As Iraq burns, New Orleans drowns, and our president complacently plucks his guitar strings, the voice of Damian Marley blasts out of seemingly every other car stereo and club sound system in Miami: "To see the sufferation, sicken me/Them suit no fit me/To win election they trick we/And they don't do nuttin at all." It's the sort of sentiment usually ghettoized on underground hip-hop tapes and at Moveon.org rallies, but there it was at Miami indie mecca I/O the night of Sunday, September 18. Local DJ Contra cued the record's opening strands -- a sample from Ini Kamoze's 1984 hit "World, a Reggae Music" -- and the crowd of jaded hipsters exploded.
The song isn't only the object of indie intrigue. You can find "Jamrock" in rotation on BET, MTV, and 103.5 The Beat. You can hear Damian's strained but strong vocals -- somewhere between a plea and a threat -- blaring from twelve-inch speakers on Collins Avenue. And you can feel its bass line billowing out of South Beach's superclub Mansion.
"It's not just the biggest reggae song in years, it's one of the biggest three records in Miami right now," says 103.5 The Beat and resident Mansion DJ Mr. Mauricio. "The reaction I get to that song is unbelievable. It's one of those songs that I can sense people are waiting for ... they're expecting it. And when I drop "Jamrock," the crowd reaction is so strong that sometimes I have to bring it back three or four times."
But ultimately this is about more than the success of one song or an individual artist. "Jamrock" is the latest example of a political uprising within the music community that began during last year's election cycle -- with urban youth rallying around the hip-hop get-out-the-vote campaigns -- and is reaching a tipping point in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And if Diddy's Vote or Die campaign was more the province of a responsible citizen outreach, then "Jamrock" and the recent impassioned outbursts by Kanye West seemed born of a mounting desperation and rage. America has changed over the past few weeks -- spiritually, politically, and geographically -- and our culture is scrambling to catch up.
Damian Marley, speaking via phone last week from a promo tour in the Midwest, seems either nonplussed by his sudden stardom or unaware of the popularity of "Jamrock." When he is asked if the song's mammoth success surprised him, Marley matter-of-factly replies, "No, it wasn't a surprise. When you make music, you make music with the hope that it will happen. I am more satisfied and thankful for the success than I am surprised. With [Welcome to Jamrock], I'm hoping that it'll be more successful than my previous album. With each effort, you get better and you get more success."
While his 2001 album didn't puncture the pop charts as this one is doing, it wasn't exactly a dud either. Halfway Tree -- which is a reference to the Kingston neighborhood that marks the junction between the rich and poor parts of town -- was met with widespread acclaim from the reggae community and even garnered a Grammy for Reggae Album of the Year.
Although much has been made of "Jamrock" as a return to roots reggae, a lot more is at play in Marley's music. In addition to the undeniable roots influence, there is an undercurrent of ragga, modern dancehall, R&B, and, most prominently, NYC hip-hop.
Marley recognizes the similarities between hip-hop and the reggae music his father helped put on the international map. They are linked by point of origin -- after all, hip-hop formed when Kool Herc fled Jamaica's mid-Seventies political unrest and headed for the Bronx -- and in terms of their impact. "I love hip-hop music," Marley comments. "It's rebel music is how I like to speak about it. Hip-hop and reggae come from the same community as far as class -- they both come from the bottom of society."
Marley believes that the album's strong political undercurrents have always been appealing to mainstream audiences but that it took the tragedy of Katrina and the subsequent outpouring of grief and rage to force radio programmers to acknowledge these sentiments. "It's a matter of what's being exposed," he says. "America has always been hungry for stuff like this. And America has always loved music with substance and a message. I don't think that they weren't ready for it before; I just don't think they could hear it."
Though Marley might be the first performer to bring concious lyrics back to the charts, he's hardly alone. Since the devastation of New Orleans and our government's lackluster response, a handful of topical protest songs have cropped up. Some of them are from the usual suspects. Of the songs released thus far, Public Enemy's "Hell No, We Ain't All Right" is by far the most direct. Over a typically dense and dissonant PE soundscape, frontman Chuck D issues a stinging rebuke of the Bush administration: "No answers from disaster, them masses hurtin'/So who the fuck we call? Halliburton."
Elsewhere, Mos Def released "Katrina Clap," and Houston MC The Legendary K.O. quickly leaked "George Bush Doesn't Like Black People." The latter is a parody of Kanye West's hit "Gold Digger," with the lyrics altered to take aim at Bush: "I ain't saying that he a gold digger/But he ain't fucking with no broke niggas."
