Socially conscious rap that retains its power...

Mos Def’s iconic ‘Black On Both Sides’ turns 20 this week and the prevalent influence it had on hip-hop and rap at the time carved a timeless emblem in redefining all that this genre could achieve.

It exudes a continuous relevance in its iconic role within social activism and on-going dialogues within America. Throughout the album he addresses serious socio-political issues while remaining positive and affirmative. It forages a new way for listeners to engage, listen and absorb new narrative and pivotal meaning; he was meant to be rhyming, and we were meant to be listening.

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‘Umi Says’ oscillates between a jazzy interlude of ease and lackadaisical rhythmic bounce with a layered juxtaposition to the philosophical un-layering of Def’s countered identity ode married within his lyrics:

“My Umi said shine your light on the world
Shine your light for the world to see
My Abi said shine your light on the world
Shine your light for the world to see
(I want black people to be free, to be free, to be free)”

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There is a subtle homage to spoken word and a lineage of speaking truth in his tonality in his tracks. It cultivates visibility, authority and meaning, we can find nuances of heritage being explored within this aura of storytelling/narrative even back to the origin of the blues in the 19th century.

How do we remember? How do we cultivate our stories? How do we carry the inherited histories and hold it with pride? Listening to Def’s album in 2019 brings to mind our current socio-political status and how his lyricism breaches time/space in an interlude of power and truth. Contemporary front runners that have had as significant cultural influence as Mos Def that echo and reign true to a dialogue and battle that expands lifetimes across our country bleed the same words and create a musical dimension that oscillates between hope, pain power, soul and truth.

Take Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. Each track cultivates a different message, with ‘Mortal Man’ in particular offering a poetic pause of questioning and vulnerability that persists us to a point of quaking to the free-flowing tone of Lamar’s voice and the pain and how far it stretches beyond him when we speaks his words.

Or look at Childish Gambino’s potent masterwork ‘This Is America’. In conjunction with a poignantly powerful music video it brought a provocative and saturated look at the inherited realties with mass shootings in the United States, and the long-standing issues of discrimination against African-Americans. Rightfully, it dominated that year’s Grammy awards.

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All these musical odes are a part of a cultural mosaic of visibility, of awareness, of critique that interplays into an entire process of cultural awakening. For example films like Fruitvale Station, Sorry To Bother You and Blindspotting, all of which were released between the years of 2013-2018 offered a layered and potent expression of the tragic realities of life within Oakland, Ca for African Americans.

I went to college in Oakland and had a wave of cultural awareness from my immersion. Oscar Grant’s name was spray painted on walls in West Oakland, I rode bart to Fruitvale station and considered my privilege.

These places still bleed true and it is from these cultural works there is continuity and context on a greater plane that allows for visibility, engagement and awareness. In the current state of oppression and of rising, fighting and healing, Mos Def’s album and those that have followed are the compasses of truth our society can turn to.

Offering nuanced ways of coping with the harsh realities of America across the past two decades, progress has been made, but the narratives persist and we are reminded of the work ahead and what ingrained cultural tectonics shape us and echoed craving for change. These albums offer solace and a seismic reminder of the authority of each of our individual voices.

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Words: Rae Niwa

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