Just two days ago was the 11th Anniversary of the murder of one of the greatest and most respected figures in all of Hip Hop throughout all time: Jam Master Jay of the Legendary Run DMC. A recent video courtesy of Revolt TV got me to thinking about JMJ, as well as many other prominent figures throughout Hip Hop who we’ve lost senselessly. But more than reflecting on their lives and what they did for the music and the culture, the question for me that comes to mind is: Why are the murders, shootings and killings of so many of our Hip Hop heroes still unsolved to this day? There are tons of answers to this question: we all know the stigma attached to being an African American man in the United States, and the fact that Hip Hop, though it’s a globally dominant force, is still viewed by many as less than worthy of attention, praise or even respect. Does that have to do with why the killings of so many black men and women that have been part of Hip Hop music and culture still sit in the unsolved pile? Are their lives no less worthy than any one else that have gone on into the next lifetime at the hands of whatever gunman or assailant? The murders of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace are the two biggest unsolved mysteries in all of Hip Hop history, but there are so many more that don’t have the mainstream folklore attention attached to them, from Jam Master Jay and even Chris Lighty. And in Lighty’s case, there is yet even more uncertainty and confusion, because there are theories abound, and we’re not even truthfully sure if his was a homicide or a suicide. The honest truth is that we have to CONTINUE to ask these questions about these folks. And it goes beyond just the music…it’s about the fact that they were PEOPLE, and their families deserve at least some semblance of the truth. I’m reminded of the Bob Marley tune “Redemption Song” and one of the most poignant lines in it: “How long shall they kill our prophets, while we stand aside and look?”
To say at this point that Hip Hop has grown to be the most influential genre of music that we’ve ever seen, well…I don’t wanna oversell it, but it probably still would be a gross understatement. The fact is, in many different areas of life, Hip Hop has done what so many other forms of music just can’t do. It has marketed and sold products to the public, it has gathered people to the polls and had a hand in the outcome of political elections, it’s created tons of jobs for truckloads of people, and to some degree, has also infiltrated American pop culture without having to compromise all of itself.
To say that Jay-Z has become one of the most powerful figures in the mainstream music business, well…again, I don’t wanna oversell it, but that doesn’t quite do Hova justice. In all of his dealings in the past five years, Jay-Z has morphed into the pinnacle and the bar at which any aspiring music entrepreneur of any genre now compares themselves to. His music can more than likely be found in the iPod of President Barack Obama and in millions of others around the world alongside country, electronic dance music, folk indie rock and a whole lot more. And beyond music, Jay has proven himself to be one of the most savvy businessmen and branders in the world. To put it plainly, Jay Hova plays many roles and wears many hats, and does it successfully.
So it’s no surprise that Jay-Z would be the figure that would use Hip Hop to bring a festival like this past weekend’s “Made In America” Festival in Philadelphia to the forefront. Arguably, no other figure in Hip Hop has used the genre to greater effect than Jay, effectively and efficiently pushing the culture, the brand and the ideal of Hip Hop into spaces that were once thought ridiculous for it to go: from music publications like SPIN and Rolling Stone, to the corporate office of some of the biggest companies on the Fortune 500 list, to the cover of Forbes Magazine with Warren Buffet. And “Made In America” was a referendum on that idea. Because it can be considered more than just a music festival, but a testament to how powerful and influential Hip Hop and some of it’s biggest stars have become to all of music.
With a line-up that included Jay himself, Pearl Jam, Maybach Music Group, Run DMC, Santigold, Odd Future, Jill Scott, Rita Ora, The Hives, D’Angelo, Janelle Monae, a special appearance by G.O.O.D. Music and tons more diverse sets of music, “Made In America” was a true coming together of genres, fans, followers and artists. But beyond that, the festival showed that Hip Hop’s reach has extended in many different directions. When was the last time an artist of Jay-Z’s caliber would even think to try organizing something on the scale of a major music festival? True…we can also say that there have been very few Hip Hop artists of Jay-Z’s caliber throughout its history, and that we know Jay didn’t just do this out of the kindness of his heart (some kind of profit had to have been made by the man, or else, he probably wouldn’t have done it at all.)
Still, to this writer at least, Hip Hop was able to make somewhat of a statement of influence this past weekend. A statement of all-inclusiveness, togetherness, community and solidarity with all kinds of different music from many walks of life. After all, that’s where Hip Hop was at birth: a mash-up and mix-up of music from all walks of life, be it Punk Rock, Salsa, African drums, Funk, Doo Wop and Jazz, Hip Hop took from elements from all of these forms of music and created something new. And maybe that’s what Jay, at least on the surface, was trying to do with “Made In America” this past Labor Day weekend. Maybe that’s what he as an artist, as a businessman and an entrepreneur, actually wants for Hip Hop: to be that global musical force that can have a symbiotic and long-lasting relationship with the world around it.
In any event, “Made In America” seems like it was a resounding success. And all in all, that’s thanks to the power that Hip Hop continues to exert, in more positive ways than one.