Immortal Technique: ‘I’m seen as a threat to the status quo of hip-hop’ (Participation)

Reaction; thoughts?  Why is he a threat and what does this tell us?

Immortal Technique: ‘I’m seen as a threat to the status quo of hip-hop’

The reality rapper on conspiracies, the presidential race, the industry’s flaws and his many run-ins with the US government

Voice of conscience … Immortal Technique

Voice of conscience … Immortal Technique

Felipe Andres Coronel, aka Immortal Technique, is more than just an underground hip-hop legend – he’s an activist, humanitarian and a revolutionist. Born in Peru and raised in Harlem, New York, the 34-year-old has struck a chord with those seeking an alternative voice in hip-hop. He represents a thorn in the side of the mainstream with his messages about class struggle, religion, government and institutional racism.

He is currently touring the UK and will be performing with Lowkey – a British hip-hop artist and activist – at a sold-out Electric Brixton tonight.

What are the themes of your music?

A better response is: go on the internet and steal all my music and listen to it. If it speaks to you, then feel free to support me. But if you want a real answer to that question, I’d say that the music I make is very personal, passionate and tells a story of sacrifice. There are a lot of historical and political references. People ask me: ‘Why do you rap about politics?’ I’ve always tried to reflect real life in my music and go beyond the experience of the inner-city ghetto of America. I like to have multiple dimensions in my music.

What do you make of Lowkey and the political/conscious hip-hop scene in the UK?

It’s a very positive thing to have multiple dimensions to any hip-hop scene. So I always think the voice of reason is great to have. People such as Lowkey and Akala rap about real life. Reality rap is what I call it. I think the UK has a rich culture of immigrants who are coming from Africa and Asia and share experiences that are so unique, it’s only right that they document it and recount their struggles too. Without that diversity you’re going to end up like we did in the States, and I hope that never happens. We are fighting a real guerrilla war in America in terms of getting independent music out, getting out music with a message. They are resisting. We’ve found a home-base to fight from in the jungle. They’ve found it too hard to wipe us out; we’re not going anywhere.

Who is resisting and why are they doing it?

It’s more the industry. There are forces within the industry who like very much what I do. Why? Because it’s a money-maker. It’s more people who see the music I make as a threat to the status quo of hip-hop. They don’t want people to hear about Palestine, slavery or torture. They want us to just dance and sing and smile and pretend that the world is OK. They believe hip-hop is sheer entertainment. Entertainment can be used for many things: to inspire and educate but also to pacify, to keep people stupid and preoccupied with things that aren’t important.

Where does the anger in your music come from?

I think it’s righteous fury. If someone shot your mother you’d be angry, right? But would you be wrong for being angry? No. I’ve heard people criticise me for the most ridiculous things, calling my music abrasive. If you’re troubled by the words I speak, then you should probably hang yourself because the world is going to tear you apart or is too real for you to accept. I’m not offended by fuck, shit, pussy, dick, motherfucker. You know what I’m offended by? I’m offended by seeing a child in Gaza who has had his skin burned off by white phosphorus. I’m offended by seeing the graves of civilians that are there because they are the “collateral damage” of a drone strike in Afghanistan or Pakistan. I’m offended when I see people perverting Christianity, Islam or Judaism for their own political purposes so they can justify taking land or killing people in the name of something.

How have you evolved as an artist since your first album, Revolutionary Vol 1?

I just used to write rhymes in my mind and then I tried to find beats to fit them. By Vol 2 I was mastering and perfecting the flow and by The Third World album my flow had a developed a lot more. I had to learn to breathe with my diaphragm rather than my lungs. I learned to expand my arms so I get the extra 10% of breath that opera singers do when they sing. I had to go to a breathing coach, and there is no shame in that. If [rapping] is your instrument, learn how to use it.

Who are your musical influences?

Most of my lyrical influences came from people who didn’t really do hip-hop. Like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali – people who I thought were incredible speakers. But in terms of rap, I’m talking KRS-One, Ice Cube, Chuck D, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, Big Punisher, Lord Finesse, DITC.

What was involved in making the 2011 documentary film The [R]evolution of Immortal Technique, and what did you learn?

That I hate documentaries about my life but at the same time I loved making this. It was a seven-year-long project. We went everywhere. We did hip-hop shows from one corner of the Earth to another.

What places hit you the most?

Afghanistan in terms of seeing struggle, poverty and strife. But in Haiti after the earthquake, I saw some of the worst conditions in my life. I saw a 10-year-old girl who had become the surrogate mother of all these little three- and four-year-old girls whose parents had perished. She was feeding them and giving them water so they wouldn’t die. That is a 10-year-old girl! There were four or five families in one tent. When I went to Peru I saw a 10-year-old girl prostituting herself on the street. That affects you differently.

What do you make of Obama’s first term as president?

Why are we held prisoner by this two-party system when neither of them represents the true values of America? Romney’s position is fairly deceptive. Obama painted him as a man who will say anything to get elected. That’s what Romney is. Romney said he wasn’t anti-abortion when he was governor of Massachusetts, then when he was running for the Republican party he is the most anti-abortion guy in the world. He said he would start a war with Iran but when he realised the economic and political reality of starting another war and how much America is against it, he began mirroring Obama’s policy.

What should the world expect if Romney becomes president?

I think he would make it end up looking like [George W] Bush’s third term as president. Obama is still a war president. He didn’t shut down Guantánamo Bay; he deported more people than Bush did; he supposedly ended the war in Iraq just to expand in Afghanistan; he signed the National Defence Authorisation Act, which is very draconian. I have a lot of problems in actively supporting someone like that.

In your song Point of No Return you say the government is after you. How much truth is in that?

I’ve definitely had a lot of run-ins with the government. They have tried to do my father for taxes; they thought I was hiding money with him. I have had my passport confiscated and have been questioned by Homeland Security upon coming home – not from Afghanistan but anywhere in the world.

Do you see yourself making music forever?

In some capacity yes, but the soul has to develop in some form. I like writing books, stories and essays – I may do that. I use to teach ancient history in prison for children. I found a lot of gratification in that because I saw people’s lives turn around.

Your lyrics contain a lot of religious messages. What does religion mean to you and do you follow a faith?

If I told people I was a Muslim, people wouldn’t say: “Wow, that’s wonderful you’ve found inner peace in your life by embracing Islam.” They’d ask: “What type of Muslim are you? Are you one of them fucking Wahabbi, Sunnite, Salafi psycho-niggas? Are you down with Hezbollah and them?” If I told people I was Jewish, they’d ask: “Do you support Israel and do you support the colonisation of Palestine?” It’s irrelevant whether you call yourself a Christian, Muslim or Jew because if you don’t reflect that in your life, you aren’t that at all. I have always been hounded by people about it; people try and pry it out of me. I believe in God and have a faith that’s very personal to me. That faith is between me and God. We have polarised religion, rather than it being a personal reflection of your relationship with God and how you communicate with God. I’d rather be friends with a good atheist than a bad religious person. Your religion is suppose to ennoble you, but if all it makes you do is become contemptuous of other people, or make you say other people are going to hell, your religion has failed you, or rather, you have failed your religion.

