The danger in presenting a project that mixes hip-hop music and investigative journalism lies in the perception.
One might expect a very targeted podcast, perhaps delivering deeply reported investigations into aspects of the hip-hop world. This is actually not a bad idea (don’t steal it), and as the success of Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty has shown, there exists some general public interest in "insider" hip-hop matters.
On the other hand, the thought of a hip-hop and news podcast might conjure up images of Wolf Blitzer spitting overly enunciated bars about DACA or the latest North Korean provocation, à la Hamilton: An American Musical.
No one wants that.
Many would simply ask, “Why hip-hop?” After all, hip-hop music is often viewed as little more than a profanity-laced, misogynistic, drug-use-and-violence-glorifying genre of music (and those who feel this way use the term “music” loosely, I’m sure).
So would such a podcast be aimed at urban youth who listen to Lil Uzi Vert and Cardi B? Smoked-out college kids vibing to Joey Badass or Mick Jenkins? Hipster millennials rocking out to Childish Gambino or Action Bronson? Aging hip-hop heads who still pump their Mobb Deep CDs (R.I.P. Prodigy)?
While the concept of a hip-hop and news mashup might pique the curiosity of some, in the hard-scrabble podcasting world, every listener counts. For us at News Beat, focusing a journalism project on progressive issues already pushes away a good portion of America, and giving the impression that our podcast caters more to The Combat Jack Show's audience than an All Things Considered audience, could be further alienating.
We’re in an age where anyone can (and often does) create a website that looks like a reputable news site, and is not a reputable news site, where polarizing opinions are spewed in response to the wording of a headline that was specifically designed to elicit the spewing of polarizing opinions.
So in a time when the once-noble Fourth Estate is buckling under the weight of the misinformation age, why, one might ask, would an organization with deep roots in independent, award-winning, for-the-people journalism, and a desire to continue in that tradition, develop a podcast product that unabashedly uses hip-hop as a key component?
Why am I here? Well, let me tell you.
First, let’s clear up a couple of those perceptions.
News Beat stories cover the spectrum of humanity. They are not stories about investigating hip-hop (though we're not ruling anything out), they are are the same type of stories you would hear on 60 Minutes, or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Investigative pieces, generally connected to progressive issues, but all following the mission to take an “unconventional look at conventional wisdom.”
You give us 16 minutes, we’ll give you a look at some commonly known people, places or things, from a bit of a different angle than most would.
That attitude carries over into the delivery. Interviews, sure. Sometimes a bit of narration, but mostly, the “voices”—experts and top thought leaders in a field—tell the story in their own words. We mix in media clips and other audio sources to add some color and context, and then I meticulously arrange the whole thing atop a flowing musical bed, creating the best sonic storytelling tapestry I can. Suddenly, it becomes less of a sterile talk radio segment, and more of a spoken word piece, with atmosphere and mood fluctuating in harmony along with the narrative and story arc.
And then, the beat drops.
Rap music is in a tough spot these days. The perception to casual observers, and even many longtime fans, is that the genre has little to offer in terms of substance or significance, and has devolved into a monstrously bastardized shell of its former self, delivering nothing but negative imagery straight into the souls and minds of young people.
Even rap advocates find difficulty looking past the current crop of songs, videos and characters paraded around as being representative of hip-hop culture.
The problem with this is similar to those reputable-looking news websites that aren’t reputable news sites.
People get fooled.
Those sites fuel the perception that because SOME news is fake, ALL news is fake, and "real" news suffers.
Similarly, because rap and hip-hop have become so ubiquitous and ingrained within popular culture, a lot of what is considered popular music today is hip-hop and rap-influenced. This area of consumerism has little incentive, desire or ability to promote anything other than escapism music (Let’s party, drink som’n, smoke som’n, I can no longer feel my face, sex time!) and over-the-top aspiration music (I’m rich, see this thing, that means I’m rich, see these women, they like rich guys, I have gold, I have a plane, I have five planes, did I mention I was rich?).
Because there is a website on the internet that purports to be a news site but in fact peddles a biased, propaganda-filled version of the news, doesn’t mean that BBC News or Democracy Now! is a sham.
Because the pop music world, which is in the business of peddling mindless, shallow entertainment, is chock-full of rappers and hip-hop-flavored music, doesn’t mean the culture isn’t simultaneously producing outstanding examples of progressive and forward-thinking creativity.
We see it poking its head into the mainstream, with artists like Kendrick Lamar infusing deeply poetic lyrics with expressions of personal and communal self-love over an avant-garde music foundation to create To Pimp a Butterfly, one of the most critically acclaimed albums of all time, in any genre.
We see it in areas all over the country and the globe, where rap wordsmiths continue to push the boundaries of what humans can express over music, in terms of total amount of verbiage, as well as levels of imagery, feeling, passion, and providing a voice for the voiceless. The full spectrum of humanity's emotions can be found in rap music, so when it is reduced merely to stereotypical rubble by the ill-informed, it really does the art form a great disservice, just as if I judged the world of journalism based solely on Breitbart News or any of the countless news-sites-that-aren’t-really-news-sites.
And that’s what we want in News Beat. That extra burst of emotion. An extra slice of perspective. When we ask artists to contribute, we let them know what the other parts will consist of, but we don’t provide them with any more guidance than that. We want their VOICE, not just their voice. We want their thoughts and feelings expressed through their creativity.
As I often say when pitching an artist: “It’s like we’re interviewing you. You’re just replying in your preferred medium.”
The results so far have been amazing, adding depth and flair to our project that not only sets it apart from others in the podcast space, but truly adds a genuine level of emotion not often felt when listening to a news story.
Artists (and sometimes journalists) are the visionaries of our society, and often, the first ones on the frontlines against social injustice and oppression. They are often the first ones to resist. And they see things differently.
Our kind of people.
When it comes to the full range of human emotion, the ability to craft a story, to emphatically state a position on a matter of importance, to play with words, to bend genres, especially from someone who is connected to that particular struggle, you can find no better conduit than a talented rapper.
So, that last question… Who is this for? Is it for the hardcore rap fan? The stoner rap fan? The socially conscious rap fan?
Well, sure. All of the above. I think it’s safe to say many fans of rap will dig the unique concept and head-nodding-while-being-informative delivery of News Beat.
But to be honest, it’s also perfectly fine for those who are indifferent to rap music, or just casual listeners. While rap is a component of the episodes, the rest of the narrative certainly can stand alone. And even if you tend to be unimpressed by, or simply opposed to rap as a form of serious artistic expression, we think you’ll actually be quite pleased with what these artists bring to the table.
So basically, News Beat is for nearly everyone. It’s for fans of RadioLab or Public Enemy or 60 Minutes or Snap Judgement or Kendrick Lamar or The New York Times or All Things Considered or The Daily Show or J. Cole or This American Life or The Intercept or Drink Champs or Fresh Air or Everyday Struggle.
And if you don’t think that journalism, music and rap verses can possibly be used in any serious combination worthy of your time, well, we still think you should listen.
We just might change that perception.
Michael "Manny Faces" Conforti is the producer of News Beat, and is an award-winning new media / hip-hop journalist and lecturer based in the New York area. He is the founder and executive director of The Center for Hip-Hop Advocacy, a think-tank styled hip-hop non-profit advocacy group working to improve the public’s perception of hip-hop music and culture. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Birthplace Magazine, an online New York hip-hop entertainment and lifestyle publication.