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'The Gentrification Song' Is The Inner-City Blues America Deserves From Rap

When Biggie Smalls is nearly banished from Bed-Stuy, the writing is on the wall. An outside mural dedicated in 2015 to the deceased hip-hop icon and Brooklyn native Notorious B.I.G. barely avoided permanent removal last month after the building's landlord threatened to do away with it for major renovations.

Consider it another anecdote in America's urban makeover. Forty years after hip-hop emerged from inner cities across America, the 'hood is suddenly where it's good again. Yet those who survived the socioeconomic disparity and decay for decades are increasingly on the outs, from Brooklyn to the Bay. Gift of Gab's new single, "The Gentrification Song," isn't the first to question the systemic ills displacing low-income and working class communities of color. But instead of camouflaging his message in coded language, the Bay Area rapper leaves zero room for confusion with his plainspoken critique delivered with empathy over a classic beat.

"The city lost its soul and gained a lot of hipsters, but does that really make it better or a little weirder?" he questions. "And will the idea of America come to fruition, or is to push the poor away really the real agenda?"

Gab, one-half of long-time rap duo Blackalicious, was inspired to tackle the issue after "seeing how gentrification is affecting the country," he tells NPR. "I know people who are sleeping in their cars. This cab driver told me he was paying $1,300 a month [in rent]. He got a letter that told him in two months it would rise to $3,600 a month. And just witness all the tent cities all over the country popping up."

The single is the latest from his recently released EP Rejoice! Rappers Are Rapping Again. An obvious shout-out to the escalating woke factor in some mainstream rap, Gift of Gab has faith that his inequality anthem won't be the last word on gentrification's ongoing erasure. "Hip-hop comes from the voice of the less privileged, so I'm sure we will have a lot more to say," he says. "To me that's part of an artist's duty — to observe and communicate."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.