What struggles do you face with being a “reality rap” artist and people trying to pinpoint any sort of hypocrisy in your life?

I don’t shy away from anything. As human beings, we’re all works in progress. If I can get some constructive criticism, you’re helping me grow as a human being. Sometimes I realise I need to grow. It happened with me trying to take the word bitch more out of my music. I’m not a “gay-rights champion”, but if I’m going to talk about people being oppressed in my music, then aren’t some people oppressed if they don’t have the right to marry the person they want in a society that’s supposed to be free? They shouldn’t be punished by a government because of the way they are born.

Do you feel a lot of your music is about conspiracies?

I wouldn’t call it conspiracy. I would suggest people research – for example when I said Bin Laden was part of the CIA and people said “that’s not true”. There was a poll in the US and it showed less than 15% knew Bin Laden knew was employed by US. When people say it’s a conspiracy I welcome the criticism, because the music I make is backed by historical facts. I’m not afraid to be wrong or debate it. I won’t allow people to marginalise my music.

What do you do in your spare time?

Read, sleep, work out, box, spend time with people I love.

Why do you use the N-word so frequently?

I would say I use it less frequently than I have before. I have made a conscious decision to replace it in the music I make. I understand a lot of people have used that word to express camaraderie. In the States we remade the word to be something that reflected unity among ourselves. I think it was a confidence-builder and a way of showing that hip-hop could supersede any of the stereotypes thrown on top of them. The only problem is that when it became corporatised, someone else decided what those stereotypes would be replaced with.

Will you continue to use the word?

I think eventually I will have to phase it out. I don’t want to be 50 years old and yelling to my children like that. I think what people need to keep in mind is the way individuals are introduced to that word is incredibly unique for everybody’s experience. There is a certain power in reclaiming language.

Do you ever see yourself starting a family?

I was born with the disease I inherited from my father – it’s called responsibility. It prevents me from dropping seeds in random women and not taking care of children like a man should. When it’s time for me to have a family, I intend to dedicate my life to that. It’s hard to juggle that as an artist and a revolutionary.


Storytelling Rappers, Cool and Hot (Participation)

THOUGHTS?  What does this tell us about the game?  Who is missing

Storytelling Rappers, Cool and Hot


In one corner is Kendrick Lamar, from Compton, Calif., one of the most daring and sometimes vexing rappers of the day and one who is inverting the gang-rap legacy of his hometown while working under the auspices of one of its founding fathers, Dr. Dre.

In the other corner is Meek Mill, from Philadelphia, a bully of a rapper who, while not as innovative as, say, Drake, has been the most exciting young conventional hip-hop star of the last couple of years since he signed with Maybach Music Group, the label with Rick Ross at the helm.

Superficially they are at opposite poles: Mr. Lamar is an anointed-by-acclamation savior and a reluctant hit maker while Meek Mill is an excitable star with a firm grasp on what makes people move. But each has a strong new major-label debut album and something in common: they’re storytelling purists. Mr. Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope) and Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” (Maybach Music Group/Warner Brothers) are two very different accomplishments but accomplishments all the same. They albums also effectively demonstrate how two artists who value the same fundamentals can choose wildly different paths to express them.

Mr. Lamar’s is the bolder route. His is a totally unhurried album, easily the most ambitious in hip-hop this year, maybe the most ambitious in any mainstream-focused genre. His songs unfold at the speed of life as it’s often lived — slow, meandering, often unremarkable. Every time some action threatens to accelerate the pace of Mr. Lamar’s album, in comes a voice-mail message from his mother killing the buzz.

That’s part of this album’s narrative strategy, which includes, on top of Mr. Lamar’s tremendous verses, prayers and conversations and different voices and recollections and interludes, all in service of one overarching story: Mr. Lamar’s tale of ducking Compton’s rougher corners to find himself artistically.

The album “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” recalls the intricacy of early albums by De La Soul, but without the humor. It has the blushing charm of the Pharcyde and the grounded funk of early Outkast, as well as songs that carry an evident sonic torch for his city’s gangster-rap past. Mr. Lamar has also probably listened to some Freestyle Fellowship, the Los Angeles underground heroes who counterbalanced that gangster rap in the early ’90s with inventive wordplay. He’s halfway toward bending words in the same manner as they did and likely for the same reason: to escape.

Take this segment from “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” which comes after Mr. Lamar teases a possibly dark past:

Would you say my intelligence now is great relief

And it’s safe to say that our next generation maybe could sleep

With dreams of being a lawyer or doctor

Instead of a boy with a chopper

That hold the cul-de-sac hostage

Kill them all if they gossip

The songs on this album are, almost without fail, dense and quiet, highlighting the changes over the past two decades in hip-hop’s scale and gloss by rejecting them outright. (A notable exception is the springy “Backseat Freestyle,” a robust accomplishment in any era.)

It’s on course to sell more than 200,000 copies in its first week, an outlandish number for an artist with no significant radio presence but not for one with a committed online fan base. In this he’s like an indie-rock breakthrough act of the mid-’90s, tapping in to a reserve of commercial, anticentrist sentiment and proving that the market is flexible enough to accommodate dissent.

In the abstract, Meek Mill — a Rick Ross protégé, preserver of big-money triumphalism — is exactly the sort of artist Mr. Lamar is pushing back against. When he raps, Meek Mill sounds as if he’s calling home-run highlights on “SportsCenter.” His flow is all jabs, nothing smooth about it. His songs sound about 50 percent louder than anything else on the radio.

This is the other side of Mr. Ross’s maximalism. Had he come out on his own, Meek Mill would just be shouting, but under Mr. Ross’s umbrella he’s exulting, a logical response to the single-minded commitment to success his boss employs.

But of all Mr. Ross’s underlings, Meek Mill is the cleverest and the one most capable of breaking the template the big man has mapped out. On his earliest mixtapes Meek Mill was more of an obvious technician than he is now, and his recent “Dreamchasers” series of mixtapes have in places been sober complements to hits like “House Party” and “Ima Boss.”

What Meek Mill wants to do is tell stories, unfashionable though that may be. On “Dreams and Nightmares” he tries to have it both ways, sneaking moments of heartbreak into otherwise straightforward boast sessions. But he also has a surprising number of stand-alone short-story songs. “Who You’re Around” is a scathing indictment of a friend turned adversary — “I woulda rolled for you, even in the same hearse/Same cemetery, bury me in the same dirt/We had a plan but I guess it ain’t work” — and “Tony Story Pt. 2” continues a tale of underworld mistrust begun on his “Dreamchasers” mixtape. On “Traumatized” he lashes out against the man who killed his father: “I was only a toddler, you left me traumatized/You made me man of the house and it was grinding time.”

