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Where's hip-hop's social conscience when we need it?

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Mos_l

Mos_lFor weeks now, the hip-hop blogosphere has been rallying people to the Jena 6 cause and calling for rappers to take a stand alongside their fan base. But for a while there, Mos Def (pictured) appeared to be the only big-name rapper tackling the case, even though it seems like a tailor-made platform for the hip-hop community. There seems to be some action on this now but still no word from the big boys. The silence from the more commercially successful artists, in the face of what protesters and pundits have said could be the catalyst for the next civil rights movement, has been mind-boggling to me. (UPDATE: Along with Mos Def, Ice Cube and Salt-N-Pepa also attended the Sept. 20 rally in Jena. Common was also involved and referenced the case during a show in Dallas.)

In a world where we are used to Hollywood actors like Susan Sarandon and musicians like Bono taking an activist stance, why is it that we don’t seem to expect it from the hip-hop community, despite its perceived legacy of putting real street issues front and center? Or is the better question, as one of my colleagues asked me: Why do people like me expect rappers to be activists when partying, acquiring material goods, and ridiculous posturing have been hip-hop mainstays for so long? I expect hip-hop’s big names to try to fight the powers that be, but when pressed to cite any examples of rappers as social agitators outside of their lyrics… I can’t really think of any. (At first I pointed to Public Enemy, of my coming-of-age days in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but even that may just be because they seemed to be the soundtrack to racial/social unrest at the time: the Crown Heights riots, the LA riots, Do the Right Thing.) The closest thing I could find recently was Jay-Z’s quest for clean water.

So why do we feel that, in times like these, we should not only expect current events to trickle into rap lyrics, but that our stars, the people we’ve made millionaires, should be publicly talking about the same issues we are? And if we’re right to expect it from them, why do you think there’s been such silence on that front? Was there an inherent warning to rappers in the backlash that Kanye West received when he spoke out on the federal government’s Hurricane Katrina response, an opinion that many people agreed with? Is there a cost for taking a stand?

addCredit(“Mos Def: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images For IMG”)