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What Pussy Riot & Macklemore Can Teach Rappers

    4 Things Pussy Riot & Macklemore Can Teach Rappers, Black People and White Liberals

    Recently the Russian punk group, Pussy Riot, has been getting much publicity regarding their political protest against Vladimir Putin and injustices against LGBT members in Russia. In other, non-related news, Macklemore has been the topic of discussion regarding White participation in Rap music and the acclaim and support he has received for making his song in support of the LGBT community.  In other, more non-related, news, the public has recognized Trayvon Martin’s would-be 19th birthday.

    The online world is also riled up about George Zimmerman’s newly publicized celebrity fight, and we have started discussing Zimmerman’s newfound celebrity in terms of racial injustice in America. This race-based discussion began only after the public went crazy when Macklemore, a White man, won a Grammy for a Rap music category. Many attribute his win, in large part, to the color of skin.

    These all seem like very different, unrelated issues. But, really, they are all very related. When discussed together, all these things can teach us some very important lessons. Lessons that most of us overlook or take for granted. In many ways, both Macklemore and Pussy Riot can teach us something about social and political change and how to demand it.

    Here are the 4 very important lessons we should take from Pussy Riot and Macklemore.

    1.    Music is powerful and can be used toward political change.

    This seems to be something most rappers have forgotten. Recently, Pussy Riot performed at Amnesty International’s Bringing Human Rights Home concert in Brooklyn. Madonna, Lauryn Hill, The Flaming Lips, Yoko Ono, Susan Sarandon, Sting and others accompanied them. Their “radical” music got them on an international platform next to some potential allies who are in influential positions.

    Imagine if rappers decided that racial injustice and equity in America was important enough to dedicate their music to?

    What if rappers decided to use their music like Pussy Riot has and called attention to situations such as Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Rekia Boyd and the numerous other examples of atrocities that seem to primarily afflict Black people, poor people, and, especially, poor Black people?

    Must we be reminded of the political power music has had in the past? Reminded of Bob Marley? Fela Kuti? Music can inspire the masses to demand change and Macklemore is an example of this. He’s certainly no Bob Marley or Fela Kuti, but like Pussy Riot, he decided to make a song about not discriminating against LGBT individuals, taking a stand against discrimination and hatred. And as much as we’d like to call him a mediocre rapper, a Black music appropriator, or talk about how he didn’t deserve that Grammy award, what we can’t deny is that his effort WORKED. He gave the issues he talks about in his song a global platform and America followed suit and began talking about right along with him. His song made LGBT discrimination cool and popular to talk about openly. And if rappers collectively decided to create the same kind of music about racial injustice, history and the present suggest, it would work!

    2.    We must be willing to take risks, no matter the consequences.

    Since Pussy Riot decided to speak out so loudly about political injustice by conducting an anti-Putin performance in Moscow’s main cathedral, the Russian government has reacted and decided to make some change – even if it is it small change. But the little government reaction and effort they are now showing did not come without cost.  The two members of Pussy Riot were initially thrown in jail for stunt at the Moscow cathedral, only to be released recently. But the risk of going to jail did not stop Pussy Riot from unapologetically speaking out against the injustice they saw, regardless of consequence. During an interview, the group commented, “this is certainly not the time for us to be afraid. In these two years since the act for which we were imprisoned, the situation in Russia has gotten so much worse. And if we couldn’t keep quiet about it then, then we certainly won’t keep quiet about it now.” This is the type of bravery necessary for change.

    One of the members also said, “We always insisted from the very beginning that Pussy Riot is first and foremost a political group which is using art as a way to express its political opinion because it’s impossible to do so through any legal means.” Sound familiar? Certainly echoes some of the feelings after the Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin court case rulings.

    Pussy Riots unapologetic and fearless approach is not unfamiliar, though. Martin Luther King was willing to go to jail – and did. Malcolm X was willing to face incarceration – and did. During the early slave rebellions and abolitionist movement, people were willing to give their lives – and many did. This is the type of bravery one must be willing to face in order to provoke change.

    But don’t get me wrong.  America has come far enough, at least, that speaking out against racial injustice won’t automatically land you in jail. Here, the consequences are not as extreme as the consequences for our past leaders or for Pussy Riot. So why don’t mainstream rappers speak out about these things? What do they have to lose? The answer: money.  Rappers who decide to speak out about social injustice risk losing their corporate sponsorships and endorsements, they risk being dropped from their major labels, and they risk facing financial consequences. But so be it. This is a small price to pay for progress. And the risks are only potential, not certain. And may not be permanent if society is willing to change.

    Macklemore took similar risks. Sure, he has a bit of inherent privilege, but, nevertheless, he was willing to go out on a limb, regardless of what financial or social consequences may come. Other rappers can and should exercise the same not-give-a-fuckness when it comes to speaking out against the injustices of the Black and inner-city communities.

