Rap still valuable medium for protesting civil injustice

One only needs to be a mild consumer of news to realize our national debate is so muddled in unwavering ideology and lobby influence that our discourse may not even qualify as “discussion.” The shouting is never ending, but unlike at a punk club, opinion’s pages and political rallies are not appropriate venues for such hostile communication.

Leave it to music to be one of culture’s final bastions for the impassioned voice of the public. American citizens have used song as a medium for furthering a cause since the country ’s founding, and more often than not musicians have been on the just side of the debate. The latest and most newsworthy addition to the “topical song writing” cannon is street rapper Plies’ ode to slain teen Trayvon Martin, entitled “We Are Trayvon Martin,” which was released on iTunes Wednesday.

“I never thought that wearing no hoodie, could cost you your life/ and I never thought you could just kill somebody and go out the same night,” Plies sings. It’s an understated sentiment that subtlety illustrates the disbelief over the tragedy.

Although at times redundant and simple, the track does appear heartfelt and perhaps angry. But given modern hip hop’s tendency towards crass commerciality, should Plies’ work be taken at face value? That is: Is Plies’ track a passionate call for justice, or is the underground rapper trying to make headlines by cashing in on a national talking point?

Martin was walking in a Florida gated community on the way to his father’s home when a neighborhood watchman shot the unarmed teen, allegedly out of self defense. The case has drawn national attention largely because of the slain teen’s race.

Musicians are largely considered populist defenders of the people, and that voice is very different from national talking heads pushing agendas that may or may not be their own.

Consider timeless protest songs like Bob Dylan’s “The Lonely Death of Hattie Carroll” or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 1974 classic “Ohio,” where the group takes to task the killing of student protestors at Kent State University with one of the most chilling opening lines in popular music: “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming…”

“Ohio” is angry enough to know the singers were not using this as a ploy, and the song’s blacklisting from radio in the time of its release is testament to its accusatory nature. While Plies appears angry at times, the track as a whole appears to be meant to console the family of the slain teen. Plies’ track is one of many hip hop contributions to topical protest songs, which have been more controversial than most other genres (think “Cop Killer” or “Fight The Power”).

Plies’ authenticity may be nearly impossible to come by. His lyrics are the typical trappings of street artists, but it’s not impossible to imagine Martin’s death causing the rapper to transcend his street image. It is worth noting that Plies recorded this track, not one of the rap’s “conscious” artists like Common or Mos Def.

Perhaps I am led to question Plies’ sentiment because the genre in which he belongs has come a long way since Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power.” Talking about cars and clothes and giving free publicity to luxury brands to sell a particular rapper lifestyle has cheapened the art form. Street rap is no longer a realist’s take on urban plight ever since Rick Ross convinced America he was actually a drug dealer.

But when we get a track like “We Are Trayvon Martin,” we are reminded of rap’s ability to speak for a population who didn’t have such an outlet in past generations.

_Joe is a senior in Media_