A few years ago, in my second year as Director of the Peterborough Folk Festival, I booked Canadian Hip-Hop artist and all-round good guy Shad K to play the festival’s main stage. Â In the months leading up to the festival, a lot of Folk music fans commented to me about it; none of them were impressed. ‘Rap at a Folk festival?!’ they’d say incredulously, ‘What are you thinking?’
I had a variety of reactions to that, from ‘Pssht, get over it,’ to ‘No, seriously dude: get over it.’ I know Hip-Hop and Rap have a low reputation amongst the Folk community, though I’d underestimated how reactionary and unwelcoming some people would be. Â I don’t have much patience with people who write off a whole genre of music, especially those who haven’t really given it a listen. Â You may hear that all Rap is about violence, drugs, and hos,1but if you actually like, listen to it, you’ll find that even when that imagery is in heavy use, there’s a lot of other stuff going on. “Rap music is theÂ continuationÂ ofÂ theÂ Folk tradition,” I’d say, generally to raised eyebrows and shaking heads.
Which is why, watching one of last week’s episodes of The Colbert Report, I was so excited by andÂ exchangeÂ between Stephen Colbert and Talib Kweli that I leapt up and danced around punching the air for a couple of minutes. You can watch the exchange (in Canada) by clicking here, but I’ve transcribed it:
Colbert “What is Rap, really?”
Kweli “Rap and… Hip-Hop… is a vehicle, it’s a tool for expression, and it’s more Folk music than Folk music actually is, because it’s speaking – ”
Colbert “It’s more Folk than Folk?”
Kweli “That’s right – because it’s speaking theÂ languageÂ of regular folk. Y’know what I’m saying? When Folk music got popular, it’s ’cause it was stripped down, Â it was in the language of what people actually said; and that’s what hip-hop does very well.”
There are plenty of Folk artists currently writing and performing whom I quite like, and whose music I find relevant, but as a whole, the Folk music scene can be a toothless, bland beast malingering on the opposite side of the politics it once espoused. It’s not really anyone’s fault; there are a lot of babyboomers in the Folk scene, and they got old. Â Nostalgia has overruled their sense; Stephen Harper can plonk out ‘Imagine’ ’till the cows come home, but I like to ‘imagine’ John Lennon spitting in his face while he does.
Folk music had a lot to say, once, and was powerful in its delivery, but that was more than 30 years ago, before I was even born. Â Folk music now has lost its power by avoiding politics and focusing on romance or the supposed simplicity of an earlier time, a nostalgia for things that never existed. Â When it does deal with social or political subject matter, it’s often the politics of the 60s, or too preachy, simplistic, and heavy-handed for most audiences. Â When I want to hear about things that areÂ relevantÂ to my life and the world I see around me right now, I turn to Rap and Hip-Hop. Â Because the torch that Folk let fall has been picked up by the rappers and DJs; they’re talking about people struggling to survive in a hostile environment, about how they and their families and friends respond to social injustice, racism, and hard financial realities.
Folk music was the music of poor people, people who lived close to the means of production, who earned their meagre pay by mining or farming or rough, physical labour and yearned for a day when things would be more equal.2 The reality these days is that the working poor are in call centres and bargain stores, a time when being poor means you’ve never been to a farm or had the opportunity to grow or make something tangible with your own two hands.3The wheel has turned quickly; theÂ sympathyÂ of the people isn’t with unions – which are pretty well seen as rich fat-cats and corrupt representatives that protect the upper middle-class at the expense of quality and fairness – or with the issues of the past. Â It’s with the rise of aÂ relatively-unprotected, urban existence, where the difference between making rent this month and living in serious debt is largely outside of your control in an almost Dickensian way.
Rap and Hip-Hop are as much a comment on and a protest against these conditions as they are a celebration of getting out of them. Â And when you listen to what have been classed as ‘Conscious‘ rappers, you hear progressive views on community, equality, social justice and protest that seem to be the direct inheritors of the folk movement – or perhaps, more than inheritors,Â becauseÂ they have raised some pretty rudimentary ideas up into adulthood. Â There aren’t so many of those easy slogans or simple answers that Folk music has often fallen back on; the politics are complicated. Â As a Feminist and someone who leans towards pacifism, I find the sexism and violence in some rap music problematic, but it doesn’t keep me away fromÂ theÂ genre, nor does it change the fact that some truly great artists are people whose views I don’t share.4
After Shad K performed at the Peterborough Folk Festival in 2008, I had people from all walks of life, ranging in age from their twenties to sixties, come up to me and with wonder in their faces tell me that they had no idea they could like Rap music. Â It’s one of those rare victories that I’ve savoured ever since; tuning other people in to the amazing and important work being created by Rappers and Hip-Hop artists is a pleasure and aÂ privilege. Â And when you open your ears toÂ somethingÂ new, you might find yourself more familiar with the feeling of community, struggle and and passion than you’d have imagined.
- The word is used to illustrate opinions,with all respect. Do your thing, ladies. [↩]
- I haveÂ thoughtsÂ about how the middle class of the 60s romanticized poverty and the “simple life” much like the French aristocracy did in the 1700s, but that’s a topic for another day. [↩]
- Being able to afford chickens and having a yard where I can keep them, and grow vegetables, is aÂ privilegeÂ I’m aware of; I have a complicated relationship with the urban homesteading trend, because I’m reasonably certain that this back-to-the-earth stuff is aristocrats playing at being milkmaids. Â I can’t shake that sense of romance myself, but I do know that it’s pretty wellÂ bourgeoisieÂ bullshit. [↩]
- And that some of those beats are undeniable. [↩]