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Meditations on Hip Hop: Of Disposability, Death and Destiny
05-20-2010, 12:28 AM, (This post was last modified: 05-29-2010, 02:35 AM by h3rm35.)
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Meditations on Hip Hop: Of Disposability, Death and Destiny
http://www.truthout.org/meditations-hip-hop-part-ii-death59646
Meditations on Hip-Hop: Of Disposability, Death and Destiny (Part I of III)

Monday 10 May 2010

by: Tolu Olorunda | All Hip Hop

Disposability

“As the social state is displaced by the market, a new kind of politics is emerging in which some lives, if not whole groups, are seen as disposable and redundant.”

— Henry A. Giroux, Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 155-156.

They lack the minerals and vitamins which time releases
So they try to blind you with the diamonds in they time pieces
Okay, you got money, and we all can see it (great!)
Now, rhyme about something time don't depreciate

— Hi-Tek ft. Talib Kweli & Dion, “Time,” Hi-Teknology3 (2007).

Round about midway through the last decade, no more was it acceptable to cling to that absurd conviction claiming Hip-Hop was merely undergoing “shifts” and “trends,” and that much of the remonstrations, showering down from all tunnels, were ill-begotten and untimely and but the misguided ramblings of a few East-Coast-elitists displeased with another region (the South) assuming control of the Rap music machine. With the silly and senseless parodies that came to count as true artistic creations, most who once held skepticism to any criticisms began losing faith. It was at once clear, that more than a shifty trend, the ship was sinking—thrusting all those within deep into the bottomless sea—and that a future, if at all there was one, might be greatly imperiled.

How, for instance, could rappers recklessly resurrect Minstrel themes of old, without a piece of protest from a public that likes to think of itself intelligent enough to erect ever-higher standards for the many annual Rap aspirants eager to be accepted as authentic and legitimate—“real”—representatives of Hip-Hop music and culture? How could major radio stations whittle down their playlists considerably—and fall dependent on no more than 5 or 7 songs (each blasting out exact, decadent suggestions)—and face no concerted, consequential demonstration demanding better? How could a rapper, in a music video, swipe down his credit card, spilt-through the backside of a female dancer, and have a popular TV station plug it endlessly (around midnight, of course), and have many rise up to his defense because, so the chants went, Rap is about free expression, and this man deserves no less right to express himself as Hugh Hefner or Howard Stern?

Beefs, Blings, Bricks, Bullets, and Backsides

And if the misogyny wasn’t firm enough, the ravenous glorification of violence and vapid materialism certainly broke the water. Having come through a decade that opened coffins for two of the most explosive and expressive Rap artists, it was agreed a new dawn must arise, and a new way of thinking surrender, if a future for this international cultural force was wanted. But the last decade began no better than many hoped. Two great New York rivals clashed hard to serenade the new millennium, and drew at each other for many years, until, in October 2005, maturity and intelligence steered their hearts toward reconciliation.

But as both growled and gnashed, putting their lives in persistent danger for incidents a good one-on-one session could have corrected, the only winners, as always, proved to be the major record labels, for whom both were serfs—mere lackeys on the field, walkers on the streets.

They take the strongest of slaves to compete in a track meet
For the king of the city, sing songs of back streets
Choruses of cocaine tales and black heat
Only to trade ni**as like professional athletes!

Years after Tupac and Biggie, LL and Canibus, Nas and Jay-Z, it took long for 50 Cent and Ja Rule to embrace this sobering reality, as both walked into the same trap their many predecessors had once too been entangled in; but, as always, by then the game was nearing final whistle, and anticipated revenue had already been met, and the real winners were out the door, brimming with great pride—another set of young Black males heisted, millions of fans swindled (but, by god, entertained!), and millions more in cash collected.

At every major intersection in Hip-Hop history, never has this plan failed or fall short—of pitting natural allies against each other, setting up fictional accounts that send both boiling and scribbling feverishly into their notepads, and sitting calmly-faced as they sling fireballs back and forth: and in case a fatality should occur (as past events document), retreating into total obscurity, all the while well-pleased with the ignorance of men who can move hearts and souls with complex poetical constructions, but whose humanity has been defined, and they’ve come to interpret, by narrow conceptions of Machismo.

We played against each other like puppets: swearing you got pull
When the only pull you got is the wool over your eyes

In midst of crafting threatening rhymes toward anyone insecure enough to take the bait, many rappers assuredly took time out to account the number of chains hanging from their necks, bracelets and watches fastened to their wrists, shine and size of rims spinning on their tires, the amount of cars overflowing from personal garages (and, dear god, the paint jobs glistening thereupon), the piles of raw cash stacked on either sides of their pants pockets, the make of sneaker shoes—preferably custom—dragged around with their feet, the design of clothes stashed in their closets, the brand and size and kind of wine preferred at choice-strip clubs. Opulence, for sure. But, even then, little harm was meant—and felt. Soon, however, the bar lowered—from carats to cars, human life factored shortly: the waist-size, body-shape, skin-color, hair-length, attitude-type, etc. Women now ranked as low as the 24 inch rims many bragged excessively about.

Sickening, certainly. But millions of fans lapped this up for years, unquestioning and undisturbed. It became necessary chant for anyone with dreams of acceptance: for if you happened to take pleasure more in the social crises threatening the very world surrounding you, chances of commercial success or affordable living slimmed greatly; but if you chose to join the crowd which, just like you, couldn’t wait to share with fans every immaterial facets of their splashy (though spiritually empty) lives, lifted up as substitutable for self-worth, a door at every major record label, major radio and TV station, and major concert venue held your name emblazoned, bidding: “come in and do business with—for—us.”

