Concerning Hip-Hop: A Repressive Agent or Vehicle for Activism?
By Matt Silverstein
Hip-hop culture has undergone tremendous evolutionary changes since its birth in the South Bronx. Though originally crafted as a way to unify people that shared common struggles, the majority of the hip-hop that is embraced by the masses today has far less admirable intentions. Most mainstream rap focuses on an exclusive set of subject matter, typically consisting of money, the material possessions attainable with money (such as cars, houses, alcohol, and drugs), power, women (usually in a degrading manner), and violence. Though there are exceptions to this generalization, the number of mainstream MC’s that consistently put out positive, or at least socially conscious music, is almost insignificant when compared to the number of their peers that masquerade as artists to serve themselves and their record labels. The negative subject matter that pervades the majority of mainstream hip-hop music has incited a reaction from many critics who believe the music is not art, but rather a plague on the morals and values of society. These critics (who often lack substantial exposure to hip-hop or its history) also predictably view hip-hop as devoid of any potential to create positive change. There is, however, a converse side to the criticism of hip-hop music, one that extols the creativity that many artists bring to the table (some of them mainstream, many not), and praises the potential of the messages found within the music to arouse positive changes in society. Through the examination of two essays, the reader will be able to evaluate the merits and deficiencies inherent to each critical viewpoint, and develop their own conception of hip-hop’s ability to influence society.
John H. McWhorter’s essay in City Journal, titled "How Hip-Hop Holds Blacks Back", serves as one polar of the hip-hop criticism debate. As indicated by the title, "How Hip-Hop Holds Blacks Back" conveys a particularly negative view of hip-hop music’s content and impact on society. McWhorter’s essay can be seen as a reaction to the thinking of many hip-hop intellectuals. These so-called hip-hop intellectuals see a potential in hip-hop to create a positive change in society via politics or other revolutionary avenues. McWhorter makes it clear what side he is on almost from the start of his essay:
Many writers and thinkers see a kind of informed political engagement, even a revolutionary potential, in rap and hip-hop. They couldn’t be more wrong. By reinforcing the stereotypes that long hindered blacks, and by teaching young blacks that a thuggish adversarial stance is the properly “authentic” response to a presumptively racist society, rap retards black success.
While this excerpt defines his stance on the subject of hip-hop and acts as a spring board for the rest of his article, it immediately raises some questions about McWhorter’s connectedness to societal realities.
Although Professor McWhorter is clearly an intelligent individual (he earned his PhD in linguistics from Stanford University, and has taught as UC Berkeley and Cornell), his implied opinion that rap inaccurately represents society as being presumptively racist is troubling. McWhorter is an African-American, and unless he has been living in a vacuum his entire life, he has undoubtedly suffered at the hands of racist antagonists. Hip-hop music was born out of a history of oppression, and its roots reflect the oppression that African- Americans continued to face during the time of the culture’s birth. Much of the rap music that was released during the genre’s early years was not adversarial, as McWhorter claims, but rather an expression of desperation felt by the artists and their peers. This desperation did not stem from imaginary circumstances, but from the realities of ghetto life; poor education, overcrowding, unemployment, and police brutality were forces that were often out of ghetto inhabitant’s control, and almost always imposed on them by a racist society. McWhorter digs himself further into a hole when he says the following:
We’re sorely lacking in imagination if in 2003—long after the civil rights revolution proved a success, at a time of vaulting opportunity for African Americans, when blacks find themselves at the top reaches of society and politics—we think that it signals progress when black kids rattle off violent, sexist, nihilistic, lyrics, like Russians reciting Pushkin.
