'Conscious’ Rap That Isn’t

Why The Roots make cool art, but lousy politics.

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The Words I Manifest: Is Conscious Rap Different?

And you will find that this perspective is best –-check it out/ These are the words that I manifest.

Gang Starr, "Manifest," No More Mr. Nice Guy

A typical take on rap is that whatever Paul Wall and Busta Rhymes are pulling, there is a whole body of "conscious" rap, also termed "underground," "alternative," "grassroots" or less formally "digging in the crates" rap, that steps away from the gunplay and misogyny and takes on serious issues. This, we might think, is what will spark a revolution.

Because The Roots have a particularly iconic status as conscious rappers, I'll start with them. It's not that I don't like what they do: For starters, they're from my hometown of Philadelphia – I get to hear things like hoagies and Mount Airy mentioned and street names I know from my childhood. And as far as I'm concerned, their lyrics are poetry, pure and simple – they barely even need the beats behind them. The Roots write dense straight-up poetry, such that it's no surprise that, as they say on Things Fall Apart, they have a big fan base among the coffee house set ("coffee house girls and white boys").

However, in terms of what kind of "politics" this poetry puts across, it seems to me that what it ultimately has to tell us is "Sheeee-it!!!!!!" -- and that's not enough. I will make my case with two of the "fiercer" songs from their masterpiece of 2006, Game Theory.

"False Media" seems to be the one everybody finds especially significant. The message? "If I can't work to make it, I'll rob and take it." Because I am "a monster y'all done created." Now, there's no point in droning on that this "glorifies violence." What emcee Black Thought means, what you are meant to glean, is that society is so set against black men that poor ones can barely get jobs, and that it's therefore inevitable and justifiable, that so many of them go "thug." But that's a questionable proposition. Why did so many fewer black men go "thug" after Reconstruction or during the Great Depression?

Nevertheless, Black Thought is tapping a widely-held conviction about poor blacks and employment. Writers like Bakari Kitwana concur with insights like Black Thought's, such that Kitwana includes in his list of items on a hip-hop political agenda "the retention and creation of jobs for working-class Americans." Robin Kelley rhapsodizes over Ice Cube's "A Bird in the Hand" on Death Certificate, where a black man just out of high school keeps being turned down for service jobs and, as Kelley puts it, "It does not take much reflection for him to realize that the drug dealers are the only people in his neighborhood making decent money."

The problem is that the unemployment of poor black men does not correlate meaningfully with availability of jobs. A black man without a diploma who wants a job can get one. I state that not as a moral point, but as an empirical one. Here are some reasons why: The beat from "A Bird in the Hand" is now fading away ... and now gone. Please consider the following:

An influential argument is that the relocation of low-skill factory jobs from city centers to suburbs or abroad created an unemployment crisis for black men. However, Indianapolis' black community saw the same rise in unemployment among black men despite the fact that factories there did not relocate in significant numbers. Meanwhile, New York saw just as many black men drift into chronic unemployment despite the fact that manufacturing jobs were never a major mainstay of black employment in New York. Two academic studies have shown that factory relocation was responsible for at most a third of the unemployment among poor black men.