By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Not only is this character not a sign of progress, but it re-upholsters a definition of manhood that, while many weep for its demise, ought to be ripped to shreds. Largely founded on fear, fantasy and myths, it incubates homophobia and misogyny (and unexamined racism) as a form of self-preservation. It‘s telling that while rock critics praised the sight of 200,000 mainly young white men at Woodstock ’99 chanting “My Nigga” along with rapper DMX as a harbinger of racial harmony (reclaim that birthright, yo), none thought (1) to question the fact that this newfound harmony centers on a term of degradation for black folk (and squash that nonsense about “nigga” being a value-free term of endearment; America‘s a racial history overrides all that), or (2) to see the connection between this hip-hop-fueled white male exertion of power and the wide-scale rioting, looting and raping that marked the festival. Having worshipped their Negro patron saint, DMX -- a man whose anger is rooted in boundless self-pity (and there’s the real point of connection) -- and egged on by Limp Bizkit‘s Fred Durst, the crowd went primal because they could. They are the new men.
So where are the truly radical, artful treatises on race, masculinity and hip-hop culture? Mos Def’s brilliant album Black on Both Sides is one example. It‘s the sound of an unapologetic race man making resistance art, a man who knows that racial harmony founded on consumption, conformity and the championing of black style over black life is a dead end for black and white folk alike. He also knows that it’s no cure for one of white supremacy‘s most enduring legacies: the various strains of self-hatred running rampant in the black community that are manifested in so much modern hip-hop.
Having spent years as an iconic underground rapper (and as an actor with a fairly healthy resume, most recently appearing in the film Where’s Marlowe?), Mos Def broke into the big time with last year‘s already-classic Black Star, with Talib Kweli. In many ways, Black on Both Sides is a continuation of that work. At its center is a paradoxical glow: Lyrics that could be read on the page as fiery prose poems, as sociological data or as heartfelt protest retain a pure musicality as they hit the ear. Po-faced critics whose appreciation of hip-hop is strickly neck-up will be as entranced as the brother who slides his headphones on in the dark and nods to the sounds of the words, the messages in the rhymes and the timbre of the rapper’s voice.
Over a deep bed of jazz-derived grooves, Mos Def nimbly praises God and family while wrestling with the war of the sexes (“Ms. Fat Booty”); giving a sober reality check on his genre‘s power and limitations in “Hip-Hop” (“Hip-hop will simply amaze youCraze you, pay youDo whatever you say doBut black, it can’t save you”); penning a love letter to Brooklyn by pointedly hijacking “Under the Bridge,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ ode to L.A.; and re-teaming with Kweli on “Know That,” a scalding bit of stream-of-consciousness philosophizing. But the album’s highlights are “Mr. Nigga” and “Rock N Roll.” In the latter, he parodies the rockhip-hop hybrid, mercilessly disses Korn and Limp Bizkit -- and Elvis and the Stones -- gives props to Bad Brains, Fishbone, Albert King and Hendrix, and traces all American music (hard rock, funk, hip-hop, etc.) to its origins in the slave shacks. On “Mr. Nigga,” which features a turn by Q-Tip, the rapper pins pained observations on the seeming permanence of racism inside acrid humor (“Now, who is the cat at Armani buying wareswith the tourists who be asking him, Do you work here?”), and you can‘t help but hear a weary heart beneath the acid. What saves him is an intrinsic generosity of spirit that keeps his frustrations from curdling into misanthropy.
Black on Both Sides -- a critical favorite -- has failed to make the crossover splash that was widely predicted before its release, and the reason may well lie in Mos Def’s voice. His style, more often than not, veers closer to conversational than classically confrontational. There‘s a marked lack of bombast to his flow; it completely sidesteps the minstrelsy that has come to define the genre as it takes up residence in the mainstream. (This is something he manages to do even as he goes toe to toe with Busta Rhymes on the incendiary “Do It Now.”) While his voice isn’t as quirky as, say, Slick Rick‘s, or as coolly idiosyncratic as Q-Tip’s, it sticks out in ways that may not bode well for the trek from the underground to the mainstream. Its very lack of caricature may be Mos Def‘s biggest stumbling block.
African-American music -- rap, house, techno, R&B -- has suffered immeasurably from being yoked to the pandering, idiotic, media-constructed demographic known as youth culture, that overhyped wet dream shaped and packaged by businessmen. The impulses to overthrow the old and celebrate the new, to rebel against parental and societal limitations, were long ago corralled into the impulse to shop, blindly consume, and forget history except as a costume. The effect of this massive dumbing down is that uninformed, uncommitted, unfocused rage is championed and celebrated, spun by PR machinery as substantive art or politics, which is where DMX, Limp Bizkit and the Woodstock ’99 posse come in. With rare exception, art and anger connected to history, activism and consciousness are marginalized, or dismissed altogether. (That‘s old news in the annals of art and politics, but not historically true for African-American music and culture.) As American youth culture circles the globe, it demolishes whatever is unique about the cultures it finds in its path, starting with those inside America. (Is there anything more depressing than MTV’s Global Groove, where we get to watch participants in Hong Kong, Paris, Athens, Milan, New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, etc., all wearing the same clothes, all dancing the same steps, all giving the same scripted shout-outs to the camera?) Mos Def‘s music swims against this tide. Ultimately, it connects with underground fans around the globe because in his call for black love, black unity and the preservation of black life -- in the very specificity of his art -- is a powerful respect for all of humanity, in its many incarnations and flavors.