Five or six years ago, I had a revelation about hip-hop music. Two events led to this epiphany. One, I happened to be in the UK on business with a fair amount of free time, and I saw an episode of a show called "Chancers." It was a reality show involving underground hip-hop acts who won a contest and were assembled into a reality super-group. There were a couple R&B-type singers, male and female MCs, a producer or two, a DJ, etc., and they were assembling a mix tape for distribution in the US. A couple of the MCs participated in a freestyle contest. It made me think about rap as more a grassroots effort.
That wouldn't have stuck with me too much except for a connection I made with the liner notes to Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series Volume 4: Live 1966, his famous "Royal Albert Hall" concert (which was in fact in Manchester) - this was the concert when Dylan plugged in to the increasing chagrin of the audience, culminating in someone yelling "Judas," attacking Dylan's perceived betrayal of the folk scene. In the liner notes, Dylan explains that he never thought of himself as a folk musician, but when he arrived on the scene in New York in his early 20's with little money, crashing on people's couches, he didn't have the money to get a full band together. But playing a guitar and a harmonica and singing - that he could do on the cheap.
This got me thinking about where a young Bob Dylan would be today, and I thought back to that episode of "Chancers" and the freestyle jams at underground hip-hop venues. They didn't even need guitars! Just lyrical wit, rhythm, talent, and a dream. Just as folk let Dylan jump from sleepy Hibbing, MN to New York's vibrant music scene, hip-hop lets aspiring artists transcend whatever environment (usually urban, usually poor) they grew up in and touch the world.
It was easy to see this effect at work Thursday night at The House of Blues. Leading off was Tabi Bonney, and he reminded the audience that despite opening for a star-studded lineup he was still trying to break out of the struggle. "I've gotta be my own D.J.," he said, fiddling with his laptop before kicking off the reggae-tinged "Rich Kids," "but we dream rich." His tunes weren't breaking any new ground, but the beats were catchy and he had an infectious enthusiasm that was perfect to keep the crowd from getting restless.
John Forte had a very different sound and a very different take on the transformative power of hip-hop. With the Fugees, he had been on top of the world, but after being arrested in 2000 he served seven years in a federal penitentiary. For Forte, hip-hop is his road to redemption. At one point, he had the house turn the lights on the crowd so he could take a picture for posterity; he isn't taking anything for granted now. His lyrics frequently alluded to his incarceration, but he showed a cerebral confidence akin to Chuck D or Mos Def. He slipped between reggae-style singing and rapping, playing guitar all the while. Forte was sitting most of the set and it was definitely lower-key than Bonney's, but some serious basslines kept it from getting too sleepy.
Maybe the best example today of the transformative power of hip-hop - or of music in general - is K'Naan. He grew up in Mogadishu, Somalia, one of the worst places on earth. I was impressed when I saw him back at ACL, but he took it to another level Thursday night. He came out in a blistering fury, with a Russian military hat, backed by ferocious drums and electric guitars, culminating in a rocking version of "T.I.A." "This is a gladiator song!" K'Naan exclaimed, trying to get the crowd pumped up. After that, he showed what really makes him unique, taking it down a notch for a few songs. First he brought a group of young people on stage and dedicated "Take a Minute" to a friend of theirs who had died on brain cancer. Then he took things down even lower, asking for silence so he could sing "Somalia" a capella. K'Naan's singing voice can be off-key from time-to-time but he exudes tremendous sincerity. This conflicted tale of his home land showed once again the transformative power of hip-hop ("Do you see why it's amazing when someone comes out of such a dire situation / And learns the English language just to share his observation?").
The highlight was definitely closer "Wavin' Flag," which was nothing short of inspiring. "I'm going to tell a story," K'Naan said, singing a capella verses that explained some of where his story came from, including a horrifying tale of going to the beach with two friends and being shot at, with his friends being killed. K'Naan's upbringing puts American rappers to shame, and as a result he doesn't have to spend all of his tracks rapping about how hard he is. "Wavin' Flag" is a dream for the future: "When I get older / I will be stronger / They'll call me freedom / Just like a wavin' flag." And though he sings with wide-eyed realism ("it can be bleak," he admits), his relentless optimism is completely uplifting: "It's not far away!" he exults in the build-up to the chorus.
That was a tough performance to follow but Wale did a credible job. After the high-falutin' ideals of K'Naan's work, Wale's rhymes seemed a little shallow, but his flow was amazing. And while his upbringing was not the ordeal that K'Naan's was, he avoided the lowest common denominator of gangsta rap. "Nike Boots" is a fine example of Wale's style - at first it sounds like a playful ode to footwear, but he plumbs what it means to be wearing the same shoes as everyone in D.C., and how that connects him to his hometown. D.J. Omega spun a great and diverse set of beats that kept everybody moving.
K'Naan came on stage for the last couple tunes and the respect and healthy competition between him and Wale was entertaining as they traded verses. After a night of seeing the power of hip-hop to transcend and redeem, to transform and uplift, it was great to see two up-and-comers. If rap has not yet landed them on top of the world, it has taken them a pretty good ways.
Tabi Bonney's MySpace
John Forte's Web Site
K'Naan's Web Site
Wale's Web Site