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.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

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

This is the fourth post covering the final sections of my paper on hip-hop and the political and economic conditions under which it was fostered. 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.


Bursting Onto the Mainstream Scene and Contemporary Political Rap

Hip-hop stepped forward into the mainstream political establishment in 2004 when it had a brief, rather superficial media campaign targeting youth voters. Rap mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs used hip-hop as a platform to organize a campaign under the sensationalist title “Vote or Die” as an attempt to register younger voters, garner youth participation, and generate excitement about the elections. While registering voters was only a marginal success, it was clear the goals were decidedly apolitical with little actual political motivation for urban youth who, for years, had felt alienated from mainstream political discourse. The two candidates put forward by America’s ruling elites, George Bush and John Kerry, had platforms so similar it was challenging to generate enough interest for young people to mobilize within the context of the two-party duopoly. Four years later, however, hip-hop would emerge as an unimaginably powerful advertisement for Barack Obama. His 2008 campaign sparked immense interest within the hip-hop community and debate flourished over whether or not hip-hop should stand behind Obama. It was little more than a decade prior that Tupac hopelessly exclaimed “although it seems heaven sent, we ain’t ready, to see a Black president” on the song “Changes.” Now, energized by a candidate whom, for the first time, they felt would reach out to the hip-hop generation, many artists, such as Jay-Z, took center stage in fundraising concerts and spoke proudly of their involvement in his campaign. Nas, one of hip-hops “most brilliant orators” whose own political trajectory involved going from conscious gangster with his first album Illmatic (1994) to passionate revolutionary with his latest release Untitled (2008), “captures the gambit of fears, hopes and doubts that swirl together in the consciousness” of the black community on the track “Black President:”
KKK is like "what the fuck," loadin' they guns up / Loadin' mine too, ready to ride / Cause I'm ridin' with my crew / He dies--we die too / But on a positive side / I think Obama provides hope and challenges minds / Of all races and colors to erase the hate / And try and love one another, so many political snakes / We in need of a break / I'm thinkin' I can trust this brotha / But will he keep it way real? / Every innocent nigga in jail gets out on appeal / When he wins--will he really care still?
Nas is not alone in his critical support for Obama; Mary J. Blige and rapper Big Boi from Outkast compose a song of solidarity for the working class and poor in “Something’s Gotta Give,” which challenges Obama to truly listen to the concerns and pressures of urban communities while earnestly calling for desperately needed social change. Big Boi articulates his working class consciousness when he rhymes, “You know the common folk, blue collar, day-to-day workers that squeeze a dollar / so maybe they can swallow a little, not a lot, just enough to fill that bottle / But it's a million dollars a gallon for gas to get to work tomorrow." Unapologetically political, well-known artists creatively maneuvered political dialogue and discussion into the mainstream discourse.

Still, these odes to Obama were able to push through corporate outlets partly because their content and message remained safely within the established political borders. Obama, after all, garnered large support from many of the capitalist classes ruling elites, whom viewed the Republicans eight-year run as disastrous for the United State’s economic power and image abroad. Despite this brief stint within mainstream circles, political hip-hop did not begin, and it will not end, with Obama. Radical hip-hop and revolutionary artists like Immortal Technique, Dead Prez, Paris, Lupe Fiasco, Son of Nun, and an innumerable amount of other artists remain marginalized and embroiled in the struggle to spread their message in the face of a competitive, cut-throat jungle of corporate conglomerates and consolidated, top-down radio. Often, hip-hop artists formulate unique narratives or relay stunningly academic critiques of society that tie together seemingly separate issues and help the listener foster a more critical, holistic analysis of larger societal forces.

On his latest single, “3rd World,” Immortal Technique utilizes a percussive, hard-hitting instrumental produced by DJ Green Lantern to expose U.S. imperialism and militarism across the globe, brilliantly explicating on the concept of contemporary war as a natural outgrowth of capitalism. Born in Peru and representing his third world roots, Technique explains that he is:
From where the only place democracy's acceptable, is if America’s candidate is electable… from where they overthrow Democratic leaders, not for the people but for the Wall Street journal readers… So I’ma start a global riot, that not even your fake anti-Communist dictators can keep quiet!

On “Ghetto Manifesto,” The Coup humorously outline ghetto conditions, sardonically utilizing hip-hop lingo to emphasize their point, “Got a house arrest anklet but it don't bling bling, got a homie with a cell but that shit don't ring!” Later, they put out a call for organization and mobilization, explaining “even renowned historians have found that, the people only bounce back when they pound back.” They simultaneously challenge nationalist ideology, “the trees we got lifted by made our feet dangle, so when I say burn one I mean the Star-Spangled.” A plethora of underground and independent rap artists express similar themes which address the need for autonomous political organization and present alternative, more humane visions for society.

Hip-Hop at a Crossroad: Conditions Today and Where Do We Go From Here?

