America doesn’t quite know what to do with Lupe Fiasco. Weeks after the release of his latest album, "Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album I", and less than a month before the U.S. presidential elections, the rapper occupies a unique space in our cultural landscape. He’s brash and outspoken, an outlier at a time when the vast majority of mainstream artists have comfortably positioned themselves as consummate insiders.
He’s been criticized for not voting in U.S. elections, was a regular at last year’s Occupy Wall Street protests, debated Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, and called the President of the United States a "terrorist." And he’s still selling music.
Lots of it, in fact. He’s a platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated hip-hop celebrity. Which makes his pressene in this political moment all the more jarring. Though you may not agree with all that Lupe says, you certainly have to respect the position from which he’s saying it.
We’re in a confounding political moment: our first black president earns cultural relevancy points for listening to Jay-Z and Ludacris on his iPod, but steers clear of talking about race or poverty in any substantively meaninful way. All of it serves to complicate what it means to be young and black in America with a healthy dose of skepticism about the status quo.
"This is Lupe’s history," the rapper recently told the Daily Beast about his new album. "It came from America. Howard Zinn is definitely the inspiration for it. Zinn was the person who gave you an alternative view of American history, and people beat the shit out of him for it. It took decades for people to grasp it."
That a rapper would make an album so overtly about politics shouldn’t really be all that newsworthy, but in today’s America, it is.
"It’s the time more than it’s him," says Bakari Kitwana, author of the forthcoming book Hip Hop Activism in Obama Era. "In many ways we’re reliving the ’80s in the ways in which poverty has leveled the economy for black folks."
Lupe’s words aren’t unprecedented. There’s a long list of outspoken mainstream hip-hop artists, one that includes Public Enemy’s 1989 release "Fear of a Black Planet", which was eventually selected for preservation in the Library of Congress. But as Eric Arnold noted a while back on Colorlines, the genre has become more commercial force than protest music. More recently, Los Angeles-based rapper Kendrick Lamar told a reporter that he "don’t do no voting", and then went on to explain that there are forces "beyond people" that render voting useless.
The quip came just weeks after Lupe made his own headlines with his criticism of voting, which in turn ignited a heated debate on Twitter. "Young black men are going to listen to him, and they are the ones who have decisions made for them, decisions that they are not even involved in, which is silly to me," political commentator D.L. Hughley told a reporter during the debate . "There are more black men in prison then there were ever slaves. And it’s silly to me that people don’t want to have a hand in their future."
It’s an age-old movement dilemma: reform or revolution? There’s certainly a case to made against the idea that a platinum-selling artist can really speak on behalf of the masses. But what Lupe is doing is far less ambitious. He just has a political point with some substance, and he’s not afraid to say it. His mainstream success shows that people are listening.
"The industry has been more and more about [what’s happening] at the top of the food chain," says Kitwana. "In doing that they’re not always articulating what’s happening on the ground. And no one is really doing it, they don’t have the same level of visibility.
"The biggest divide of this election in terms of the black community is not a divide between people voting for Romney and Obama," says Kitwana. "It’s a divide between people who are riding with Obama no matter what, and people who are saying ‘wait a minute, we expect more from you and this country has to be better after you being president than it was before you became president.’"
Here’s Lupe Fiasco speaking at a recent Rap Sessions event in Philadelphia at the historic Church of The Advocate. The session was moderated by Bakari Kitwana: