The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Friday, August 28, 2009

How Capitalism Underdeveloped Hip-Hop: A People's History of Political Rap (I and II)

Hip-Hop is perhaps one of the most expansive and encompassing cultures to envelop the world in the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is a fascinating, complex, multifaceted culture that portrays a wide variety of lifestyles, articulates hopes and dreams of oppressed communities, and fosters a culture of resistance that, at least in some instances, challenges the cultural hegemony of a society that relies upon alienation, exploitation, and oppression to perpetuate its own continuance. On the other hand, hip-hop has been assimilated into the dominant culture in many ways through skillful manipulation of the cultural developments by corporate interests signifying, perhaps, the futility of hoping that a cultural movement can withstand the impact of capitalist intrusion while attempting to live in it's home. Still, the political, economic, and cultural implications of hip-hop are immense and, in a very limited sense, my article attempts to synthesize some of the scholarly work concerning this unique cultural development.

There are limitations, due in part to time and length constraints on the original piece and upon my own lack of research in particular areas, which I feel should be mentioned beforehand. Namely, the lack of women, who played a pivotal role in the development of the culture, are not given as much prominence as they should have. Likewise, I hoped to explore the concept of transcending racial barriers among working people and the poor, especially given the election of Obama, in relation to hip-hop phenomena like Eminem. Unfortunately I could not explore either of these in-depth. Other critiques, I'm sure, are warranted and I would hope that anyone who reads it will be willing to expand upon them.

This first post contains the first two sections of the paper. Due to blog limitations, my footnotes are not included. However, I will post the Works Cited with the last post. Also, if anyone wants a PDF copy (around 35 pages, sort of long) I will be glad to e-mail them one.


INDEX: How Capitalism Underdeveloped Hip-Hop: A People’s History of Political Rap

+ Introduction: Historical Phenomena, Hip-Hop Culture, and Rap Music
+ The South Bronx in the 1970’s and Material Conditions in Hip-Hop’s Birthplace

+ Afrocentricity, Black Power, and Hip-Hop’s New School
+ West Coast Projects, the Rise of Gangsta Rap, and Congress’s War on the Youth
+ Corporate Consolidation and the Telecommunications Act

+ Bursting Onto the Mainstream Scene and Contemporary Political Rap
+ Hip-Hop at a Crossroads: Conditions Today and Where Do We Go From Here?
+ Works Cited

Disclaimer: The language expressed in this article is an uncensored reflection of the views of the artists as they so chose to speak and express themselves. Censoring their words would do injustice to the freedom of expression and political content this article intends to explore. Therefore, some of the language appearing below may be offensive to personal, cultural, or political sensibilities.


Introduction: Historical Phenomena, Hip-Hop Culture, and Rap Music

Historical phenomena never develop in a vacuum, isolated from reality; nor are they mechanistically manifested from the historical material conditions lacking the direction of human agency. Rather, historical phenomena are products of a specific environment at a particular time period that have been molded, processed, and transformed by human beings who attempt to define and control their own destiny. The culture fostered in the grimy streets of the South Bronx during the 1970’s is no different. Heavily influenced by the economically and socially oppressed ghettos, along with the echoes of the last generation’s movements for liberation and the street gangs that filled in the void they left, the South Bronx provided the perfect matrix in which marginalized youth could find a way to articulate the story of their own lives and the world around them. In this historically unique context, a culture would be created through an organic explosion of the pent-up, creative energies of America’s forgotten youth. It was a culture that would reach every corner of the world in only a couple decades; this is hip-hop.

Many people mistakenly narrowly define hip-hop as a particular style of music. The reality, however, is that Hip-hop is an extremely multifaceted cultural phenomenon. As hip-hop pioneer DJ Kool Herc explains, “People talk about the four hip-hop elements: DJing, B-Boying, MCing, and Graffiti. I think that there are far more than those: the way you walk, the way you talk, the way you look, the way you communicate.” Indeed, each component presents its own unique history, heroes, and tales of resistance; each acts as a distinct piece of a larger puzzle. Viewed in its totality, hip-hop is undoubtedly a global phenomenon, reaching across the borders of nation-states and touching entire generations. One integral aspect of this culture, familiarly labeled rap, is the musical element which combines MCing and DJing; it is “is the act of speaking poetically and rhythmically over the beat.” As Black intellectual Michael Eric Dyson eloquently explains, “Rap artists explore grammatical creativity, verbal wizardry, and linguistic innovation in refining the art of oral communication.” The characteristic east coast sounds of New York City, the intricate Hip-hop scene in France, the nascent grime subgenre in London, and the politically charged rap developing in Cuba demonstrate just how global the influence of rap music truly is.