Early critical response likened “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” to “Illmatic,” the debut album by the revered Queens rapper Nas, but the comparison holds truer for “Dreams and Nightmares.” While “Illmatic,” like Mr. Lamar’s album, was primarily a document of observation rather than participation, it didn’t reject the tastes of the day and wasn’t a coherent narrative concept album. It aimed for success, much as Meek Mill’s does.

Mr. Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” is as much of a slog as any great album in recent memory and probably the chewiest major-label hip-hop album in more than a decade. It necessitates ways of listening that went out with the Clinton presidency or with the advent of the seven-inch single. There are almost no obvious entry points, nothing bite-size to latch onto.

“Dreams and Nightmares,” by contrast, is highly legible; even its more daring songs are straightforward. But just because Meek Mill doesn’t play with cadence or voice or melody like Mr. Lamar doesn’t mean that he’s not thoughtful. His story songs are intricate, external to Mr. Lamar’s internal. He also builds tension in a way that Mr. Lamar, with his perma-cool and level presence, struggles to replicate. Mr. Lamar eases into the beat when he’s not gingerly dancing around it; he is never dominating. That’s why he remains largely a cipher.

What Meek Mill also has that Mr. Lamar lacks is hits — “Amen,” a loose and jubilant Drake collaboration, and “Young & Gettin’ It,” a fake-Drake song featuring Kirko Bangz that’s saccharine and dim. Meek Mill seems to be distancing himself from it by using Auto-Tune, as if he knows the song is beneath him.

Mr. Lamar has a semi-hit, “Swimming Pools (Drank),” about the perils of alcohol and the strain it places on the dispossessed, a song as sinuously catchy as can be. But there is no mistaking it for a compromise. He’s a speaker at a podium hoping people will lend him their ears, while Meek Mill is in the crowd, grabbing them by the neck and demanding that they pay attention, then rewarding it.

Rappers in Casablanca rage against injustice (participation)

Young Moroccan at the yearly Casa Music festival in Casablanca, on the country's western coast. The likes of 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, and Kanye West have headlined in recent years, reflecting a growing appetite for hip-hop music across the largely Arab nation. Young Moroccan at th
e yearly Casa Music festival in Casablanca, on the country’s western coast. The likes of 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, and Kanye West have headlined in recent years, reflecting a growing appetite for hip-hop music across the largely Arab nation.

Rappers in Casablanca rage against injustice

From Leone Lakhani, CNN
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Fri October 19, 2012

Casablanca, Morocco (CNN) — In the poor suburbs of Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city, home-grown hip-hop artists blare from radios, clubs and street corners around the clock.

Unlike the majority of their commercial American counterparts, these rappers don’t talk much about women, partying and luxury lifestyles; but poverty, illiteracy, crime, and the high cost of living.

According to a recent report from the World Bank, nearly half of young Moroccans are either unemployed or out of school.

For 28-year-old rapper Mohammed Hoummas, who goes by the stage name Si Simo, the situation reflects a growing inequality between Morocco’s rich and poor. Indeed, his most popular song, “Kilimini” speaks directly of the wealth gap in Moroccan society.

Casablanca’s urban rage
Bringing back tourists to Morocco
Feeling the pinch

“They have croissant for breakfast while we eat bread dipped in cheap oil. They dine on grilled meat while we fight over an ounce of meat like worms,” he sings.

“Why did I write ‘Kilimini?’ Look around where I live and you’ll understand why I wrote it. To say it simply: Here in Morocco the people who have power, they can do what they want, say what they want, and no one will judge them or say anything to them,” he said.

Read: Morocco’s ‘liquid gold’ liberates Berbers

As a child Si Simo listened to Bob Marley and was inspired to write his own music. He says he couldn’t afford to buy a guitar so his words became his instrument, and he started rapping at 15.

“I expressed my feelings about things I lived through, the things that hurt me, the life experiences that marked me,” he said.

They have croissant for breakfast while we eat bread dipped in cheap oil. They dine on grilled meat while we fight over an ounce of meat like worms
Si Simo, rapper

Internet penetration in Morocco has increased from just 15% of the population in 2007, to 49% in 2011, according to Internet World Statistics.

As such, the country’s rap and hip-hop scene has exploded in popularity in urban centers — where internet access is highest — as home-grown artists take advantage of the ability to share and distribute their productions more widely.

National festivals such as Casablanca’s Casa Music Festival and capital city Rabat’s Mawazine increasingly showcase the talents of both domestic and international musicians, including the likes of Busta Rhymes and Kanye West.

Read: Photographer holds festival of hope amid Aleppo fighting

Now a stalwart on the scene, Si Simo gained fame with the rap group Fez City Clan, making enough money from concerts and touring to move out of his run-down neighbourhood in Casablanca.

He still returns regularly, and is regarded as a local success story and inspiration.

“I listen to rap and fusion music, but mostly rap, and especially Si Simo because he’s from this neighborhood,” said a local man. “I’m 19 and I’m a rapper. I think hip-hop is a way to express ourselves. I think it can change a lot of things,” said another.

But that change can come at a price.

In February of last year, as the Arab Spring swept across the region, pro-reform protests erupted across Morocco.

The government reacted swiftly. Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, announced several reforms, including new parliamentary elections, civic and social equality for women, and recognition of the indigenous Berber language as an official state language along with Arabic.

But for many, especially among Morocco’s disenchanted young, it wasn’t enough.

Read: Rooftop farms provide rich pickings in refugee camp

Rapper Mouad Belghouat, better known as “Al Haqed” (“The Enraged One”), became a figurehead for the pro-reform February 20 Movement when he was arrested in March 2011 for his song “Kilab Al Dawla” or “Dogs of the State,” in which he criticizes the police for brutality and corruption.

The youth started suffering from unemployment, they started feeling marginalized and found it difficult to afford a dignified life
Prof. Ali Chabani, sociologist

“You are paid to protect the citizens, not to steal their money,” read the lyrics. “Did your commander order you to take money from the poor?”

The song asks the police to arrest the wealthy businessmen who, he says, have divided the country up for themselves.

A Casablanca court sentenced Belghouat to one year in prison for hurting the image of the police.

The conviction drew widespread criticism from Belghouat’s supporters on both his website and on social media outlets, as well as condemnation from Human Rights Watch, among others.

For Ali Chabani, a Moroccan sociology professor, the discontentment expressed in the lyrics of Morocco’s growing band of hip hop artists is an inevitable product of the country’s lack of social unity:

“The youth started suffering from unemployment, they started feeling marginalized and found it difficult to afford a dignified life or to establish themselves in society and so began to feel excluded,” he said.

Follow the Inside the Middle East team on Twitter: Presenter Rima Maktabi: @rimamaktabi, producer Jon Jensen: @jonjensen, producer Schams Elwazer: @SchamsCNN, writer George Webster: @George_Web and digital producer Mairi Mackay: @mairicnn.