The bling-bling era was cute but it's about to be done, Immortal Technique swore 7 years ago. Look back carefully, and rosters of artists never wavered through those years, never dropped the tempo of their march to the graves of immoral infantilism. Not many understood what they considered poetry could only count, to adults with the courage to think for themselves, as self-parody and an embarrassment at what had become of music—repeated loops of content-absolved incoherence shot, unchanged, through the lips of diverse dolts introduced, to an unwitting public, as artists and, the whopper of all, “creative” artists at that! Lupe Fiasco’s brilliant satirical commentary mapped this farce gracefully—

Now come on, everybody, let's make cocaine cool
We need a few more half-naked women up in the pool
And hold this MAC-10 that's all covered in jewels
And can you please put your ti**ies closer to the 22s?
And where's the champagne? We need champagne!
Now look as hard as you can with this blunt in your hand
And now hold up your chain, slow-motion through the flames
Now cue the smoke machines and the simulated rain

Pop Artists

Just as many couldn’t see their creations as the farthest from Art, many, I’m certain, would have been equally befuddled if explained to that in a few years their names would be unrecognizable to the millions of kids for which their music was once Holy Grail. It would be unfathomable that a rapper once christened the next “big thing,” and sure enough primed to sell out millions of CD copies, would in less than 5 years be restored to anonymity, with no name in the street. I wouldn’t embarrass any such rappers in this editorial—they’ve suffered too much—but the list runs endless. Today, king of the jungle. Tomorrow, unknown quarry.

The shock is hardest of all. Then sense of betrayal sets in. The artists’ rage immediately flames at managers and publicists and friends and fans and executives, unable to grapple with what is truer than all the lies (s)he once heard as matter of course: that (s)he was but a mere commodity, sold for a good price, but, like all disposable commodities, set with an expiration date, upon which usefulness (and relevance) passes off. The artist, after much soul-searching, confronts this bitter truth: that (s)he was disposable, that the music was only an immaterial part of the package—worm for fish, carrot for donkey—and now another commodity has been placed on the shelf, whose date also has been set.

One from a thousand speaks in his own voice
The other 999 imitate without choice

My sympathy forever stays with the artist, for no human being deserves to be used or abused—and, particularly, dehumanized. But how much sympathy can be invoiced for hordes of hacks who delighted in swanking about crafting whole songs in 5 or 15 minutes, and foolishly presenting this wonder-of-the-modern-world as evidence of their divine artistic abilities. For years, Hip-Hop fans took beating from scores of artists who strolled out to outdo whatever the record stood at: to pen the fastest bar, hook, verse, or entire song. Of course the thought and time put in always betrayed the ordinariness of the composition. And as the ghosts of Usain Bolt attacked the hands of so-called Rap artists, the channels of creativity began closing, reducing commercial Rap songs to futile repetitions of long-established themes.

Pop Music

The mind that produced “Poet Laureate II” (Canibus) certainly could not take pride in coughing up entire songs in 5 minutes. A certain patience that only great artists—painters, writers, poets—possess, patience to sit still until the right words or shadows and colors can be brought forth, has never known most involved in making Rap music. Prolific artists like the GZA—renowned for such painstaking creations as “Queen’s Gambit,” “0% Finance,” “Labels,” and “Publicity”—must have fallen into light comas upon each sighting of peers and colleagues whose bank accounts boasted millions of dollars for essentially restating what the last man dictated from some previously published script.
“It takes me a while to write sometimes because I’m always reconsidering words,” revealed the GZA in a 2006 interview. “I go line-for-line. Every time I write I try to go line-for-line. It’s a puzzle to me. That’s how I write: this has to fit here and that has to fit there.”

Two years later, he again outlined his work ethic, and the high bar of quality set for his craft: “I like the patience that I have. I once said on the “Crash Your Crew” song, I seen a million try to set a flow/ Thousands at shows/ Observed with the patience of watching a flower grow/. So, I have a lot of patience when it comes to writing. I mean every rhyme that I write, I usually draft five or six or seven times.” (Exclaim!, Nov. 2008.)

This talk must sound foreign to countless artists comforted for years that a first draft is best because it speaks to the most specific details of the heart’s cries, and that needless tinkering for grammatical or dramatic accuracy borders on artificiality or Nerdism, and can only drive away “real” Hip-Hop fans. To this end has rubbish been approved for 21st century Hip-Hop standard. And with many major record label executives sub-literate to any conception of Art—since artists are put on excruciatingly tight schedules that smite the mere possibility of contemplation-before-creation—artistic integrity is an early casualty.

In today’s climate, Prince Paul could never launch A Prince Among Thieves on a major record label. The time required to assemble a line-up of epic quality, to program a storyline of classic complexity, to produce the record with success true to the integrity of his vision, would all be denied. The thought alone—to create operatic Hip-Hop, and craftily insert dialogue, character, plot, flashback, narrative at every turn—would more than likely elicit slammed-shut doors at the offices of the Big 4 record factories.

The force of compromise is often stronger than the public acknowledges (and gives artists the credit for battling). A man with a message, and a strong belief in how that message should be offered publicly, who is then informed his message is unfit or too intelligent for the key-demographic the label plans to market to, can spiral out of control—as many Rap artists unfortunately have, through their careers. The microphone then serves as instrument to punish the rage and fury—the I-have-had-it-up-to-hereness—built up within meetings where White executives claim to know more what Black and Brown audiences deserve—and what flies above their heads. Nothing here is pretty, and what comes off often irritates, as Talib Kweli fired—

And you see that there microphone
Ain't no place to work out your self-esteem issues
Do that sh** when you alone!