Hip-hop was born from the ashes of a community devastated by a capitalist economic system and racist government officials. At first independent and autonomous, it would not be long before corporate capitalism impinged upon the culture’s sovereignty and began the historically familiar process of exploitation. Within a few years the schism between the dominant, mainstream rap spewed across the synchronized, consolidated radio waves and the dissident, political, and revolutionary lyrics expressed throughout the underground network would develop, separating hip-hop into two worlds. Rapper Immortal Technique frames this dichotomy in a political context emphasizing the opposition between the major label “super powers of the industry” and the “underground third world of the street.” Indeed, the stark difference between the commodified songs and albums pumped out by the mainstream rap industry and the creativity and resistance exemplified in the underground movement cannot be overemphasized.

Hip-hop’s glamorized, commercialized image, made familiar through every aspect of pop culture and privately centralized radio stations, is viewed by some as a justification for the prevailing “boot strap” ideology derived from thirty years of neoliberal economic policies and the dominant ideological formulations supporting them. Time argues capitalism allowed for “rap music's market strength [to give] its artists permission to say what they pleased.” Indeed, some argue that one’s ability to market a product in a capitalist society is what has allowed rap music to flourish and become as large of an industry as it is today. This simplistic view, however, ignores one crucial aspect; the culture has been manipulated by a handful of industry executives for capital gain. Meanwhile, hip-hop activists who advocate for social change, formulate political dissent, and fight for economic redistribution have been systematically marginalized and excluded from the mainstream discourse. Corporate capitalism, aided by neoliberal deregulation and privatization, have stolen the culture, sterilized its content, and reformatted its image to reflect the dominant ideology. Independent, political rap containing valuable social commentary has been replaced with shallow, corporate images of thugs, drugs, and racial and gender prejudices filled with both implicitly and explicitly hegemonic undertones and socially constructed stereotypes. Hip-hop has been underdeveloped by the mainstream industry in the same sense that third world countries were underdeveloped by traditionally oppressive first world nations: it has been robbed of its content like a nation is robbed of its resources, its artists exploited like a country’s labor is exploited, and its very survival hinged upon complete subservience to an established political, economic, and social institution. The following is an outline of a culture’s musical resistance to subjugation by the economic, political, and social authority of American capitalism and its ruling elites.

The South Bronx in the 1970’s and Material Conditions in Hip-Hop’s Birthplace

Until 1979 with the release of Sugarhill Gang’s six minute track titled “Rapper’s Delight,” hip-hop’s musical component, rap, had not spread far beyond the South Bronx where it originated. To highlight 1979 as the year rap music began, however, would be a disservice to not only historical accuracy, but to any serious understanding of the roots through which hip-hop music blossomed. Comprehending the rise of a culture inevitably entails a holistic approach where the political, economic, and social institutions and conditions are analyzed to derive an understanding of their effects on the thoughts, ideas, and actions of the generation who created the culture. Therefore, the rise of hip-hop is inevitably linked with a host of changes during the 1970’s to the political economy and the dominant ideology supporting it. These changes include the fading of the nonviolent civil rights movement and the subsequent black power movement, a massive restructuring from the failed Keynsian economic policies of state-interventionism to neoliberal, trickle down economics, the prodigious deindustrialization and the resulting unemployment, and the abandonment of urban spaces by government divestment and white flight. The Bronx of the early 1970’s provides a paragon for such conditions and how they impacted the residents of these urban spaces; these conditions, however, were not limited to one area but were widely represented in many urban areas during this decade. Hip-hop culture, springing from such a particular set of conditions, would spread like wildfire into other areas where a similar combination of political and economic changes was rapidly advancing.

As Akilah Folami explains, “Historically, Hip-hop arose out of the ruins of a post-industrial and ravaged South Bronx, as a form of expression of urban Black and Latino youth, who politicians and the dominant public and political discourse had written off, and, for all intent and purposes, abandoned.” These youth were alienated from decent employment opportunities and confined to under funded schools with little community resources; New York would suffer immense job losses coupled with decreased local and federal funding for social services. The South Bronx alone would lose:
600,000 manufacturing jobs; 40 percent of the sector disappeared. By the mid-seventies, average per capita income dropped to $2,430, just half of the New York City average and 40 percent of the nationwide average. The official youth unemployment rate hit 60 percent. Youth advocates said that in some neighborhoods the true number was closer to 80 percent.
Such conditions would leave “30 percent of New York’s Hispanic households...and 25 percent of black households…at or below the poverty line. This massive loss of employment was not the only contributing factor, however. Urban renewal programs, such as the one directed by elite urban planner Robert Moses, helped fuel white flight and suburban sprawl along with subsequent capital divestment from the city. Moses would go on to plan and build the Cross Bronx Expressway, which would “cut directly through the center of the most heavily populated working class areas in the Bronx,” tearing apart the homes of some 60,000 Bronx residents. Utilizing “urban renewal rights of clearance,” Moses and local legislators would effectively enforce economic and legal segregation of poor and working-class Blacks and Latinos whom were pushed into “tower-in-a-park” model public housing units where they “got nine or more monotonous slabs of housing rising out of isolating, desolate, soon-to-be crime-ridden ‘parks’.” Thus, it was deep within these hellholes of poverty, unemployment, segregation, and desperation that hip-hop’s first birth pangs would be felt. As hip-hop historian Jeff Chang poignantly explains, it’s “not to say that all hip-hop is political, but hip-hop comes out of that particular political context.”

