Are Artists Commodifying Revolution?

Last week, at a “Real Strategy for Change” panel, rapper/activist David Banner’s strategy for dealing with the police was decidedly extremist as he implored citizens to shoot back at power-tripping cops. Singer Lyfe Jennings was also on the panel, and emphatically told Banner his plea sounded “stupid.” Indeed, amidst civilians and community leaders seeking resolutions to eliminating cops’ continued criminalization of people of color (in a church), Banner’s suggestion was glaringly out-of-place, as the crowd applauding Jennings confirmed. The two artists confronted each other before singer Tyrese stepped in between them and quelled the conflict.

Jennings spoke about the incident on Instagram. He noted, “when your kid goes to jail, [artists like Banner] ain’t gonna put ‘nare quarter on their books.” He demerited Banner as someone who “ain’t really about that nonsense,” and encouraged every listener to do their best to stay free, because they “can’t make change” from inside a prison cell. One could think he was talking about a vapidity-peddling trap rapper, but Jennings was railing against what many people regard as revolutionary rhetoric that will liberate people of color.

The video was revelatory for me. I pondered whether there is shared (ir)responsibility between gangster rappers and seemingly noble, militant artists. While the latter group certainly has a more legitimate cause than shooting someone over a color or drug corner, both are nevertheless condoning the use of force to resolve problems, which will undoubtedly lead to more violence, imprisonment, or death. No matter the intent.

For all of Banner’s bluster and calls-to-arms, the only public knowledge of him confronting the police is in front of a club because he couldn’t get his whole crew in. It’s easy to tell others to shoot at cops, but how willing is he to personally face the inevitable consequences that putting cops in the crosshairs will engender? Has he offered to pay for or attend the funerals of Micah Johnson or Gavin Long? How do we discern which artists have a legitimate desire to inspire change, and who are the figurative iguanas who’ve changed their skin to feign solidarity, but are the same old salespeople trying to cash in on revolution?

Songs like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and Beyonce and Lamar’s “Freedom” are empowering. J. Cole’s “Be Free,” Usher, Bibi Bourelly and Nas’ “Chains” and Jay-Z’s recent “Spiritual” are healing. Jay-Z has put his money where his mouth is, bailing out protesters during the Baltimore uprising, but the intent of every artist hollering for change can’t be gauged. However, artistic integrity doesn’t matter so much when the awareness raised by a song for positive change surpasses the dollar amount going into an artist’s pockets. A song which soundtracks a peaceful demonstration or inspires a person desperately seeking self-esteem is to be applauded regardless.

Everyone has the right to explore their artistry, but songs that hint at a more Chi-raq context of “change” should be cultivated with significantly more restraint. Songs like Young Buck’s “Riot”, Banner’s “Black Fist,” and Vic Mensa’s “16 Shots” harken back to the heyday of NWA, Ice Cube, and Ice T’s “Cop Killer,” which were soundtracks to the 1992 LA Riots. Hip-Hop has long strayed a line between street sensibilities and social consciousness. As Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest work explains, the “illegitimate” conduct of police as vessels of a discriminatory state make them “indistinguishable from any other street gang.”

They are encouraged to seek out people of color. It may seem logical to advocate fighting the cops in the same manner as a rival crew—but this “crew” is armed for war. Police departments are stocked with assault rifles, grenades, and tanks. They’re backed by a US military that spends more than the next eight countries on weaponry.

They dress in riot gear during peaceful protests—even to regale people who pose no threat. Most troubling is their virtual immunity. Any shred of justification has historically been enough to get a cop out of spending jail time. If the police are a gang, they’re in a class of their own. As an arrogant cop told Bobby Shmurda’s GS9 in 2014, potential conflict is “not gonna end good” because “you got a couple hundred, I got 30,000.”

Factoring in a known threat of violence will have them as trigger happy as ever. As Joey Badass noted in a recent Instagram post, a violent outlook plays into their hands.

This is why advocating for violent revolution and gunfights sounds romantic and honorable, but it’s a precursor to catastrophe. The potential benefits of such a strategy are far outweighed by the loss of life, freedom, and community that will undoubtedly arise. Baltimore police thought the Bloods and Crips were uniting to “kill cops” last year, but their strategy to combat police was much more formidable–they united. Prominent artists, who society takes cues from, should be equally discerning in how they express their agency. Their militant rhetoric is a musical extension of a movement which has been mostly talk for over 30 years, but racial tensions are so high that the people may eventually mobilize behind their messages. Hopefully they’re the right ones.

A continuance of our current circumstance, with artists advocating for violence against police could create a scenario where civilians are dying and being imprisoned, but the artists who invigorated their mindset are reaping the benefits of the people who purchased, streamed, and otherwise patronized their product. Is that any different from the artists who cake off of irresponsibly promoting mindless genocide while the prisons are overflowing?

Black people have suffered in America for over 400 years, living in “equality” for just the last 52. Progress is a gradual process, one that depends upon the famous to be involved locally, and leverage their resources and platform for awareness and political capital. It’s most imperative for artists to be focused on quelling rash reactions, not encouraging them.

Alex Oka