I beg of Kweli, and those in his camp, to be more compassionate of artists suffering deflated egos, robbed of their sense of worth. When denied any sense of agency, sense of ableness to speak against the wicked doings of the rulers in high places, it’s easy to rather jingle about how many Rolexes wrap their wrists, than how timely the moment is for true social change and true revolution of values. It’s easy to rather scribble rhymes about countless lives they’ve physically and personally—without the jail-time one would expect and hope for—sent over hell’s gates, than address increasing inner-city violence, a racist and classist economic system, or a Prison Industrial Complex built on the backs of children and adults priced with little opportunity since birth.

Unplug it on chumps with the gangsta babble
Leave your 9s (mm) at home and bring your skills to the battle

Pop Culture

None of this, however gory or ghastly, deviates from script: for most Rap artists are little other than slaves to a system they lack full understanding of. When a rapper entertains young masses—millions around the world tuned to this endless stream—with tales of gang exploits, drug sales, court cases, illegal businesses, and steel-like toughness, only one side emerges victorious—and neither the rapper or the fans had a shot to start with. The rapper is blessed with chump compensation, and fans (many of them from suburban families) are transported to a high upon which only Scarface and The Godfather has thus far been capable of lifting them.

While the song plays and the beat goes on, however, both artist and fan are denied slices of their humanity: artists find their dignity missing when told their capital function in life is to crank out destructive and pathological representations of reality, and overrule any possibility of inner-city Black and Brown kids struggling and overcoming. Struggling, here, represents the end to many means—an ongoing, mindless activity disconnected from any sense of hope and change. Nihilism and fatalism are fetishized over—as worthy answer to constant disappointment over failed struggle. Fans, whether poor or privileged, are robbed of the importance poets once served in society—as prophets and oracles, drawing up inspiration for a better tomorrow and a better today, exposing the inhumanity of life to force radical change. When artists find more value in embodying and embellishing, rather than erasing, decadence, a line has surely been tipped over.

“It is the principal function of popular culture—though hardly its avowed purpose—to keep men from understanding what is happening to them, for social unrest would surely follow, and who knows what outbursts of revenge and rage,” William H. Gass insisted more than three decades ago in Fiction and the Figures of Life. (New York: Knopf, 1970; p. 272) You see traces of this sad spectacle everywhere, even with the year-long health care debate, with many, sick to their lungs, railing against “socialized insurance,” with senior citizens decrying government-run programs as “Communist” and “Marxist.” If only their eyes were introduced to reality, and their ear drums turned the way of truth—truth that reveals the inhumane and deadly practices of gluttonous health insurance giants: gladly denying coverage to dying children and “overweight” infants—there would be, as Chris Rock promised a month ago, “riots in the streets … They would burn this muthaf**ker down!”

Those who sway the future of our planet don’t sweat bullets much, however, thanks to a public that does not “wish to know their own nothingness—or their own potentialities either, and the pleasures of popular culture … give us something to do, something to suffer, an excuse for failure, and a justification for everything.” (p. 273)

Rappers can get real cranky when sober, when pushed to stare down the truth in all its ugliness, “So, the business,” poet Black Ice revealed years ago, “feeds them all the weed and ecstasy and a little bit of paper to provide some pacification from all the bullsh** frustration they serve you.”

Now, the high is just an illusion: lies and confusion
But, just for that rush, just once, these young bucks'll go through it
So, in essence, they’re still flooding our streets with thugs, drugs, and killing
They just using these record labels to do it

The public fares no better. When shaken out of tabloid-induced coma, bricks rush into office glass windows, buildings explode, planes crash into skyscrapers—pandemonium ensues. For years now, the rulers have fed the donkey its carrot, and blissfully led it down many rivers. And Rap music, for many, is that slim, orange, pointy, juicy vegetable. They swear greater command of what is held before them for consumption—you hear the proverbial “I know he ain’t talkin’ ‘bout me” from female fans—but reality spells differently. William Gass explained:

The objects of popular culture are competitive. They are expected to yield a return. Their effect must be swift and pronounced, therefore they are strident, ballyhooed, and baited with sex; they must be able to create or take part in a fad; and they must die without fuss and leave no corpse. In short, the products of popular culture, by and large, have no more esthetic quality than a brick in the street. (pp. 272-273)

And though lacking any “finish, complexity, stasis, individuality, coherence, depth, and endurance,” they possess that one quality requisite to claim the hearts of a culturally illiterate public—“splash.” (p. 274) The commercial, dominant Rap music content of the last decade falls in this lane—of engaging beats and superfluous styles lacking bitterly in substance. But as with a mansion of cards—no matter how well adorned or spruced up—with time the foundationless structure gives in.

Endless times have I heard the defense, “I don’t like the rhymes, but the beat is tight!” and, refusing to grab a brick and smash over the heads of these otherwise intelligent people, I walked off disturbed. How pitiful do we determine a woman whose purse has just been picked by the neighborhood conman, and, though knowing all this, responds—“I don’t like the act, but he’s good-looking”? It would sound unreasonable if the structure of popular culture did not rest on this very foundation—the unbelievable, unexplainable gullibility of an ostensibly aware public. “[P]opular culture is the product of an industrial machine,” wrote Gass, “which makes baubles to amuse savages while missionaries steal their souls and merchants steal their money.” (p. 274)

However uncool preachers might be today, sermons need to shoot off from rooftops to millions worldwide trapped in this buffooneristic enterprise, shorted for all their worth and fed deleterious values, many of them too young to estimate the total effect of the destruction until later on—at stages almost irreversible. “This muck cripples consciousness,” Gass warned. “Therefore no concessions should be made to it.” (p. 275)

[Next week’s editorial would extend this topic—of whether the “muck” has so crippled consciousness, not only of listeners but of Hip-Hop itself, that all life has been sapped, dragging away to the valleys of death.]

Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic whose work appears in various online journals. He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Meditations on Hip Hop: Of Disposability, Death and Destiny (Part II)

Monday 17 May 2010

by: Tolu Oluronda | All Hip Hop

Death

All deaths have causes … Corpses are cut open, explored, scanned, tested, until the cause is found: a blood clot, kidney failure, hemorrhage, heart arrest, lung collapse. We do not hear of people dying of mortality. They die only of individual causes … No post-mortem examination is considered complete until the individual cause has been revealed. … One does not just die; one dies of a disease or of murder.

—Zygmunt Bauman, Mortality, Immortality, and Other Life Strategies (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 138.

Everybody sound the same, commercialize the game/ Reminiscing when it wasn't all business/ It forgot where it started/ So we all gather here for the dearly departed/

—Nas, “Hip Hop Is Dead,” Hip-Hop Is Dead (2006).

It didn’t take long after Queensbridge MC Nas declared Hip-Hop dead in early 2006 for the blowback to begin. In those subsequent days, fans, artists, and even music executives at once sauntered from beyond the halls of obscurity to register their firm dispute with any such notion that this music which had dominated public consciousness for over two decades was approaching death rattles, and on verge of chugging down the final pill. On blog sites, forums, editorials, columns, radio shows and street-side conversations, the brash and often crass debates ratcheted.

Also See: Meditations on Hip-Hop Part I: Disposability

One side saw Nas as a prophet hammering down jolting truths that the public deserved to hear nonetheless; another side saw in him a washed-up pariah pulling a publicity stunt to sell copies of his upcoming album, Hip-Hop Is Dead. I still remember the wide-nosed rants of a few friends who, thereafter, swore never to set hand on another Nas album. But as the debates raged unfettered, it became clear that, whether the messenger held sincere intentions or not, the message arrived in perfect rhythm. Eventfully, it also crosshaired the early hours of the Southern takeover and, consequently, set off far more tantrums than budgeted.

Southern rappers were first to fire off, fingering East-Coast-elitism as prime factor behind any sudden concerns about the health of Hip-Hop. They declared Hip-Hop alive and thriving, and submitted strong protest against what they considered the jealousy-inspired suspicions of “Southern Rap.” For them, the emerging cries from East and Mid-West corners had more to do with refusal to acknowledge another region’s fair-and-square dominance, than accurate assessment of a culture on the decline, a culture losing relevance and purpose each passing second.

(The recent, ill-conceived rants of New Orleans artist Jay Electronica confirm this much, and so do the condescending assessments of fellow artists, RZA and B-Real. “How has the South dominated hip-hop for the last four, five years without lyrics, without hip-hop culture really in their blood?” asked RZA three years ago, which provoked Electronica’s tirade last week. RZA worried many Southern artists—and there’s standard document backing him up—were taking great pride “representing … a stereotype of how black people are.” B-Real, speaking with AllHipHop a month ago, ran sharper daggers through the heart of the South, boldly assuring “there’s not that much creativity coming from there.” And even when a few good men rise up, “it starts to all sound the same. And I think that’s the problem that’s going on down there.”)

Nas, emerging within this context, was set up before his lips moved. However well-worded his commentaries would turn up, many were bound to cast him by the wayside where the long list of East Coast critics have been dumped by Southern fans and artists.

But the blowback had more going for it than a few hurt feelings. Artists hailing from diverse regions also had righteous reasons to dissent firmly: for if Hip-Hop, as a vibrant musical contribution, was dead or dying, any labor in the fields would turn up futile in the long run; and if Hip-Hop was dead or dying, any further contact with it, in a death-detesting society (a society which treats the dead and the dying with nearly equal disdain), would mark either as creepy or costly. Artists like Jean Grae, East as the Empire State Building, beat back strongly—

Hip-Hop’s not dead: it was on vacation

We back: we bask in the confrontation

However accurate the assurances, and however desperate the disputes, it’s clear prophets announcing the drying of bones had descended long before Nas shook the grounds in 2006. Three years earlier, Canibus, displeased with the current state, lamented:

From an extroverted point of view, I think it’s too late

Hip Hop has never been the same since ‘88

Since it became a lucrative profession, there’s a misconception

That the movement in any direction is progression

Three years before Canibus, Talib Kweli saw little complexity surrounding, and recognized serious threat in the onrush of commercialism inundating fans and alluring artists—

Nowadays, Rap artists coming half-hearted:

Commercial like pop or underground like Black Markets

Where were you the day Hip-Hop died?

Is it too early to mourn? Is it too late to ride?

This was 2000, with New York very much astride the throne, and a very New York artist could deliver Hip-Hop’s elegy without cranky cries splitting out from a thousand quarters, accusing him of applying double standards or calling a boxing match before the loser was dropped toothless. Back then, such criticism was received with maturity, with thoughtfulness (even if fans and artists felt of the conclusions meritless). The age of the internet wasn’t yet upon us, and the instant-message sensibility with which many reason today still had a few years to set foot. Stinging critiques of the direction in which Hip-Hop was veering also failed to receive spiteful resistance because many knew the history of the music they claimed to support, and understood without the foot-in-mouth remonstrations of artists, Hip-Hop music, at each major turn, had little chance of surviving with its soul intact.

