If there’s been renewed soul-searching of late on the meanings and possibilities of hip-hop, it may be the result not simply of regret, but of downright shame and anger. What happened to the eloquent, ideas-driven, community-based, and politically astute art form that conquered the world from its position as the 1970s DIY street party music of New York City’s lower Bronx? Why was it so weak in the presence of capitalism’s bribes and temptations? What happened to the language and life that, as David Toop remembered, ‘could be lived with some dignity and hope, that crossed boundaries of race, that melted the tribal divisions of genre’? And isn’t hip-hop, with its obsessive natter on guns and drugs and monetised sex, the prime culprit in further denigrating the reputation of the people, races and communities it was supposed to empower?
This year’s Intelligence Squared debate at London’s Barbican Centre (billed as ‘the first ever global debate on hip-hop’ by way of a Google+ Hangout), displayed the agonies of those who live their lives through hip-hop’s culture and philosophy, whether on the street, in the recording studio, or through the academy — and if the title, ‘Hip-hop on Trial’, was an unfortunate piece of easy publicity, with its over-obvious play on criminality and gangsterism, the motion itself, ‘Hip-hop doesn’t enhance society, it degrades it’, encapsulated a genuine, baleful, unease on the part of the debaters, regardless as to where, exactly, they positioned themselves on the difficult detail of the debate.
Supporting the motion, Belize attorney Eamon Courtenay, a worried father and long-suffering pillar of the community, welcomed the audience to ‘a place called hiphoposphere: a parallel universe where bad is good, where wrong is right, where crude is cool, where asses are more valuable than brains, a place where the thugs are the kings, and a place where bitches and hoes take pride of place’.
Opposing the motion was Michael Eric Dyson, a hip-hop intellectual, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and an evangelist for a culture that ‘teaches a respect for rhetorical genius, for oratorical wizardry’. Dyson put it simply: ‘There is no one-to-one correlation between a hip-hop lyric and a subsequent material condition that leads to criminality. That’s a mythology!’
In reality, the twelve-strong panel was fraught with paradoxes. Surely the Reverend Jesse Jackson could not support the demeaning of women, the glorification of violence, the continual harking back to a slave mentality he fought so long to be rid of. And surely Tricia Rose, influential academic and respected writer on black culture, would not be denouncing the most important cultural force to emerge from the black and Hispanic communities of the poorest enclaves of New York City.
To be fair, neither Jackson nor Rose was so entrenched as to dismiss the complexities of the argument, which only underlined the impossibility of forcing aesthetics into the faux-judicial debating chamber. Art has a tendency to sidestep moral quandaries.
These debates do, however, provide a snapshot of prevalent moods. The motion itself was a provocation, and got under the skin of the contributors on the stage, in the audience, and on the networked media platforms, especially when it so easily splintered into its many component parts: Can an art form degrade society? Do we really believe artistic endeavour possesses that kind of power? If yes, then we’re into questions of morality, of good and evil. And if no, can we then honestly say that art enhances society? Surely not; but doesn’t that, in its turn, undermine so much of what writers, academics, and audiences think they believe to be, without question, the prime value of art — its intrinsic virtuousness?
If a still young subculture like hip-hop can find itself provoking this kind of radical inquiry, then it must be said to occupy a privileged position.
Money and the individual
Perhaps the importance of hip-hop culture is its presence at the nexus of power and the individual. Money, with its universalizing, sweeping powers of dismissal, and the individual, with its need for agency, are always at logger heads and hip-hop’s future integrity may be based solely on its ability to maintain this position at the critical centre-point between the two, even before it begins reassessing its self-appointed roles as an agent of cultural and political provocation, or as a place of self-discovery, or as a champion of truth.
For many, the argument is already lost. In 2006 Nas said Hip-Hop Is Dead, and he wasn’t the only one.
Everybody sound the same, commercialise the game / Reminiscin’ when it wasn’t all business / It forgot where it started / So we all gather here for the dearly departed.
For the New Yorker writer Sasha Frere-Jones the decline became irreversible in 2009, when hip-hop relinquished the controls of its own destiny and concertedly pursued the international market. Jay-Z’s album The Blueprint 3, and Kid Cudi’s track ‘Day ‘n’ Nite’ were the type of new release that promoted ‘a European pulse, simpler … and more explicitly designed for clubs’, thus wiping out the ‘crusty samples of New York hip-hop’. At this point the form lost sight of its natural desire to swing, to syncopate, to scintillate. Hip-hop overreached itself, became fragile, and then splintered, and now fends off attacks from all directions: for becoming bland and sentimental (and therefore selling out), and for becoming crude, sexist and violent (and therefore selling out).
The absurdity of lumping together such disparate artists as, say, N.W.A (Niggaz With Attitude), Public Enemy, the Roots, Kanye West and Nicki Minaj is clear to see, but somehow hip-hop refuses to give up its empire — or perhaps we should say its global, and highly profitable, brand-identity. If Nas, in 2006, was simply postulating, or posturing, his sentiment nevertheless resonated through an enormous amalgam of interested parties, from entertainment industry moguls to community leaders, from newspaper editors to school teachers. Whatever hip-hop is up to, whatever it now represents, it’s too big a cultural force to ignore.
