On the papyrus holding names of rap cats who’ve dialed up their politics lately, pencil in Portland rapper Aminé next to A Tribe Called Quest, Common, and Chance the Rapper. The reason: his much-discussed performance of “Caroline” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in November. The Top 20 hit, with its jaunty breakbeat and Aminé’s low-key charisma, is just the latest example of mainstream hip-hop’s recent surge in positivity amid what seems like a heightened state of fear. Yet, in a twist, the artist opted to turn down the decibels in his late-night debut, trading the exuberant homie-love featured in the music video for a pensive, tempered performance with praise team and jazzy string accompaniment. The turn-down felt purposeful, despite the song’s apparent frivolousness, and would later prove pivotal in Aminé’s final, more impactful message.
In darkness, playing a piano adorned with a dozen bananas, Aminé drew the audience into “Caroline” with a whisper. While a violin whined in the background, preparing us for what seemed like a gentle love record, Aminé rapped super-freak nasty — “Caroline, you divine / Mighty fine / Shawty really blow the pipe / Like a pro” — in what initially felt like a disjointed presentation. But moments later, he justified the stylistic incoherence as his intentions became clear. For all the jazzy warmth of his performance, he meant to leave the audience feeling challenged. “If my president is Trump," he ad-libbed, “then it’s relevant enough to talk about it on TV and not give a fuck.” Distancing himself from other flash-in-the-pan acts, Aminé used his first television appearance to condemn rap shuckin’ and jivin’: “I'm black and I'm proud / My skin is brown and I'm loud / Everybody love it when a rapper tell some lies / But that ain’t me, homie, I guess that’s a surprise.”
And why should Aminé’s political coda be such a surprise? Even as hip-hop begins to embrace positive-leaning comfort music in trying times, there's a very real need to ground that optimism within the realities of the Trump era. The words that Aminé added on The Tonight Show ended up overshadowing the rest of his performance — but that’s not a dis. In this case, working backward toward protest was exactly the right move. The necessity for unrelenting critique of Trump, from musicians and others, only grows as the pumpkin continues to sign abusive, antiquated, and parochial policies. Aminé's performance was a potent symbol of the way that urge will continue to seep into even the most seemingly apolitical music. White, mainstream audiences matter, not only in determining how well a song charts but in building up a national consensus across racial and class lines against fascism, racism, and xenophobia.
Even before those closing lines, Aminé's performance had political implications worth noting. His use of orchestral jazz modes drew on a rich tradition, dating back to the days when crate-divers like Prince Paul, J Dilla, and Tribe’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad would explore their elder kinfolks’ record collections. By the mid-'90s, their excursions paid off, as breakbeats, brassy horns, and the possibility of improvisation laid a flexible canvas for rappers of the non-gangster type. Today, the jazz-rap cross-stitch performed by contemporary artists like D.R.A.M. and Chance the Rapper recalls the intimate engagement of those previous Afrocentrics — an especially important link in the era of Trump, whose policies threaten this cultural heritage along with so much else.
Jazz artists have benefited for decades from the federal funding and public exposure provided by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which the new Republican regime has threatened to cut drastically. In the early '80s, Sun Ra, Dizzy Gillespie, and other American originals received Jazz Masters Fellowships to fund new projects, workshops, and tours. NEA-supported public broadcasting channels have contributed mightily to jazz’s continuing relevance through docu-series like NPR’s Jazz Night in America. Under President Pumpkin’s regime, national archives housing classic jazz records could be privatized and inaccessible. Keeping jazz alive and, even further, returning jazz to the black hands that molded it, will be made all the more difficult under a Trump administration. This is a fight with real stakes. The threat of slashing the NEA’s funding should have those who care about black art protesting today, not tomorrow.
Throughout the 20th century, of course, jazz transformed from specifically black cultural expression into a broader definition of American music. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how the appropriation involved in that process aided the acceptance of jazz as high art. More recently, Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, and Meshell Ndegeocello have helped lead a resurgence of hip-hop-inflected jazz and jazz-inflected hip-hop, inspiring cats like Kendrick Lamar to break out the live instrumentation and have full-on sessions onstage. The knowledge of an older genre implied by these experiments, in turn, has helped make the vulgarities and contradictions of rap palatable for mainstream white listeners — which is part of why it was such a canny move for Aminé to nudge “Caroline” toward jazz on The Tonight Show. It's a tricky tradeoff that speaks to the difficult decisions artists must make to market themselves to a national audience. But it’s also a gift, paid for in the sweat and talents of Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Herbie Hancock, and all the artists who formed jazz in their own image — singing, keying, and blowing their truth, even at its vilest, and convincing audiences to come along.
As unfair as it may be to expect hip-hop artists to be the perpetual voice of marginalized people, the fact remains that rap is uniquely positioned to be a political force. If I had a penny for every time I’ve wished for more nonblack, non-hip-hop celebrities to be plain about their politics, I’d buy a 24-karat golden calculator. So in 2017, I’m here for artists imbuing seemingly superficial records with new political weight. In a world that feels inundated with fakeness and alternative facts, we need to be confronted with unbridled, daunting truth as often as possible. If Aminé’s sudden political awakening at the end of a sexed-up pop song feels too hip-hop for comfort, maybe that’s exactly the point.