Renowned independent rappers Immortal Technique and Brother Ali played to a respectable crowd at Metro on September 22. They were accompanied by openers I Self Divine of Minneapolis and Poison Pen of Brooklyn, all part of Technique and Ali’s “War and Peace Tour.”
The banner that hung behind the stage featured both headlining artists, with Immortal Technique on the left (“War”) side, and Ali on the right (“Peace”). I assume this placement was no accident, and not only because Technique seemed to be holding an assault rifle in his picture, and Ali looked like a hip-hop monk, per usual. The lyrical content of both artists’ songs reinforces this dichotomy. Technique is decidedly political. His songs remind us of the injustices that exist not only within the government, but to an extent hip hop culture at large, which has been equally obsessed with money, power and violence, perhaps more now than ever. Technique is far from a reactionary though; despite his incendiary music, he believes in peace, understanding and unity above all, and this comes through in his music as well as the numerous political corollaries he would launch into between songs. Opener I Self Divine and host Poison Pen, too, made frequent digressions into mini sermons against violence and oppression throughout their sets, which I imagine would normally come off as annoying or depressing at most rap shows, but here were truly moving and heartfelt. Each rapper made at least a couple references to the violence that has plagued the city of Chicago lately, with the recent Back of the Yards mass shooting, in particular, no doubt on their minds. Poison Pen at one point told everyone “to get home safe tonight. I’m gonna get ig’nant with this song now, cuz that’s what I do, but I just wanna tell everyone that.”
It was actually unnerving to hear him say that, a message of warning coming from a native of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that just 20 years ago was equally notorious for crime as the South Side is today. The show, of course, was far from harm’s way, so to speak, only a stone’s throw from Wrigley Field and Lincoln Park, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the United States. I had no doubt in my mind that I would walk home (~10 minutes away) from that show, alone, around midnight, and have no problems. I am incredibly lucky for this. The music at the show reinforced this knowledge for me, and each of the performers repeatedly emphasized that we, the audience, could not lay down and let people perpetuate these injustices.
Brother Ali was more on the side of personal acceptance. He implied that this is important for him personally, being a self-professed “ugly motherfucker.” One of his most popular songs – and the one he also closed with – “Forest Whitiker,” embodies the inner struggle of finding peace with a world at war with itself. He goes on about being albino and lazy-eyed, “hairy as hell, everywhere but fingernails,” “not the classic profile of what the ladies want.” As he admits in the song, “You might think I’m depressed as can be, but when I look in the mirror I see sexy-ass me.” It’s this kind of optimism that the rap world is sorely lacking, and the kind of message that on the surface seems more productive than that of most other rap songs.
So then, I wonder, what are we doing still rapping about guns and drugs? Can rappers, in good conscience, still rap about the “ig’nant shit” even if their heart is in the right place? Can they even rap about social revolution when the last thing we need is another war? As the good Jay-Z said, it’s only entertainment. But is it really, when we talk about murder nonchalantly and then see the effects of that “IDGAF” mentality on a massive scale, in the form of the violence in South Chicago and elsewhere? And when it’s reversed, essentially, as in Technique’s music, to violence for justice, is it any different?
Don’t get me wrong, the overall message from the show was certainly one of positivity and understanding. It is this sort of cognitive dissonance, a feeling all too familiar to the modern rap fan, that is constructive and dialogue-promoting. The “War and Peace” tour, at least the 4 hours I saw of it, seemed to represent the beginnings of this conversation. Hip hop culture has been in the midst of a turning point for years now – the old guard of the gangster mentality has given way to political consciousness and broad=spectrum tolerance. And it may indeed be coming from Immortal Technique, Brother Ali and artists like them, who push us to see beyond convention. The beats were really good, too.