By now, you’ve probably heard that someone who clearly had never listened to Lupe Fiasco’s music booked the Chicago emcee for an inauguration concert in DC, and things didn’t go so well. He performed his strident “Words I Never Said” (“Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist / Gaza strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit / That’s why I ain’t vote for him, next one either”) for forty minutes, and the organizers thusly kicked him offstage (watch the drama).
Soon thereafter, Complex hip-hop writer David Drake sharpened his quill and took Lupe to task for the outburst. “This is the latest in a pattern of well-intentioned but ultimately tone-deaf maneuvers by Lupe,” he writes. Drake deploys long quotes from famous works by Martin Luther King Jr. and George Orwell to imbue the piece with the serious tone of historic authority. We learn that Lupe has lowered himself from making serious art to “pure ‘pamphleteering'” in his recent releases and public appearances, that the music he used to make was better at achieving the same goals, that the performance gone wrong was little more than a “self-righteous dirge,” and that, ultimately, “being right isn’t enough; you also need to connect with your audience and build understanding.” In 1,050 words, Drake’s column informs us that the transgression was objectionable because it was ineffective art from someone whose capable of more, but egotistically “caught up” with political concerns. (Then you can submit the article to Digg or read one of their ten thousand lists. My fav: “The 25 Most Dysfunctional Relationships in Sports History.”)
But really, in 1,050 words the Drake column does little more than distract from the larger and far more important issue. To get to that, let’s start by reminding ourselves of a dirge’s typical function. From Macmillian: “A slow sad song often sung at a funeral.” Lupe did indeed rap a sad, slow — or at least long — song, but whose funeral are we at? Whose departed soul does Lupe so desperately sing for? I believe the answer lies in this quote from an antiwar, anti-imperialism speech by Dr. King: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” We have probably died and begun to rot in the 46 years since he spoke those words, yet we continue to step right over the corpse and blame the stench on the likes of Lupe.
All this talk about a professional entertainer is so absurdly trivial in juxtaposition to the issues that he’s mad about, but that comparison rarely happens in the realm of music criticism (or anywhere really). Even when we discuss fervently political artists like Lupe, Killer Mike, Immortal Technique and others, we place them and their messages in the “entertainment” box of our lives, and refuse to pay their ideas serious heed. It is as if we are afraid to engage their ideas, content to instead evaluate whether or not they sound good on record. It is high time we consider them, as our so-called representative government continues to raise hell for the financially poor all the world over (to rephrase a point from that same MLK speech). When music writing, or any writing for that matter, perpetuates that silent compartmentalization, it becomes just another opiate for the masses, something else to help us tolerate by way of not thinking about the ridiculous injustices that we all know exist in the world.
When you really consider any of the issues that Lupe is known to speak on — drones, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, or systemic poverty and racism in the US — and the human toll of any of these, a flailing forty-minute performance doesn’t seem such an unreasonable reaction. While no artist should be patted on the back just because their intentions are good, it’s worthwhile to do more than just gawk at Lupe’s breakdown and dismiss it as an attempt to be cool and “re-brand himself as a public intellectual.”
That said, the performance does seem to have failed to get its point across. It’s dubious at best to suggest that forty minutes of anything would have impressed new values on a herd of celebrating Obama supporters, but I have a suggestion to offer, of how it might have gone better. Imagine yourself in the crowd:
As per usual, his band comes out first, but oddly the drummer doesn’t sit at his drums — he sits in front them. The guitarist and bassist just sit beside their instruments. Lupe’s not yet on stage. There’s no music at all, and most of the crowd is quiet, waiting for the star. He finally comes on stage, fresh in all black with hair in crisp, short braids. He is the picture of composed, and the crowd goes nuts as he grabs the mic. But he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t react to the cheers, and the band members continue to sit on stage. Finally, he utters one sentence to the effect of, “This is for the victims of this president’s policies.” Then he puts the mic back on the stand and sits on stage like his band. He doesn’t move, and nobody knows how to react at all.
Maybe security takes him off stage after a little while, maybe they simply walk off, but an on-stage sit in would have projected his message louder and more clearly than forty minutes of “Words I Never Said.” It would have the weight of intention, and maybe even the writers at Complex could have seen out of the entertainment world bubble, rather than thickening its walls with babble. Now if you will allow me to close on an extended quotation, again from Dr. King (emphasis mine):
Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. … Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.