It was evident artists had driven this cultural force off the brink of corporate infiltration countless times, and this tradition of self-criticism, however premature the gloom-and-doom sermons often sounded, had done well in keeping Hip-Hop the public and provocative vessel of social and creative change it began as.

6 years before Talib Kweli, the Notorious B.I.G. struck with equally lethal force—

I see the gimmicks, the wack lyrics

The sh** is depressing, pathetic: please forget it

And two decades earlier, when The Sugarhill Gang was packaged and sold as the first major commercial Rap act, many howled about this irreparable damage to the unsullied, non-commodified foundation Hip-Hop culture was built upon.

The South had legitimate complaint, particularly in wake of the embarrassing disdain Atlanta duo Outkast suffered in the mid-‘90s, but equal protest was placed in ’94 when Common, ruminating on Rap, patronizingly accepted (then rejected) the rising acclaim of West Coast influence—

But then she broke to the West Coast, and that was cool

... I wasn’t salty she was with the Boyz in the ‘hood

... Talking about poppin’ glocks, servin’ rocks, and hittin’ switches

Now she’s a gangsta rollin’ with gangsta bi**hes

Whether of a regional or commercial inspiration, Hip-Hop has been pronounced dead enough times to rival the cat with nine lives. And Hip-Hop has each time staggered out of those coffins, and broke free from the 6-feet mud, to keep relevance till this day. The question, of course, never concerned the positive and affirming presence of a few acts, but whether Rap, as the social conscience it initially burst forth to be, still saw primary purpose as bringing fire to the feet of a society that for many years consigned inner-city Black and Brown youth as invincible—of no priority.

At the start of a new millennium where commercialism reigned supreme, a new millennium which picked up cues from the stock-market frenzy of the previous decade, many Rap fans and artists could smell danger ahead. With record label executives quick to shelve the formulas that only a few years earlier had assured quality music from quality, time-tested artists, the ringing doubts of a future for Rap had good grounding. And this fear extended to the broader musical landscape.

In Before the Music Dies, a 2006 documentary, musicians from all callings railed against the creeping commercialization and the corporate state-of-mind dominating business decisions in record label boardrooms: a short-term investment plan, built against artistic integrity, which no iconic artist—à la Ray Charles or Nina Simone—would today have found in their interest. There could never be a Stevie Wonder or Blind Boys of Alabama, many bewailed, because male acts must be able to swivel their hips, keep perfect looks, and flirt with female fans endlessly. And no Mahalia Jackson or Odetta could rise in these dark days of pop-star musicians, whose daily routines require only a good hairdresser, a good make-up artist, a good personal shopper, and a good lip-synch coach. Doyle Bramhall II, a Blues-guitarist/singer, who in past years has been dropped by both Geffen Records and RCA Records after failing to meet set sales goals (even though being crowned by Eric Clapton heir to the throne), recounted his many meetings with executives who know “more about Wall Street than [they know] about music.”

By the mid-‘90s, it was clear vocals were out and videos in. The spectacle of video could override any vocal deficits. And any half-witted video director, with millions of dollars dropped at his doorstep, could afford enough special effects on set that saved artists the trouble of inserting complex plots and narratives into their work. For Hip-Hop the blow hit harder, as many suburban teens, raptured by this cultural force in which they found source for rebellion, “saw it as being easier to go to the mall and pick up a tape and learn about the culture that way, or they could just watch Yo! MTV Raps in the comfort of their living rooms and copy the culture that way.” [Chuck D, Fight the Power: Rap, Race, and Reality (New York: Delacorte Press, 1997), p. 114.]

Hip-Hop’s descent into the inferno of commercialism sped up at the start of the new millennium, and while many wouldn’t go so far as Kweli, widespread concerns rung loud. By mid-last decade, doubts of survival only increased in volume. (The simultaneous rise of Southern Rap—merely coincidental.) A few from the East might have harbored deep antipathy toward acts they considered impure and alien (if not downright illiterate!)—as many around the country, lovers of all music types, feel of the South—but most meant well in their criticisms. They saw the musical form of their culture suffering from the greed of corporate oligarchs whose perennial jump from fad to fad had landed Hip-Hop in their clutches. Detroit artist Invincible makes the point with pith in ShapeShifters—

Quality control ... Quantity is sold

Based in mediocrity: monotony’s the mold

At this intersection, the number of Rap records with no meaning matched the number of companies embedding Rap mannerisms, slangs, songs, dances, and artists in commercials and ad spots, on banners and billboards. Rappers became proxy to reach the millions of youth worldwide who looked to them as messiahs of sorts, saving souls and offering renewed identities. Only now, rather than inspiring young people to resist the felicities of a market society, to seek self-discovery as greatest of all commandments, rappers had one message for this mass: buy. Buy cars, buy clothes, buy shoes, buy watches, buy bracelets, buy sodas, buy credit cards, buy fast-food, buy liquor.

Am I a victim or just a product of indoctrination?

They exploit it and use me like a movie with product placement

In a sense, Rap artists became purveyors of the same culture (of rancid capitalism and neoliberalism) that constantly evoked terrible childhood memories, the same culture that had inspired so many of those rage-filled rhymes lashing against the soullessness of a society that calculates human worth with financial modalities. And fans, who could demand better from artists and the companies sponsoring them, found more use nitpicking vocal styles and stifling artists’ complex personalities. Many of them, ensconced in the underground, refused to engage Hip-Hop in public forums.

