Upgrade your idea of revolution?

It has been a while since I heard an interesting argument in the on-going money v.s. authenticity debate in hip-hop.  To review: one side says, “Authentic art can’t be made by corporations. Keep it real!  Streets is watching!” and the other side says, “I’m hungry!”

Ok, seriously.

The opposition of money and love, or money and authenticity, is insane.  Insane because hip hop started as party music kids would use to make some change, working as DJs, and later, MCs.  Sugarhill Gang, performers on the first hip hop album (“Rapper’s Delight”), were a studio group put together by Sylvia Robinson (of Mickey and Sylvia fame…think “Dirty Dancing” for a reference).  “The Message”, a song universally heralded as an authentic portrait of life on the streets (Nas once mentioned it was the reason he dedicated himself to the art form) was actually written by two white dudes and forced on Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five by the same Sylvia Robinson.  {Insert a million other examples, here.}  In short, there is no pure moment in hip hop where money wasn’t an influence on artistic creation.  A heavy influence.  However, people keep talking like there was.

All this gets us to Saul Williams, the spoken word poet and musician.  He released a song (“List of Demands”) that Nike used in a television advertisement.  Here is the video, “My better is better:”

The song’s lyrics describe a person on the edge of violence, “a victim of your fears”, angry because “we’re living hand to mouth”.  The song’s title parenthetically suggests (“reparations”) one interpretation of the song’s first line: “I want my money back.”

Nike’s use of this line and this song as the backdrop to scenes of so many black athletes suggested to many observers Nike was insensitive to contemporary racial and economic politics.  Essentially, the critique is that Nike is obviating the history of blacks’ segregation into unskilled labor and its current guise: “To get out of the ghetto be a rapper or play basketball.”  Instead of reparations for your culture, a handful of you can have contracts with the Bulls, Lakers, and Knicks, and we’ll call it even.  And we, Nike, will make a video to celebrate that.  Rub your noses in it, as it were.

So what’s up, Saul Williams?  Williams has a good reputation as a variety of modern black nationalist, pushing for gender and racial equity; he’s an activist against animal cruelty and a vegetarian…he basically has cred as a political activist in progressive causes, at least in comparison with his peers in rap/popular music.  But Saul Williams sold his song to Nike…so he’s been suffering the brunt of a “you sold out” critique.  So what I have for you now, up for discussion, is Saul’s response*:

[apologies for the “arty” angle, side conversations, “yeah, man!”s etc. but I didn’t record it.]

Isn’t that interesting?  The critique just drops out.  Why?

* there is an essay by Saul Williams that accompanies the video, more or less, found here.



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5 responses to “Upgrade your idea of revolution?

  1. Thanks much for this. I’m doing a class on music as resistance later in the semester — last semester, I showed them the original “List of Demands” video followed by the Nike commercial, and the students were blown away. This will help further the discussion.

  2. Jenn Lena

    Oh, good! Sounds like a fascinating class. Can I see the syllabus, sometime?

  3. Jenn Lena

    Sorry–or the reading for that class. I think I was confusing “semesters-length class” with “class session.”

  4. Jenn, it’s a reading you probably know:
    Popular Culture as Oppositional Culture: Rap as Resistance
    Theresa A. Martinez
    Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 40, No. 2. (1997), pp. 265-286.

    It’s dated, but it gets the basic point across well, especially when I’ve yet to encounter a student who has thought of music this way.

    I play the class songs or videos, asking them to identify themes of resistance, including:

    Aretha Franklin – “Respect” (1967)
    Marvin Gaye – “What’s Going On?” (1971)
    Los Lobos – “How Will The Wolf Survive?” (1984)
    U2 – “Pride (In the Name of Love)” (1988)
    Public Enemy – “Fight The Power” (1990)
    Eminem – “Mosh” (2004)
    Saul Williams – “List of Demands (Reparations)” (2004)
    Nike ad

    Any thoughts or suggestions you have are welcome as this is far more your area than mine.

    And yes, a whole course on this would kick ass.

  5. Jenn Lena

    You’re right, Dave, I know that article well. And the song choices are terrific! Of course, I can think of many more–I use Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman,” Hendrix’s cover of the National Anthem, James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “England is a Bitch”, several songs from the Last Poets (especially “Niggers are Scared of Revolution)…. I wrote an article on resistance in rap, forthcoming in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies–maybe you’ll be good enough to tell me what you think of it. (If you’re interested, I can email you proofs–the article is out in October.) It is basically a case study of “Hell, yeah!” by dead prez.

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