Hip-Hop Fridays: Exclusive Q & A with Yaw Asare Aboagye Co-founder of ConsciousHipHop.com
A few months back, you should remember that we featured some outstanding commentaries from ConsciousHipHop.com, a ground-breaking website. Today we present an exclusive interview with Yaw Asare Aboagye, co-founder of the website that we believe is one of the most important to visit as Hip-Hop moves through this brand new decade and millenium.
Cedric Muhammad: How do you define "conscious" Hip-Hop? What is its history and evolution and who are the leading artists that represent it?
Yaw Asare Aboagye: I'd definitely define conscious hip-hop as something within the hip-hop realm that
aids to the upliftment of our people. Conscioushiphop.com is all about
putting a message out to Black people. Some may say why can't conscious
hip-hop include other peoples? I'd say that I'm not about defining things
for anybody; this is what it means to me and the projects we're working on.
If someone else chooses to define it another way, then they do. We're
strictly trying to aid our community in getting better and conscioushiphop.com is just one of the things we're doing for our prosperity. However significant this is, is not the point, it's that we're doing something we feel will help our community's situations.
In terms of the evolution, I'd point to groups like , Gil Scott-Heron, The
Last Poets, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash the Furious 5, Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, Boogie Down Production, X-Clan, and the Jungle Brothers to name a few. I think we're looking at a generation of our people born at a time of great social activism, those born in the 1960's and early 1970's.
The seeds that were planted then we are now seeing manifested in our time
through hip-hop, the good and the bad. Music always reflects the mood of
people in part, so I think this evolution was with the natural course of
The leading artists today representing conscious hip-hop lyrically are Talib
Kweli, Dead Prez, Mos Def, the Roots, and Common, there are others but these
are some of my favorites.
Cedric Muhammad: Why and How did you launch conscioushiphop.com?
Yaw Asare Aboagye:Thru my work in housing projects, homeless shelters, public schools, and youth prisons. I have found too many youth raising themselves. Therefore hip-hop is filling that parental need youth desire.
We think a lot of artists either don't realize this, disagree with this notion or don't care.
But we feel artists need to be more responsible about their work -
specifically what they say and what kind of message they're projecting.
For that matter all of us need to be mindful of that. But since artists have a higher visibility their actions are more closely followed, heeded,
scrutinized, criticized, etc. They have an opportunity and a power to
really make significant change for our community with their gift and skill,
some take advantage some don't. For the reasons why you'd have to ask the
artists, I do believe there are those that really want to do some things but
feel if they come out and speak their mind; their future work will be
We hope conscioushiphop.com can change that perspective.
Conscioushiphop.com was conceived a little over a year ago. Personally my
son had just turned 2. I had the radio on and was bothered by what I was
hearing; I felt the lyrics to whatever hip-hop song was playing weren't
appropriate for his ears. Though I noticed how my son almost instantly
started nodding his head to the beat. At that moment I had to face the fact
he would probably, as he grows, want to listen to more hip-hop, some I'd
approve of and some I wouldn't. I knew totally shielding him from it would
be the wrong approach when he gets older. I actually didn't know what to do at the time except turn off the radio. I think we have to understand that a young mind is very impressionable. Depending on the age of the child it doesn't matter how much explaining you do they won't understand, so those children shouldn't hear some lyrics.
A few weeks later I was talking to a few friends about the hip-hop museum
exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. Without getting into specifics about the
exhibit, I felt it wasn't totally representative of hip-hop. This sparked a discussion about responsibility and control of things that Black people create. Together with my experiences I described earlier, Jehvon Buckner,the other co-founder, suggested we do a website to address issues within hip-hop and our community. That conversation took place around September 2000. Our initial strategy meetings were around what the site would be named, mostly. We came up with a lot of names I can't remember but we unconsciously assumed conscioushiphop.com wouldn't be available. We were shocked to find out much later it wasn't but in a way we shouldn't have been since we thought there was a void that needed to be filled in that regard.
We also decided to research other hip-hop websites for their content to
actually see if anyone else was doing what we were planning, we came up
empty. We then felt we really had to put something out there for the
Cedric Muhammad: What is your opinion of Jay-Z and Nas? Are they conscious hip-hop
Yaw Asare Aboagye:I'd say I've always liked Nas' music a little better than Jay-Z's. They both are gifted lyrically, though again I'd give the nod to Nas. As far as them being conscious hip-hop artists, lyrically again, I believe Nas is more
conscious than Jay-Z. But I want to be clear, I'm strictly talking about
their lyrics. What these brothers are doing outside of their music is
something I don't know. I'd like to know, hopefully we'll get a chance to
meet them and ask. Hopefully they are contributing to our community in some
way shape or form that is unselfish. Something substantial that may cause
people to remember them in a light outside of music. Just because someone
is saying something doesn't mean they're doing what they're saying and vice versa.