We The People: Hip Hop’s Role In The 2012 Election (participation)

We The People: Hip Hop’s Role In The 2012 Election

by Ronald Grant

posted October 19, 2012 at 7:15AM PDT | 7 comments

We The People: Hip Hop's Role In The 2012 Election

Rob “Biko” Baker, from the League of Young Voters joins in to discuss Hip Hop’s role in what may be one of the most highly-politicized eras in American history.

It’s fairly safe to say that Hip Hop’s political involvement has changed drastically since GZA flippantly dismissed 1984 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro saying, “The hoe didn’t win / But the sun’ll stll come out tomorrow…” on Wu-Tang Clan’s “Clan In Da Front.” During the last two elections we’ve seen Questlove of The Roots campaigning for Barack Obama at the most grassroots level, while Jay-Z and Beyonce have hosted a $40,000 per seat dinner for the Commander-In-Chief. But we’ve also seen Lupe Fiasco call the President “the biggest terrorist” while Ab-Soul called him “just a puppet.” You can make an argument that we’re in the midst of one of the most highly politicized eras in American history.


The dynamic of the conversation has changed, yet it seems, at least anecdotally judging by sheer volume, not as many emcees are interested in the 2012 election. Have we essentially traded quantity for quality over the last few election cycles? Instead of just blanket endorsements from rappers giddy at the possibility of having a black president, we now hear about drone strikes, mid-term elections and Israel versus Palestine. Moreover, this talk isn’t coming from the usual suspects like Chuck D and Talib Kweli—there’s a variety of commentary to choose from regardless of your political leanings.

As more and more rappers both throw and quietly remove the fitted hats from the political arena, we ponder Hip Hop’s impact and interest in the 2012 Presidential Election. On board are Rob “Biko” Baker, the Executive Director of the League of Young Voters and frequent HipHopDX contributor, Ronald Grant.

HipHopDX: According to data provided by the US Census, African-Americans among the coveted 18-24-year-old age demographic voted in record numbers during the 2008 election. But the last election also saw a number of Hip Hop artists—at least on the most basic level—get involved in the political process. What was the appeal?

Biko: We also saw record numbers in 2010. Between our phones, Twitter and so many other ways young, black people are more connected than ever. For some that allows us to be more informed. And if you look at the average Hip Hop artist, they’re young, black men also. So in addition to that sense of connectivity, there’s a tremendous amount of influence.

Ronald: It was such an interesting thing to see so many Hip Hop artists in support of Obama in 2008, though they seemed to have little to no interest in the election or political process until then. I hate to say it, but I believe the main reason this happened was because voting for Barack Obama in 2008 was basically the trendy thing to do. This seemed true among so many populations, but especially young people, first-time voters, college students, and urban professionals. Hip Hop fits into all of these molds. People from each of those walks of life have listened to and lived Hip Hop for a while now. So in a sense, the Obama campaign may have inadvertently lit a fire among Hip Hop by targeting the youth vote so heavily four years ago. I believe another main reason that artists in 2008 were riding so hard is two-fold: it’s something that is billed as extremely important yet is fairly easy to do And it was also branded incredibly well. Hip Hop has always had a history of falling in line with slick, masterful marketing. The Obama juggernaut from 2008 probably made both Hip Hop artists and fans feel they were part of something historic but still modern and cosmopolitan. It managed all this while neatly packaged with a bright, red, white and blue Obama sticker.

Where Are They Now?

“[President Obama] told us this was gonna happen. The one thing that I learned on the campaign trail was that 80 percent of Americans think the political process is a hierarchy: ‘Why won’t he just wave his magic wand and make it happen?’ I’m like, ‘Are you going to vote in the midterm election?’ and they’re like, ‘Nah.’ And I’m like, ‘You do understand that the only way those ideas are going to come to fruition is through the Congress?’”  –Questlove, Mother Jones interview.

DX: Where did all these artists disappear to in 2012?

Biko: Certain artists thought it was cool to be political, and there were some artists that thought it was just cool to be cool. Obama’s campaign was based on these concepts of hope and change. And if you look at the recession, unemployment and a lot of other factors, it’s understandable why some people don’t feel that same sense of hope going into this election.

Ronald: I personally didn’t see as many Hip Hop artists in such strong support for President Obama during this election cycle. I remember seeing a YouTube video of Bun B sporting an Obama T-Shirt and Diddy commenting on John McCain’s infamous “that one” debate debacle, among other examples. And even though artists like Snoop Dogg, T.I. and A$AP Rocky have come out in support of Obama in 2012, it did seem that the general energy of voting again this year just wasn’t the same among Hip Hop artists. I’d probably go back to the idea of voting for Obama being the trendy thing in 2008, and four years later, it’s not. I’d attribute that to general apathy amongst both these artists and the public at large as to why we’re not quite seeing the levels of support we originally did. And on top of that, the job of emcees is to be just that…emcees, not political leaders. So maybe this disappearing act is something we should have seen coming on the part of major Hip Hop artists.

Hip Hop’s New Age Political Dissent

“You might get killed if you don’t listen enough / Well I guess I’m dead / ‘Cause I ain’t listen to Puff / Best believe our system it sucks / And a person like me don’t believe in assisting in such / Nah I be rippin’ ‘em up / But for every pond there’s different ducks / I believe if you participate at a lower level / You can get a lot more things done / Like working with the alderman / But I ain’t alterin’ this song to be a political statement / Let’s take it back to the basement…” –Lupe Fiasco, “Outty 5,000”

HipHopDX: Given all of the recent voter registration problems, and what happened in the 2000 election, do artists like Lupe who don’t participate in the presidential election have valid complaints?

Omar: Absolutely. People love to throw around that cliché about how those that don’t vote don’t get the right to complain, but to me, that’s 100% bullshit. If you’re a taxpaying American citizen, you can criticize your elected officials all you want as long as it’s not libelous. It should be noted that the emcees mentioned above are addressing separate issues. dead.prez and Kendrick Lamar are by-and-large talking about either abstaining from or withdrawal as a form of protest from what they feel is a fundamentally flawed political process. Generally speaking, they haven’t necessarily gone on record telling other people not to vote. And given that the popular vote does not determine the election, K-Dot and dead.prez aren’t harming anything in my opinion. Lupe’s situation is a bit more complex. Based on his previous support of Rhymefest’s Alderman bid, it appears he supports the election process on at least a local level. His stance on the presidential election has been pretty consistent.

Biko: No. Looking back over our country’s history dating back to 1824, there have only been four elections in which the candidate who received a greater number of electoral votes won the presidency, even though he didn’t win the popular vote. Those four elections that didn’t match up were won by Presidents John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and more recently George W. Bush.

