Getting it right: political commentary and rap

David Lawton highlights the political potential of rap, and consigns folk and punk to the dustbin of history

The relationship between politics and art is an essential one. Even if artists proclaim themself ‘apolitical’, their art always fits, in some way, into broader cultural discourses, which are always implicated in a political reality.

When it comes to contemporary music, I hate most overtly ‘political music’, especially white political music. Most folk music, for example, in it’s attempt to construe a unified narrative through lyricism, forces ‘correct’ interpretation upon its listener. A derridean nightmare. Political folk, with its moralising tone, kitsch ‘popularism’ (which is completely anachronistic), and inauthentic sentimentality,is even worse. It should be consigned to the flames. At a time when consumer rights movements are interchangeable with civil rights movements, you, my folky friends, have nothing left to sing about except your post-materialist yearnings for greater self-actualisation.

‘Punks’, still making overtly political music,usually upon their farcically basic conceptions of left or right wing ‘causes’, are laughed at by mainstream society now, when once they were feared. To us, the ‘political punk’ of the late 70s kind seems little short of a joke. Punks can be grouped with emos and goths, and all of the other hair-dyed, stud-buckled, lost children of the twentieth century graveyard.

Yeah, this is polemical. But at least I’m being honest, if perhaps not truthful. There are ways of keeping the red flag flying, without singing ‘The Red Flag’. The future of political music lies beyond Billy Bragg and Fat White Family. Far greater potential is to be found in the work of Kendrick Lamar, whose album To Pimp a Butterfly, serves as extremely powerful political art,to be taken seriously by all. The form of his art,(and of rap and spoken word more generally)lends itself to politics in a way that engages the listener, rather than making them cringe. It departs (rightly) from the nostalgia of folk and lacks the childish virility of punk.

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Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which has been rightly described as an “ambitious avant jazz-rap statement”, powerfully delivers an encyclopaedia of competing messages, open to listener interpretation. It doesn’t create apolitical metanarrative over the tracks but revels in its fragmentary style, jumping from one sample to another, from distorted vocal wails to smooth saxophone, and from softly spoken rap to guttural chant.

Politically there are strong and clear messages about American society, racism, police violence, and gang culture in his work. But what makes Lamar’s album function in apolitically nuanced way is the manner in which it sends unclear or disordered messages to the listener, of which the listener has to make sense. For instance, in many of the songs Lamar liberally uses the term ‘nigga’, inits fraternal, re-appropriative sense. In ‘I’, the optimistic penultimatum to the album, we hear the lines “All my niggas listen/I promised Dave I’d never use the phrase ‘fuck nigga’/He said, ‘Think about what you saying’: ‘Fuck niggas’/No better than Samuel on Django/No better than a white man with slave boats”. Here we meet the genius of Lamar’s flippant use of the term followed by a deconstruction of the word’s oppressive history. This contrast leaves the listener questioning the political implications of language.

This is how to do political music in the early 21st century—with nuance, with audience engagement, and with artistic vision.There has to be an abandonment of certainty in progress, of the coherent narrative, and of fixed interpretation.