An entry on the new Scorchin’ Torah blog sets up a series of interesting comparisons — first, between a new documentary on Palestinian hip-hop and the M.C. Tupac Shakur. He (rightly) flags the documentary for devoting a significant amount of time to the rappers’ frustration with traveling to and throwing a concert in the West Bank, but not spending any time examining why these restrictions were imposed.
Similarly, Tupac. In his first-person portrayal of gangsta lifestyle, Shakur frequently argued that he wasn’t glamorizing the thug culture; he was portraying the life “as it is.” But, as effective as his writing and his songs were, it’s hard to make the case that there wasn’t a teeny little bit of glamorization happening — especially when one weighs into account the frequent comparisons to Machiavelli, the constant scenario of (first-person) hero vs. group of antagonists, and a frequent ending to his songs of having escaped, narrowly, with the money. In this kind of paradigm, it’s hard not to argue that Tupac was glamorizing the gangster lifestyle — because, after all, what is glamor if not turning an everyday mundane existence into a movie, complete with pulse-racing plot, action, drama, and the underlying moral dilemma or two? I think there’s an important impetus here that Mr. Scorchin’ is picking out about the plight of the Palestinian people, and the self-identification of a lot of young, affluent Americans (many of them Jewish) — they can participate in the culture (rallies/protests/buying CDs) without having to make an overwhelming lifestyle commitment, or even having to participate firsthand. Wearing a kaffiya, say, instead of learning about the politics behind it.
This is not to say that all hip-hop is violent and thug-inspired — or, even, that all Palestinian hip-hop is. For a positive take on Muslim underground culture, I direct you to about half a zillion blog posts I did on Michael Muhammad Knight’s amazing book The Taqwacores. But, more to the point: the London-based hip-hop unit Lines of Faith is a collective devoted to positive hip-hop, an Orthodox Jew and an Orthodox Muslim who are making music about collaborating, cooperating, and creating an alternative to, well, the violence in our culture and the violence in our music. Right now, Lines’ Danny Raphael is touring the U.S., and he’ll be headlining a New York show with me on Wednesday night — details to follow, but find them right here.