Here, McWhorter makes the claim that the civil rights revolution was a success. This assertion signals a flaw throughout the entirety of "How Hip-Hop Holds Blacks Back"; McWhorter is obsessed with absolutes. He claims that mainstream hip-hop is totally devoid of any positive messages, and when he does concede that some albums have an occasional track that condemns violence or praises the female gender for reasons other than the fulfillment of the MC’s desire, he claims that the song is just for garnish. Though he may be right, he offers no evidence to back up such a conclusion. He doesn’t present any information that would suggest he has talked to any of the MC’s he repeatedly attacks (these MC’s include Jay-Z, Schooly D, Ice T, KRS One, and others), yet claims to know their intentions. Such discourse is thus mere conjecture at best and more artillery for his crusade against hip-hop at worst. 50 Cent, for example, claims that he makes much of his music (which is often inundated with violent lyrics) so that people can see “exactly the way things are” (bbc.co.uk). This claim of “authenticity” is echoed by many rappers that rhyme about violence, and though it may not be enough to persuade McWhorter, it can still be a worthy topic to rhyme about. McWhorter’s essay goes so far as to demonize Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” saying that it is responsible for the violent and adversarial tone of hip-hop music that exists to this day. The following lyrics from a Boston MC name Akrobatik are clear evidence of a change inducing potential in hip-hop:
Yeah, it was written in the books of Europeans we were savage/ That our history was insignificant and minds below average/ But how can one diminish the work/ Of the most imitated culture on this earth/ Fast foward to 2000 and now/ You see it everywhere you look, speech, music, fasion and style/ It's black dialogue/ Go ahead kid, try it on/ It's much harder to master than precision with firearms/ Corny niggaz switch it up and rent it to Viacom/ But it was taught to me early on by my mom/ Master yourself, for maximum outreach potential/ Respect that you get from that will roll exponential.
McWhorter selects lyrics that further the purposes of his essay (even discussing Ice T’s “Cop Killer,” the most cliché song addressed when talking about violence in rap), while either ignoring the thousands of rap songs that have positive (or simply thought provoking) lyrics. The way his essay is written however, it seems McWhorter would have his readers wholly believe that these positive songs do not exist.
"How Hip-Hop Holds Blacks Back" is suffused with speech right out of a propaganda campaign. It is understandable that McWhorter feels passionate about the subject of hip-hop music and is seeking to awaken others to so-called “truths,” however, stunting an essay with incomplete research and half truths results in work that misleads readers, and serves only to further the author’s intentions. He uses words like ‘venom,’ ‘brutality,’ ‘harshness,’ and ‘nihilistic’ to describe hip-hop; all these words have blatantly negative connotations, and aim to stir up negative feelings toward rap in the readers mind. Rather than trying to remain objective and use evidence to back up his impassioned claims, McWhorter prefers to utilize questionable evidences, or completely irrelevant “facts.” For example, he says that although blacks have suffered horrible oppression throughout their history, they never created music that resounds with a violent tone like hip-hop does, thus proving rapper’s claims that their music is violent because of the oppression they suffered false. Each situation, however, is unique to its particular time and place. There are many factors that could be responsible for the prevalence of gratuitous sex and violence in hip-hop, the most obvious being society’s embrace of sex and violence in other media, such as television and film. The developmental stage capitalism was in during most of the history of African American’s struggles could be considered infantile in comparison to capitalism of present day America. In a country where everything accept the air has been commodified, people and industry enter into a vicious cycle that complicates what the consumer truly wants, and what they are conditioned to want. Debating such an issue, however, would divert from the path of this discussion. It is easier to say that sex and violence sell in today’s society, where there wasn’t even a developed market for commodities such as music during the times of slavery (not to mention the fact that slaves would be killed for singing about violence against their oppressors). McWhorter is comparing apples and oranges again when he says that there is no violent music coming from areas of misery like Ethiopia or the Congo. One would be hard-pressed to think of cultural apparatuses more different than those found in America and those in the Congo. Another invalid “truth” presented by McWhorter is his experience at a Harlem KFC where he encounters a number of African American youths who are acting rowdy and disrespectful, periodically interjecting hip-hop lyrics into their conversation. To summarize the passage, McWhorter essentially concludes that the presence of the rap lyrics that pervaded the youths’ conversation were the cause of their misbehavior. Though he admits later in his essay to the existence of a high rate of illegitimacy and very low marriage rate in urban areas, he doesn’t even briefly consider the possibility that these boys are acting up because they lack a male role model, or were raised by a mother who has to work two jobs to support her children.
To an individual that is knowledgeable about hip-hop, McWhorter’s essay will most likely come across as mere propaganda. It is clearly a biased piece, whose only interest is the defamation of an art form that by McWhorter’s logic already defames itself. An unsuspecting reader, however, could take "How Hip-Hop Holds Blacks Back" as the complete truth, and be lost to the admirable elements of hip-hop, or even worse, seek to convert others to this dogmatic, critical viewpoint, wrought more with misplaced anger than thorough research.
