Bun B Panel Debates Rappers' Social Responsibilities

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There was a time when everyone either wanted to be hip-hop or sleep with her. Hip-hop, in her nascent days, was akin to that hot chick everyone wanted to take to the dance. But now that hip-hop is old and graying with a few babies of its own, everyone wants to lock her up in jail and throw away the key.

Tuesday night, Professor Bun B of Rice University hosted the second public session for his "Religion & Hip Hop Culture Class" at Venue. The discussion ranged on everything from the role of religion in rap to personal responsibility.

The panel was geographically and philosophically diverse: The Clipse's Malice, whose spiritual awakening is well documented in his book Wretched, Pitiful, Poor, Blind, and Naked; Brooklyn's Talib Kweli, a premier lyricist who's devoted most of his life and art to promoting education in the African-American community; and Chicago's Lupe Fiasco, an outspoken MC with a genuine affinity for positivity.

Representing Houston were christian rapper Bobby "Tre9" Herring and street poet Trae tha Truth, with Bun as the able moderator.

The timing was perfect, given Ashley Judd's recent remarks about hip-hop culture:

"As far as I'm concerned, most rap and hip-hop music - with its rape culture and insanely abusive lyrics and depictions of girls and women as 'ho's' - is the contemporary soundtrack of misogyny."

That was Judd's response to a PSA announcing Snoop and Diddy's involvement in a youth AIDS-awareness program, and will take several columns to unpack all the ignorance loaded in that statement. Miss Judd is the new voice of the millions who can't separate rappers as artists and rappers as activists. Not to mention that she's painting an entire genre of poets with one large brush.

Most of Tuesday night's discussion centered around this very conversation. Are rappers role models? Do they have a responsibility to the community? Are rappers being targeted by the FBI?

Malice generally talked about his book and his new image. "I definitely use my music as an expression, but I had to go all book with this," he said.

Kweli talked mostly about the importance of literacy. He worked at Nkiru Bookstores in Brooklyn, which he and Mos Def later bought with their first Black Star check.

"I became very good at looking at people and being able to figure out what books they may be interested in." One of the first books that had an impact on him was The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

"I'm into biographies," says Kweli.

Trae tha Truth's presence on the panel gave it some balance. There you had Malice and Tre9 with their faith-based messages, and then gruff-voiced Trae representing the streets. He addressed the issue of authenticity. He also touched on spirituality: "Every time I get ready to hit the stage, I have to speak to the big homie."

Tre9 talked about incorporating his faith into his music only if it feels natural. "I'm trying to reach people, I'm not trying to preach to the choir, although they do need preached to often," he said, adding "Incorporating the Bible into music should only come from my heart."

Lupe, who wore a black tee of a woman with a safety pin through her lip, talked about his belief system and positive energy: "I gravitate and try to surround myself with things that I can pull positive energy from."

He added that, though he's Muslim, he tries to pull religion out of everything because the practice of religion itself can have destructive tendencies.

All in all, the panel managed to hit on all the important points about hip-hop's role in the community. It probably didn't change a lot of minds. But it planted this idea in people's minds: That hip-hop can be mature and responsible.

To people like Ashley Judd, hip-hop is a dirty old woman that needs to be beaten up and locked away from our kids. But as Bun B said to the students and teachers and hip-hoppers at the panel: "Hip-hop isn't forgetting our children. Hip-hop is raising our children."

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