"There's been an unprecedented outpouring from the hip-hop community," author and hip-hop activist Jeff Chang comments. "[The response] is huge and massive and will continue to have shockwaves throughout the hip-hop generation for years to come. This is our 9/11."
Chang's book Can't Stop, Won't Stop, the preeminent social history of hip-hop, has been received by the hip-hop community and the mainstream press as nothing short of a revelation. The New Yorker hailed it as "one of the most urgent and passionate histories of popular music ever written." The book begins with the death of the civil rights movement in the early Seventies and chronicles the emergence of gang warfare in New York City and the subsequent birth of hip-hop. It goes on to capture the mounting tension of the summer of 1989, when Public Enemy and Spike Lee delivered a pop culture riot in the forms of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Do the Right Thing. And finally, and most grimly, Can't Stop, Won't Stop chronicles the social circumstances that led to the Los Angeles riots.
The overarching theme of Chang's book is that the 1977 blackout, the near-upheaval in the summer of 1989, and the riots of 1992 did not arise from a vacuum. They were the manifestations of social neglect, crippling poverty, and latent racism, and they all spurned varying degrees of cultural readjustment. Chang sees a similar dynamic playing out in the wake of the Katrina tragedy.
"[Katrina] is one of those pivot points that come along all so rarely," Chang says. "Every time there's a gap between reality and perception, hip-hop is likely to jump into the breach. I wasn't surprised that [Kanye] said what he did in that kind of form -- to break from formality and be like, öLook, this is the reality of the situation.' That's what hip-hop did back in '92 [during the L.A. riots]. But the difference is now we're a lot more organized."
The organization to which Chang refers stems from celebrity-driven initiatives, such as David Banner's Heal the Hood Foundation, as well as community outreach programs, such as New Orleans Network and Common Ground, that are remobilizing to provide relief to Katrina victims and ensuring they are not shut out of the rebuilding process.
"What I'm seeing are people trying to reactivate these networks that were put in place during last year's election," Chang says. "People say that P. Diddy and Russell Simmons didn't do shit [with Vote or Die], but they did. The celebrity efforts were crucial. You had a surge of youth voters last year. There were four million new voters last year between the ages of 18 and 29, and about 50 percent of those were urban, black, or Latin youth. That was an unprecedented surge. And I can tell you that folks weren't going there because of Kerry. It was because of hip-hop."
Activists within the hip-hop community may be mobilizing and organizing, but a pervading sense of chaos and unfocused anger remains. This mixture of outrage, tension, and absurdity was on full display Monday, September 19, at the Sunoco gas station on SW 27th Avenue and Coral Way as Puerto Rican hip-hop/reggaeton artist Bimbo attempted to give free gas to a few motorists to protest the Western world's perilous and seemingly insatiable hunger for oil.
Bimbo has been making the rounds on the Latin hip-hop scene for a few years now. He has worked with the likes of Celia Cruz, Marc Anthony, and Carlos Santana. For his latest single, "Fuleteame el Tanque" ("Fill Up My Gas Tank"), Bimbo wanted to project his discontent over the fact that Latinos are dying in Iraq. In the video for the single, he and his posse stuff money into the garters of strippers who wear masks resembling George W. Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Osama bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein. The message is clear: These people have a lot of blood on their hands.
"I'm here for the people that are dying in Iraq," Bimbo states. "It's a stupid war, and there's a lot of Latinos dying for nothing. I'm not someone who's real political, but if I can help people open their eyes to what's going on, then I'm here. We got to do something. We're all connected, and we have to be here for the people."
But as the 300-pound Puerto Rican hip-hop star railed against the war on Iraq and Western society's addiction to gas, the giveaway's participants wandered about the gas station, gawking at Bimbo's entourage -- the scantily clad "Freedom Girls" -- and anxiously filling up their SUVs and sports cars. Occasionally they gazed toward the sky, where in a little more than two hours the first feeder bands from Hurricane Rita would besiege Miami.
The scene was a strange disconnect of desire, fear, ire, and greed -- but in many ways it serves as a fitting metaphor for what's going on around us. All periods of political and cultural transition are marked by this kind of public (and by extension private) upheaval. But once we emerge from this period of shock and anger, it'll be time to use our energy for a constructive purpose.
Signs exist that this is already happening. What began as a ripple is growing into a tidal wave, and with a little focus and determination, it can become a powerful youth political movement. And though the current mantra might be Kanye's ubiquitous statement that "George Bush doesn't care about black people," it is quickly transforming into "The people don't care for George Bush."
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