Kristine Wright’s essay for Socialism and Democracy, titled "Rise Up Hip-Hop Nation: From Deconstructing Racial Politics to Building Positive Solutions", stands on the other side of the hip-hop criticism spectrum. Rather than using McWhorter’s one-dimensional approach, immediately dismissing rap’s potential to influence positive changes in society and relegating it to a negative, damaging sphere, Wright’s essay takes a two dimensional approach to analyzing hip-hop’s potential as an influential art form; she examines the politics of the music industry, acknowledges its degrading effects, and then moves on to address possible solutions to overcoming the barriers that prevent hip-hop music from reaching its full potential as an instrument of positive social change.
It is important to acknowledge the tone of "Rise Up Hip-Hop" before delving into its content. While it resides somewhere closer to center than McWhorter’s extremely conservative essay, Wright still comes off as a hardcore liberal. This is not necessarily a negative attribute, as many of her ideas and conceptualizations are valid and supported by facts and personal experience (as a teacher in Compton and a professor at a wealthy Orange County university). However, the following passage is an example of several tangents Wright goes off on that portray our country as a puppet show orchestrated by people in power:
It is easy to doubt our power when white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist ideologies (bell hooks) seem to have a stranglehold on the world. We see it in the peaking statistics of African Americans living in extreme poverty. We see it in the invasion of Iraq and the hawkish warmongers in the white house and department of defense who would like to export war to a long list of other countries. We see it in the education and social program cuts in states across the country. We see it in the incarceration of our youth of color courtesy of our so-called judicial system. We see it in the Patriot Act. We see it in the blacklisting of anti-war, peace proponents. We see it in corporate greed. We see it in a patriotism that never questions but proudly displays the U.S. flag in cars as a symbol of superiority. We see it in the popularity of Bill O'Reilly. We see it in racial profiling of people of color, including now Arab Americans. We see it in the framing and minstrelsy of media and its increasing corporate concentration thanks now to the FCC. And yes, we see it in hip hop.
Though this passage is sure to resonate strongly with a liberal audience, it would most likely cause more conservative readers to disregard the intellectual gems present throughout much of the essay, simply because of such an affront to their thoroughly engrained ideologies. The alienation of such readers, with the powerful rhetoric employed by Wright, limits the potential of "Rise Up Hip-Hop" to reach one of the audiences it is hoping influence. It would be difficult to avoid such a problem by any means, however, as the issues at hand within the essay require a deconstruction of the ideological apparatuses of our culture and state. Using less strong, “preachy” language would probably have little effect in inaugurating conservative readers to the ideas present throughout Wright’s essay.
Despite a few of the moralizing tangents discussed above, the majority of the essay remains as close to objective as possible, abandoning the obsession with absolutes found in McWhorter’s essay. The language remains fairly tame and inoffensive, with a clear emphasis on presenting the “whole story.”
The following passages illustrate this emphasis:
Rap music was a response to conditions of poverty, joblessness, and disempowerment, which still deeply affect the lives of the majority of African American urban youth today. Not only was rap music a black expressive cultural phenomenon, it was also a discourse of resistance, a set of communicative practices that constitute a text of resistance against white America's racism, and its Euro-centric cultural dominance.
Old barriers faced by previous generations were knocked down during the Civil Rights movement, leading to a significant growth in the black middle class. At the same time, hardships associated with postindustrial society like unemployment, poverty, crime, and drugs dramatically increased in the predominantly African American urban centers around the country, creating an even larger black lower class.
Here, Wright acknowledges the fact that many old barriers to success were defeated during the Civil rights movements, and rather than insinuate that African Americans now have little to worry about, makes it clear that there were (and still are) enormous hardships that these people suffered. "Rise Up Hip-Hop" does not ask these early artists of discontent to apologize for their creations, but accepts them as a natural and true representation of the reaction to life in the ghetto. Wright does not try to convince her readers that mainstream hip-hop in its present state is a bastion for political activism either.
