'Just throw your hands up in the air / And party hardy like you just don't care."
Of the nearly 3,000 words in 1979's "Rapper's Delight," those 16 remain the most quoted by critics and emcees. But if rap's first single encouraged escapism, the genre it helped create has often done otherwise.
Public Enemy, Dead Prez, the Coup, Lupe Fiasco and countless lesser-known artists have injected hard-core politics into the hip-hop agenda. Whether or not that can be an effective element of social change is subject to debate, and will be at this Thursday's panel, "The Art of Resistance: An Intergenerational Dialogue Between the Civil Rights and Hip-Hop Generations," at Colorado College.
Chinaka Hodge — who'll take part in the discussion along with Bakari Kitwana, Sonia Sanchez, Adam Mansbach and Jorge "Popmaster Fabel" Pabon — is a spoken-word artist and playwright who grew up in Oakland, Calif., the city that gave us hip-hop innovators ranging from Digital Underground to the Coup's Boots Riley. Hodge has appeared in two seasons of HBO's Def Poetry Jam, and opened for Lauryn Hill in Central Park.
She's also worked extensively with the San Francisco-based Youth Speak poetry nonprofit, and is currently a member of the Getback performance collective.
The Indy spoke to Hodge last week about her views on hip-hop culture and her own experiences within it.
Indy: In its early Sugar Hill Records days, rap was way more about partying than it was politics. Now we have Lupe Fiasco doing a 20-minute version of "Words I Never Said" and being escorted offstage at an Obama inaugural event. As hip-hop continues to evolve, how optimistic are you about its potential as a catalyst for change?
Chinaka Hodge: Well, I would say that even back in the Sugar Hill days — while there's that feeling of the music being less political and more about partying — I think that anytime you give young black and brown kids the space and opportunity to express themselves, to dance in ways that they haven't before, to sing or rap in ways they haven't before, it's a political experience.
In Jeff Chang's really critical and seminal book, Can't Stop Won't Stop, he chronicles that politicized experience of transforming a devastated South Bronx into a place that honored art and culture and vibrancy. And I think that's an inherently political act.
I do have a lot of hope for the future of hip-hop. And it's not a surprise to me that Lupe got escorted offstage at the inaugural event. I think his healthy discourse and critique of the Obama administration is necessary and falls right in line with some of hip-hop's ideals. I think we toast, I think we brag, I think we battle and critique, and I think that Lupe's doing exactly what the emcee is called on to do.
We like to think about hip-hop in these binary terms, but I think hip-hop only works when we acknowledge that all of it is viable, necessary and part of the culture.
Indy: Boots Riley, who's from your hometown, says he recently received offers to use the Coup's music in Kmart and Taco Bell commercials — an idea that's almost too weird to think about. Anyway, after turning it down, he wrote on Facebook about how, being broke, that money looked good. He said it "looked a little like freedom." As someone who's navigated that intersection between art and politics and commerce, how do you think you would have responded in a situation like that?
CH: That's a tough one. Boots is a good friend and, you know, Boots is a father. And I understand that push and pull, where it does look like freedom. And I also understand why he turned it down.
I think that's always the difficulty in navigating life as a full-time artist: not having benefits or health care, and having to make the really hard decisions. And I don't know how I would have responded.
When I was 16, I performed at the Apollo for a Teen People magazine event called "What's Next." They were trying to honor sort of the new young tastemakers across a number of different forms, and they picked me as a spoken-word artist. And there was a representative from Bic in the audience, and they'd just come out with those gel roller pens [laughs] and they offered me this endorsement. And at the time, I genuinely hated those pens. And so I remember as a 16-year-old thinking, like, "How much does it take for me to sell out and what does it mean?" So it made me think about those questions very early on.
Indy: I would have endorsed those pens in a heartbeat.
CH: I know, I was very headstrong at 16 and I turned it down immediately. It was like, "I'll never sell out." And my mom, who was there that night, said you might want to think about it. [Laughs.] Poverty is just around the corner.
Indy: So I take it you've never used one of those pens since?
CH: Not really. They were really popular when I was in the seventh or eighth grade, and I hated the way the ink came out of them. Like, I genuinely just did not like the product.
Indy: Unlike Taco Bell and Kmart, which have just wonderful products.
CH: [Laughs.] Well, you know, I might have been more likely to endorse Taco Bell or Kmart, having used them. And while they're horrible multi-national companies, I have enjoyed them from time to time.
So I don't know what I would have done. You know, I've done work with Nike, I've worked with Pandora, and every time I sort of fall into having to make that decision, it's a difficult conversation I have with myself. And I think that, you know, morals are great, but I've had a couple of summers where I didn't eat and couldn't afford to take care of myself in terms of health, and so it's a hard question. And I really respect the fact that Boots walked away from the money, that he turned it down and stayed true to his ideals.
Indy: I understand you also opened for Lauryn Hill. What was that like?
CH: That was at SummerStage NYC. I was the very first to go on, and Lauryn Hill was the very last to go on. I did poetry and Fishbone performed and Slum Village performed. It was a great show. And then Lauryn did a set. At the time, she was just coming out of sort of reclusion.
Indy: I saw a warm-up gig she did for that tour out in California, and I remember her getting really mad at her band and scolding the back-up singers and interrupting songs to make them work on the arrangements right there onstage. Was the show a little more polished by the time it got there?
CH: Well, I mean, yes it was. I don't know, she's a hero of mine for certain, but I know a lot of folks who've worked with her. And I think, you know, like any genius, she can be a difficult person to work with. [Laughs.]
Indy: When you look back at the Harlem Renaissance, you see playwrights and musicians and poets all interacting, albeit in a small geographical area. With hip-hop spread out all over the world, do you think it still has that same collaborative potential?
CH: I think it's going on already, to be honest. You know, I look at things like Until the Quiet Comes, which just won the Special Jury Prize for short film at Sundance. It's a dance piece, it's film, DJ Flying Lotus provides all of the music, and it's an amazing work of theater. It feels intrinsically hip-hop, and it feels very much like the Harlem Renaissance. So, you know, we're not 30 or 40 artists living within 10 or 11 blocks of each other in Harlem, but I think it's the same kind of conversation going on.