Positive Hip Hop: Lupe Fiasco

March 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

When Lupe Fiasco dropped his  first record, Food and Liquor, he made a big impression upon mainstream hip hop. It wasn’t just the way he rapped, his smooth flow traipsing across chill, laid-back production, but what he had to say that really put his name on the map. Make no mistake about it, Lupe has skills and uses them abundantly at times, but he has carved out a niche for himself in the mainstream by commenting on real issues with a ferocious intensity that is balanced by his nerdy personality.

Often, if you aren’t expecting it, Lupe’s commentary on social and political issues comes out of nowhere. His first two singles from Food and Liquor, Kick, Push and I Gotcha, were breezy and uplifting, showing off Lupe’s love for skateboarding and video games and his propensity for story-telling. The third single, Daydreamin’, is a completely different story, a hard-hitting satirical look at the current state of hip-hop as opposed to the actuality of the streets. Lupe strikes this balance between light-hearted storytelling and songs dealing with political and social issues on all his albums, but probably manages to do it the best on his debut.

American Terrorist, a song from Food and Liquor, is one of Lupe’s most politically-charged songs as he suggests that perhaps the true “terrorists” are the Americans who keep getting richer and richer while ignoring the poverty around them. Continuing in this theme is Words I Never Said, from Lupe’s newest album Lasers, a song that calls out everyone as Lupe lampoons the news media, the school system and those not practicing their religion seriously. He raps in the first verse, “Your child’s future was the first to go with budget cuts/If you think that hurts, then wait here comes the uppercut/The school was garbage in the first place, that’s on the up and up/Keep you at the bottom but tease you with the uppercrust.” This is only the start of the many issues Lupe addresses in this fascinating, polemical song.

While Lupe does often comment on political issues, that’s not all he focuses on. Being a committed Muslim, Lupe also spits about religion, doing so in a clever, thoughtful way. Also, like most conscious emcees, Lupe focuses on the state of the hip-hop scene, commenting on its shallowness and lack of deep conversation on important topics. Dumb It Down, from his second album The Cool, features Lupe spitting some rather complex verses, while a guest chorus encourages him to “dumb it down” because “he is going over other people’s heads.” I love satire, so this song is an absolute gem, as Lupe carries on what he began with Daydreamin’.

Another song off of The Cool which I find interesting is Little Weapon, a song that deals with children perpetuating violence from a variety of perspectives, drawing special attention to the plight of child soldiers in Africa. Some of the lyrics are particularly devastating: “Now here comes the march of the boy brigade…/The struggle’s little recruits/Cute, smile-less, heartless, violent/Childhood destroyed, devoid of all childish ways/Can’t write they own names/Or read the words thats on they own graves.” The lyrics help create a picture that hopefully creates awareness of the many horrible abuses of human life that were and still are occurring in Africa.

Lupe Fiasco is a complex rapper, going from up-beat positive songs like one of his new singles The Show Goes On to emotionally taxing, contemplative tunes like Hip Hop Just Saved My Life. In this way there is a little bit of everything in his music, a recipe that makes for a great all-around artist. A mainstream artist with independent tendencies in his music and socially conscious lyrics, Lupe Fiasco stands out as an impressive emcee who I hope continues to make music for a long time.


(The) Social Network

March 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

The final scene of The Social Network is, at least in my estimation, utterly gut-wrenching. There sits Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), clicking refresh over and over on his Facebook, hoping that his ex-girlfriend Erica will accept his friend request. Although this scene is probably completely fabricated, the emotion in it is palpable. There sits Zuckerberg, in front of his creation, his riches and prominence unable to salve his wounded heart. Up until this point in the film, Zuckerberg’s ego and immaturity have been almost unbearable, but suddenly he is transformed into an emotive, broken human being. It is both daring and brilliant to end the film with this scene.

Eisenberg does a fantastic job throughout the film of enabling us to understand Zuckerberg, but not necessarily sympathize with him. The film never portrays him in a positive light, and I think that the way you view Zuckerberg is largely based on your personality and beliefs about certain things. There are many instances in the film that paint Zuckerberg very unfavorably, especially when he scams his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) out of his share in Facebook. With that being said, I found myself sympathizing with him on a few occasions, more out of the similarities between my personality and that of Zuckerberg’s than from any redeeming qualities in his character. But after we’ve waded though all the shady business deals and underhanded business of Zuckerberg and almost made up our mind about him, that final scene comes with force.

Eisenberg acts the scene perfectly, and as the facade falls, we see Zuckerberg as he is: a lost, confused adolescent playing the part of a ruthless adult. He is still chasing after acceptance and cool, just as he has been his entire life. That realization allows us to step into his shoes, and look at ourselves from that perspective. Isn’t Mark Zuckerberg the same as all the rest of us broken men and women? I know I am no different. I spend my days lost in the hurried shuffle of the (post)modern world, looking for acceptance in the places it does not lie and trying to find my way through the many philosophical and cultural lies fed to me on a daily basis. I am broken, I am lost, and I see my reflection in the face of Eisenberg as he portrays a man struggling with the same things that the multitudes of twenty-somethings fight against today.

