Nas’ shocking call for change

The idea of music as a vessel for change is a concept is nearly as old as the drumbeat, dating back to the prophetic words of Socrates, who said “I care not who writes a nation’s songs if I can write it’s songs.”

Under most circumstances, “revolution” music tends to divide people along very traditional lines. Think about the 14 year old discovering left-wing political activism through the early Rage Against the Machine albums, and his father worries about the lyrics turning his son into a “pinko commie.”

It’s a rare thing for an artist to make such a dramatic statement that everyone cries out in shock. Enter Nas. One of the most influential artists to emerge from the Brooklyn school of hip hop (characterized by hard beats and complex lyrics), Nas has managed to stay in fairly steady rotation on MTV for the past 13 years, selling a respectable amount of albums and staying on top of the hip hop game. But he’s never enjoyed the mainstream media exposure that’s given to label mates Jay-Z and Kanye West. All that changed a few weeks ago, when Nas announced that his forthcoming album, out December 11th, will carry the title N****r.

If the people against this album were written out, the list would quickly grow to Biblical-geneology proportions. Opponents range from Jesse Jackson who says the word is degrading, to white collar conservatives, who cry out against the supposed “double standard” in a culture where Don Imus can be fired for saying something less offensive. The controversy recently went to a whole new level when New York City councilman Hakeem Jefferies threatened to dock the pension fund of Universal Music Group if the company released the album under with it’s current title.

Before you judge Nas as another 50 Cent, eager to use controversy to bolster sales in a genre that’s facing slow numbers, it’s important to understand that the he’s actually trying to use the album to cut the legs out from under racist language.

If you’re not familiar with Nas’ discography, you probably don’t know that he often makes extreme statements to ignite the thoughts of his listeners. His 2006 project was entitled Hip Hop is Dead, and was actually an effort to breath new life into an art form that is in very real danger of turning into an irrelevant marketing tool that’s known for little more than a branding tool for McDonalds. It’s one of the few truly refreshing albums of 2006, with Nas playing the part of street preacher, calling other artists back to a way of life when hip-hop was the language of the people, and away from the cliché’d songs based on dance moves and unreasonable hubris. Whether or not Hip Hop is Dead changed the direction of rap in general is irrelevant. What’s important is that Nas had the courage to create a thought-provoking album in an environment where it takes a MIMS or Souljah Boy styled hook to achieve success.

Nas knows what he’s doing here. And he’s doing the best to explain his extreme move. He tells MTV:

We’re taking power [away] from the word. No disrespect to none of them who were part of the civil-rights movement, but some of my n—as in the streets don’t know who [civil-rights activist] Medgar Evers was. I love Medgar Evers, but some of the n—as in the streets don’t know Medgar Evers, they know who Nas is. And to my older people who don’t now who Nas is and who don’t know what a street disciple is, stay outta this mutha—-in’ conversation. We’ll talk to you when we’re ready. Right now, we’re on a whole new movement. We’re taking power [away] from that word.

In spite of this explanation, civil rights activists everywhere are pointing out that Nas is putting the most offensive racial slur on the English language on a CD, and selling it to kids in the mall. It’s not just any racial slur, but the chosen term of choice for over a hundred years of brutality, terrorism and lynchings.

And Nas isn’t receiving much love back at home for it either. Def Jam label President Jay-Z isn’t stopping N****r from being released, but has gone on record with his opinion that one album can never take degrading language away from bigots.

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Through it all, Nas has stayed level headed, almost ignoring the press surrounding his current project, maintaining a quiet confidence rarely seen in a time when labels force the label to speak in sound bites (take it from an “insider;” more is controlled in the board room than you can imagine). It’s easy to compare him to Bob Dylan when he showed up at a folk festival and angered the crowd by plugging in an electric guitar. Fans began to throw debris, and screaming the word “Antichrist” at him. Dylan responded by stepping to the mic and saying just three words: “you are wrong,” and then playing his heart out. What fans originally called “the death of Dylan” was actually the birth of a new period that produced some of his finest albums.

Whether or not the shocking album title will put Nas on top of the charts remains to be seen. But what we do know is that the rapper isn’t all that concerned about it. In fact, he doesn’t expect the project to sell that well. He’s already topped the charts. Now, he explains, he’s building a lecagy.

This N****r album is bigger than an album. This is for my daughter, when she looks back and sees all the chump n—as in the game, she’ll say, ‘My pops was a man.’ When I have more kids, they’ll see, ‘He was a man.’ That will inspire them to be real in their life. Some people say I’m conscious, some say I’m a gangsta rapper — it’s just me doing me. I’m stomping in my own lane. I’m doing what I do.

Regardless of your age, gender of beliefs…it’s hard to ignore that kind of vision.

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