You’ve got Al Gore—one of the people most infamously associated with the [seldom] discrepancy between the popular and electoral vote—campaigning for either an end to or a reform of the Electoral College. I’m a Green Bay Packers fan. I’m from Wisconsin. And everyone knows that touchdown call in the infamous Monday night game [this season with the replacement referees]  against Seattle was bogus. It wasn’t a catch. But, guess what? The Packers still had to take the field the next game and continue trying to make the playoffs and the Super Bowl. The same applies to voting and the electoral process.

Ronald: Their points aren’t necessarily valid, but definitely understandable. I’ll never personally encourage anyone to not vote. But there are many examples of questionable election results from the past, in particular the 2000 Presidential election with Florida and the “hanging chad” controversy that eventually gave Dubya the White House. It becomes more difficult to argue against those that have suspicions about the voting process. Couple that with what we currently have going on with the wave of potential voter suppression/voter ID laws that seem to target the poor, the elderly, college students and people of color, and that suspicion grows. But the main beef I think artists like Lupe, Kendrick, Stic.Man and M1 have is with the electoral process as a whole. With the Electoral College, the media circus that surrounds Presidential elections and the general ideal that government, corporate America and the mainstream media all work together and under the cover of darkness, there may be at least some justification towards the cynicism that these and other artists have expressed.

My President Is Black

“I think it’s important that Hip Hop not understate its role. I’ve always viewed Hip Hop, because it was organized for young people by young people as an alternative to violence, as more than music but actually the extension of civil rights. Because of that, Hip Hop has brought, for 35 years, people black, white, Asian, Latin together under the muse of music. And it has grown a generation of people who are so accustomed to being around one another that slowly certain myths [about one another] began to fall. So I think Hip Hop has a significant slice [of credit for Obamas victory] because Hip Hop exposed us to one another before politics did. Hip Hop has done wonders in terms of breaking down the false walls of racial differences in this country. It’s brought us in big part to this point. Thank God for the art form of Hip Hop.” Killer Mike, exclusive HipHopDX interview.

DX: How much weight do celebrity endorsements—particularly those from Hip Hop artists—carry?

The bigger question to ask here is should celebrity endorsements—particularly those from Hip Hop artists—carry so much weight in a presidential election? The reality is that celebrity endorsements of politicians have always held a lot of stock, because everyday people have a tendency to do what celebrities do. Voting is no exception. In terms of the 2008 election, there were so many artists, Hip Hop and otherwise, that came out in support of Barack Obama. And Hip Hop from all corners and all sub genres were in strong support, from (with his remixed Obama speech music video featuring lots of famous faces) to Bun B, Jay-Z and Diddy. I won’t go as far as to say that Hip Hop won the election for Obama in 2008, but I definitely would say that when fans of Hip Hop music and culture saw an artist they could relate to in support of one of the major candidates, it may have swayed them to pull the lever for him.

But should this be the case? It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, these artists probably did drive more potential voters from the Hip Hop and post-Hip Hop generations to the polls and did a masterful job at doing so. But on the other, it also shows that such a major decision such as which candidate to hire for the highest office of the land can be influenced by the ideal of, “Well, if so-and-so can vote for Obama, I will too.” And that’s troubling.

The Choice Is Yours

Ultimately, all three participants agree that the amount of political discourse Hip Hop has generated this election cycle is both great for the state of politics as well as Hip Hop.

“I was on a panel with Lupe Fiasco, and he expressed his thoughts on the president and the election,” Baker explained. “We didn’t get to chop it up. But his opinion comes from an informed place. And Kendrick has backed off from his initial statements somewhat. I think all of the discussion is dope. I can respect them on a certain level. And when November 6, comes, I’m going to be casting my vote.”

With all due respect to Young Jeezy, more specific and narrowly tailored debate and less “My president is black / My Lambo is blue…” talk probably benefits everyone involved in the political process this time around. More information and a livelier cliamate for debate can never be a bad thing. When the votes are tallied on November 6, it will be interesting to see both fans and artists alike weigh in regardless of the results. If the last few elections have taught us anything, it is that we most likely won’t see any wholesale changes to the election process in the near future. That essentially leaves the two choices of participating in and trying to change an admittedly flawed system from the inside or abstaining from the process.

***This article has been revised to reflect the following correction***

Correction: October 19, 2012

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the four elections during which the electoral vote has not matched the popular vote.

Rob “Biko” Baker is the Executive Director of the League of Young Voters. You can follow him on Twitter at @bikobaker and learn more about the League of Young Voter’s efforts to educate and empower young voters at

Ron Grant is a freelance writer originally from Detroit and currently residing in Orlando. He has contributed writings to, and runs two independent music blogs. Follow him on Twitter @RonGreezy.

‘Why White Kids Love Hip Hop’ (Particpation)

ED GORDON, host:

I’m Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Remember when mainstream music critics suggested that hip-hop would be a passing fad? Well, back in the day, a few cultural observers understood that hip-hop would become the dominant form of expression for young people of every color. NPR’s Farai Chideya talks with one writer who’s always taken hip-hop seriously.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Bakari Kitwana is author of “The Hip Hop Generation” and former executive editor of The Source, a magazine that was created to cover hip-hop and its culture. He’s back with his latest book, “Why White Kids Love Hip Hop.”

Thanks for joining us.

Mr. BAKARI KITWANA (Author): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So in your first book, “The Hip Hop Generation,” you defined a group of African Americans born between 1965 and 1984. Now you’re back to tell us it’s not just a black thing?

Mr. KITWANA: Absolutely. I wanted to begin with “The Hip Hop Generation” as a book about young African Americans born after the civil rights movement. There was a lot of criticism from people who are in the hip-hop that I defined in “The Hip Hop Generation” as African-American. I don’t have a problem with it, but some people did. I think it’s important that African-Americans take claim for what they create, and so that’s what I was trying to do in that book. This book kind of tries to take the conversation a little bit further to talk about the vast majority of Americans that hip-hop is influencing, including young white Americans.

CHIDEYA: So let’s talk about your new book. It’s titled “Why White Kids Love Hip Hop: Wangstas, Wiggers, Wannabes and the New Reality of Race In America.” Now what are wangstas, wiggers and wanna-bes?

Mr. KITWANA: A wangsta is a term that–I mean, it was popularized by 50 Cent. Basically it means someone who’s a fake gangster. And this came to mind as I wrote the chapter on film, particularly the film “Malibu’s Most Wanted,” where you have this guy who grew up in Malibu who is taking on all of the personifications of hip-hop.

The expression `wiggers’ was a term that young white kids in the ’80s who were into hip-hop–it was a term that was ascribed to them, because in those days, it wasn’t fashionable to be a part of hip-hop, and many young white kids who were getting into hip-hop were ridiculed by their friends, and wiggers was one of the terms that was used to describe them.