Good film and good art can reveal reality to us, and it often does it in unexpected places. The reality is that we are all deeply flawed human beings, regardless of the propensity we may have to do good. We are broken and lonely, even if we find all the success this world can offer. The fractured characters in The Social Network show this to us, but we can see it in our own lives. I am just like Mark Zuckerberg, at least the filmic representation of him, and it would do me well to remember my fallen state and the utter incapacity of anything in this world to ultimately fulfill me.

My Neighbor Totoro

March 15, 2011 § 7 Comments

There is something about watching a Miyazaki film that leaves you feeling overjoyed, exuberant even. His animation is beautiful, sparkling with little details that are often overlooked in most Disney movies. I recently watched My Neighbor Totoro (1988), one of Miyazaki’s earliest films, and it left another stunning impression upon me. Totoro is definitely one of Miyazaki’s most kid-friendly films, especially when compared with some of his darker films like Princess Mononoke (1997) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). This childlike feel, however, does not detract from the film, in fact, it adds an extra layer of amusement and meaning.

When watching a Miyazaki film, one must suspend a great deal of disbelief, especially as an American watching a film created by and for a Japanese culture. In Miyazaki’s films, as well as in other Asian cinema, the disconnection between the natural and the supernatural is blurred so often, that it almost doesn’t exist. Spirits, ghosts and gods are a part of everyday life and show up everywhere, even if sometimes you can’t see them. This is exactly the way it is in Totoro, from the very beginning. When Mei, Satsuki and their dad move into a new house in the country while their mom is in the hospital, Mei quickly becomes sad and bored, a natural thing for a five-year old girl. While her dad is studying, being a professor, and Satsuki (Mei’s older sister) is off at school, Mei quickly discovers these small bunny looking creatures, which lead her to Totoro. Totoro is a large, adorable creature that the film affectionately calls a “troll” and he shows up in strange places and eventually ends up helping both the girls adjust to their new life.

There are two things about Totoro that stood out to me personally as I watched the film. The first is in respect to the girl’s father. When Mei tells him and Satsuki about Totoro, he responds graciously without a hint of condescension, and even brings the girls to a shrine to offer thanks to Totoro. If this was an American movie, it would be obvious that the father is humoring his daughter if he told her that he believed what she experienced. Here, probably due to the way the Japanese culture looks at things like magic and spirits, the father is loving, giving his daughter the ability to believe in herself and encouraging her, instead of bringing her down. I hope to be that kind of father, one who takes his children at their words and lets them experience the world and use their imaginations without squashing them before they can flourish.

The other thing that My Neighbor Totoro captures so perfectly is the way that children look at the world and see it full of wonder and excitement. Whenever I see films that spark my imagination and draw me toward the wonders of this life, I ask myself why I forget that this world is full of so many amazing things. So often I am content to sit around inside, busying myself with work and “adult” things while outside the beauty of Creation is awaiting, willing to give me its treasures if I only take the time to see them. In Totoro, Miyazaki captures the childlike sense of wonder at the smallest things, and endues his fantastical world with sights and sounds that force us to use our imagination like the cat bus and Totoro flying on a top. It is this quality that makes My Neighbor Totoro a film that everyone should see, kids and adults alike. In fact, as much as this is a film for kids, it may do more to boost the ailing spirit of imagination and wonder in adults than it ever will for children.

This is part of the Japanese cinema blogathon. Please visit the links below to check out other great blog posts on Japanese cinema and consider donating some money to the Red Cross for relief efforts in Japan.



Positive Hip Hop: Shad

March 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

In my last post, I hit on Common Market, an independent hip hop group from Seattle. For this entry we’re going to head North to the fine country of Canada. Yes, you heard me correctly: Canada. For those who don’t know Canada has risen to hip hop fame throughout the 2000s although you may not have heard of all the artists (or knew that they were from Canada) that have sparked this revolution. You’ve probably heard of Drake and k-Os (we’ll be returning to him later) who have broken into the mainstream and created a stir, but the artist I’ll be focusing on in this post is Shad. Shad is a hip hop artist who, once again, I heard about through Relevant Magazine and who I finally started listening to thanks to Grooveshark.

