Black Medallions…No Gold

The Listening Spaces Project is collaborating with independent radio producer Christopher Johnson to bring you “Black Medallions…No Gold” (working title).

There are many parallels between the #BlackLivesMatter protest movement and the various political movements that defined the Civil Rights era.  One stark difference between this black youth led political movement and the CRM of the 1960s and 70s is the surprising absence of an indelible soundtrack.  The shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Renisha Mcbride, Eric Garner and Walter Scott have led hip-hop artists and other musicians to pen powerful songs of protest.  Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” is an example, the chorus of which (“we gon be alright”), has become a familiar refrain from Ferguson to Staten Island. The Grammy Award-winning 28 year-old rap star and latest pop-crossover success story is also being credited by some hip hop watchers as being the progenitor of the most racially conscious mainstream rap music today. Especially with his most recent album To Pimp A Butterfly – widely regarded as a treatise on black repression, struggle, and endurance.

The video for “Alright” dropped on YouTube over two months ago and has 19 million views. It scans across several US cities, including Oakland, CA.  For a song about the stamina of black communities, particularly in the face of anti-black police violence, the symbolic choices in that video can’t have been accidents. Still, it’s easy to miss: just before Lamar is felled by a cop’s bullet, the video montages kids popping and locking on police cars, in abandoned factories. At about the five and half minute mark, two young men turf dance in front of 1225 Fallon Street. The Alameda County Courthouse – the same place where those iconic photos of Bobby Seale and The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense clutching rifles and shotguns were taken in the 1960s. It was a show of frustration and force. And, with their leather jackets and black berets tipping off tall manicured afros, it was a show of staunch, unapologetic, militant blackness. Kendrick and his director Colin Tilley (who’s also done work for Justin Bieber and Reebok) surely knew this.

Despite the powerful symbolism of Lamar’s song and video (the views of which pale in comparison to the 169 million views of Silento’s video for “Watch Me”, which was released five days before “Alright”) it is fair to say that very few of these songs have become iconic, controversial or ubiquitous.  Perhaps this has to do with the radically different way we interact with and listen to music in the 21st century?  Or, maybe this is a more genre specific phenomena?  Do we not feel the power of Lamar’s “Alright”, J-Coles “Be Free” or Jasiri X’s “A Song for Trayvon” because we come to expect protest and commentary from hip-hop music?  A PBS segment that aired in the wake of Michael Brown’s death asked, “What does a 21st century protest song sound like?”  Even if we have the fortune to hear these songs one must wonder how we are moved to action – individually or collectively – by what the songs are telling us?

If The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (1979) is understood as hip-hop’s ur-party anthem then Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” (1982) represents the more politically minded jams that represent hip-hop’s founding principles.  One can see the enduring influence of “The Message” and Grandmaster Flash’s unflinching descriptions of life for young black women and men in American cities throughout the history of hip-hop music.  Today it feels like something special when a mainstream hip hop artist like Lamar invokes racial politics in his images and lyrics. Around the mid-90s, popular rap hooked a hard right towards a sound that was equal parts treasure bath, shootout braggadocio, and drug trade how-to, and it never really looked back. To borrow a line from the Wu-Tang Clan – a group that defined and dominated rap’s late 20th century sound – it was all “Gs, guns, and grams.” In the mainstream, rap’s new priorities were a mix of Thorstein Veblen and Scarface – conspicuous consumption a la artists weighed down with gold, poppin champagne on yachts, and/or the strapped crack kingpin for whom music felt like more of a side hustle. Money, drug dealing, and songs whose lyric sheets read like the back page order forms of Gun Digest – this was the popular rap sound, with its twin themes of “bling bling” and “blastin a nigga,” that would shape much of hip hop in the mainstream for the next decade and more.

Just before that stylistic eclipse, there were different, equally powerful and influential forces shaping the music: Afrocentrism and black revolutionary struggle. In the era of Apartheid, Reagan, and the so-called war on drugs, popular rap artists picked up different threads of race-conscious cultural and social politics. An under-appreciated component of rap’s success is the maturation of what came to be known as “conscious” rap; a sub-genre that foregrounded a diverse range of politically minded artists and songs.  Whether it was the maverick black hippie aesthetics of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers (with their Africa medallions and “beads on a string.”  They also provide the inspiration for the working title of our project); the Pan-Africanism and “Free South Africa!” messages of groups like Stetsasonic; or the grab bag black militancy of rap legends Public Enemy – all manner of rap groups were incorporating ideas about blackness in their music. There were hints of Garveyite cultural nationalism; DuBoisian Pan-Africanism; the Civil Rights, Black Arts, and Black Power Movements; and the Nation of Islam – all laced throughout the rhymes of that era’s most influential rap artists.  Beyond these more overtly politically orientated acts, groups and artists like Big Daddy Kane, Nas, The Wu-Tang Clan, The Fugees and even more commercially successful acts like N.W.A. included overtly political songs on their albums.

As rap music moves into its fifth decade, this is an era that many of the music’s early fans say they long for, especially as it dropped the pro-black collectivist message and turned toward themes of materialism and selfish violence. While artists and groups like Black Star, Dead Prez and others carried on the “conscious rap” tradition into the early 21st Century the number of commercially visible acts associated with the genre diminished.  What happened to conscious rap?  What does this term actually mean?  What were the kinds of ideas and political stances that artists took?  How did these ideas translate into music, clothing styles, and more direct political involvement for artist as well as those who listened to this music? How did record labels view these acts and artists?  What does looking back at this genre of music tell us about the music industry’s relationship to hip-hop during the late 1980s and mid-1990s?  What sort of influences do the artists have in the present?

Our project is a narrative-centered, first-person exploration of rap music’s “conscious” age. The mission will be three-fold: (1) to understand what inspired young artists to incorporate race-centered messages and images in their music, and to learn from their personal stories why the concept of blackness was so fundamental to their music, and that of their peers; (2) to explore the music industry’s relationship with this era of blackness in rap – how those messages were supported or encouraged, and what mechanisms in the music business allowed musicians to present Afrocentric messages on their albums, and what led to the retreat from those ideas in popular rap; and (3) to document the current resurgence of themes and messages addressing black social and cultural politics, and the black experience, in America.

The project will be a web-based multimedia series that tells our story over the course of several individual web publications, including the following:


  •   Video interviews – 5-15 minute films featuring the individuals, groups, managers, critics and other stakeholders who defined this era. The films will follow those individuals into their neighborhoods, through their scrapbooks, in front of their bookshelves, and at dinner with their families, as they talk about both the role that Afrocentricity and black politics played in their lives, and in hip hop culture at the time more generally.


  •   The Playback – this will be a series of short videos listening back with artists to music they create which was born out of and helped shape the era.