Hip-hop was cultivated in the streets as an innovative response of urban minorities, traditionally marginalized by dominant political and economic structures, seeking a voice of their own. Alienated by harsh conditions imposed upon them by an advanced capitalist society, these urban youth sought an outlet where they could foster their own conceptions of identity and challenge institutional oppression, whether individually or collectively. Poverty, unemployment, a decrepit educational system, cuts in social services, and capitalism’s inherent need to maintain a permanent underclass blended together to create a matrix in which a new, counter-hegemonic culture would emerge with the dialectically opposed characteristics of both the oppressor and the liberationist. Today, the devastating conditions which birthed hip-hop remain a reality and, in some instances, have intensified. The recent crisis capitalism has found itself in continues the downward spiral and the world economy appears close to collapse. The conditions for the working-class and the poor, however, have only worsened over the thirty years since hip-hop established itself as a cultural entity. Unemployment is skyrocketing nationally across color lines but in many cities, such as Milwaukee, Detroit, and Chicago, black unemployment is at or near 50 percent. Already claiming the highest rates of poverty in the industrial world, U.S. poverty statistics have risen drastically since the onset of the world banking crash, placing both Blacks and Latinos at or above 20 percent; youth minority statistics are often much higher. The loss of jobs, combined with the collapse of the housing market and sub-prime predatory lending, has pushed an immense amount of working-class residents out of their homes and left nearly fifty million people without healthcare. Schools, after a brief glimmer of hope with post-civil rights integration, have become more segregated now than they were thirty years ago with public school systems in Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and many other urban areas 80-95 percent Black and Hispanic.

Thus, the conditions in which hip-hop originally arose have not improved. Social commentator and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor postulates these are rational outcomes of the dominant political economy:
The material impact on the lives of Black workers should be clear enough, but ideologically, the systematic and institutional impoverishment of African American communities perpetuates the impression that Blacks are inferior and defective. These perceptions are perpetuated and magnified by the mass media, Hollywood and the general means of ideological and cultural production in bourgeois society. The recurrence and persistence of racism in this economic system is not accidental or arbitrary. American capitalism is intrinsically racist.
Like Taylor, independent hip-hop has, throughout its existence, maintained a critical approach to the capitalist mode of production and the material conditions resulting from it. On “Window to My Soul,” of Dead Prez painfully professes the emotional trauma he experienced as he watched his older brother develop a serious drug addiction. Rather than blame the individual, an old rhetorical tactic utilized to conceal social inequality and displace blame, even more prevalent now that a Black man occupies the Whitehouse, addresses the larger socioeconomic forces which often dictate and limit choices for the urban poor:
The same conditions that first created the drug problems still exist… / And on days off, we blow off them crumbs like nothing / Getting high cause a nigga gotta get into something / But we get trapped in a cycle of pain and addiction / And lose the motivation to change the condition… / How did Black life, my life, end up so hard?
He questions the entire wage system and bourgeois morality with piercing lines such as “got to go to the job or starve, without a gun every day employees get robbed.” Questioning whose interests are served in the perpetuation of the current system, he concludes that it’s “the police, lawyers, and judges, the private owned prison industry with federal budgets.” He ends with an unapologetic proclamation that the oppression of blacks is systemic, but oppressed communities cannot turn to individualized forms of escapism and instead must discuss the organization of society as it currently exists, “I blame it on the system but the problem is ours, it's not a question of religion; it's a question of power.” The call to a revolutionary alternative, although not always explicitly detailed, has been a persistent theme in the language of political rap. This, undoubtably, is due to the fact that many within the oppressed communities share Taylor’s conviction that the dynamic interrelationship between wealth, power, poverty, and the institutional forms in which oppression is manifested.

The landscape of independent, political hip-hop is constantly changing, progressing, and evolving. In the last few years, the augmentation of revolutionary hip-hop which aims to combat traditionally oppressive societal institutions and entrenched corporate structures provides a glimpse of the potential for the art’s future. Hip-hop’s place in politics extends far beyond a presidential election or congressional debates on explicit content; hip-hop, in the words of Dead Prez’s M-1, “means sayin’ what I want, never bitin’ my tongue / hip-hop means teachin’ the young.” Immortal Technique tells it like this, “I live and breathe Revolution, Rebellion is in my blood and Hip Hop is the heart that pumps it.” Two decades into the rap game, Paris provides a way forward with the newest single, “Don’t Stop the Movement,” from his independently owned label Guerrilla Funk:
Givin’ power to the people to take back America / Panic in the head of the state, pass the Derringer / Aim and shoot, Beruit to Bay Area… / Panther power, acid showers/ This land is ours, stand and shout it… / Hard truth revolutionary black militant / Death to the Minutemen, checks to the immigrants / Streets still feelin’ it, we still killin’ it / We still slaughterin’ hawks, feed the innocent / Read the imprint / Guerrilla Funk was birthed outta’ necessity, collectively / Respectively, to behead the beast / On behalf of the left wing scared to speak, NOW GET UP!
Expressing the need for solidarity between the struggles against militarism in the Middle East, black oppression in the U.S., and dehumanizing anti-immigration policies, the chorus warns activists to not stop the movement for social justice and liberation. It ends with a recording of the common protest chant which proclaims that “the people, united, will never be defeated.” KRS-One comments that hip-hop is the only place Dr. Martin Luther Kings dream is visible, “black, white, Asian, Latino, Chicano, everybody. Hip-hop has formed a platform for all people…that, to me, is beyond music.” As underground rap artist Macklemore urges his listeners, “to my real hip-hop heads, please stand up, because the only ones who can preserve this art is us.”

The battle continues to rage over hip-hop’s soul. Two contradictory forces clash to gain dominance: one representing the great wealth and power of the established order, the other struggling for independence, autonomy, and social change. Manning Marable makes the argument that “cultural workers,” such as hip-hop artists, “must be able to do more than rhyme about problems: they have got to be able to build organizations as well as harness the necessary monetary resources and political power to do something about them.” To answer the question of what role hip-hop will play in the formation of such revolutionary organizations and movements depends on which side wins, the power of profit or the power of the people. For hip-hop activists to rescue the art form from capitalism’s corporate clutches it will take dedication, organization, and education; time will tell if the hip-hop generation is up to this onerous task. The very essence of the culture is at stake.


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