A Tribe Called Quest released its first album in 18 years last week. The album was written and recorded prior to the recent presidential election. But when “We Got It from Here… Thank you 4 your Service” dropped, it felt like it might have been pre-planned.
Amidst a glorious gumbo of groove that screams old-school hip-hop, the Tribe cats dropped lyrics that reacquainted the genre with its roots in hard-hitting social and political observation. All of “We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service” casts a wary eye present-day America’s way, but no song does so more pointedly than “We The People,” its lyrics arriving as if tailor-made for the controversy surrounding the looming Trump presidency.
“All you Black folks, you must go/All you Mexicans, you must go/and all you poor folks, you must go/Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways/So all you bad folks, you must go.”
What’s immediately apparent is not just how much we’ve missed A Tribe Called Quest’s soulful, funky and warmly organic hip-hop, but also how clear it has become that when popular music forsakes its power as a voice of observation and protest, it betrays its potential as a cultural force. Pop can’t afford to live in its own bubble any more than adherents to political parties of the right and the left can. It needs to be firmly acquainted with reality if it hopes to enlighten that reality in any way. Tough times demand the kind of tough talk ATCQ is engaging in.
Free speech appears to be under siege at the moment, and the country has clearly revealed itself to be a powder keg of conflicting values. An ill wind blows across the land. Families find themselves at odds with their own flesh and blood. Neighbors have learned things about each other that make them feel less than neighborly. Whatever progress we’ve made along racial lines is being challenged in some quarters. Many people don’t feel safe. Music can help, but right now, it can’t afford to help through the offering of mere escapism.
It’s proper that the new music of protest is largely rooted in hip-hop in general, and in the African-American experience in particular. It must be acknowledged how significant a role Kendrick Lamar’s game-changing 2015 release “To Pimp a Butterfly” is playing in this development. Like the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper,” Jimi Hendrix’ “Are You Experienced,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Public Enemy’s “Fear Of A Black Planet” or Radiohead’s “OK Computer,” Lamar’s album altered the landscape in such a way that anyone making popular music in its wake has no choice but to deal with it.
It’s obvious that Common, long a proponent of forward-thinking hip-hop, was eager to take up the gauntlet laid down by Lamar with his also just released “Black America Again” album. The title song, an inspired collaboration with Stevie Wonder, makes plain Common’s feelings about the current crisis. “I don’t believe the news/or radio, stereotypes we refuse/Brainwashed in the cycle to spin/we write our own story, Black America Again.”
“We write our own story.” A simple proposition, but one that can’t help but feel a bit radical amidst the current tensions, when it seems that the sense of inclusivity and equal potential for all long touted as a core tenet of the American Dream is under siege.
This weekend, the battle lines being drawn between free speech as it applies to the arts and the political will of leaders were significantly underscored by vice president-elect Mike Pence’s appearance at a performance of “Hamilton,” where he was booed by portions of the crowd, and then – respectfully, I thought – addressed directly from the stage by the cast. Their First Amendment-protected right to do so was viewed as “harassment” by the president-elect, who took to his Twitter account to stage a protest of his own.
Quite likely, there will always be some among our diverse population who don’t believe that the arts – pop music among them – should exercise the hard-won right to criticize, protest and provoke. But while engaging in random internet searches involving the words “protest music” and “musicians compose to please their Kings,” I came across an interesting quote from a site called bibleplus.org, regarding the role of music in Bible stories.
“Songs and poetry were also (employed as a) means to improve the memory, to help remember significant events, or (to act as) warnings,” the page reads in part.
That much has not changed. Nor should it.