I’ve talked before about my interest in both hip-hop and politics. The intersection of these two disparate areas might seem small, but even if that were true, there is no question that it is growing. I could point to Broadway blockbuster Hamilton as evidence, or even more recently, a visually stunning video for DJ Shadow’s latest release Nobody Speak. Both of these demonstrate to the mainstream what the rest of us have known for decades: rap music has always been political.
Today I was reading Battle Rap Kiev, a fascinating story of how the video was made, but also an account from a former resident of the city where the video was shot about how Ukrainians have taken a shine to it and the many political nods they have found within it. It occurred to me that what may be unique about this video is not that it gets political, but that it attempts to do it covertly. The lyrics themselves while explicit are not overtly political, but when they become the soundtrack of this video the message is unmistakable. DJ Shadow himself makes a cameo in the video and does a great job of portraying shock and disgust at the misconduct of the two main characters as they verbally (and physically) assault one another. This wink at the audience suggests that he knows full well what message he is trying to send, and it is confirmed in his comment in the video’s description: “We wanted to make a positive, life-affirming video that captures politicians at their election-year best. We got this instead.”
One could argue that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five laid the groundwork with The Message, but then old-school artists like Public Enemy, Tupac, and more recently Macklemore, have been jamming politics into the ears of their listeners for 30 years. This video does not follow the same footsteps, but what it does it does well. It is certainly compelling to watch and makes one question if it depicts the future of diplomacy or is it simply a cautionary tale demanding that we as humans do better?