The enormous influence of material conditions on hip-hop are lucidly illuminated with the 1982 release of a song titled “The Message” by pioneering rap group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Hesitant at first to record such a “preachy” rap song by a self-titled “party group,” eventually Melle Mel, the lead rapper of the group, decided to give it a try. Thus, the group helped to pioneer “the social awakening of rap into a form combining social protest, musical creation, and cultural expression.” Although not the first to provide social commentary on institutional racism and abject living conditions, as evidenced by earlier rappers such as Kurtis Blow, Brother D and the Collective Effort, and Tanya “Sweet Tee Winley, “The Message” would provide the first mainstream, commercial success to speak seriously on these issues. The immense frustration and alienation of being confined to run-down ghettoes presents itself repeatedly throughout the song. Wrapped in each and every line is piercing social commentary on the condition of America’s rotting inner city slums. The song opens by describing the horrendous conditions found specifically in the South Bronx during this period but could also be applied most the nation’s abandoned urban centers:
Broken glass, everywhere / People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care / I can’t take the smell, I can’t take the noise / Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice / Rats in the front room, roaches in the back / Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat / I tried to get away, but I couldn’t get far / Cause the man with the tow-truck repossessed my car
The sentiment expressed in the last two lines of being unable to escape the projects is one that runs consistently throughout the history of Hip-hop. Tupac, nearly a decade later, would articulate this despair further in his song “Trapped” where he speaks to the agonizing feeling of hopelessness and anger at being segregated into ghettoes and harassed by police.

Dyson notes that as rap evolved it “began to describe and analyze the social, economic, and political factors that led to its emergence and development: drug addiction, police brutality, teen pregnancy, and various forms of material deprivation.” The Message takes up many of these issues and more, commenting repeatedly on the terrible state of education children in the projects are confined to. One line provides an explanation of how in the ghetto one rarely gets more than “a bum education” alongside “double-digit inflation.” Another verse tells the story of a young boy who exclaims to his father that he feels alienated and dumb at school, due at least in part to his teachers’ attitudes towards him; as the child explains, “all the kids smoke reefer, I think it’d be cheaper, if I just got a job, learned to be a street sweeper.” In this succinct rhyme, the postulation put forth by educational theorist Jean Anyon that working-class and poor students are pushed into occupations which perpetuate the existing class structure is brilliantly summarized. The despair and bleakness of abject ghetto life is articulated in a rather percussive manner in the last verse, “You grow in the ghetto, living second rate, and your eyes will sing a song of deep hate, the places you play and where you stay, looks like one great big alley way.”

Although “The Message” was not the first social commentary on ghetto life to be produced, it was the first mainstream success to reach a broader layer of listeners and proved that socially conscious rap had an audience. By the early 1980’s hip-hop had already exploded onto the scene through particular mediums in certain areas. Graffiti had already provided a way in which alienated and seemingly invisible youths could make themselves visible outside the Bronx through creative, counter-hegemonic acts that signaled to the ruling authorities they were claiming their own space. Break dancing, or B-Boying, provided an outlet for youths to engage each other in peaceful competition and while it “did not dissolve the frustrations of being poor, unemployed, and a forgotten youth, it certainly served… as a catalyst to increasing the youth led community based peace effort.” However, it was rap music that, arguably, would have the largest impact in the future:
At a time when budget cuts lead to a reduction in school art and music programs, and when vocational training in high schools lead to jobs that had significantly decreased or no longer existed, “inner city youth transformed obsolete vocational skills from marginal occupations into the raw materials for creativity and resistance,” with “turntables [becoming] instruments and lyrical acrobatics [becoming] a cultural outlet.”
This cultural outlet would not remain isolated in the South Bronx for long. Neither would it be confined to simply describing the harsh reality of living in the projects.

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