January 15 – Volume 16, #1
“ Folk Music”
Last month we established that hip-hop does meet the criteria of a culture and laid out some of the norms, values and rules that are specific to hip-hop subculture. By most any observation, hip-hop today is not what it was, circa 1973, when Kool Herc first rocked a joint on Sedgwick Ave.
The most obvious difference between then and now is that what was once relegated to a few pockets of New York City is now ubiquitous to the point that most people reading this don’t remember a world when there wasn’t any hip-hop.
But this isn’t your father’s hip-hop, to say nothing of your granddaddy IU’s.
Many of hip-hop’s founding values have been transformed to the point that; at times, the culture I grew up with –the culture that helped raise me- is barely recognizable. The most visible manifestations that (often falsely) are presented to the unassuming public under the banner of hip-hop today usually offer a clonish, one-dimensional, self-indulged, bourgeois experience of blackness that contrasts sharply with the collective, Afrocentricly diverse, innovative, working-class environments that hip-hop was crafted from.
The reconfiguration of hip-hop culture is obvious, but who does this matter to? Well, actually it matters to just about everybody.
It is important to make clear that our primary and most consistent socialization into our culture –any culture- begins at home. Too often, these functions are left to the schools, the church, the government, media or other institutions; and these national fixtures play an important role. But the foundation begins at home. So by the time hip-hop subculture touches any of us, we have already been reared within the social system of some larger culture.
In the United States, regardless of an individual’s station, the socialization that we get from mass society is often virulent and provides precious little that is soul affirming. This is particularly true if your life experiences are similar to the people who created hip-hop. But for well over a decade most Americans’ reference points for hip-hop culture have been virtually indistinguishable from mainstream American culture. This melding has significant repercussions both for those who love hip-hop and those who do not.
This month I want to specifically explore why this cultural devolution is important to the nearly 200 million white people of America, a great many of which are already passionate about hip-hop culture.
With each new shocking news headline, it becomes more evident that in spite of our five centuries of living separately and unequally in the Americas, white folks don’t understand black America (and black Americans) nearly as well as most black people understand white America. This is no statement on white folks’ aptitude for learning cultures. Black people in America had to learn the rules of engagement for our very survival in a culture that differed dramatically from those that we came from in Africa. But many white Americans have been able to maintain the luxury of remaining ignorant to any culture that wasn’t their own. And why shouldn’t they maintain such physical and ideological distance? I know more than a few black people who would avoid white culture at every turn if their economic livelihood would allow it. Most human beings are prejudiced to their cultures in this way.
The thing is, the idea of “white” is only a little more than 100 years old. Before that, if you had migrated to America from places that didn’t require as much melanin, you were just a polack, a kike, a kraut or a WOP. Most of these classifications were far better than being a nigger, but served to marginalize nonetheless.
So when the opportunity came to escape this sort of oppressive bigotry and become a white, full-bled American, who wouldn’t jump at that? There was no shortage of black people who did. Even those who could never adjust their pigment enough to blend in phenotypically, made every effort to embrace white supremacy ideologically.
And make no mistake; it wasn’t just whiteness that was created at the turn of the 20th century, but also white supremacy: a belief in the inherent superiority of white culture, ideas, values, beliefs and people. Italians, Irishmen and Polish people left behind proud cultural heritages in assimilating into Americans. There should be some tangible benefits for subjecting oneself to this sort of cultural suicide. So it wasn’t enough to merely be white. It was also important to be positioned above others who were not white.
Whether they admit it or not, most white people in America have a lot vested in white supremacy. Even the kind-hearted, liberal white people. And this is understandable. White Americans enjoy the highest quality of life in the history of the world. By most any objective measure, being born white in America has given people a tremendous leg-up in this society.
But if you look closely, my white brothers and sisters, there aren’t nearly as many benefits to being white as there used to be. And trust me, people of color are not enjoying any residual benefits of your reduced status regardless of what you may have been told on Fox News.
As Nas postulated on his controversial 2008 album, everyone is a nigger now in the eyes of the rich, powerful white men who have ruled the world for several centuries.
