I am neither a hipster nor a hippie, but the fact remains that I saw two concerts in two days this weekend. That's unusual for me, since you can still count the total number of live concerts I’ve seen without using your toes. Even more unusual for me, the indie and folk fan that I am, is that they were both rap concerts. Weird, huh? But it turns out that their temporal proximity offered a chance to examine politics in hip-hop.
You were probably at one of these concerts. Lupe Fiasco came on stage in camo pants accompanied by “the best keyboard player in the world,” remember? You probably weren’t at the other one, but you should have been, because Seattle’s Blue Scholars put on a great show that was like Lupe’s in some ways but different in some other, important ones.
College kids naturally like rap music. They also often like liberal politics. Lupe Fiasco combines these two sensibilities in his concoction of free-flowing rap lyrics accompanied by undeniably catchy choruses, so his success at Welsh-Ryan was practically assured. But I had my doubts, and they were intensified by the glory of Blue Scholars.
I, for one, don’t appreciate it when a message is overt (this is why I’m Christian in name and spirit but I hate The Chronicles of Narnia). However, "overt” is probably the best way to describe the politics and performance of Lupe Friday. “The Show Goes On” was a crowd-pleaser of a finale, but its absurdly out-there liberal lyrics looked even more childish in light of the Blue Scholars concert the next evening.
The difference between Lupe and Blue Scholars can probably be best elucidated by noting Lupe screamed “Occupy Wall Street!” in the middle of his set, while Geologic and Sabzi (the duo behind Blue Scholars) took a break to talk about how they had actually spent their one day in Chicago hanging out with the Occupy protestors at Jackson and LaSalle. Even Bambu, the opening act for Blue Scholars, was more political than the famously liberal Muslim rapper. Lupe stuck to poppy selections from his overproduced album Lasers rather than the subtler sociopolitical commentary of Food & Liquor, but Bambu came on stage rapping about how “justice” is really “just us,” the relationships between people. After that, he had fun on stage, but still took a break from hearty endorsements of marijuana with a self-described “buzzkill” rap about domestic abuse.
That was the great thing about the concert (and Pacific Northwest hip-hop in general): it was chill and fun, but also serious at the same time. Blue Scholars mixed danceable songs with reflections on 21st century urban life. The smaller setting (cozy Schuba’s Tavern rather than the bleacher-filled Welsh-Ryan arena) allowed Blue Scholars MC Geologic to interact with the crowd more than Lupe could. Geo frequently high-fived and chatted with the lucky front rowers, and at one point he invited all the people from Seattle to come on stage and groove to “Slick Watts.” Even those from outside Seattle were really jazzed to be there, like the guy in the Guy Fawkes mask who had flown all the way from New York just for the concert. I certainly wasn’t the only attendee who got hoarse screaming the lyrics to “The Ave.”
Blue Scholars outshined Lupe. I’m not just saying that because they made my favorite song of all time or because I got to take a picture with Geo after the show (highlight of my life), but because they beat Lupe at his own game of talking about politics. Their approach is slightly different; as they said in the show when talking about Barack Obama, sociopolitical change is effected from the bottom up, not the top down. Lupe can rap about the Gaza Strip all he wants, but those Blue Scholars lyrics about life in the city and forming your own identity are a much more effective way of discussing politics and change.