Although over 20 years old, hip-hop culture does not seem to have fulfilled the potential it once showed to become a serious political force in the U.S. This is not to say that there aren’t a handful of artists who have followed in the footsteps of pioneers such as The Last Poets, Public Enemy, KRS-One and others, who in the late 70s and the 80s infused political messages into their overtly pro-black style of rap. Some of the rappers and poets to have done so recently are Mos Def, Common, Talib Kweli, Ursula Rucker, and Dead Prez.
Yet it cannot be denied that mainstream hip-hop culture today is for the most part indifferent to its political surroundings. At least that is the impression one gets from hearing and seeing the barrage of commercial rap hits seemingly concerned with nothing but cars, clothes, shoes, money, and sex. This is a trend that for many true hip hop aficionados and artists is especially disconcerting in the wake of Sept. 11th and the assault on civil liberties that has taken place in its aftermath (and in the name of freedom no less).
So as many of us prepare for the inevitability of another U.S. war on Iraq, one that will certainly be more costly to minorities than anyone else, I have found myself asking if there’s any hope for hip hop? That is to say, is there any hope for rappers to speak up and have their voices heard in a political climate much in need of constructive and intelligent dissent, debate and resistance?
One artist who dares to ask such questions and have his message heard is the talented DJ K-Salaam. With his recent album entitled “Real DJs do Real Things” released under the Rhymesayers Entertainment label (Mpls, MN.), K-Salaam presents his listeners with a politically charged mélange of lyrics, beats, poetry, as well as his own writing. In Salaam’s written intro, the DJ lends his words to the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, tackling a taboo that remains either largely untouched or heavily pro-Israel in the music industry as well as in showbiz in general. Much like the inventive, hard-hitting beats and musical collages on his album, Salaam is similarly courageous in his liner notes as he makes a plea for justice for the Palestinian people.
Salaam also calls for action from the world and more specifically the hip hop community in the direction of rectifying over fifty years of brutal and illegal occupation inflicted upon Palestinian society. Using quotes and statistics throughout, K-Salaam doesn’t hold much back. He emphasizes not only the need for peace in the Middle East and justice for Palestine, but also the degree to which U.S. propaganda regarding the “war on terror” and the Middle East is itself unjust as well as incredibly dangerous. “Now is the time for us to stand up” he writes, “no longer can we turn a blind eye to what is going on in Palestine and the rest of the Middle East…Hip hop is my outlet and I have taken this opportunity to try to spread some truth and knowledge.”
K-salaam’s CD, all 40 tracks of it, also convey the DJ’s desire for social and political change here and abroad, albeit less explicitly than his writing. With 13 tracks of original and exclusive material “Real DJs do Real Things” is by no means just a mix CD consisting of old material re-mixed. It is fresh and inspiring from beginning to end. K-Salaam manages to not only to work with a wide variety of old and new-school material from all over the country, but also includes tracks by British hip-hoppers, adding an international flavor all too often absent in American hip-hop.
Also included at the end of the CD is a spoken-word piece by up and coming Palestinian-American poetess Suheir Hammad. The poem, entitled “Letter to Anthony/ Critical Resistance”, illustrates both Salaam’s taste in poetry and Hammad’s talent, not to mention the degree to which subjects such as the prison system (addressed here by Hammad) should be closely and critically considered while keeping in mind U.S.-supported atrocities elsewhere in the world.
So while K-Salaam’s mix of songs and beats from artists ranging from Rakim and Slug, to Mr. Lif and Gangstarr is undeniably pleasing to the ear, it should and does succeed in disturbing the illusion of peace that comes with complacency and indifference. K-salaam’s “Real DJs do Real Things” passionately and skillfully tells us all to wake up, speak up, and stop allowing injustices to be committed in our name and with our tax dollars. Buy it here.
Ismail Khalidi is a writer, studying international relations at Macalester College, St. Paul, MN.