Black Thought set the rap internet on fire when he blazed a ten-minute master class in improvised rap over the instrumental to Mobb Deep’s “Burn” on Hot 97’s Funkmaster Flex show. The freestyle garnered over 1.2 million plays in just three days, shooting to the top of Twitter’s trending topics, and becoming one of the most shared Funk Flex freestyles of the dozens posted by Hot 97 this year, on pace to knock off every other 2017 freestyle by the end of the month as the most-viewed on Youtube.
Spawning a variety of new reaction memes based on Flex’s bemused expressions and sparking passionate discussion about both Black Thought’s deserved placement on a rap Mount Rushmore of greatest rappers of all time, the freestyle also resulted in the frontman for The Hardest-Working Band In Show Business temporarily trading his position on The Tonight Show‘s bandstand for one on the guest couch where host Jimmy Fallon grilled him about his impressive ability to extemporize raps so crisply for so long.
The freestyle was partly in response to Myles Johnson’s Uproxx essay titled “What Is Jimmy Fallon’s Political Silence Costing The Roots?,” where Johnson argued that the host’s apolitical stance has had a detrimental effect on Black Thought and The Roots’ political stances (as his backing band) in a mainstream context. Basically, that by giving them one of the most popular platforms, Fallon could have helped them promote their social justice causes in front of an audience of millions; instead, he’s got Black Thought wasting his prodigious talents by rhyming about in-studio audience members’ favorite seasons. While there is certainly a time and place for the fun and games, the complete absence of any type of protest in the face of current political events, where human rights are being traded away for commercial interests seemingly every day, feels downright irresponsible.
The Funk Flex appearance should have been Thought’s definitive word on any number of social issues, from police brutality to net neutrality, but the problem is one of scale. Yes, he proved once again that he is a master of wordplay, rhyme, rhythm, breath control, and staying firmly on topic despite improvising for the ten minutes worth of gasp-inducing punchlines and immaculate flow — but the hip-hop world already knows he can do these things. The message is important, but it’s being delivered to an audience that never needed convincing in the first place. In short, the political themes and messages of that freestyle really need to be on The Tonight Show, not on Funk Flex, if they are to ever have the desired effect of making America take stock of its positions and affect true change.
Black Thought’s freestyle followed on the heels of Eminem’s “The Storm” freestyle at the BET Hip-Hop Awards Cypher, a four-minute whirlwind of acerbic acapella disses aimed squarely at the current US commander-in-chief. His post of the video to his official Twitter became his most-shared tweet ever, and Youtube post from BET itself shot up in plays from the moment it was available. The clip currently sits at over 41 million views and is still a talking point of many rap conversations taking place.
However, while both freestyles were standouts and respectively dropped with the impact of speeding comets, neither can really be counted as an epiphany moment for casual rap fans who needed a wakeup call to all the social injustice swirling throughout the 24-hour news cycle’s endless stream of depressing sludge. Why? Because they were directed toward outlets that directly serve hip-hop and its interests, so the people who most need to hear the message — aka White mainstream Americans — won’t.
First of all, we’re going to need to be a little more realistic than thinking a pair of rap freestyles is going to fix the mountain of backward prejudice and injustice American society was founded on. Though Black Thought may have been at least partly addressing the complaint that Jimmy Fallon’s political atheism is flattening The Roots’ more outspoken, political viewpoint, he did so on a platform that many of Jimmy Fallon’s viewers have never even heard of — and probably never will.
If anything, he proved Johnson’s point: That The Roots are able to take creative risks and make overt political statements only in the safe spaces provided by their hardcore hip-hop home base, not on larger mainstream platforms where those types of statements are needed most. Those who may not be aware of the Philly spitter’s impressive resume (Top 5, dead or alive, for my money), are now aware that he can spit a freestyle that, when printed out, makes for a four-foot long scroll of paper in 12-point font, but are they checking for his music now? Probably not. In fact, there are still people who amusingly failed to realize that Black Thought was the name of a person as the freestyle became the number one trending topic on Twitter, lashing out with the standard “what abouts” to unintentionally hilarious effect.
when race trolls see black thought trending and dont realize that its a person pic.twitter.com/YptNtgfUcw
— Open Mike Eagle (@Mike_Eagle) December 15, 2017
And when he became a “guest” on the show, did Jimmy ask him about community outreach or playing for Obamas at the White House or the time Questlove was reprimanded and almost fired as bandleader for playing Michele Bachmann out to the tune of Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass B*tch?” Nope. He did not. The Roots have been allowed to be more political on ABC’s sitcom Black-ish (which, again, conservative “white” people are likely not watching) than on their home network.
Likewise, Em’s freestyle didn’t change any of his red-state or alt-right fans’ minds; if anything, it gave them pause for a few minutes to decide whether they’d continue to listen to his (increasingly bad) music, which many of them might. A greater portion of the population who aren’t already rap fans never even heard the freestyle because they don’t watch BET (indeed, many of them complain that its very existence is somehow unfair), so who was it really for? Black folks already know how Eminem feels about us — and how many of his fans feel about us in spite of him. When he was given one of the largest live platforms for his appearance on Saturday Night Live, he gave us a limp rendition of his poorly-received new single and a watered-down medley of his most pop-friendly hits, not a political bar in the bunch. That’s hardly world-shaking stuff.
These two freestyles were incredible, enjoyable, entertaining, educational, and possibly even pivotal within the culture of hip-hop, but it’s time we adjust our expectations. Rap isn’t going to save the world, at least not in its current iteration, with the current platforms it has available to it. The biggest names in hip-hop must start using the biggest platforms to speak out, even if it’s uncomfortable for the potential fans those platforms provide.
Furthermore, it’s not going to be freestyles that ultimately change the way people think, if it’s even possible to do so. The off-the-cuff, often rambling nature of the form necessitates that it be taken less seriously than a carefully-considered, well-written song. For instance, Eminem’s “Untouchable” had far more potential to address societal ills like racial profiling and white privilege than “The Storm,” but it wasn’t the song he chose for his SNL performance (it’s also a terrible-sounding song as well, which limits its reach almost as much as its lack of promotion). Black Thought’s freestyle for Funk Flex, stripped down to its most meaningful moments, performed and broken down on The Tonight Show would reach far more viewers and potentially change more minds than a radio freestyle that only the most enthusiastic of rap fans will ever have a chance of hearing.
It’s clear why they don’t, though. In the same way other genres of music have gone largely silent on political issues in 2017 for fear of upsetting a significant portion of their potential consumer base, rap artists have had to limit their overt protests in the already slim amount of time they’ve had allotted by mainstream outlets. Hip-hop has fought for so long to get into some of these rooms, to be taken seriously as a genre, no one wants to be the one to ruin it for the culture at large.
These outlets are already notoriously squeamish about upsetting advertisers, business partners, and red-state consumers, but those are the viewers that most need to be taken to task if the social conditions that often inform rap’s most political output are to see real change. When both artists and outlets are willing to take those risks is when a political rap can finally have all the force of a Funk Flex bomb drop — with mainstream impact.