Working class whites have waited patiently but wealth hasn’t trickled down quite like Ronald Reagan promised decades ago. The manufacturing base that built the white middle class has been sold away by the politicians white folks largely empowered so that the corporate CEOs who fund their campaigns could take home salaries of $800 million per instead of $500 million. Much like the disenfranchised, postindustrial black people who created hip-hop, if there is not a productive space in which to express very real angst, it can be destructive for all of society.
We see this already though we pretend not to look.
We get a more constant, sensationalized stream of black-on-black violence on the 10 o’clock news each night, while white violence is seen as more random and less pathological. Yet obscure places like Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado have become buzzwords that immediately bring to mind the whimsical slaughters of random, lone, psychologically-disturbed assassins.
Except after a while, all this white-on-white crime doesn’t seem so random. This shit is a symptom of a larger systemic breakdown. People are pissed off in these times. And they have a right to be. But just like black kids in the ghetto, too often this anger is displaced.
The people in power; who control what we see and hear, perpetuate this masochism further yet. Corporate media distracts us with stupidity, and frightens us with an endless assembly-line of manufactured enemies. Today it’s the brown people in Isis who have killed exactly three American citizens regardless of how many times they show impassioned, pre-beheading speeches on cable news. Or it’s the diseased African people that are responsible for spreading an ebola virus that has failed to take the life of even one American-born citizen on American soil. Or it’s the scary black people rioting and looting after another cop gets away with murder without even the slightest assistance from Viola Davis.
But honestly, (and I truly don’t mean to get too Marxian, member of the petit bourgeoisie that I am) who is a bigger threat to the average white person’s daily peace of mind? Some dude in Yemen who don’t know where his next meal is coming from, or the banker that’s trying to take the house you’ve sacrificed your life savings to make a deposit on?
I firmly believe that one reason we have seen such a spike in spree shootings in recent years is that there are few places where people can constructively vent their frustration. As they have for black people some time ago, most of white America’s trusted cultural institutions have broken down. The government in Washington has long been fucked to the point where few people even take politics seriously anymore. Wall Street takes few pains to hide the fact that they’re not much more than a white collar casino, except a casino has more ethics. Religious bodies such as the Catholic Church are rebounding from decades of scandal. The military has overseen a cover-up of an unseemly high level of sexual assaults. Our foods are even more toxic than our entertainment. The school system? Yeah right. White folks. Black folks. Purple folks. We got nowhere else to turn to. It’s high time that we turn to each other.
Underground subcultures like hip-hop already contain some of the internal infrastructure that can allow for a sustained, transformative cultural movement that can help erode some of the distracting and divisive labels of race, class and gender that have helped to maintain the status quo to the benefit of a precious few.
Hip-hop, in its original organic form, was built off of the energy of the oppressed. This is why today it is the most common music of choice all over the world for people to express their frustration with their local power structure from Oakland to Kiev. To quote Talib Kweli, hip-hop is the last, true folk music. Young white kids today would be well served to tap into that energy.
In its unadulterated form, nowhere will white folks be exposed to the view of America that is seen through the prism of hip-hop. And I defy anyone to find anything in the 20th century that brought more people from divergent backgrounds together than hip-hop has, and continues to do.
I make no bones about being a bit of a conspiracy theorist, though I pride myself in rooting my most deeply held principles in unassailable facts. It will be difficult to locate tangible support for such a position, but I believe strongly that the powers-that-be in this country felt very threatened about the cultural influence that hip-hop was gaining in the early 1990s and worked swiftly to undermine it. Hip-hop wasn’t only producing more conscious black men and women. It was creating more conscious white people too.
