There’s at least one thing you can’t ever say about The Roots: that they’re stagnant. The hip-hop heavyweights may have made some unpredictable moves in recent years — in 2008 they opted to forgo touring to become the house band on the Jimmy Fallon show, and they recently performed at the Miss Universe pageant. But they’ve used the time to become one of the most prolific and politically astute musical acts of any genre.
This month, the band’s drummer Questlove and singer John Legend grace the cover of Billboard to talk about their latest collaborative project "Wake up!", due out on Tuesday. In it, the two musicians talk about everything from why the President should listen to their new album to Legend’s first memory of seeing the band perform as a student at the University of Pennsylvania. But probably the most interesting part of the interview comes when both artists talk about how the country’s shifting demographics are helping to fuel our current political moment:
There’s definitely a link between the era that you’re harking back to on "Wake Up!" and the "Yes We Can" fervor of 2008, but the political climate has changed a lot in the past two years. Can this album still resonate with people?
Legend: It is a different climate, but I think it makes the album even more relevant now. You would think now that we have a black president, everything’s all good, but there has been more racial tension than ever before. A lot of people feel like they’re losing grip of what America used to be. They long for a bygone era when America was whiter, when it was more Christian, when it was more this, more that — they long for a more traditional America. You see that conversation, that battle, being had in America right now, so it feels like these songs are super relevant, even more so than in 2008.
Thompson: Absolutely. There’s a song that deals with patriotism, which connects to what’s going on in New York with the mosque near ground zero. "Hang on in There" deals specifically with the definition of an American: "Do you consider me an African American like you consider yourself an American?" Every day, new subjects and ideas are being raised that make this album relevant.
To say the least, it’s an important and refreshing political statement that helps give some mainstream context to the increasingly hostile debate over race in this country. We’re in a political moment where we can either constructively seize on folks’ anger to build alliances, or surrender it to right wing demagogues. While Glenn Beck‘s out hijacking Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream and the Christine O’Donnell‘s rallying against the gays, it looks like some of the most sensible talk on politics is happening far away from Capitol Hill.
Listen to a live stream of of "Wake Up!"