The underground boomed with pure and undefiled acts, and this gladdened the gatekeepers, but the ever-narrow criteria used for evaluation never sat well with public artists like Talib Kweli, whose music and message had to travel through all corners of the world, beyond the isolated quarters of narrow-minded bases bent on keeping Rap one-dimensional and inorganic—

Kweli, you should rap about this, you should rap about that

Any more suggestions? You in the back

... You should rap more on beat, you should rap more street

And never ever get your mack on, please

Others, like Jean Grae, took less casual tones when addressing the sorry state of self-satisfaction lapped up in the underground—

You don’t like the way I flow: “She needs more emotional”

I’ll give you emotion: it’s you holding your broken nose

Death, here, not only came by a laissez-faire state-of-affairs, but also by smothering and inhumane expectations that no true artist can ever feel comfortable with. And all talk that Hip-Hop cannot be dead if the underground still produced artists-with-a-conscience fell flat because Rap, in public form, was eclipsed by the commercial, corporate junk promoted on major radio and TV stations. The face of Hip-Hop wasn’t socially conscious artists addressing the broadness of the world with well thought-out rhymes, but half-naked, fully grown men and women entertaining humanity with tales of drug-dealing, promiscuity, and extreme materialism.

MTV’s standard department could, for instance, rebuff Invincible’s remarkable video, “Ropes,” which chronicled the mental health trauma plaguing young people, complaining it contains “suicidal undertones” and might be “problematic on the channel [mtvU] it was accepted for.” But this channel wouldn’t shy, and never has, from proudly exhibiting the sick and senseless reproductions of violence (verbal, sexual, and physical) from so-called artists for whom Rap music is merely an economic venture.

“Death, when it comes,” Zygmunt Bauman instructed two decades ago, “will brutally interrupt our work before our task is done, our mission accomplished. This is why we have every reason to be worried about death now, when we are still very much alive and when death remains but a remote and abstract prospect.” (p. 4) Those who hoped to rail Nas over red-hot coals for speaking prematurely had missed the point entirely. For of what use is a prophet whose doom-filled exhortations only arrive once the deed has come and passed. Hip-Hop—Is Dead, Nas said. Hip-Hop, however, wasn’t dead but losing significance; in short, dying. And the burden of restoring Hip-Hop back to rightful place as the speck in the eye of society fell on the backs of all those who treasured the righteous rage of a young generation caught off from the benefits previous generations had enjoyed.

But this message failed to arouse critical engagement because, besides resentment over timeliness, guilt overwhelmed many who hadn’t held up their weight of the bargain. And, on this issue, the South felt most targeted. The whole world seemed to have its fingers directed downward; and like the murderer who quietly jumps out the back window of his victim’s bedroom, only to discover the whole neighborhood gathered around, a good round of reverse-psychology mixed with unqualified and unprovoked defensiveness was last hope to bail out the assailant(s).

“Unlike our distant ancestors and ‘people unlike us,’ we do not discuss cruel and gory matters,” wrote Bauman. “We are abhorred by the flashes of realities we have chased down into the no-go cellars of our orderly and elegant existence, having proclaimed them nonexistent or at least unspeakable. Death is just one of those things that have been so evicted.” (p. 129) For a culture stuffed to the teeth with tales of death and death-defying deeds, a culture made sensitive from the annual deaths of rising stars, the messiness of death-talk irritated many immediately. Plus, if Hip-Hop was dead, the South figured, the culprits most likely would be placed somewhere close to the scene of murder; and no other region could at the time boast as great a regional command.

No doubt a deficit in intelligence prevented a good deal of fans and artists from answering the clarion call to run faster and work harder to keep Hip-Hop socially relevant and publicly useful. What for them marked black attire, veils, grave diggers, mud, flowers, and teary eyes, should have inspired a new awakening and resilience of spirit and hope for better days. The Hip-Hop Is Dead declaration, if critical thinking had found greater use, would have regenerated effervescent commitment from fans and artists, for as Bauman announced:

Once the diffuse and inhuman prospect of mortality had been localized and ‘humanized,’ one need no more stand idle waiting for impending doom. One can do something, something ‘reasonable’ and ‘useful.’ … One can, in other words, be a rational agent in the face of (in spite of) the predicament that bars rationality. (p. 153)

Regretfully, the decade-long obsession with infantilism had produced such deleterious results that criticism, once lifted over one-dimensional ceilings, shot fast above the heads of those into whose hands is entrusted the future of Hip-Hop. God, save us.

[Next week’s editorial will attempt a conclusion to this series, and strive to steer hope for an indecisive future.]

Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic whose work appears regularly in various online journals. He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.
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05-20-2010, 02:31 AM,
#2
RE: [split] Political Hip Hop & Rap
That thread was for music only, so I gave your post a home of it's own.
“Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after
equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality. ” -Nikola Tesla

"When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace." -Jimi Hendrix
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05-20-2010, 02:58 AM,
#3
RE: [split] Political Hip Hop & Rap
I didn't realize... I had posted before in there about the lack of hip-hop at a republican thingy, and that wasn't moved... sorry.
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05-29-2010, 02:36 AM,
#4
RE: Meditations on Hip Hop: Of Disposability, Death and Destiny
Meditations on Hip Hop: Of Disposability, Death and Destiny (Part III)

Tuesday 25 May 2010

by: Tolu Olorunda | All Hip Hop

Destiny

A learning process might appear … for the crushed, the forbidden-to-be, the rejected, that would teach them that, through serious, just, determined, untiring struggle, it is possible to remake the world.

—Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: The Continuum Publishing Co., 1994), p. 198.

Must survive any how you have to/ Despair, desperation/ But I have no fear/ When I hold this spear/

—Nas and Damian Marley, “DiSpear,” Distant Relatives (2010).

“[H]ow do you tell people they are dying, the culture is dying?” a very astute Black scholar asked me last week, upon reading the second part of this series, which dealt principally with cultural death. “The very things they engage with—are killing them. But they seem oblivious and willing to go to their deaths without a fight.”

Canadian poet Truth Is… suggests no less on “How Do You Choose to Fight?” (off her self-titled debut), demanding, “How do you take actions against a reaction to actions not being acted upon?”

For good time now, the grounds have been shifting, the clouds have been darkening, hearts have been hardening. And the graveness of this moment upon which we are currently poised might be eluding the everyday-realities of most public Rap artists, who find greater joy carrying off as though life today reeks of nothing extraordinary—as though all the injustices and infractions on humanity being swiftly dealt are mere transient, inevitable elements of the ongoing human quest for survival.

Also See: Part 1 and Part 2 of Meditations on Hip-Hop

The brutal conditions under which many are forced to live daily don’t seem to tarnish their calm one bit. Long as the ropes, cars, and disposable females keep within arm’s reach, they stay prepared to forever hold peace. Only when the public gets private—when the political invades the personal—can society expect address. And, even then, whatever comes forth is bound to rub tepidly, pack no punches, and scream of civic illiteracy, rather than genuine, heart-thumping repudiation of a society slipping off the edges of sanity and humanity.

Most mainstream fans are just as devoted to lapping up whatever crumbs come darted their direction. They’ll take the scraps of occasional, emotivity-engineered political stances they can get: à la Obama ’08. They know the closest to any radical expression might be, as with one well-known rapper recently, posing as Malcolm X to throw solidarity behind drug dealers.

This culture, like or not, is slowly sapping life from its members, producers, and supporters; and that those dying this very slow death have thus far preferred to go down hands folded, legs crossed, reveals further the precariousness of the moment—

And we are alive in amazing times:

Delicate hearts, diabolical minds

The times call for some serious reflection, but judging by the batch of Rap songs topping the charts, public life is as accident-free, fun-filled, innocent as a Disney theme park.

From the vantage points of the singers of these songs, children in public schools today have all the opportunities an affluent society can afford; and their experiences—far from the militarized and privatized environments hundreds of reports have documented for decades—fall no short of pleasant and rewarding. From their vantage points, children growing up today have no worries for their future: hovering above their todays are tomorrows of promising possibilities, of enriching opportunities, just waiting to be harnessed. From their vantage points, no such reports of gross financial inequality contains credibility, for most people fall a nail-length away from peaceful prosperity: most families can afford vacations any time of the year; most can send their kids to college, without the six-figure debts many young people complain of post-graduation. From their vantage points, homelessness is a terrible blight only indigenous to countries thousands of miles southward and eastward—in places where the Browns and Blacks of this world are yet to catch up in the Great Race-of-Civilization. From their vantage points, health insurance is a privilege enjoyed by all under the canopy of citizenship: a private privilege affordable to all, without the need of a government agency to rein in avaricious insurance firms and supply universal coverage for those uncovered. From their vantage points, poverty is another pandemic native only to nations where coups are common and riots rational. From their vantage points, Capitalism has done the world no shortage of perfection, in all aspects—from the ability to cash in quick on the latest, pyrrhic fad (à la slavery and prisons), to leveling all financial playing fields, to keeping the bridge otherwise segregating rich-from-poor unbroken. From their vantage points, homes aren’t being foreclosed, and families aren’t being forced into cold, hopeless shelters: everyone has a house. From their vantage points, commodities weigh the same as Soul on the scale of humanity; and if the world would only learn this, happiness can be at once placed in eye-sight of anyone with the courage to consume. From their vantage points, no present dangers of social anarchy threatens the world surrounding us, for the vast majority are satisfied to their stomachs, gouging on the surplus sprawling into the streets from the admirable, praise-worthy performance of government officials sworn to service of the public. From their vantage points, only downers insist this current mode of neoliberalism and biopolitics threatens to wipe out all that is sane and humane about our society and universe, and is poised to wreak immitigable havoc on generations to come, thrusting their futures into bottomless infernos, consuming their hopes and dreams without remorse.

Here, only the negative-types subscribe to concerns about constant erosion of civil liberties, constant privatization of public space, constant deregulation of oligarchic financial firms, constant militarization of schools, constant incarceration of kids and non-violent offenders, constant destruction of the planet, constant cheapening of human life. One set-full of video vixens, one garage-full of vehicles, one tray-full of bling, one table-full of latest liquor line, one closet-full of sweatshop clothing, one head-full of fantasy-fueled conceptions of reality—and we’re on course to create the next Rap star.

“Yes!” Willy Wonka cried, “the danger must be growing/ For the rowers keep on rowing/ And they’re certainly not showing/ Any signs that they are slowing.”