But in finding a world audience, has hip-hop lost its soul? The younger generation of thinkers despairs. Chicago-based writer Tolu Olorunda, who appeared at the Belfast Book Festival earlier this year after the publication of his book The Substance of Truth, needs hip-hop to make a stand.
His book depicts a mature, late-stage capitalism that has succeeded in reducing everything — health, education, entertainment, everything — down to the needs of free market fundamentalism. This is a world where the individual is led through a series of staged encounters with advertising, big business, militarised institutions, surveillance technology, and becomes ever more compliant, ever more pliable.
Olorunda sees the trammel lines marked clearly. Fast-food giant McDonald’s designs curricula for schools and passes out Happy Meal coupons with report cards. ‘Schools [are] modelled, in style and standard, after prisons,’ writes Olorunda. Education itself becomes a game of empty and meaningless tests that do nothing to promote critical thinking.
No longer is the concept of school-to-prison seen as just a symptom of inequality and relative poverty, but suddenly as a function of a hostile and authoritarian mechanism in which private money needs payback from the provision of public services, and where the needs of commerce demand that every citizen is trained and educated, first and foremost, as a consumer.
In this context, popular culture becomes more important than ever. In The Substance of Truth, Olorunda’s mission is clear: ‘With great disgust for how things are, and greater hope for how they can be, I set out to create a document unbridled in spirit and fervently committed to letting suffering speak.’ In this, he says, he joins forces with Ralph Waldo Emerson and his conviction that ‘[t]he truth takes flesh in forms that can express it’.
And so truth needs art. And which art right now, but hip-hop? This is the cultural force, after all, that is immovably, intrinsically, of the contemporary world, of the network of secularised, post-industrial, information-saturated city dreamscapes. And this is what distinguishes hip-hop from other musical forms, most of which, in some deep-seated way, maintain their connections with the pre-industrial. Rock and pop artists still cling to the folk ballad, and to an idealised rural pre-history, however distant that may seem; and the makers of dance music and electronica, who dwell in clubspace, or city limit warehouses, or beach resorts, are unavoidably part of the modern urban world, but always look in another direction, a mythic place (or no-place, utopia), imaged through real desire to escape.
If it’s true, as is generally accepted, that hip-hop was born as a cultural force in 1979 with the release of The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and died, or at least lost its way, fractured, between 2006 and 2009, then this suggests an unavoidable parallel. The period covers exactly the historic moment from the first political seal of approval of monetarism (with the UK election of Margaret Thatcher), the deregulation of the markets, and, as the economists Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy described it, the true realisation of ‘neo-liberalism under US hegemony’. The period ends with the catastrophic debt crisis and market collapse that brought that radical experiment to its inevitable conclusion.
What’s fascinating is the way in which each of the attacks on hip-hop — on its spiritual bankruptcy, its forsaking of community, its hedonism, its materialism, its permanent disrespecting of women — rubs up against the most important cultural and philosophical issues of our time. How hip-hop deals with, assimilates, and critiques the ideologies of secularism, individualism, feminism and globalisation decides not only its subject matter, but its tenor from moment to moment.
Resistance, resistance, resistance
Perhaps we forget sometimes how dark it was out there in the late 1980s and the 90s as neo-liberalism took hold. Why wouldn’t a culture, especially an American culture, produce bold, dangerous, extreme and nihilistic expressions? The fin de siècle, that time around, was a culture of cruise missiles and burning oil fields, ethnic cleansing and genocide in Africa and Europe, race riots in Los Angeles, and the consolidation of the world’s media by a ruthless plutocracy.
Hip-hop was the music that reflected these times, and the art form that most suffered because of them.
If hip-hop is given a thorough critical appraisal, and one that incorporates the contradictions of the dominant culture from which it emerged, can we see an art form — the only art form? — that presents an honest picture of the times? Hiphoposphere may be the fantasy world in which men and women display their real desires and urges and where the illusions of the liberal world-view can be exploded out of sight. A place where men muster and fight for survival within and against an exploitative system; where issues of race and class are not wiped over by false promises of equality; where women can realise their ‘cosmic power’ and be potent, muscular, physical, desiring and desired sexual beings. ‘I’m a bad bitch, I’m a cunt / And I’ll kick that ho, punt,’ raps Nicki Minaj in ‘Roman’s Revenge’ — can traditional feminism deal with this any more?
Regarding the future of hip-hop, the question that may need to be asked is not whether it can hold its dignity as it loses sight of the truth and falls into communion with the darker things in life, but whether it can ward off the increasing number of calls for its sanitisation, its maturation, its complete commodification.
Perhaps hip-hop’s deepest convictions will become a set of important values for our time: profanity only, never pornography. Irony at all times. Absolutely no ideology. Language free and unburdened, and resistance, resistance, resistance, not to the world as it is, but to the world the liberal bourgeois hegemony thinks it sees and pretends to understand.
Published on 4 October 2012
Peter Rosser is a composer, writer and music lecturer. He lives in Belfast.
Peter Rosser is a composer, writer and music lecturer. He lives in Belfast.