Life has taught me that lesson all to well. So whether an artist
chooses to be conscious on record is less important to me than if they're
conscious in their actions, to a point.
Cedric Muhammad: Do you think that there has been a deliberate effort by the major labels
to kill or marginalize conscious Hip-Hop?
Yaw Asare Aboagye: Yes, I think that is definitely the case. I believe what sells in this industry to a large degree are those products that are marketed and promoted. We don't control this industry; we dominate it in terms of artists. But on the business end we aren't' the power brokers. Clearly the power brokers are trying to do for them and not for us. They say who gets backing and who doesn't. If one of the five major labels decides they don't want a particular album in the stores, they have the power to at least make
it difficult for that album to be heard. They make all the money or most of it but it's us that provide the product. So if we can become power brokers things will open up to where conscious hip-hop won't be marginalized. We're firm believers that there's a huge market of folks who want to hear conscious hip-hop.
Cedric Muhammad: Is there a distinction between underground Hip-hop and conscious hip-Hop?
Yaw Asare Aboagye: Yes. Just because someone is underground doesn't mean they're a conscious hip-hop artists or vice versa. That term underground is funny to me because in some cases it means that particular artist is not getting radio play. Which probably means their not selling records, which probably means they're
not making money to their satisfaction.
But sometimes there's a reason for that, they're not good. I think a lot of artists that classify themselves as underground really don't want to be in that category. But it seems that term means that you're hold things down and keeping real hip-hop alive so to speak. But again I don't think most artists really want to be underground.
As far as conscious hip-hop artists, you have to be very committed to stay
the course because the industry is unkind to this camp. I think there are
many people out there that want to hear more conscious hip-hop; it's just
not brought to the masses like other styles of hip-hop. But I see a change
on the horizon.
Cedric Muhammad: Can Hip-Hop be conscious without being Afro-centric?
Yaw Asare Aboagye:Yes. I mean you don't have to be mentioning Malcolm X in every verse to, as I
like to call it, to be African-centered. You can say something positive but it doesn't fit within the Afrikan-centered paradigm or framework. There are many subjects that can be told: police brutality, joblessness, crime, lack of business ownership, etc. Those are very important issues that aren't
necessarily tied to being African-centered but are conscious and relevant
for our community.
Cedric Muhammad:Is there an economic component to the conscious hip-hop paradigm?
Yaw Asare Aboagye;It certainly doesn't seem to be, at least it's not a very visible component from any conscious hip-hop I have heard. I think that is awful. Economicsshould be a very serious and important part of any philosophy or programthat is so opinionated in other areas. But I think that is a problem where you have to look beneath the surface.
From my experience Black Nationalist or Afrikan-centered positions seem to
always lack a strong economic component. I believe that because people involved with those movements or believe in those positions tend to want to disassociate themselves from the current economics structure in the U.S or Europe. Many see that as a major reason why Black people in this country
and throughout the world have been and are oppressed. Now I agree that the
capitalist system has been a huge factor in our people being exploited but
that doesn't mean we shouldn't use it to our advantage. There is a very
fine line between using this system economically to free ourselves and
getting caught up in it and becoming the exploiter. That is what people are
afraid of, and to be honest I have been apprehensive at times when thinking
of this and acting on it.
I would like someone or group to present a plan, a better plan, to us, which could satisfy that dilemma. There are historical examples I can point to one short term and the other long term, Marcus Garvey's and Elijah
Muhammad's programs. Each worked for the time they did because they were
self-contained organizations. They created a society within a society.
Perhaps that is the answer with some modifications to those programs, here
in the U.S.
Cedric Muhammad: Do you think that the events of September 11th have or will alter Hip-Hop lyrics?
Yaw Asare Aboagye: I think they already have I'm sure you've heard various artists are planning Osama Bin Laden diss records. Ghostface Killah even had something to say on Wu-Tang latest album. Whether they're trying to cash in on the patriotic flag waving bandwagon or they truly believe in what they're doing is another matter. This is a significant historical event. That doesn't mean I endorse what happened because I don't but history encompasses all events whether good or bad depending on our perspective.
