Don't Misunderstand: An Open Letter to Nas

Don't Misunderstand: An Open Letter to Nas

Dear Nas,

At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, I’ll be blunt: you’re one of my favorites of all time! Straight up. You can always be relied on to bring some honesty to hip-hop. During your beef with Jay-Z, I sided with you. When some folks got on your case for “Hip-Hop Is Dead,” I was arguing with them, pointing out that the criticisms of the form you love were all legit. When you endorsed Obama, even though I thought the McKinney-Clemente ticket was a better option, I publicly defended you because I knew that you were saying this is only the beginning of the struggle. In the end, that’s what it’s always been about: giving a voice to the struggle.

You’ve also let the global dimension of that struggle shine through in your work like few others of your stature. In my estimation, Distant Relatives was one of the best releases of 2010 for that exact reason. You and Damian Marley drew all the links that needed to be drawn: reggae, rap, African and Arab rhythms, Queens, Kingston, Cairo and Johannesburg. And you did it in style!

Which is why I was so frustrated to read your recent comments on the situation in Libya to “I never saw Gaddafi as an enemy, like a deadly enemy that wanted to harm people for no reason. I kind of see him as someone who is misunderstood. I see him as someone whose... I think a revolution in Libya is important and I just hate to see that the people are against him or he has to be against [them], I hate to see any violence between him and his people, I just don’t like that.”

When asked if you thought the West should intervene, you replied “Intelligently yes, I think they could intervene so that there could be peace y’know and some understanding and sure if they can help.”

I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt here. I’m really hoping that these comments were taken out of context, or that it can be chalked up to bad editing on the part of the website. Because honestly, I know you want to stand on the right side here, and that is the side of the Libyan people.

The Libyan revolution isn’t a matter of misunderstanding. It’s taking place because the people see Gaddafi as an enemy, a dictator, and for good reason. It’s estimated that somewhere between ten to twenty percent of the Libyan population is employed by the government as informants, which ranks the nation as one of the world’s most vicious police states.

Any man whose son can afford to hire out 50 Cent, Beyonce and Mariah at a million dollars apiece to play private parties while his population struggles with a 25 percent unemployment rate is not a man of the people! This uprising is taking place in the context of the North African and Arab worlds saying they’ve had enough of strongmen leaders like Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia (hopefully, the King of Bahrain is next).

Has the Western media done their job in painting Gaddafi as a villain? Yes, and that should all be looked at skeptically. But they’ve done a better job making out ordinary Libyans to be a bunch of savage racists in need of “strong leadership.” That, along with the long history of Western colonialism and intervention should tell you all you need to know about an “intelligent” intervention.

Right now, the people of Libya, along with Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, Iraq and the whole region are making clear that they want to run their countries for themselves. The amount of solidarity across national borders has been staggering. It reminds me, if you’ll allow me to say so, of the kind of unity you, Damian and K’Naan call for in “Tribal War.”

That is the kind of solidarity that the Western powers fear. They had no problem with Gaddafi when he was supporting the “war on terror” and letting Exxon-Mobil and Chevron get a piece of the oil. Now, with a long-coming popular revolt shaking the region, the US and Europe are seeing their business interests threatened. They are trying to find a way to cut the revolutions off at the head, and that’s what any intervention is going to aim for. Not peace, not understanding. It’s about the money, pure and simple.

As I write this, the UN has just sent planes over Libya, and we are guaranteed to see casualties on both sides. On top of that, there’s no guarantee that Gaddafi will end up being removed at all, and in fact several of the no-fly zone’s biggest cheerleaders have said that isn’t even the aim! Ultimately, the powers-that-be would rather strike a deal with Gaddafi--they are, after all, no more than two different sides of the same Babylonian coin.

Don’t take my word for it; take the words of the artists and MCs who have added their beats and rhymes to the struggle. These revolutions have brought an unprecedented amount of attention to the incredible and vibrant role that hip-hop has played in the Middle East and the North African diaspora.

Libya is no exception. Listen to the rhymes of MC Banks, a Libyan immigrant living in the UK, or Ibn Thabit’s “Call To the Libyan Youth,” or the many other rappers in Benghazi, Tripoli and all over who are releasing their songs anonymously for fear of reprisals. Rap has always been a voice of the people, and during this grave and scary time, that’s more true than ever.

Nas, don’t misunderstand me; these words come from the heart, as I know all of yours do. Every artist has the right to be wrong. They also have the right to change their minds. In this case, it’s literally a matter of life and death. I don’t claim to speak for the Libyan people, but I do know that the events of the past couple months have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they don’t need anyone to decide their own destiny but themselves. That being said, I’m sure that they would welcome your support with open arms.

In hope and solidarity,
Alex B

Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Chicago.  He runs the website Rebel Frequencies (, and writes the column of the same name for SOCIARTS.  He can be reached at