By Angus Batey, The Times (UK)
After a couple of years in the doldrums, political dissidence is back on the artistic agenda with a bang. Michael Moore not only grabbed an Oscar this year for Bowling for Columbine, but also topped the bestseller lists in America and the UK with two books, Stupid White Men and Dude, Where's My Country? Meanwhile, Bushwhacked by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose has joined Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them at the top of the publishing charts.
Now the signs are that popular music is starting to get in on the act in a way that hasn't been heard since punk rock. The UK's biggest selling single of the year, the Black Eyed Peas’ "Where is the Love?" is an emotive call for peace and reconciliation. Everywhere the music fan looks, images of rebellion abound. Whether it is Eminem pushing the buttons that enrage the middle classes or nu-metallers such as Limp Bizkit selling bare-chested aggression to the globe 's teens, insurrection is apparently hip again. However, when even the billionaire financier and destroyer of currencies George Soros is declaring that his new mission in life is to bring about regime change in America, surely speaking out against George W. Bush should be not so much fashionable as passé? But Paris is one rapper who would beg to differ.
“It's easy to put out carefree music that serves the purposes of diversion and escapism," he argues. "It's one thing to run away from the problems in the community and another to address them. I prefer to address them, as opposed to pretending they don't exist.”
This is why Paris, not for the first time, has chosen to bypass the entertainment industry in order to voice his political views. In 1992 he became America's whipping boy after including a track called "Bush Killa" on his second LP. Despite a spirited and erudite defence of his constitutional right to free speech, the rapper fell victim to commercial pressure when his distributor, Time Warner, refused to release the album. So Paris did it himself. Now he's doing it again with his most outspoken record, Sonic Jihad, an album that is highly critical of American government policy.
Paris is reviving a noble tradition, for rap music once provided a mouthpiece for sections of American society that were otherwise denied a voice. Records such as "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five put politics and social issues on hip-hop's agenda, while the emergence in the late 1980s of a new group of politically aware rappers, including Public Enemy and KRS-ONE, showed that rap was still the music of the disaffected. Since then, though, hip-hop has been mired in a morass of conservatism. Major record labels, alerted to hip-hop's commercial clout by such million-selling albums as Dr. Dre's The Chronic, began investing in gangsta rap. A slew of mediocre albums told tales of black-on-black crime and declared that getting high and personal financial advancement were all that mattered.
Paris, however, was not to be thwarted. The economics graduate invested the profits from his independent sales and made the capitalist system that he attacked through his lyrics work to his advantage. Sonic Jihad is calculated to cause offence — its sleeve art shows an aircraft flying towards the White House.
The Atlanta duo and fellow rappers Dead Prez, also known as M1 and Stic, join Paris on two of Sonic Jihad's tracks. Their own third LP, Get Free or Die Tryin’, is released at a time when the pair are beginning a legal battle against the New York Police Department after an incident earlier this year in which they and some of their friends were, they allege, detained illegally.
“They tried to harass and attack some of our comrades, so we’re suing their pants off," says M1. "We’re letting people know you stand up and you can fight for your rights.”
Despite everything, M1 and Paris believe that getting a provocative political message across is easier since September 11. While corporate censorship may make getting heard trickier, they argue, people are more open to the content.
“More people are disenfranchised than ever before," M1 explains. "I always knew that George Bush was a liar, but he's proving himself to be a liar to his people, and that's good. The more repression, the more resistance.”
“Speaking out is made more difficult because people perceive that the response by the Government is going to be vicious," Paris opines. "It's that fear that keeps them in check. It's that fear that keeps corporations compliant. The only thing you can do is walk like a warrior. F*** it — I can't be afraid when I know that I’m speaking the truth.”
There are signs that this trend may be spreading. M1 believes the importance of having a coherent message is beginning to hit home with other hip-hop artists.
“I don't think that we’re alone," he says. "I think that people such as Jay-Z and Nas are comrades, even 50 Cent is a comrade. We just have to find out where our alliances really meet. We’re a fragmented movement, but more and more the fragments are coming together.”
Yet coherent political statements are still few and far between on most popular hip-hop albums. Even Eminem, arguably the most outspoken rapper in the world, tends to protest less about politics than about how he, personally, is treated by the American media. In probably his most political track, "White America," he admits that his words are really just "so much anger aimed in no particular direction”.
In Britain, meanwhile, where sales of home-grown rap records have always been outstripped by American imports, there remain relatively few "political" groups. British rappers have felt required to defend the very institution of UK rap before trying to utilise it as a platform. Artists such as Black Radical Mk II and Huntkillbury Finn, who were inspired by Chuck D et al in the late 1980s, have consistently made politically provocative records — but they are in the minority.
Perhaps the best example of outspoken views reaching a mainstream rap audience is provided by OutKast. The duo from Atlanta topped the US charts with their fifth album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, this autumn. While the majority of the record is introspective or playful, one track, War, is as politically explicit as anything that Dead Prez or Paris are saying. Antwan "Big Boi" Patton raps about Bush's controversial election, questions the validity of the war on terrorism and rages at the complicity of the American media in the nation's continued apathy.
“I sat and watched the election basically being snatched and I was outraged," Big Boi explains. "It seemed as though September 11 took all the focus off it, and that s*** was swept under the rug. I thought, ‘I know what I’ll do. I’ll go to the studio, my microphone has such a big voice that it can reach the world, so I’ll talk about this’. I’m not really expressing pros and cons, I’m really just laying s*** on the table and saying, ‘Here it is, think about it’.”
Yet OutKast very much remains the exception rather than the rule. And the immediate future certainly does not include a mainstream rapper making as candid a record as Sonic Jihad. Yet Paris remains unperturbed. His job, he feels, is to redress the balance.
“I like people making statements, but I also think a vicious extreme is needed," he explains. "It's necessary to have somebody that's so far in the extreme in my direction to provide balance to all the other bulls*** that we’re given every day. People ask me: ‘Why don't you make happy records? Why don't you smile?’ Because, quite honestly, I don't feel that way. I don't think it's time for all that yet.
Given the state of our communities, and given the fact that hip-hop is so influential, I know, for a fact, that I have to get down the way that I do. And that's what makes me sleep good at night.”
Sonic Jihad is available on import in selected UK record shops or by mail order from www.guerrillafunk.com