Wanna-bes is a term long in the African-American community for people pretending or they’re aspiring to be something that they’re not.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me bring out a quote. You quote in the book Billy Wimsatt. He’s a white author and activist. He wrote a book called “Bomb the Suburbs.” And he said, quote, “I’m horrified by the aspect of the white hip-hop thing where you can be a white hard-core underground hip-hop kid in, say, Minnesota and not know a single black person,” end quote. Bakari, are you horrified?

Mr. KITWANA: I think not really. There is an aspect of what Billy’s saying that I think it’s important, because I think it starts to point at the complexity of this conversation. There was a time, I’d say, five years ago where that type of person that Billy is describing was not someone who was into hip-hop in a way that it was dangerous.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer #1: Did you take your meds today?

Unidentified Singer #2: Twenty milligrams worth, but I’m still so amped, I could kill a damn verse.

Mr. KITWANA: I think that now we have something different going on in the underground where there is a young white audience being nurtured that prefers white hip-hop artists and thinks that they’re smarter and think that they’re better than artists by nature of the fact that they’re white and their material is more complex and the black artists aren’t as deep as them, and, you know, you hear people saying, you know, that artists like Aesop Rock are better hip-hop artists than people like Jay-Z.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer #3: Well, do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?

Unidentified Singer #4: Well, my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk in the back, and I know my rights, so you gonna need a warrant for that.

Mr. KITWANA: And, you know, I take issue with that, but I also think that we’re starting to move into a territory where the old racial politics are being imposed on another generation of young people, and this is one of the problems that we have in society, and it’s something that I try to deal with in this book.

CHIDEYA: What do you see ahead for hip-hop in terms of building racial coalitions?

Mr. KITWANA: I think that there is great possibilities. The organization that Billy Wimsatt and Kyle Stewart created, The League of Pissed off Voters, I think is one of the most progressive groups that’s working across race. They are creating a space for young white kids who are into hip-hop and who are political to get involved in the hip-hop political movement. If you look at the concert industry, there was a time in hip-hop where in terms of concerts, young white kids–you didn’t see them at concerts because it wasn’t a safe place for young white kids to be. I think that the possibilities are there. I think that we saw a lot of progress in ’04 with groups like The League of Pissed off Voters, the Young Voter Alliance and other organizations that worked across race, and I think we’re going to see more in the future.

CHIDEYA: All right. We’ll leave it there. Bakari Kitwana is the author of “Why White Kids Love Hip Hop: Wangstas, Wiggers, Wannabes and the New Reality of Race In America.”

Thanks for joining us.

Mr. KITWANA: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Farai Chideya, NPR News.

The Cotton Club Black-conscious hip-hop deals with an overwhelmingly white live audience (Participation)

The Cotton Club

Black-conscious hip-hop deals with an overwhelmingly white live audience

Bakari Kitwana

published: June 21, 2005

Armed with messages of Black political resistance, Black pride, and opposition to militarization and corporatization, designed in part to counter the commercial hip-hop party-and-bullshit madness dumbing down the nation’s youth, hip-hop’s lyrical descendants of the “fight the power” golden era today are booking concerts in record numbers—far beyond anything imaginable by their predecessors. Problem is, they can hardly find a Black face in the audience.

  • photo: courtesy of Sony Urban Music

    Dead Prez

    Dead Prez

As the Coup (Pick a Bigger Gun), Zion-I (True and Livin’), and the Perceptionists (Black Dialogue) get set for a wave of touring to promote their new CDs this summer, the audience that will be looking back at them unmasks one of the most significant casualties of hip-hop’s pop culture ascension: the shrinking Black concert audience for hardcore, political hip-hop.”My audience has gone from being over 95 percent Black 10 years ago to over 95 percent white today,” laments Boots Riley of the Coup, whose 1994 Genocide and Juice responded to Snoop Dogg’s 1993 gangsta party anthem “Gin and Juice.” “We jokingly refer to our tour as the Cotton Club,” he says—a reference to the 1920s and ’30s Harlem jazz spot where Black musicians played to whites-only audiences.

Boots says he first noticed the shift one night in 1995, in a concert on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Opening for Coolio, he stepped center stage and grabbed the mic as usual, but then saw something unusual about the audience: a standing-room-only sea of whiteness. Some were almost dressed like farmers, he recalls. Others had their heads shaved. “Damn, skinheads are out there,” he thought. “They can’t be here to see us.” But the frantic crowd began chanting along rhyme for rhyme.

Zion, MC of the independent rap group Zion-I, agrees the similarities to jazz are striking: “Jazz went white, then Black, then white again. At this point African Americans aren’t the ones supporting live jazz [performances]. It’s the same in many ways with independent hip-hop. I’ve been to shows where the only Black people in the place are onstage. It’s kind of surreal.”

“I love Boots Riley’s music, but in general people in the ‘hood are not checking for the Coup,” says Brother Ali, part owner of the Minneapolis-based hip-hop collective Rhymesayers Entertainment. “It’s hard enough to get some of our people to go to a Kweli show. It has a lot to do with the fact that the emphasis on the culture has been taken away. It’s just the industry now and it’s sold back to us—it’s not ours anymore. It used to be anti-establishment, off the radar, counterculture. People in the streets are now being told what hip-hop is and what it looks like by TV.”

According to industry insiders and most media outlets, though, the shifting audience isn’t just a Black consciousness thing—it’s prevalent in mainstream hip-hop as well. Whites run hip-hop, they say, from the business executives at major labels to the suburban teen consumers. But the often-intoned statistic claiming that 70 percent of American hip-hop sells to white people may cover up more than it reveals.

No hard demographic study has ever been conducted on hip-hop’s consumers. And Nielsen SoundScan, the chief reference source on music sales, by its own admission does not break down its over-the-counter totals by race. “Any conclusions drawn from our data that reference race involve a great deal of conjecture,” a SoundScan spokesperson insists.

Wendy Day, founder of the Rap Coalition, a hip-hop artist-advocacy group, says she’s attempted to pair up with several popular hip-hop magazines on such a study, but none would commit to help fund it. When she asked an executive at a major record label, she got an even more interesting response: “He didn’t see the value in writing that kind of check,” she says. “Because rap is selling so well, he didn’t see the value in knowing who his market is. ‘It’s not broken, Wendy,’ he said. ‘We don’t need to fix it.’ ”

And distinctions must be drawn between buyers and listeners. In terms of hip-hop’s listening audience, Nielsen SoundScan doesn’t weigh those passing on and burning CDs. (In July 2003 Nielsen SoundScan began tracking companies like iTunes that sell downloads for a fee.) Nielsen SoundScan, which claims to track 90 percent of the market, doesn’t take into account underground mixtape CDs, mom-and-pop store sales, or big retailers like Starbucks and Burlington Coat Factory that refuse to share their sales information.