A discussion of the negative aspects of rap is an important part of the essay, however, Wright views the issues through a wider scope, and sees the record industry and societal racism as the primary purveyors of the violence and misogyny present in the music. She claims the “commodification of black rage” (outcries of the oppressed through rap) inevitably led to the vulgar, stereotype reinforcing mainstream hip-hop that is heard today. Whites are the main consumer base in America, for hip-hop and most other commodities. Because people identify themselves by what they are not, and since people like to think of themselves as good, the demand of white America for hip-hop music by African Americans that portrays blacks as brutes is not surprising. It enables whites (consciously or unconsciously) to maintain a feeling of superiority over blacks, and reaffirms the age old stereotypes, thereby creating a comfort zone for whites to act out racism. The nature of capitalism, Wright says, is to produce commodities that will sell the greatest amount. With whites demanding a product that portrays blacks as essentially uncivilized, selfish individuals, record labels force their artists to conform to these demands (which were proven effective with the immense success of Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” LP), thus limiting their creativity. This commodification of hip-hop music, Wright argues, results in the bastardizing of an art form that can operate as an excellent mode of expression and creativity outside of mainstream demands. She acknowledges several artists that she says embody this creativity and consciousness, but laments the fact that unless such artists are embraced by the mainstream, they have little potential to create change.
"Rise Up Hip-Hop" ultimately leaves the reader with a difficult conclusion, and one that seems unsatisfactory in light of the thoroughness of the rest of the essay. Wright claims that the only effective way to employ hip-hop as an agent of social or political activism is to challenge “hegemonic power and build solutions as a community.” She does not cite any particular community centers that have used hip-hop to improve conditions, and refers only briefly to Russell Simmons’s Hip Hop Action Network (which I understand has had limited success). The reader is likely left grasping for something more substantial, especially since Wright seems convinced that hip-hop can play a real role in effecting positive changes in America.
Many people have come to believe that hip-hop is only capable of representing the same tired stereotypes in its music and videos. The mainstream’s acceptance of a very limited number of positive hip-hop artists leads to the drowning out of positivity by the overwhelming negativity typical of most mainstream embraced artists. It is not surprising, therefore, when people dismiss the medium of the hip-hop video as a representation of creativity. Many artists outside the mainstream produce videos, however, that have complex, imaginative themes. Aesop Rock’s video for his most recent EP titled Fast Cars mirrors the expansive and simultaneously claustrophobic subject matter and delivery of Aesop’s rhymes. The video takes the spectator on a journey into Aesop’s rhyme book or journal, and is shot primarily with freeze frame photography. Images emerge out of the words on the pages, pop-up style depictions of urban areas and dense forests materialize, and surreal images abound throughout. The intricate, dreamlike animation is the visual embodiment of Aesop’s complex image driven rhymes. The video does not rely on sexuality or material possessions to entice the spectator, but like the music, focuses on engaging the viewer through creativity. Though his thick and abstract word play makes much of the message of Fast Cars inaccessible to the average listener, the essence of invention that lies at the heart of the video and track is still apparent. While the video might not instruct people to go out and make a difference in the world, it can still encourage its audience to think outside the box.
Readers of this essay may be left wondering if hip-hop truly has a place in the arena of political and social activism, or if it is in fact a detriment to society. Evidence in support of either viewpoint can be found if one looks hard enough. Until the gangsta image loses its marketability, however, it seems unlikely that hip-hop will effect any substantial changes. Mainstream video’s like 50 Cents “Disco Inferno” will continue to portray women as nothing but sex objects, and glorified tales of Scarface-esque drug dealing will probably linger in the mainstream for as long as racism maintains its subtle grasp on society. One thing is for sure: the hip-hop music being produced today cannot be defined with one all encompassing term. There is hip-hop that is positive, hip-hop that is negative, and hip-hop that blurs the line between these two. Though the mainstream may not embrace political or socially conscious hip-hop, one only has to walk down the aisle of a record store to find these outcasts. Revolutions can grow from a single seed planted in one mind. What the listener does with the music is their choice.
50 Cent. Disco Inferno. Shady Records. 2005
Aesop Rock. Fast Cars. Definitive Jux. 2005
Akrobatik/ The Perceptionists. Black Dialogue. Definitive Jux. 2005
McWhorter, John H,. How Hip-Hop Holds Blacks Back. City Journal. 2003. Summer issue.
Wright, Kristine. Rise up Hip Hop nation: From deconstructing racial politics to building positive solutions. Socialism and Democracy. 2004. Vol.18, Iss.2