The silent and sellout: What is the responsibility of prominent Black artists in an unjust society?
No one convicts the sellout the way good ol’ hip hop does.
by Brittany Kirkland
Back in the day, when someone labeled you a “sellout”, there was no mistaking it. You were being called out as a traitor, and it wasn’t something to be taken lightly.
What’s interesting is that as unambiguous as the term is, “sellout” is loaded for Black folk. It’s become heavily weighed down with a history entrenched in treason and disunion. Despite its intricate context, we’ve somehow still dimension-hopped our way right into this era where notable Black artists like Kanye are used to further other people’s agendas. They’re easily manipulated into using their powers for ulterior motives rather than good.
Generally speaking, we all think of selling out as straight up turning your back on an entire community for new status level or some other bogus yet temporary compensation. This is what the term has matured into for Black people in America.
It’s something about a system of oppression that’s quite insidious. It’s the type of institution that can take another word for betrayal and inflate it to encompass all the division and double crossing in the history of an already persecuted people.
The consensus amongst Black folk is very clear. Selling your people down the river has been a huge no-no. From all the fellow Black brethren who answered the call of the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO, to the Uncle Tom’s and Uncle Ruckus’s out there in the world, right on down to the artists who took an L for the culture so they could comfortably pad their pockets, it’s a no brainer that Black people have long despised the very concept of traitors and rightfully so.
Selling out has always involved some sort of exchange. Whether you were compensated with symbolism, money, opportunity, or even the promise of being left alone, reciprocity has always been the name of the game.
No one convicts the sellout the way good ol’ hip hop does. Typically, when they get referenced in rap, we’re narrowing in on that eager artist who just wanted the shine more than they wanted to preserve the very art they originally came up in the game with.
And yeah, I get it, artists evolve musically. But there’s a difference between artistic evolution and completely forfeiting your integrity as an artist for some mainstream or audience exposure that’s essentially *cough* whiter.
It should be equally acknowledged that several artists have had their sellout moments, so I can’t necessarily play the role of crucifier here. Let’s be honest, not many Hov fans were impressed by his “(Always Be My) Sunshine” stint, let alone, the moment Nasir hit us with the radio-friendly, “You Owe Me.” Even Ghostface and Missy’s “Tush” had us cringing. While this seemed to be pretty common throughout rap’s history, rappers have nonetheless critiqued the act of selling out in their music since its origin.
Big Daddy Kane let us all know. Rhymes that you yell out, but you did sell out/ Crossed-over, lost over here, now get the hell out, he warned. More recently, Nas spits in “Simple Things,” want me to sound like every song on the Top 40/ I’m not for you, you not for me, you bore me.
He even goes on to reiterate ironically that he doesn’t need to sell out as he proclaims that he drops lines prestigious schools read to their students/look at my album plaques somebody agrees with the music. I think what is even more ironic is that Yeezy himself has a writing credit on this very song. But I digress.
Leimert Park’s Dom Kennedy chops it up on “She Ain’t in Love,” claiming that he heard you went pop on some sucka shit, while K. Dot explained to us all that there’s a difference between black artists and wack artists, on Damn’s “Element.”
The Beastie Boys’ YA, may he rest in peace, in his will and testament prohibits the licensing of his music in television and film. EPMD has an entire song entitled “Crossover,” and most infamously, Getto Boys have a very dope song that they so eloquently named, “No Sell Out,” with a beautiful sample of Malcolm X’s vocals from his The Ballot or the Bullet speech.
To say the least, hip hop artists (generally) despise selling out.
But there’s conflict here. Of course, in this digital age of music, the traditional sense of selling out has become a requirement. A necessity to make it in the music industry. We all are very aware that the pennies from Apple Music and Spotify won’t pay the bills and roll over into generational wealth for their descendants.
Aside from rappers making conscious decisions as business people in a capitalistic society, within the realm of rhymes and beats, the sellout who traded gritty underground sounds for pop, watered down radio plays, is often not separated from the one who dodges the truth as if it was riding behind you in the whip, sporting red and blue. A sellout is a sellout, doesn’t matter how they decide to do it.
Nowadays, it may be time to throw folks with prominent voices who keep their mouths shut into the sellout mix as well. Their silence, despite their influence, in exchange for so-called peace, is just as sellout-label worthy, in my opinion.
So, here’s a huge sorry to all those rappers who never seem to want to take political stances because the reality is you can’t discuss anything that was birthed by Black people (hip-hop included) accurately and within context without taking politics into account. Inherently, you, every action you take, every word that spills from your mouth, and every rhyme you release are indeed political.
Sorry, but not sorry.
So where do the lines blur? Are we no longer upholding artists who were mothered by oppressive communities to the standard of using their influence to not merely give charitable contributions, but rather to speak up against injustices against any group? Has karma lost its weight as a law of the universe?
As much as people enjoy attempting to isolate hip-hop, or any art form for that matter, from activism and politics, I’m here to relay the simple message that the two are actually inseparable. There is no untangling. So, yes, the artist, specifically the Black artist, has a moral responsibility to not be a sellout.
With that being said, I think it’s appropriate for us all to take note from Tupac who famously said, “Don’t support the phonies, support the real.”
Brittany is the mom of two cool ass kids, she enjoys looking up conspiracy theory videos, and is addicted to scouring IMDB for plot summaries of movies she hasn’t fully seen. You can pick her brain about music, movies, and other shenanigans at @earthtobrittt on Twitter and IG.