betterment it protects. Human hubris is a wild cheetah, it will hunt you down easily and eat you alive.
The Em verse marked the beginning in a way that his Cypher hadn't. The Cypher followed the wake of the 2017/2018 Clinton/Trump elections and Kendrick/Stormzy/Gambino, it was rage and loud proclamation of dissent. If his Cypher was the ball then this verse is the bat. His Cypher went against the Trump Era in a big way. He took sides and demanded that other's do so as well. A move that reduced Eminem's following to "thirds", a reaction his verse suggests he is surprised by. It asks, "was it even worth it?" I think it was because people pay attention to icons. Their voice matters more than mine does because it reaches more people than mine does. It's important when they say things because when they make moves it ripples. The politics that Eminem is speaking on is the same that Kendrick has been speaking on since he's Ep's. The same that the genre of Rap, before it was even called Rap was speaking on. Kendrick is giving a story, he's showing you his side. He's saying, "Listen, I'm telling you my story, tell me yours. Let's talk." Eminem is asking, "Why won't you listen?" Both artists are icons, both movements are equally important. The same can be said of any of the artists I listed here today and all the ones I wasn't able to list.
The global movement sparked by Gambino, Kendrick, and the Grime rappers demonstrate that not only is this a movement that the U.S. needs to listen to but it's a world movement. It's a story the world needs to interact with and its using a malleable form that has historically been used to proclaim injustice or memory.