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The Power of Words

Words:

Edd Norval
February 28, 2018

Post-Truth. Fake News. Alternative Facts. What are we to consider real, if anything? This new era of disbelief has been ushered in by a population that is more critical than ever before. In a time when words seem to mean less and less, there are groups of people who are fighting back.

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This also means that the meaning of words, the power and value they have, is crumbling before our eyes - so much so that we have new phrases to define these undefinable expressions. Post-Truth. Fake News. Alternative Facts. The repetition of which have given them roots in our psyche.


There is a war on the value of words and the frontline will be popular culture - the chosen battlefield of modern politics. So, who are the soldiers? Music is definitely a politicised artform that has become sharpened in the last year or so. There's the artists that are expressing their direct ire, like Eminem's BET Awards freestyle aimied at the USA and their President and others that are making slightly more subtle offerings. Guys like Kendrick Lamar, Run The Jewels, Akala, Kojey Radical and King Krule are reminding us that words still mean something - that they can make a difference.


"How can a dummy dope like Harry Hurt, who wrote a failed book about me but doesn't know me or anything about me, be on TV discussing Trump?" The use of third-person in tweets only hints at a sense of megalomania and goes a long way in aiding the opinion that CAPITALISING THINGS MAKE THEM TRUE. The poor grammar and construction reads more like a meme than a tweet from the world's most powerful figure. Seeing communication written in this way, along with a notably childish presidential campaign from both entrants, it seems like words are losing there power - but are they?

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In Kendrick Lamar's new album 'DAMN.' he muses about the states of the States in 'XXX', “Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph/The great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives/Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters/Barricaded blocks and borders/Look what you taught us”. His provocative lyrics in the album are poetic, literal and never afraid to be political-by-experience Kendrick avoids rap demagoguery to tell a personal story of the America he lives in. He's a rich man. A celebrity from humble beginnings that has chosen not to forsake their history and past. He writes with an eloquence that stands in harsh opposition to the carelessly worded tweets and overly simplistic language abused by those in power.


Run The Jewels are equally as political, although with a more call-to-arms flavour. They helped to campaign for Bernie during the 2016 elections, then got introduced to the crowd by him at Coachella. Their 'Nobody Speaks' video with DJ Shadow shows a senate-style meeting that then descends into a large scale brawl. They take aim at politicians, law enforcement, social movements and the media. In the aftermath of Ferguson, Missouri, CNN reporter Don Lemon faced scrutiny for his reporting and took a hit on the track 'Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)' from their RTJ3 album, “CNN got dummy Don on the air… dummy don’t know and dummy don’t care / Get that punk motherfucker out of here.” It seems safe to say that they weren't happy. They also have a platform to make it known.

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It's not just politically charged hip-hop artists that are making a statement though - there are a lot of artists now flirting with the spoken-word form in their music and they're finding some success in doing so. As hip-hop has become more diverse than ever before, this has opened a space for experimentation and artists are beginning to adopt this raw and engaging style of expression. Jay Z's latest album 4.44 includes track 'Smile' that contains a revelation, not about Jay Z, but his mum, first announced by the line "Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian / Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian." and then with a poem by his mum, Gloria:


"Living in the shadow. Can you imagine what kind of life it is to live? In the shadows people see you as happy and free, Because that's what you want them to see, Living two lives, happy, but not free. You live in the shadows for fear of someone hurting your family or the person you love. The world is changing and they say it's time to be free. But you live with the fear of just being me. Living in the shadow feels like the safe place to be. No harm for them, no harm for me. But life is short, and it's time to be free. Love who you love, because life isn't guaranteed"

If there was ever a time to harness words, their power and their personal meaning, making such an announcement was the right time. Simultaneous to the UK's grime explosion, other artists are taking a much more low-key approach to lyricism. King Krule's baritone verses and Kate Tempest's slam-influenced sound have given them a powerful surge of support in the last couple of years. These two artists have boiled the musicality down to being a compliment to their words, not a distraction - they are modern day poets.


The tipping point for the full reunification of spoken word in popular culture could be the return of Def Poetry Jam, the platform that helped launch Kanye West. This time around its slated to be hosted by Chicago's Chance The Rapper, an artist that has fully utilised the potential of the word in his own tracks. In a time when words are being devalued in the public and political sphere, artists are still choosing to explore their power. It's even happening in other mediums that music - becoming prevalent in a lot of art and fashion. It's assuring to know that no matter how hellbent people are on taking the power from words, there are always people willing to put their neck on the life to reclaim it.

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