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Taken from eastbayexpress (October 20, 2004)

Peace Profiteers

Hip-hop is showing encouraging signs of a Vietnam-esque antiwar movement.


Michael Franti Collage
Ariel Shepard
As Megadeth once put it, "Peace sells, but who's buying?" In 2004, everyone, apparently. From a pop culture perspective, the long-held conventional wisdom -- war succeeds on the strength of its profitability alone, while peace fails precisely because it is inherently unprofitable -- has taken a huge hit thanks to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which pulled in more than $100 million and definitely proved that politically charged antiwar efforts are commercially marketable.

This shift has invaded popular music as well. Following 9/11 and the deployment of US troops in Afghanistan, songs like Toby Keith's "Shockin' Y'All" flooded the airwaves with pro-Bush propaganda, while dissenters like the Dixie Chicks were reviled as pinko lefty traitoresses. But with the death toll in Iraq reportedly topping 12,000 -- including more than 1,000 US soldiers -- pro-war jingles have all but become extinct, unless you count "Tie a Yellow Ribbon."

Instead, punk and indie rockers, folk musicians, and rappers alike have gravitated toward antiwar musical statements. Hip-hop's basic alignment with freedom of speech and tendency toward social commentary has only intensified in this election year -- even mainstream rap artists haven't shied away from discussing current events. New York MC Jadakiss' surprisingly political hit "Why" (Why they let the Terminator win the election? Come on, pay attention) has emerged as one of the biggest major-label rap singles of the year. Meanwhile, XXL magazine recently broke its long-standing ban on covering socially relevant topics with a cover story and panel discussion featuring outspoken artists Talib Kweli, Common, and dead prez, moderated by TV comedian Dave Chappelle (who just signed a contract extension for his Comedy Central show worth a reported $121 million -- even more evidence that meaningful social commentary can clock scrilla, too).

At the same time, the Bay Area's hip-hop indies have kept up the pace with their own sociopolitical musings. SF DJ and producer J-Boogie recently teamed with Deuce Eclipse, Tony Moses, and Zion-I on "You're the Murdera," a dubbed-out banger with lyrics like George Bush dropped the bomb while the cops watch me and Homeland security begins with equal rights and justice for all. Elsewhere, the best song on the upcoming Maroons EP Ambush (which drops October 26) is "If" -- perhaps the most overtly political statement yet by the alt.rap darlings of Quannum. In the song, Lateef rhymes in his trademarked enunciate-every-syllable style: If power and greed didn't tempt it/Maybe our leaders would be positive and productive/Instead of conniving, deceitful, and corrupted/Caught up by a love of dollars so seductive/If government wasn't enmeshed with big business/Maintaining its status and stretching its limits/Forsakin' religion and educatin' the children/Maybe society wouldn't be so sick.

Along those same lines, the third annual Power to the Peaceful Festival (held on the anniversary of 9/11) drew an estimated 40,000 folks to Golden Gate Park's Speedway Meadow for a free concert, at which peace, love, and yerba maté tea were much evident. The event continued a tradition harking back to the Grateful Dead and the Summer of Love, except that young sons and daughters of peace-lovin' hippies vastly outnumbered first-generation tie-dye-and-granola-heads (Wavy Gravy notwithstanding).

Another difference between then and now: hip-hop, via Blackalicious' Gift of Gab and Michael Franti and Spearhead, who thankfully rescued the proceedings from the jam-band monotony of the String Cheese Incident. Franti, for one, worked his PC image -- he got his start in the peace business long before it was popular or profitable -- to the hilt, arriving at a pre-performance press conference looking not unlike a barefoot, dreadlocked Jesus, sporting camouflage shorts and a T-shirt with the word "hemp" emblazoned on it.

Franti discussed his recent experiences traveling as a peace ambassador in Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan, noting there's a sense in these countries that voices of dissent aren't being heard: "Some people are angry in their homes. Other people are occupied or oppressed." Asked what the 9/11 anniversary means to him, he responded, "The idea that we can bomb other nations into subservience is wrong.

He went on to note that although the youth generation is brimming with activists, "The other side is that much more organized," adding that consolidation in the music industry has mirrored corporate globalization. As a result, he explained, knee-jerk reactions aren't all that effective -- "Throwing a brick at McDonald's is not enough" -- yet he stopped short of articulating an easy solution to society's ills: "I don't have the answer for that. I wish I did." He did, however, have a nifty sound bite ready: "I don't know if music can change the world overnight, but music can help us through a difficult night." He also emphasized that "we have to find new ways of communication," which sounds like fuzzy ideology -- until it's borne out by example.

Such as Gift of Gab's performance, which thrilled the overwhelmingly non-hip-hop crowd, which nonetheless grooved to every beat and every rhyme with the same fervor once reserved for Jerry Garcia solos. I will play this mic just like a guitar or sitar, Gab rapped during an a cappella freestyle session, which ended with the mantra-like utterance I am you, I am me, I am spirit in actuality and in actuality I am ... free. Gab earned thematic points (and quite possibly some new fans) with that line -- freedom, of course, being the whole point of peace.

As C2tE made his way past the obligatory drum circle and equally obligatory DJ tent, the true meaning of this gathering of tattooed-and-pierced tribes and neo-eco-hippies became clear: Intermingling brings about understanding of other cultures, and understanding leads directly to peace. Indeed, the possibility of peace in a post-9/11 world seemed entirely plausible as we smushed ourselves aboard an overcrowded Muni bus and slowly crawled back to downtown SF. We were all packed in like sardines and surrounded by strangers, yet no one spoke an unkind word or threw an angry elbow.

Indeed, as the War on Terror continues to be fought on both foreign soil and the domestic front, it may have the unintended result of ushering in a new wave of protest-oriented counterculture, quite possibly surpassing that of the Vietnam era. A month after the fact, the glow from that Golden Gate Park concert hasn't yet faded, even as the rancorous election-year hype has intensified. Maybe we've finally got an answer for Megadeth.

Originally published by East Bay Express Oct 20, 2004

2004 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.




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