Shad’s first album entitled When This is Over is both contemplative and fun, boasting tracks that occasionally tie both silliness and deep issues together in a captivating manner. This mix of humor and introspection is welcome, especially in the way that Shad manages to combine the two. His humor is never vulgar or sexual, and instead is self-deprecating and relies on clever twists of phrases to encourage laughter. The one song that best illustrates how Shad manages to tie together both the humorous and the serious is probably Out of Love. Out of Love tackles the way men and women perceive and use each other for their own gains and his own personal longing for a relationship of his own. He raps: “Why’s this pseudo-pimp pressed against your pink dress?/When he drinks Ex does his stink breath impress/Cause he has no genuine interest, the only thing’s sex/Not your heart, soul or IQ…I’m a guy too/And so I’m qualified to say/That what a lot of guys display are just some hollow lies devised to get play.” Later in the song, adding a touch of humor, he raps, “I want a Claire Huxtable y’all/Cause if I had a Claire Huxtable I’d tell her shyly/I’m like the letter Q, nowhere without you beside me.

Although Shad’s more humorous tracks are quite enjoyable on a variety of levels, his slower, more contemplative tracks are where his thoughts come through loud and clear. He often touches on issues related to racism, poverty and religion. Shad is a Christian, and this comes through more in his overall approach to his music than in his actual lyrical content, and when he comments on his faith it is in a authentic, often critical way. On When This is Over one of the best tracks is I’ll Never Understand, a slow burning rumination on some of life’s hard questions. Touching on social-economic and racial issues he raps, “The fact that to this day nobody cares/for the innocent/Victims of a full-fledged holocaust/because folks only holler if the cost of dollars lost is high/So regardless of the number of lives/When poor blacks die/they always turn a blind eye.”  And while the music on When This is Over would be improved over Shad’s next few albums, his lyrics and message would stay at the same level of quality.

Shad’s next album The Old Prince mines the same territory as When This is Over, continuing to provide a mix of humor and social consciousness in his lyrics.  The album’s most humorous song is probably The Old Prince Still Lives at Home, where Shad regales us with tales of still living at home, without any money, trying to make it big and be successful. As someone who loves self-deprecating humor, this track is a gold mine. But it’s not all fun and games on this album, and Brother (Watching) is one of the album’s hardest hitters as Shad examines the state of today’s black youth and the way that others oppress and shape the way that young African-Americans view themselves. He spits this in the second verse:

Even with this music we so limited-it’s rap or produce/and that narrow conception of what’s black isn’t true/Of course, still we feel forced to adapt to this view/like there’s something that you’re having to prove/Now add that to the slew/of justification that the capitalists use/for the new blaxploitation/Many actions excused/in the name of getting cash/That’s adversely impacting our youth/With mental slavery, the shackles is loose/And it’s hard to cut chains when they attached at the roots.

I would love to quote the whole song, as Shad offers up some practical advice and optimism at the end of the track, leaving us challenged instead of just depressed. But what he is saying in the portion I excerpted is definitely true, and I know for sure that these issues are not things I think of consistently, so getting to hear about them is very important. What is equally important is that Shad speaks to these issues without falling into desperation or becoming simply another mudslinger,  refusing to launch attacks against specific politic parties or figures.  He touches on political ideologies and the media, but these things are entities, not people and he deftly examines the issues that are present.

On the album’s final track, Get Up, Shad once again touches on issues of the media, activism, politics and change, speaking to the brokenness and fragmentation that is beneath it all. “We can’t help but fell detached from this/Capitalist confusin’ communion of corporate sponsors and advocates/Where every actor is an activist/but a movie cast won’t fix these broken homes full of fractured kids…some kind of miraculous world change can happen quick/but these problems don’t take seconds to solve/And getting mad ain’t the same thing as getting involved/We need to get up.” Shad is both hopeful and realistic, striving to produce change that is founded in reality, not a flash in the pan activism.

Shad’s newest album, TSOL, is fantastic, my favorite of his three released so far and has many more songs worthy of discussion. Keep Shining is an ode to women, full of respect and encouragement for the many downtrodden women of this earth, Rose Garden is a upbeat meditation on persevering through life’s trials and A Good Name finds Shad rapping about the importance of having a legacy. The one song I want to highlight from TSOL is At The Same Time, a sobering track about the many things in life that make us laugh and cry at the same time. The first verse is especially thought-provoking especially for anyone who shares in Shad’s Christianity: “I never laughed and cried at the same time/Until I heard a church pray for the death of Obama/and wondered if the knew they share that prayer with Osama/Blasphemy and karma, the comedy of drama…/Until I imagined, they were suddenly aware of it/but wondered who’s the heretic, and is the true terrorist American or Arabic?” The rest of the song is equally thought-provoking, but this verse in particular always gets me when I hear it. There are just song things in life that provoke both laughter and tears, and Shad demonstrates some that some of these situations are capable of provoking a surprising amount of thought.

Shad’s music and lyrics combine to make an interesting blend of humor, self-introspection and social consciousness, that manages to do all three of these things without being vulgar, but still retaining a sense of realism. Within this realism Shad manages to hold on to an optimistic viewpoint, something that is a struggle for me to do. In a world that seems to be making me more cynical, Shad still manages to find the good, and that is what positive hip hop is all about.

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