Column: Wiley's Follies
Lupe And The White Canvas
Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 23:01
Rapper Lupe Fiasco was ushered off stage at the StartUp RockOn unofficial inaugural ball in Washington D.C. last Sunday, after what organizers described as “a bizarrely repetitive, jarring performance that left the crowd vocally dissatisfied.” Fiasco was performing “Words I Never Said,” an anthem for protest, at the time of his removal. The subversive implications of Lupe’s work are far more pervasive than the partisan jabs typical in hip-hop culture. He has gone so far as to declare President Barack Obama “the greatest terrorist,” noting the irony of an idealistic, antiwar president authorizing drone strikes.
So was Lupe merely being too repetitive or was he telling a story not many are willing to tell? Was this an elaborate ploy for national attention or a legitimate performance met by an untimely silencing? Having witnessed Lupe Fiasco’s performance in Conte Forum last October, I find it hard to believe the happenings at Startup Rockon were anything but deliberate.
Unlike most rappers, whose lyricism holds its greatest weight in the studio, Lupe commands superior control on stage. He commonly augments his music with historical narratives, evoking the voices of relatively obscure civil rights leaders. This fall during his performance at BC, half the crowd left before the end of his spirited two-hour set. Lupe seemed unabashed, perhaps even honored, by the crowd’s departure, and such is his style—he doesn’t play to the crowd, but rather plays the crowd, upsets them, stirs their emotions. Last Sunday, the organizers of StartUp RockOn, the self-declared “exciting, energetic, and authentic event series,” attempted to bereave art of its most basic right: to offend, and dissatisfy, its audience.
Why else would the Scary Movie series be allowed to repeatedly sneak its way into theaters? Surely audiences are not satisfied by the barrages of B-listers blithely milking the cow of banality in these films—and yet, the same hapless moviegoers who stumbled into Scary Movie 4 in 2006 will find themselves again captive to Scary Movie 5 this April. And although lacking in form, the Scary Movie series serves an important artistic function, if only through its ability to highlight the vacancy of the human condition through the continual torment of select crowds. If every movie left its viewers satisfied, I would question the purpose of cinema. Movies should not distract from the day-to-day, but rather disturb and rework it.
In this year’s bountiful movie crop, several films had me leaving the theater exhausted and disjointed, most notably Django Unchained. The film’s rash approach to addressing typically tempered racial themes built up a strange tension throughout the theater, driving many patrons to leave the theater well before the halfway mark. Even with a relatively crude notion of reverence, I couldn’t bring myself to laugh at several of the film’s jokes. I left the theater thoroughly distraught, as if I woke up on the wrong side of history. When asked if I liked the movie, I merely replied, “I’m not sure,” later adding, “I’ll need to think about it.” Surely such a film rightfully earned its accolades.
Modern art, at its best, stirs similar sentiments. In an obscure corner of the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, there’s a painting by Kazimir Malevich titled “White on White.” To the untrained eye, it’s just a white canvas. This draws an endless stream of frustration from the museum’s patrons. However, the trained eye can see a masterpiece—watching distressed visitors making spectacles of themselves over a white canvas. Art does not come to exist through what’s put into it, but rather what’s taken out of it. This realization is the basis of the modern movement, a sacrifice of ornate form in favor of emotional resonance, whether it be awe, disgust, or in the case of Lupe, dissatisfaction.
The crowds at StartUp RockOn were not expecting a “jarring” performance. The concert series is aimed to function as a networking opportunity for trendy entrepreneurs looking to “forge real relationships” through cultural experiences—a group whose existence I’m still slightly skeptical of. Granted the event previously took place at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, it seems possible the audience was expecting a more conventional political agenda. It’s equally possible they did not want to hear about drone strikes, or how the 30-year-old rapper didn’t vote for the president because “Obama didn’t say s—t.” However, it’s most probable they were upset by Lupe spending 30 minutes inaudibly rambling about politics. Regardless, it was an exceptional musical feat, to have a room full of businesspeople howling at a white canvas.