Crack and Hip Hop: Politically Underdeveloped Young People
Dec 10, 2009
On a fluke a few of weeks ago, I picked up a dvd about the Black Panthers and the student and employee strike at SF State that created the first Black Studies department in the country.
It was in watching this video that realized that both crack and hip hop politically underdeveloped young people. Much of this statement comes out of my reading two or three books a week along with five or six articles last month, while simultaneously watching the fall out from Sasha Frere Jones’s post about the end of hip hop and a post about rap critics. Blog posts, long blog posts take a lot of work. At least coherent ones do.
Reading and writing is labor and I am thinking about to which ends, those of us who are in our twenties and thirties, are reading and writing.
While watching the responses percolate, I wondered what would happen if we invested the same time in rap blogs in making politics to address our lives?
What is our investment in a music that has made it clear that it doesn’t give a fuck out us in a time where we live in an unsustainable world?
For the folks who say that hip hop is related to a political project, I would say, place a link in the comment section. By political I mean a group of people organizing to serve a communally determined group agenda. This doesn’t mean that it hasn’t served as a conscious raising tool, in the past, but Post Chronic or even Post Blueprint, the music has ceased being for itself and currently exists for Black respect and White dollars.
Given that this is the case, what does this mean for Black people and what does it mean for Black music?
To the extent that this applies globally, remains to be seen.
Chuck D has argued extensively that young people globally have used rap music as tool to make sense of their position is society. Based a couple of documentaries that I have seen about hip hop in Cuba and North Africa, to a certain extent this is true. Given the impact of AIDS mass incarceration and the systemic undereducation of Black, White and Latino students, what are the ways in which that the music, at least since The Chronic, has helped us make sense of our world?
I come from the Leroi Jones school of Black music, which looks at Black music both as it relates to our history in this country, and as being representative of a particular point in time in this country.
Three months ago, Rafi said that rap music used to be the street talking to the street. In commenting on the ways in which Nike used Cube’s “Today is a Good Day” for a skateboarding commercial he writes,
It’s just another example of hip-hop’s transformation to lifestyle marketing tool and its astonishing disconnect from the reality it used to represent….Three years ago I saw a big hip-hop show in New York City just days after Sean Bell’s murder. The city was buzzing with rage and confusion everywhere except inside the show where the incident wasn’t even mentioned. I said back then that there was “a time when rap was supposed to speak to and speak for the streets”. But shows like that Rock the Bells performance and ads like this one from Nike show how far we’ve come from that.
The acts and songs of that era are being used to market to aging hip-hop fans like myself but it is all sound and no fury.
Rhythm & Blues affirms Black humanity, modern rap music affirms our subhumanity.
This doesn’t mean that Rhythm and Blues was all warm and fuzzy as Black humanity encompasses both the aspects that we are proud of and our collective darkside as well.
Birkhold thinks that this is really crude statement, and criticizes me for saying so. Yes it is crude. But I stand by it, because Black music has changed from a being for itself to being for others. Rafi’s comment
is an illustration of this.
This isn’t a conscious vs. thug dichotomy. My argument is a little more nuanced than that. Cube, Dre, Too Short, were dudes, street or not, talking to the street. Peep the VH1 NWA documentary, “The World’s Most Dangerous Group”. Popular gangster rappers wanted to make some money but they weren’t trying to become corporations themselves. That wasn’t an option, so it wasn’t a goal.
I mentioned the content of this piece to Birkhold shortly after I wrote it and he disagreed with my statement that rap use to exist for itself, and is now existing for others (thuggin’ for cash).
His issue was with the fact that rap has always been, for the most part, about Black men performing Black male, machismo, fantasy. Being for others. Cold Crush brothers, Funky Four Plus One, Africa Bambaata were either on some party shit, some machismo steez, or some super Black masculinity. He tried to say that Cube was from the suburbs, but he’s from South Central, according to Wikipedia. However he did attend Phoenix Institute of Technology in the fall of 1987, and studied Architectural Drafting. Chuck D, Russell and I believe, Run DMC were middle class cats from Long Island and Queens respectively. In rap, Black men have always been performing some other ‘ish and I agree with that.
However, I responded that, while it very well may be true that early rappers were performing a macho, fantasy, partying, Black masculinity, the scale, risk and harm in the1970s and 80s isn’t analogous to
1990s and 2000s.
The fact that Byron Hurt made a movie, Barack and Curtis, about Black masculinity comparing 50 to President Obama is indicative of this.
Currently, rap music is conflated with Blackness. As a result some Black children who are not from the ‘hood feel compelled to perform thuggery in order to be accepted. After all the sacrifices their parents have made, pursuing higher education, moving to the suburbs, working the corporate gig, the children want to be exactly what their parents have been sheltering them from, a thug. The pervasiveness of rap music in 1990s and 2000s plays a big role in making this possible.
The notion of acceptance and assimilation is an important one. In fact, much of the homophobia that we observe in both American culture and in Black culture stems from the resentment that a gay man or lesbian woman has the audacity and courage to walk around being who they want to be, not who others expect them to be. We have been socialized to resent the courage to be queer. We are angry because they refuse to fit into the box that society has created for them, and we are uncertain of how to get ourselves out if it.
Back to Huey. Watching the documentary on The Panthers, the irony of fact that Huey Newton was murdered in a dope deal gone bad on the streets of West Oakland isn’t lost on me.
In listening to Eldridge speak in the documentary, it became to clear that while I was familiar with his open and aggressive misogyny, as he famously
stated that he practiced raping Black women, as preparation for raping white women. He was also charismatic, extremely handsome and in some ways the clip of his speech reminded me of many of the rappers that I grew up listening to.
All these cats accomplished a lot in their twenties and their thirties.
What are we doing?
How can our generation build a movement when we can’t even be honest with ourselves about where we are?
There has been very little analysis about the ways in which Black communities have been impacted by 20 years of the war on drugs. There has also been very little analysis of the ways in which crack wiped out the last vestiges of 60s and 70s era Black resistance.
What does it mean that 30 years later our young people and many older people are more concerned with whether the music is dead than with whether neighborhoods that birthed the music will survive over the next ten years given the impact of globalized gentrification of ‘hoods in the US and around the world?
Have you been to Biggie’s old block lately?
How was the FBI able to eliminate the Black Panthers but unable to contain The Crips and The Bloods?
If Black people’s contribution to this country has been music and free labor, what does it mean when our music is a lifestyle marketing device, and that Black men are systemically under and unemployed?
Thank you for reading this. Clearly, I am trying to work some thangs out.
In proofreading this piece it has become clear how Sociology of the Self is teaching me how to look at the person and society simultaneously. WOOT.