The politically charged hip-hop group The Coup ignited Crowell Concert Hall last Thursday night with its electrifying brand of pulsating topicality. Accompanied by fellow socially conscious artists Lifesavas, the Oakland-based group galvanized the 150 students, faculty, and Middletown residents with its rhythmic and rough-hewn musical portraits of political revolt and personal struggle.
The concert, co-sponsored by the Center for the Arts, the department of sociology, and Zilkha Gallery, began with remarks by Professor of Sociology Robert Rosenthal. He bemoaned the fact that politically aware musicians were “belittled and dismissed” by today’s modern media.
“We may be living in the Golden Age of political music,” Rosenthal said. Boots Riley, the Coup’s lead singer/lyricist, amply supported Rosenthal’s comment with his provocative words and sense of humor.
Lifesavas, the evening’s opening act, exploded onto the Crowell stage within seconds of Rosenthal’s hasty exit. As audience members left their seats and flooded to the front of the stage, rappers Vursatyl and Jumbo the Garbage Man implored listeners to move their feet and perk up their ears. Their pounding hooks and direct choruses drove home messages of tolerance, activism, and the need to celebrate life. Vursatyl and Jumbo possessed effortless on-stage chemistry, the lithe Jumbo (a beanpole compared to the rather rotund Vursatyl) stalking around the more stationary Vursatyl in an almost orbital fashion. This off-hand visual wit helped buoy the show, which, clocking in at over an hour, did not always maintain the energy of its opening minutes.
Jumbo left the stage feeling strongly about the performance. Dripping with sweat, he said that audience enthusiasm made it “the best show so far.” He defended the positive nature of Lifesavas’ music against those who dismiss their work as “cheesy” or quaint.
“Music is the most powerful informational tool outside of the Internet,” Jumbo said. He said he intends on continuing to use it to spread a message of hope.
If Lifesavas was the evening’s straight-up shot of emotion, the Coup provided a more complicated cocktail of humor and protest. The group’s multilayered look at the modern urban landscape can be traced back to Riley, a perceptive lyricist whose onstage presence defines magnetism. Stalking about in a dark brown suit jacket and unbuttoned collar, Riley has the cock-of-the-walk strut, the roguish half-smile, and the sleepy-eyed smolder of Ludacris at his most sly.
“We like free speech/but we love free cable,” growled Riley, hitting just the right note of ironic sting. That same growl morphed throughout the performance, subtly adjusting to the fury, humor, and pathos within each song. His performance of “Underdogs,” a heart-stopping tribute to the outcast-heroes of a new generation, burned with the purest of sincerity, casting a stunned and sobering silence over the crowd.
Riley’s raw magnetism made his sharing of the stage all the more graceful. Every song held ample time for the audience to appreciate the band’s extensive instrumental skills; Riley even led an end-of-the-show “roll call” to introduce the audience to the musicians. His duets with female rapper Silky, who joined the band for much of the performance, were among the show’s highlights, his laid-back cool complementing her vibrant and soulful vocals. Riley even abandoned the spotlight entirely at one point, and Silky made full use of the opportunity.
“Baby, let’s have a baby/ Before Bush do somethin’ crazy,” she crooned, her face melting into a knowing grin. Needless to say, the audience went wild.
Once the performance (extended by an encore) concluded, reaction was uniformly positive.
“The Coup blew me away,” said Ellen Knuti ’08, a fan of the group before the performance.
David Rood-Ojalvo ’05 came with friends and little prior knowledge of the Coup’s music, but by show’s end he praised them as “fantastic.” He went on to compliment both the Coup and Lifesavas, who both “did a great job making the space work for them.”
Other students questioned the decision to place a hip-hop show in the cavernous confines of Crowell.
The location “felt like an official movie from Administration,” said Micah Dubreuil ’07.
“Why didn’t they put it in Eclectic?” asked Melissa Montezir ’07. The circumstances did indeed seem unfortunate for the performers, as the muffled sound system drowned out some of the groups’ most crucial lyrics.
Riley himself said the school “needed to rent more equipment” if they chose to hold another hip-hop show in the concert hall. Mostly, however, he praised the crowd’s positive energy and was pleasantly surprised by the Wesleyan fan base the Coup had acquired.
A thoughtful and soft-spoken presence off-stage, Riley’s words articulately summarized the heart of the evening’s performance. Asked about the politics that drive his music, Riley simply said that “society needs to be changed, and can be changed.”