This past Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest posted the following two messages to Twitter:
If you don’t know, the Universal Zulu Nation is an organization that was started by Afrika Bambaataa in the ’70s. It wanted to help spread awareness of hip-hop as an opportunity for troubled youths and gang members to patch up their differences and come together through music, breakdancing, graffiti, and DJing. The Zulu Nation is, in essence, perhaps the single greatest reason for hip-hop’s grand emergence. The social element was what drove rap music to become so important.
The response to Lil’ Wayne’s inclusion into the Universal Zulu Nation was met with trepidation that skewed far more negatively than positively. Tip knew that was gonna happen.
Wayne is, and has been for the duration of his popularity, derided by rap purists – you know, the kind who clutch their copies of Blackstar to their hearts and wear strictly earthy colors – for being “ignorant” and not “real hip-hop,” whatever that is. I think you have to travel deep into the Saharan desert equipped with only a Jansport to find it. His collaboration with Eminem so many years ago had limp-wristed rap fans looking sullenly at their keyboards, wondering how their deity had become an accomplice to an ignoramus.
How quickly we forget that Wayne was, at one point, the best rapper out. Period. 2007’s Drought 3 was a clinic in how to erase another artist’s hit single from the public’s collective memory and replace it with a better Lil’ Wayne version. His first two Dedication tapes are arguably his best work. Every new guest feature of his was another revelation. Jay Z even met with Wayne to try and lure him from Cash Money, but take a look at Jay’s career and you’ll realize he often brought competition under his wing to help soften their impact. But that’s all subjective.
The truth is that Jay, Em and Wayne all inhabit the same elite circle of rappers today. Their massive, loyal fanbases give them freedoms smaller artists don’t have access to. Jay can drop albums on Samsung apps, Em can sell millions singing about drug abuse, and Wayne can make self-indulgent rock albums while he zooms around on skateboards. You might care, but he definitely doesn’t. All three of them have, one way or another, climbed to the top. It’s what they do with their popularity that often echoes louder than their music.
Jay and Em are on opposite sides of the fence. Jigga has taken to wearing 5% chains in public as his music becomes increasingly pro-black, while Em has doubled down on his tried and true formula of jokes and violence. Wayne, however, has never really positioned himself as a socio-political rapper, though he has made songs like “Georgia Bush” and “Tie My Hands” that address Katrina. Wayne has, for the most part, stayed a homegrown popstar, keeping his topics consistent and his techniques varied. Jay is friends with Obama and Eminem had his “Mosh” moment, but Wayne is the only one of the three who has overtly kept himself outside the arena of political commentary. It almost mirrors the stance the Nation Of Islam took in the days before Malcolm left. They simply didn’t participate in politics because they didn’t believe in the system.
Wayne stands to gain little if anything from his membership to the UZN. It’s the Nation that stands to gain the most from Wayne’s (public) inclusion. 9th Wonder and Q-Tip know what they’re doing and why it’s causing an uproar. It’s the same reason 9th Wonder qualified his choice of Lil’ Wayne as the best rapper out in 2008 with the comment, “People are gonna be mad at me.” Wayne is not someone you’d expect to be inducted into the UZN. Earlier this year, Q-Tip even announced that Freddie Gibbs was an official member of the Zulu Nation. Nobody cared then.
Tip went on to defend Wayne’s membership in a way he didn’t have to do for Gibbs: “In these times we need to show UNITY! This is a main tenant for us. Too much division. He has a big influence so now just by association a young fan may see his association and may become INFORMED abt the Z’s…that young fan may be hurt, confused, angry and may look to his fave artist for escape or better options…now he/she has an opportunity to skateboard here to the Z’s and live for the better.”
In 2014, “real hip-hop” doesn’t mean sh*t, and that’s a good thing. You can talk about boom bap and drum breaks and cuts and scratches, but take “real hip-hop” out of the lexicon. We don’t need any more division. We need cooperation, teamwork, and friendship. The internal support will give hip-hop a stronger core. Jay is beholden to a slightly older fanbase, so announcing he’s a Zulu Nation member wouldn’t reach anyone that didn’t already know about the UZN. Em is white, and while there are white members of the Zulu Nation, his race might distract from the larger conversation. Wayne is the perfect candidate.
Afrika Bambaataa, one of the godfathers of hip-hop, started the Universal Zulu Nation after he was a warlord of the Black Spades gang. Violence was destroying inner-city ghettos and Bambaataa’s unique vision provided a platform for people from rival gangs to reconcile their differences, put down their weapons and learn about each other as equal humans. Q-Tip and 9th Wonder are doing the same thing today by announcing Wayne’s Zulu Nation membership. Angry rap fans need to take a step back and understand the significance of a figure like Q-Tip talking with a superstar like Lil’ Wayne. Regardless of what they represent, the scenes they came out of, and the music they make, the simple fact that these two are working together means more to the hip-hop community than any complaint against Wayne’s Zulu Nation membership will ever be worth.
As 9th said, get over it.