Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Philly, Sierra Leone and Ghana Converge on Brooklyn for OkayAfrica World Cup Celebration

Black Thought of The Roots (all photos by Banning Eyre)

This past Sunday, OkayAfrica brought representatives from all over the world together on one stage in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. More specifically, these acts represented the musical contributions/productions of the African diaspora, from the electro afrobeat of Zakeee (Dakar and Philadelphia) to the Sierra Leonean hip-hop of Bajah and the Dry Eye Crew, from Ghanaian-influenced raps of Blitz the Ambassador to lyrical prowess of Brooklyn’s own Talib Kweli. As though the influence of African culture wasn’t quite obvious, to top it all off there were cast members from Fela! (the musical) in the crowd and staffers from Afropop Worldwide walking around.

In the midst of all this, I realized there was another diaspora community in attendance on this sweltering, swampy afternoon: hip-hop. From it’s humble beginnings at block parties in The Bronx, hip-hop culture and music has grown, split, and spread geographically, commercially and aesthetically. Geographically: from The Bronx, hip-hop moved to Brooklyn and quickly spread throughout the five boroughs, across the United States, and has since established itself strongly on every continent and in nearly every country. Commercially: it has developed from a pastime to one of the most commercially successful art forms. Aesthetically: the number and styles of hip-hop now being produced are as wide and varied as the audience that listens to the genre.

The Roots' Tuba Gooding Jr. 

The Roots are a product of this diaspora. Coming out of Philadelphia, which has never been considered a hip-hop hotbed in the way that places like New York City or Los Angeles are, The Roots are also, to cut straight to the biggest difference between them and the typical hip-hop artist, a band. Unlike solo MCs, The Roots’ music, like that of The Grateful Dead, is not limited to recorded commodity. With more than 10 studio albums, two official live records, numerous free mixtapes, and a nearly bottomless archive of unofficial live recordings from their tireless concert schedule, there’s no telling what songs they might play on a given night – chances are they’ll play something new anyway. Like the Dead, they can pick a mood and just play. Sunday’s show, for example, featured covers of Guns N Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.” People tend to forget that Black Thought, the criminally underrated MC for The Roots, is very much a part of this practice: he does not duck back stage or sit silently in a corner when the band starts rocking out, rather his lyricism becomes an instrument onto itself. When The Roots are jamming, Black Thought will sneak in freestyles between renditions of his regular verses, and when that’s not happening he’ll invoke the original role of the MC in hip-hop, offering the crowd a heightened sense of interaction and engagement with the music, directing the crowd and shouting out his band mates.

Talib Kweli also represents a divergent style in hip-hop. The “BK MC” has mastered and even come to represent the underground aesthetic. In comparison to their mainstream counterparts, these rappers are less likely to talk about cars and parties and more inclined to discuss political or social issues. The lyricism of the underground also tends to boast a much vaster vocabulary than one might hear on top 40 radio – and Kweli is no exception. A few years ago, Jay-Z admitted on The Black Album’s “Moment of Clarity” that he dumbs down his lyrics to help with sales, but “if skills sold, I’d probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli.” Here we see just how much commercial rap has separated, in this case, from the lyrical underground (a school that includes, in addition to Kweli, artists like Mos Def, Common and Lupe Fiasco).

Blitz the Ambassador’s progression through the New York City hip-hop scene is an example of yet another set of differing paths within the genre. While many up-and-coming MCs have relied on the internet to launch their careers, Blitz has made a name for himself using more traditional methods, specifically by establishing a physical presence around New York. He’s promoting himself as a real, tangible product by focusing on quality live performances (he shared a stage with Big Daddy Kane last month) and supporting the underground scene himself (I met him while waiting outside of Q-Tip’s Summerstage show last year when he approached me with a genuine interest in the non-profit arts event I was promoting, and, after talking with me for about ten minutes, offered me his card, which I read, and then quickly tried to return my jaw to the proper place).

Clearly, the expansive growth of hip-hop has allowed these artists the space they need to succeed in the form of various geographies and assorted niches in which they can explore their own styles. At the same time, however, it has limited the artists as they fall victim to a vastly divided hip-hop landscape and market, and this is why I am referring to the hip-hop community as diasporic and not just expanding and fertile. Indeed, as much as artists like The Roots and Bajah have benefited from the growth of the genre, they suffer from the fissures that such rapid expansion leaves behind.

 Sahr Ngajuah, the star of Fela!, hosted the event

The Jay-Z line from “Moment of Clarity” may be clever, but it’s not a joke. For Jay-Z, whether or not an album goes platinum is less a question of “if” than “when.” But for Talib, record sales are not something conditional – they simply don’t reach the platinum status enjoyed by acts like Jay-Z. Similarly, The Roots are pigeonholed as “hip-hop’s band.” Black Thought in particular is a victim of this categorization because the true extent of his prowess on the mic will never be as widely recognized as his fans and more knowledgeable critics know he deserves. Instead, people will continue to focus on other areas of hip-hop and he’ll never get the radio spins that Nas, BIG, or Eminem got in their prime. Finally, Bajah and The Dry Eye Crew, much to our chagrin, will probably always be “that rap group from Sierra Leone.”

Frankly, it sucks. But there was a moment on Sunday when it was apparent that none of this mattered. As the sun started to set and the stage lighting glowed all the more intensely, The Roots, acting as Talib Kweli’s backing band, unleashed the first short stabbing bass lines of “Get By.” The crowd roared and 4,000 hands went up in the air, and suddenly it dawned on me that here were 8,000 people who didn’t care where an act was from, what kind of media attention was focused on them, or whether or not they fit the traditional mold – at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to get by.

Sierra Leone's Bajah joined Janka Nabay for a cameo spot
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