Concert crowds are another matter. Looking for the 70 to 80 percent majority white audience? In most cases you won’t find it at a Nelly concert or any other top-selling hip-hop artist’s show. At large venues like Detroit’s 40,000-capacity Comerica Park, where Eminem and 50 Cent will headline the Anger Management Tour in August, estimates suggest that 50 to 60 percent of the seats are filled by white fans. By contrast, Caucasian concertgoers staring down culturally focused Black hip-hop artists topple these numbers. Although to date there’s been no attempt to track concert demographic data, fans, promoters, and independent MCs who play live more than half the year give estimates of 85 to 95 percent.

Backnthaday, artists like KRS-One, PE, Brand Nubian, Queen Latifah, Poor Righteous Teachers, and others coexisted with more purely party-oriented acts like Kid ‘n Play, Heavy D, and DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. They could also be found alongside those who got a little more gritty wit’ it, such as Schoolly D and Luther Campbell’s 2 Live Crew. In those days Afrocentric MCs rolled neck and neck with their counterparts, routinely reaching 500,000 units—the gold sales standard of the mid ’80s. By decade’s end, a few such records—Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, for instance—had gone platinum.

That’s no longer the case. In today’s mainstream hip-hop, the mark of success is multiplatinum sales. 50 Cent’s most recent release sold over 1 million units in four days; Nelly’s 2001 Country Grammar to date has moved over 9 million units. By contrast, dead prez, the sole contemporary political hip-hop group with mainstream distribution, struggled to top 500,000.

Dead prez aside, the most widely circulated conscientious commentary in mainstream hip-hop mostly comes in the form of surprise protest tracks from artists who would never be deemed “political”—Jadakiss’s and Eminem’s pre-election hits “Why” and “Mosh,” for example.

And whereas a decade ago artists consistently banged out social commentary with mass appeal, today the closest equivalents are Kanye West, Common, and the Roots, whose stance on wax focuses more on aesthetics than resistance—closer to A Tribe Called Quest, say, than to Public Enemy. PE’s more direct lyrical descendants have been ghettoized in the underground, with high-end sales in the 25,000-to-50,000 range—over months or years, rather than weeks.

“Today, there are no purely conscious MCs competing on the level with the top-selling artists in the game,” says Erik Smith of Critical Mass Consulting, a firm that does street-level lifestyle marketing for major labels’ new releases. But does this mean there is no longer a Black market for Black consciousness in hip-hop?

In the ’80s the gap between the civil rights generation and their hip-hop generation offspring was less severe. Culturally centered artists in that era were often steeped in the politics of the turn-of-the-’70s Black power movement. The lyrical content of the time didn’t venture far beyond those borders. Such was the case of Public Enemy’s 1990 Fear of a Black Planet. The CD jacket even extensively quoted psychologist Frances Cress Welsing’s “Cress Theory of Color Confrontation” that emerged in the 1970s, likening to white supremacy football, basketball, baseball, and other ball games where the color of the ball and what is done to it are subconsciously connected to America’s racial politics.

Welsing also had another, less-known theory, regarding the inferiorization of Black children. Welsing argued that soon white supremacists wouldn’t have to worry about making Blacks seem inferior—they’d just need to keep providing them with inferior education, housing, health care, child care, and the like, and in a generation or two they would be. After 15 years of gangstas and bling, perhaps hip-hop’s Black audience has been so inundated with material garbage that they don’t want an uplifting message?

Zion, who believes the withering Black audience reflects the diminishing discussion of Blackness in public discourse, thinks so. “I do so many shows in front of mostly white audiences that it’s the norm,” says Zion. “When I get in front of a Black audience it’s like, ‘Finally you’re here, feel me.’ We’ve done shows in Chicago and São Paulo, Brazil, and it feels good to be in front of our people when they are feeling it. But there are some thugged-out crowds where our message doesn’t resonate, and Black folks will say that they aren’t trying to hear hip-hop artists remind them of their problems.”

Brother Ali
photo: courtesy of Biz 3 Publicity

Today’s climate is indeed a far cry from the African medallion mania of the 1980s. In the academy, we’ve gone from 1980s discussions of Black studies and Afrocentricity to multiculturalism to current-day debates about post-Blackness and polyculturalism. At the same time, in the arena of mainstream politics we’ve gone from discussing the collective Black impact of Jesse Jackson’s run for president to the individual career successes of Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice. In the streets we’ve gone from the Nation of Islam patrolling housing projects to whites reclaiming Harlem, South Side Chicago, and East Oakland, and Black scholars like Columbia University’s Lance Freeman arguing that poor Blacks aren’t significantly displaced by gentrification. “So many Black people don’t want to hear it,” Zion continues. “They want that thug shit. That’s why I’m thankful for the audience we do have.”

Mr. Lif, whose success as a solo artist led him to the recent partnering with Akrobatik and DJ Fakts One to form the Perceptionists, agrees. “It’s disorienting. It’s bizarre,” he says. “But no artist is in a position to choose his fans. Whoever is in the audience, I love them for being there. They are allowing me to make a living doing what I love.”

And the demand for art-as-a-weapon hip-hop music is so great that the best-known independent MCs are able to book from 150 to 200 concerts a year in venues where the capacity ranges from 200 to 1,500, all the while not breaking through to the mainstream.

Recognizing the success of such underground white MCs as Aesop Rock, El-P, and Sage Francis—all moving around 100,000 units per release—Brother Ali says, “Our genre is looked at as white rap. It’s almost like a white chitlin circuit of underground rap music.” The more popular underground white hip-hop artists are helping to nurture the audience at venues that now regularly feature conscious Black hip-hop artists. At the same time as political hip-hop’s audience has gotten whiter, audiences for old-school socially conscious hip-hop (think De La Soul) and politically conscious hip-hop (think Chuck D and KRS-One) have merged. It’s an audience that includes white kids, college students, and those tapping into what remains of the counterculture of hip-hop. This requires fans with the time on their hands to search out MCs in independent record stores and on the Internet.

The largely Latino concert turnouts for these MCs in specific areas of cities like Houston, El Paso, and Los Angeles, however, quickly reveals that none of this is an exact science. In Oakland, one MC reports a majority Black and brown audience, in contrast to a mostly white audience when he performs next door in San Francisco. In the South, in cities like Baton Rouge and Charleston, independent labels like Slaughterhouse and Pure Pain are posting Aesop Rock numbers and their concert audience is nearly all Black.

“None of these factors change the fact that the audience supporting Black hip-hop artists with a political message is mostly white,” says Nicole Balin of Ballin’ Entertainment, a Los Angeles- based PR firm representing underground hip-hop artists. Yet according to Wendy Day, no matter how many white kids are being drawn in, the Black stamp of approval is critical even when the audience is primarily white.