White people being entertained by black culture wasn’t anything new. That’s been going on literally since black folks arrived in America. But as I said last month, hip-hop is a culture that demands that you get your hands dirty. For a white dude to feel truly at home in authentic hip-hop spaces, he will not be able to remain passive in the culture. Hip-hop is diverse, but foundationally, it is a black culture and always will be. If you’re a white girl or boy who plans to be in this for the long haul, and don’t just use your engagement with hip-hop as a phase in which you can annoy your parents, it is going to be a bit uncomfortable for you at times. An anecdote from my dissertation research on Chicago hip-hop is illustrative of this forced discomfort. Although my research participant, “Kerry,” had long had his baptisms by fire in the predominantly black hip-hop shows he had attended since he was a teen, he was still taken aback by an experience he had at a Dead Prez concert in New York city. Kerry says of the event:
“Like 8 years ago, maybe Dead Prez had been out a couple of years. I was at the Rock Steady anniversary in New York and they were one of the groups performing. And I was there kind of with a mix of people I think. I was the only white kid, and there were a few black women, a couple of dudes, a Mexican dude. Dead Prez got on, did a couple of songs and then decided it was time for them to preach a little bit. I was aware of what they were about, but at the same time I never took offense to it. It’s music, everyone can say what they want to say. If anything, I didn’t like the generalizations and that’s exactly what they did that day. “Kill white people and you gotta kill white people” and all that. And this is like the hundredth show I been to and this is the first time I’m hearing something like this. And I’m like you’ve got to be kidding me. These dudes are crazy. I bought their album. I was pretty turned off by it. And to this day it’s hard for me to go out and get into some Dead Prez stuff. When I’m spinning I’ll still play “it’s bigger than hip-hop,” I’ll play some “Mind Sex” but it’s hard for me to say I want to buy their album. Later I thought about it. What they’re saying, it’s a little extreme but I know there’s frustration, I know there’s anger. I would rather have them tell me how they feel than have them tell me everything is all good. So at the end of the day I was like it’s cool but at the same time I haven’t been dying to get into Dead Prez’ mixtapes. The Dead Prez thing was such as- the way that they presented their platform. “It’s revolution, put your fists up and take these white people out.” Come on. Where you gonna take me? This is ridiculous. I don’t really hear that with Common, Dilla or whoever when they make comments about white people. But now I have a feeling that (Dead Prez) not talking about me, they’re talking about other people in the white community and I can point people out I know that fall into that. They talking about someone but they not talking about me.”
I reference Kerry here at length because his experience at the Dead Prez concert shows how white hip-hop headz sometimes still have to struggle to be seen as individuals and not part of the white power structure. But ultimately Kerry’s experience in these spaces allowed his racial understanding to expand by being forced to confront situations that will make most whites uncomfortable, and that they rarely have to experience in America.
But it is these kinds of experiences that breed human empathy. The best way to truly understand oppression is to experience how it feels. There are few places where white folks can feel the experience of a minority. To be sure, Kerry’s experience in hip-hop is not nearly on par with the kind of psychological and physical abuse that black people live through daily in this society, but it is important for them to have an authentic and genuinely inviting space that lets them walk in our shell-toed Adidas for at least a little while.
I don’t pretend that hip-hop culture is white people’s only avenue to this kind of enlightenment. But it is one of the more organic and quite frankly, most fun. And the only real requirement for white people to be made to feel at home in these spaces is that you be yourself at all times.
But for this to fully take hold, hip-hop will have to get back to producing true folk music that is inspired from the black underclass. Too often hip-hop’s contemporary torchbearers use the culture as a medium to promote the value system of rich white men through excessive and exaggerated focus on Maybachs, champagne and wack homo-erotic, European designers rather than use their forums to bring attention to national unemployment levels, gas prices and income disparities.
And while all of America is disaffected by these developments, the old saying that when America catches a cold black America gets pneumonia absolutely still rings true. And black America has never had the kind of illusions held deep in the hearts of most white folks that we can count on our social institutions to support us through the lean times. Where we could, we’ve had to depend on our own institutions. The black church. The Nation of Islam. Black barbershops and other enterprises that were borne out of the reality of Jim Crow.
At one time, hip-hop had the potential to become another enduring institution for the black community that would not only produce values, ideas and norms; but jobs, skills and social power.
Whether or not hip-hop has realized that potential depends on who you ask. But one thing’s for sure, the answer to this question is crucially important for the larger black community. Next month I’ll unpack some of the reasons why.
Peace and God bless,