    3.    Money Talks and Bullshit Walks. The Power of the Almighty Dollar.

    Many claim Russia’s decision to release Pussy Riot and the country’s other small efforts regarding the LGBT community are PR stunts.  People claim, including Pussy Riot, that these efforts are merely Putin’s attempt to reduce some of the criticism Russia is receiving near the Olympics. Many have pointed out that he is doing these things so as not to face financial consequences.  Russia and Putin, like everyone else, know the Olympics is big business and it generates a LOT of money for whatever county hosts it. If Putin did not attempt, at least a little tiny bit, to create a better image of how they treat LGBT individuals, America and other progressive countries (usually the ones with the most money) will not financially support them.

    The lesson Pussy Riot’s situation can teach us here: when people divest and stop spending money with governments and organizations that contribute to injustice, those organizations react and are forced to change. But they won’t change until you snatch their bread and butter. Rap music has some power to do this. Rap musicinfluences many people on how they spend their money Big Pimpin’, Spendin’ Cheese. Rappers can stop sending messages to pop bottles and buy expensive cars and name brand clothes and, instead, promote giving money to organizations and companies who support us back and help improve injustice in the Black and poor communities. Remember how all the conservative, Defense of Marriage Act supporters rushed to Chik-Fil-A? Yeah, the almighty dollar goes a long way and is not separate from politics.

    4.    White allies are necessary

    Many people have been giving Macklemore heat lately. He is a White male who “stole” a Grammy in the Rap category from a Black male artist. People have charged him with appropriating a Black musical genre, and being a testimony to White privilege and the music industry’s prejudice.

    The truth of the matter is, however, we need people like him. We need White allies. In fact, all of the progress Black people have made up to this point, has been with the help of some very important White allies, and, in all honesty, we couldn’t have come this far without them.

    The Underground Railroad was only possible with the help of some courageous, progressive White individuals who were willing to risk their own livelihoods in order to help Black slaves escape. Later, emancipation would not have succeeded without some notable White abolitionists such as Hugh Elliot. During the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King understood the importance of gathering White allies, and called White male clergymen to action in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The unfortunate fact of the matter is, no group of people that exists at the very bottom of the socio-economic totem pole can pull themselves up without the help of people higher up in society.

    When Martin Luther King said in “A Letter to Birmingham Jail” that “a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he was telling people outside of the Black community that it was their civic and moral responsibility to speak up and join in the fight against the injustices toward Black people. He boldly explained that if they sat idly by and watched injustice happen without taking action, they too were to blame. They too were complicit in the injustice.

    In some ways, like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” this is my letter to rappers, members of the LGBT community and LGBT political organizations, immigrant rights activists,White progressive liberals and any and all people who claim they’d like to live in an equal, fair America. If you all do not speak up about the injustices that are taking place in the Black community, then you too are to blame.

    Human rights should be fought for across the board, not just the particular groups you have chosen to identify with. You cannot call yourselves progressives, or truth speakers or people for change, equality, acceptance, tolerance or fairness if you do not speak out for ALL people who face these injustices. And the current atmosphere suggests that Black people are one of the groups who need this support the very most.

    LGBT activists and reformers are so quick to compare their struggles to the Black Civil Rights Movement and compare the injustices they face with the injustices Black people have faced in the past.  But the reality is, for Black people, injustice is not only in the past. Black people are currently facing many of the same injustices they faced during the Civil Rights Movement. If the LGBT community and progressive White liberals who support the LGBT causes believe their struggles are aligned with the Black community’s struggles and they lean on that comparison to prove the need for change, then they should be allies in the current injustices against Black people’s civil and human rights too.  But too many of them are silent.

    Imagine if Macklemore made a song about Trayvon Martin. Or Oscar Grant. Or Sean Bell. Or Rekia Boyd. Or unequal education in inner-city communities? Or made a song about the numerous other examples of atrocities that seem to primarily afflict Black people, poor people, and, especially, poor Black people? Imagine if Pussy Riot made a song about these same issues or merely spoke out about it publicly? Imagine if those songs won a Grammy or got the same public attention that Pussy Riot and Macklemore have gotten. Imagine if Macklemore said, “America still mistreats Black people?” Imagine if the masses of people who support LGBT rights and immigrant rights decided to band together as a collective and support the Black community in their efforts toward human and civil rights. Imagine the type of force that could come from that.

    Imagine if rappers decided to join that collective and provide a soundtrack for these injustices. Imagine if rappers aspired to leave legacies in the likes of Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and other musical revolutionaries who inspired political change for the greater good of their communities and communities around the world? Imagine.

    I hope this article finds Macklemore and some members of GLAAD or other LGBT organizations, and P. Diddy or Kanye West or Jay-Z and progressive White liberals. And I hope they all feel called out. And called upon. And aware that if they don’t help and speak up just as loudly as they speak up for their own causes, they too are to blame.

    This is my letter from an inner-city apartment. An inner-city that has become, for a large group of people, much like a jail. And for Trayvon or Oscar, a sentence to death row. A jail that we will ALL be confined to if people don’t stop sitting idly by.

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    Camille H. is a writer, educator, editor, lecturer and public speaker. She can be contacted [email protected] and followed on Twitter @_CamilleH