Also I think there will be those that may be afraid to speak on certain
issues, especially if it's an attack on the way the U.S. treats black
people, here and abroad. If that happens, I'd be disappointed; we still
need more voices raising the same issues that concern our community. This
perception you're unpatriotic if you speak against the U.S. at this time is
ludicrous, it's all a game to keep folks silent so the powers in this
country can run around doing what they want without somebody call them out
on it. Personally, I couldn't care less about being patriotic anyway. I'll
never forget what this country has done and continues to do to our community.
Cedric MuhammadMusically speaking do you think that live bands are true to Hip-Hop's genesis? Many now equate live instruments as an indication of increased consciousness or sophistication among artists. Do you agree?
Yaw Asare Aboagye: Well music is an entity that always evolves. It never stays the same, even within a specific category of music. Somebody always comes through with something new to the table that people either agree, disagree, like or dislike. Something that sends shock waves to the establish scene.
As I understand Hip-Hop's genesis, the reason it was to a large extent
devoid of live instruments was the lack of resources given to public schools
where learning an instrument could be introduced to young people, specifically young Black people. I know I can count myself within this
category. The only instruments that I had a shot at learning in the public
school system in New York were the violin, viola, maybe the clarinet, or
saxophone. And they were teaching us classical music, we wasn't trying to
hear that so you'd become disinterested, (I'm not knocking classical music but most Black folk I know ain't into that). No drums, no bass (acoustic or electric), no guitar were taught. Instruments that form an essential core of music we as Black people listen too. So we figured out another way to create something for our ear, using turntables, sound machines plus the M.C. Whether live bands are true to hip-hop's genesis, to me, is a non-factor. Do you like it or not I'd ask?
Where the consciousness and live instruments connection comes from I don't know, maybe because of the Roots. But I don't see it as a form of increased consciousness.
Somebody "unconscious" could easily pick up an instrument, play it and use it in hip-hop or hire a band.
I like that more artists are deciding to go the live instrument route
though. I think you can stretch a sound better when a person is making the
sound as opposed to relying solely on a machine. You also don't have to worry
about sampling laws, etc because you created the sound yourself.
Cedric Muhammad: The word conscious is an adjective. Does that mean that "Hip-Hop" standing alone is not conscious? Was Hip-Hop in its inception devoid of a significant form of consciousness?
Yaw Asare Aboagye:Well hip-hop encompasses the whole game, meaning conscious hip-hop falls within hip-hop itself. So hip-hop by itself is not unconscious. I think what most people consider conscious hip-hop is the X-Clan, BDP-KRS-One, Talib Kweli variety; these artists are very political & history oriented. I feel conscious more than just expressing something political or historical.
There are artists who say something who discuss non-political, non-historical subjects that I'd say are conscious. For instance Aceyalone, a brother out of L.A., has a track called "I Can't Complain", if you listen he says some stuff we all need to consider and think about.
He's basically talking about life in general. What I get out of it is whatever your position in life is you have a chance to do something so take advantage of your opportunity and walk with truth. I think that's a very valuable message. Now what could be more conscious than a message like that?
When I think of hip-hop at its inception it doesn't take me long to remember "The Message", definitely a conscious track. I also remember Afrika
Bambaataa and his work creating the Zulu nation. Hip-hop overall is about
consciousness and awareness; it's just what your subject matter is that
makes the difference in most peoples opinions. I think you can talk about
just about any subject and be conscious. Being disrespectful of Black
people and women, specifically Black women, makes you an ignorant artist in
my view and totally unconscious. So I believe conscious has always been
there. Today it's more directed, forceful, and demanding, therefore making it easier to categorize.
Cedric Muhammad: What is the state of Hip-Hop today?
Yaw Asare Aboagye:Hip-hop right now is looking at itself asking some critical questions, in terms of it message. Anytime someone or something decides to look at itself is good. I hope it's an honest attempt. This music has a tremendous power I don't think has been realized.
I think a change is coming where more artists are beginning to demand more
control over their product, as they should. I also see more balance coming
to hip-hop where it's not top heavy with bling-bling and gangsta type
artists. I also see the audiences demanding a greater variety played on
radio. All of that will come from us taking more control of what we created
and takin' back responsibility yo!
Yaw Asare Aboagye, Co-founder of ConsciousHipHop.com can be contacted at:
Friday, February 1, 2002