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Extending the Message to the Nation

“Some people argue that hip-hop is politically consequential because activists can use the music and the culture that surrounds it to communicate with young people who might otherwise shun politics.”[3]

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Mos Def (also known as Yasiin Bey) is the artist I will use as a kind of bridge between old-school hip-hop and today’s hip-hop. Mos Def is an exemplary performer who spans the genre of hip-hop, both musically and lyrically, and is quite involved in politics – particularly in the form of resistance and protest.

Mos Def was born in Brooklyn, New York, and converted to Islam before turning 20; he has become quite religious over time. He has appeared in various television shows and movies, and is considered both a celebrity rapper as well as a Hollywood star. Using his stardom, Mos Def has spoken out on a wide number of political issues, including police brutality and institutional racism. For example, in 2013, Mos Def protested the conditions at Guantanamo Bay by undergoing a force-feeding – without any prior preparation, and as an exact reproduction of the way in which Guantanamo Bay detainees were force fed…. WARNING: the following video is extremely graphic and may result in a visceral reaction – THIS IS NOT MEANT FOR EVERYBODY – only as a way of illustrating this point.[1]

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One of Mos Def’s most political songs of the 1990’s-2000’s was ‘Katrina Klap / Dollar Day’. The song begins with Mos Def telling a story about a flood survivor from Louisiana:

For full lyrics, see Appendix 2.

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So there’s a story about the lady in Louisiana

She’s a flood survivor and the rescue teams

They come through, and they, I guess tryna recover people

And they see this women she’s wadin through the streets

I guess it’d been some time after the storm

And I guess they were shocked that you know she was alive

And rescue worker said, “So, oh my God h-how did you survive

How did you do it? Where’ve you been?”

And she said, “Where I been? Where you been?”

Hah, Where you been? You understand?

That’s about the size of it

This short story (that is likely a true story from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) is one that epitomizes the suffering and feeling of loss among Hurricane Katrina survivors – primarily because of the government’s reaction to the disaster. ‘Katrina Klap / Dollar Day’ is Mos Def’s critical response to the Bush administration’s failures in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The lack of preparedness from local, state, and federal governments became appallingly apparent after Katrina. As a result, residents of New Orleans and surrounding towns were left without food, water, or shelter – and many citizens died of exhaustion, starvation, thirst, or violence in the aftermath of the tragedy. The lyrics on ‘Katrina Klap / Dollar Day’ are blatant criticisms of the government, and – specifically, former President Bush. The first verse of the songs begins with an obvious crack at the president:

Listen, homie, it’s Dollar Day in New Orleans

It’s water water everywhere and people dead in the streets

And Mr. President he bout that cash

He got a policy for handlin the niggaz and trash

And if you poor you black

I laugh a laugh they won’t give when you ask

You better off on crack

Dead or in jail, or with a gun in Iraq

And it’s as simple as that

Each line in this first verse constitutes some form of criticism – “Mr. President he bout that cash / He got a policy for handlin the niggaz and the trash”. Discussing a ‘policy’ the president has come up with that encompasses both ‘niggaz’ and ‘the trash’ is Mos Def’s way of illustrating the disrespect, discrimination, and prejudice that plagues the African American community. New Orleans has a large percentage of African American residents, so Mos Def’s criticism of the government hearkens back to the original messages of hip-hop that groups like N.W.A. and Public Enemy rapped about – the sociopolitical narrative the embodies hip-hop derives from the African American experience. Mos Def’s inclusion of this narrative, in contrast to the way in which past groups got their message across, seems limited to criticizing the response of the government in wake of this tragedy – specifically because Hurricane Katrina hit in an area of the United States where a significant number of African Americans reside. Mos Def’s criticism reaches beyond this African American narrative to not only critique the president, but to illustrate the significance of the government’s poor response – and how it was perceived by the African American community:

It’s like Dollar Day for New Orleans

It’s water water everywhere and homies dead in the streets

And Mr. President’s a natural ass

He out treatin niggaz worse than they treat the trash

Again, “treatin niggaz worse than they treat the trash” considers the government’s response to be an afterthought – and the African American community perceived that injustice as the government’s way of treating their community – not unlike the way they treat trash. Furthermore, I found Mos Def’s frequent references to God compelling, as he exclaims: “Lord did not intend for the wicked to rule the world” – a significant accusation, he calls out the president as an evil/wicked ‘ruler of the world’, who treats the African American community like trash. Most tellingly, Mos Def’s last words on the song are:

Don’t talk about it, be about it

Peace

Here I believe Mos Def was alluding to the fact that, after Hurricane Katrina, there were constant conversations between local, state, and federal governments about who was responsible for the failure to respond in any adequate way to the disaster. Mos Def’s criticism strikes to the core of this finger-pointing: clearly they knew there was a disaster, and instead of taking immediate action, their response was to discuss and implement an afterthought of a plan – something that was deeply resented by the majority of the African American community around Louisiana (specifically in New Orleans) at that time.

Mos Def’s ‘Katrina Klap / Dollar Day’ is an illustration of the suffering that surrounds the African American narrative/experience – not unlike the way that N.W.A.’s ‘Fuck Tha Police’ and Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ brought to light certain issues that plague the African American community, and uncovered some of the injustices that these rapper(s) see, experience, or hear about – every day of their lives. In Mos Def’s case, he was trying to show the half-hearted and inadequate government response to the disaster, and that continued local, state, and federal governments bickering over who was responsible for what left those who suffered and survived through the tragedy to fend for themselves. I believe one of the most important lines in this song is at the beginning during the story Mos Def tells about a Katrina survivor:

And she said, “Where I been? Where you been?”

Hah, Where you been? You understand?

That’s about the size of it

This is the most illustrative point that Mos Def makes in the song – clearly there were survivors and this story shows the hypocrisy that encompasses the clean-up effort. Survivors who were found after days and days of having no aid, from states or the federal government, may have responded exactly as the survivor in the story responds: “Where I been? Where you been? … That’s about the size of it” exemplifies the suffering that occurred after Hurricane Katrina, as well as the suffering of the African American community as a whole.

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In the final section, I will discuss an Kendrick Lamar, whose latest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, showed a transitional framework for the genre as a political platform for social and political change as regards the suffering of the African American community.

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If you would prefer to skip around, here are different section links: Introduction; Origins in the ‘Hood; and Kendrick Lamar and the Future of Hip-Hop.

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[1] Ferguson, “When Yasiin Bey was force-fed Guantanamo Bay-style – eyewitness account.”

(For a full reference list, see the Bibliography)