To fully appreciate the epic event that occurred last week at the headquarters of the venerable National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., one has to put things in a worldly context.
It’s like this: Lil’ Homie and Jr. Gong have stepped up to lead Hip Hop in a new direction. Naturally, it’s over most heads, as most movements – revolutions, as well – happen before the masses realize that they did. To put things in proper point of view to understand, one has to realize that Nas and Damian Marley are going for much more their album Distant Relatives seems to be. They are not just sparking a musical dialogue between U.S. and African hip-hop and reggae musicians. Fact is, that dialogue has already begun and it has been taking place for years. What’s different, in this point in time, is that Africa is no longer the ‘dark continent,’ in large part because of next summer’s soccer World Cup, which will be in South Africa. For those keeping score: this is the first time in the soccer’s biggest tournament’s history that it is being held on the African continent. To say it’s a big deal would be quite the understatement.
With that said, it’s a no brainer that visionary artists with commonalities in their music traditions are working together. Also, let’s not bullshit ourselves: they are trying to make money. To that end, they’ve implemented a process, which inevitably leads to the point of my commentary: they are doing something much bigger and broader than even they realize. With one album – a collection of songs at that – they are exercising their ability to change the face of international relations, diplomacy and intercultural communication. If you’ve read DX Editor-In-Chief Jake Paine’s excellent feature on Nasir and Damian, you’ve read how two African artists perceive Distant Relatives. I’m not at all surprised. I’ve internalized this on my trip to Tanzania in 2007: Hip Hop culture trump politics and money.
The National Geographic panel was special but history is far from having been written on this subject. It’s only the beginning, actually, because from here on, expect a documentary and symposia similar to the one in D.C. to happen countrywide and internationally throughout 2010. And many have already happened over the years. And not just with Nas and Damian Marley, but with dozens, hundreds, thousands of other artists. Leaders always set the bar for everyone else to follow.
Although this is Rap, there’s much more to it than bars. This is more like a marathon, where a runner is about to take his first step. And there are some “bigger than Hip Hop” connotations as well. As a Hip Hop culture insider of Eastern European heritage yet Afrocentric bent due to my seed, I am excited to see the movement go into this direction. The timing couldn’t be more perfect, however, for humanity as a whole. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have left the world with a bad taste in it’s mouth for the U.S. With the upcoming escalation of military operations in Afghanistan, musical diplomacy is about the only chance that the United States as a nation has to show that there are decent people living here who struggle just like others, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s important to have that decent side recognized, in part because our world is economically linked and we have no other choice. Wars are necessary, but when they are justified to enrich the status quo, they lead to collapse of mighty countries. Just ask anyone who grew up in the Soviet Union.
Damian’s father, Bob, saw what political violence was about and became a Reggae icon with his music. There is absolutely no coincidence that in his wake, DJ Kool Herc – who is cool as a fan in person, by the way – helped start what hip-hop has become. Suffering from political violence traveled from Africa to the West Indies to the Bronx and now, it has emerged across the world – as musical expression. On Nas’ side, it’s remarkable that he is holding it together. Despite bitter personal strife, Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones more than manifests his brilliant “lending my poetical genius to anybody who need it” line off Untitled. And that’s a helluva line to try and live up to.
As I’ve said before, music trumps politics and money. Nas and Damian have put themselves in position to enrich their status as artists and their bank accounts. As far as the movement part, they won’t succeed unless the generation that helped put President Barack Obama gets on the same page. It’s only a matter of life and death.
And that’s the worldly context I am talking about.