“I can tell you as someone who works with independent labels in parts of the South and Midwest that if you are breaking a record at the street level in these communities, and you don’t have young Black kids buying your record, you will not go anywhere,” Day says. “Unless it’s legitimized by the Black community, these kids are not buying a damn thing other than what their friends of color are listening to.”

the Perceptionists
photo: Maya Hayuk

Black hip-hop kids as the gatekeepers for what’s hot has long been the state of affairs for mainstream and cutting-edge hip-hop—but that may be changing in some parts of the country like Minneapolis, for example, where white MCs and white audiences have it on lock. And while there are countless white hip-hop kids supporting the underground who see Blackness as key to hip-hop’s sense of urgency, growing numbers believe white underground MCs are hip-hop’s avant-garde. More and more they insist without pause that their favorite white underground MCs are smarter and hence better.

“One of the hardest things we’re dealing with now is the underlying feeling of white supremacy among fans who feel they are a part of hip-hop, but are listening to and prefer mostly white MCs,” says Brother Ali, who recently toured with several old-school legends together with Atmosphere—a biracial independent rap group who, like Brother Ali, hails from Minneapolis. “They believe that Aesop Rock is better than independent artists who are Black and mainstream artists like Ludacris. These MCs are doing a lot with hip-hop artistically that they have learned from Black people, but [their fans] don’t want to hear from the old-school originators because they believe it’s the white MCs who created the styles they like. This isn’t an underground-versus-mainstream thing—it’s a racist thing.”


Bikari Kitwana’s book Why White Kids Love Hip Hop came out June 5.

Hip hop dreams: Asian Americans artists on the difficulties they face breaking out into mainstream rap (participation)

Hip hop dreams: Asian Americans artists on the difficulties they face breaking out into mainstream rap

By Steven Cong

Gordon Tsai, a rapper, is also known by his stage name, Gifted on West East, or G.O.W.E. (Photo by Jen Au)

“Right now, we’re at a time when we’re just bubbling. When all Asian artists come together and start to realize each other’s work ethics, it’s going to be great,” said Sonny Thongoulay, a local Laotian Ameri­can rapper. Thongoulay goes by the stage name “Sonny Bonoho.”

Thongoulay was born in Ubon, Thailand, but is ethnically Laotian. He has served as the opening act for rappers like Snoop Dogg and Twis­ta. His most recent album, Phone Phreak, was released on April 10.

Sonny Thongoulay, a rapper, is also known by his stage name, Sonny Bonoho (Photo by Anthony Frausto)

Thongoulay, along with Gordon Tsai, a Chinese American rapper with the stage name “Gifted On West East,” or G.O.W.E., are concerned with the current state of Asian Americans and hip hop. To them, there are certain challenges that arose from Asian American stereotypes.

“The first thing people think of when it comes to Asian emcees is that it’s almost like an oxymoron,” said Tsai. “Hip hop was created out of poverty, and this whole idea that Asian Americans are the model minorities leads to the belief that they can’t possibly have struggles to talk about.”

Tsai is a Beacon Hill native who draws inspiration from his Christian faith. He says he does not believe in conform­ing to the stereotypes associated with hip hop artists and that he finds value in networking with other rappers, espe­cially those in the Asian American community.

“In America, when you think of hip hop, you think of African Americans. So when an Asian American person tries to make it big, they get shut down because they don’t fit the image of what a hip hop artist should be,” said Gio­vonni Bruno, a Korean American fan of the music.

The mainstream

The artists also view the lack of media attention as an ob­stacle to mainstream success, as well as the reinforcement of conventional hip hop stereotypes.

“A lot of Asian artists out there are real creative in the mind,” said Thongoulay, “but it’s not like the media wants to look for an Asian rapper that’s real cool. I’m trying to figure out when a company is willing to put a million dol­lars or two behind an Asian rapper.”

Tsai points out that too many people perceive rappers to be individuals who live with limited economic resources. As a result, many Asian American artists are pretending to fit the archetype and produce music that address issues they are not actually familiar with and could not personally relate to.

“A lot of Asian Americans feel like, if they want to rap, they have to put on a certain gangster image and go all the way, or else they won’t be believable,” said Tsai. “I really wish more rappers would just be themselves, honestly.”

Despite the difficulties of establishing an image, both rappers agreed that there are limits to how culture should be stressed.

“I don’t think you should use your ethnicity as some kind of a gimmick to draw attention to yourself. If that’s your only crutch, you’re screwed,” said Tsai. “But please do not neglect who you are. You’re Asian for a reason. You should be proud of that; you should represent that, but you shouldn’t exploit that.”

An fact often overlooked is the fact that Asian Americans have been involved in the hip hop community for decades. The Mountain Brothers in Philadelphia and the Asiatic Apostles in California were pioneers of Asian American hip hop during the 1990s. Newer groups include the Far East Movement in Los Angeles and the Blue Scholars in Seattle. However, the only mainstream breakthrough in Asian American hip hop was Chinese American rapper Jin Au–Yeung, who found success in 2001.

Au–Yeung was the first Asian American rapper to enter the mainstream music industry after he retired undefeated on the Black Entertainment Television program “106 & Park,” a music video show. He was signed to the Ruff Ryders record label following his stint on the show. His debut album, “The Rest Is History,” was released in October 2004 and earned him a spot on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart.

Dr. Oliver Wang, a professor at the University of Cali­fornia, Berkeley, attributes hip hop’s popularity with Asian Americans to the fact that it was the “dominant youth cul­ture” of the 1980s and 1990s.

Language of youth

“[Hip hop’s] more energetic and fun than everything else,” said Bruno.

“Hip hop is a language that a lot of youth today can un­derstand, and when they do understand it, it’s therapeutic to them,” said Thongoulay.

“If you’re stressed out with a bunch of different things, and there’s a bunch of stuff in your life, you write it down, you record it, you transform it into a dance. It’s literally your way of expressing yourself and getting that off of your chest in a positive way that influences others and builds community,” said Tsai.

Artists of the Northwest

Tsai and Thongoulay compared the Northwest to the rest of the nation by citing responses local Asian American rap­pers have received.

“In the Seattle area, I think everyone respects the Blue Scholars, but on a national level, people are still too scared to really support them because they are different,” said Tsai. “In the whole West Coast, there’s a really good Asian community. But the West Coast? Man, that’s only 20 per­cent of the whole nation. If you look at the rest of America, the majority is white people. They only understand Asian Americans from what they see on TV. All of a sudden, you’ve got this rapper, and on top of that, he’s Asian. You know, it’s completely foreign to them.”

Thongoulay elaborated on the need for Asian American art­ists to branch out. He described how Asian American rappers should not depend on their local communities for a fan base.

“It is the Asian American artist’s responsibility to go out. Do they have a faith factor of going to Portland, to Califor­nia, or wherever? I went on tour in Germany, and came back and made money. The sky is the limit,” said Thongoulay.

The rappers hope for greater success in the future of Asian American hip hop artists. The current status of Asian American hip hop will set the stage for what’s to come. ♦

For more information on G.O.W.E., visit For more information on Sonny Bonoho, visit

Steven Cong can be reached at