Once upon a time Public Enemy could have legislators and pollsters rushing off to bathrooms every five seconds, scared to death a young, uncounted, undesired population was rising to consciousness, was starting to take sharper look at the society that saw no wrong in making its life hell-on-earth. Today the rulers can snore soundly, aware the corporate serfs who call themselves artists have assured their much too uninformed fanbase the world is one big music video set, stocked with enough green screens to make fantasies real—however morally decadent, however ethically derelict. And hooked on the pipedream of one day strutting down sets like those upon which their favorite stars twinkle, many young fans, of shades as elaborate as George W. Bush’s war cabinet, can claim no understanding of how critical these fleeting moments are for serious-political activism to protect their future from the claws of ravenous corporations bent on cleaning out the world until the casino manager is forced to make a personal visit and announce the game is up.

They could cull up countless rhymes on demand, a skill I find no fault in, but couldn’t explain what is demanded of them to transform their world—and the larger one. They know the world is terrible enough, but they have no political experience and no civic literacy and no social language to talk back, as the timeless bell hooks once ordered, against the evil forces feasting on their future. They’ll just as soon tear your skin apart rhetorically—I’ve been in such circles—in defense of their favorite (drink-soaked, smoke-filled) Rap artist, but would fall flat immediately issues of Ideology and Resistance are invoked. They’ll listen but remain silent. These topics, they’ve come to concede, are better suited for others of higher intellectual callings.

“Dear God 2.0.,” leaked last week, has Black Thought of The Roots venting—

Everybody checking for the new award nominees

Wars and atrocities,

Look at all the poverty

Ignoring the prophecies…

… Corporate monopoly

Weak world economy, stock market toppling

Mad marijuana, OxyContin and Klonopin

Everybody out of it!

The days when public Rap artists steered the hearts of young people toward opposition to a tyrannical society have blown past. Now, indifference to youth, long-normalized in government halls and school boards, has trailed to music studios, where men and women with kids see no irony in advising the teenage fans who patronize their music to dump any notion of Struggle for a carefree, careless, nonchalant outlook—accepting of the blows life’s emissaries deal, and subservient to authority figures in whose palms rest the fate of millions worldwide: from food to war to water to life.

With bitter sarcasm Damian Marley urges on “Patience,” off the recently released Distant Relatives—

Pay no mind to the Youths

‘Cause it’s not like the future depends on it

But save the animals in the zoo

‘Cause the Chimpanzee dem a make big money

Young people, kids especially, form a base without which many rappers’ wallets would contract completely. The smart record executive understands whichever way they decide—whether consciously or otherwise—Hip-Hop sound should veer in would mark the next turn for this directionless wheel. But if they ever suddenly, as a mass, grew into political awareness of the soulless realities to which their society has assigned them, realities which their elders have remained reluctant to battle with all the determination demanded of the culpable, many rappers would be out of jobs, and many record companies would turn bankrupt fast. No radical shift of the sort can occur within such short period—and satisfy an astute generation.

In firm resolve to ensure this renaissance never succeeds, artists are implored to ratchet up the guns-drugs-hoes anthems. Flood the masses with cesspool and they couldn’t find good time to get baptized and cleansed. More specific, bombard kids with nihilism and materialism, and their reading of the world would no doubt linger between rejection of Struggle and acceptance of Fate, before ultimately seeking out whatever commodity the omniscient artist has laid down as requisite for a bliss-filled life. But just in case one or two fans decide to get wise and concern themselves with a world where women aren’t objects to be trampled for pleasure, an occasional political stunt, nursed in superficiality, always works in silencing dissenters.

Two years ago, the Obama presidency bid afforded perfect catalyst for the throng of rappers who were dying to register political engagement on their résumé. Most cast their lot with swiftness upon hearing a Black Man was in the run to head the nation with the most costly war apparatus. Most would have needed paramedic attention if questioned on specific policies espoused by the man they cried was on verge of restoring Hope and inspiring Change. But the chants kept undisturbed. Obama was the first “Hip-Hop President,” they declared. Concerts were thrown in his honor, artists and executives produced mixtapes of support, rappers were dispatched to colleges as unofficial surrogates, dedication-songs blew up on major radio stations which in years hadn’t considered any song with a slight bent from rancid materialism worth the play. Hip-Hop, it was said, had found its new leader. Rappers felt good. They had once more helped lure fans into the clutches of the Democratic Party.

Two years later, as the Hip-Hop President sets impressive records for drone-use (/fatalities) in Pakistan and immigration deportation at home, records superseding his very unpopular predecessor (one which the same artists, in firm tradition with tokenism, had jabbed a couple of times through those eventful eight years); as he genuflects to Wall Street barons and cowers before the great overlords at the Pentagon, as he looks the other way while black sites blow up around the world, while torture proceeds under a different name, while Afghanistan children are kidnapped and assassinated in nighttime raids based on false pretexts, the astute political theorists who two years ago had their hearts beating with pride have held their peace, even while millions of families hang on the tight rope holding homelessness beneath, even while millions of children go hungry daily from belly-bloating poverty, even while cynicism comes back with a vengeance, claiming the spirits of youth nationwide who hearkened to the rappers’ calls, but now weigh heavily the pain of betrayal and broken promises—

You feel it in the streets: the people breathe without hope

They going through the motion, they dimming down the focus

The focus get cleared, then the light turn sharp

And the eyes go teary, the mind grow weary

It made sense that these rappers, these corporate clowns, would carry kegs for the Establishment—do for the Democratic Party what for years they had done for other corporations. Thoughts of subversion and insurgency were farthest in such minds as sanity to Sarah Palin. And refusal to lift their allotted share could be costly—could revoke certain privileges corporate rappers have grown well accustomed to.

“Once outside the stultifying yet secure shelter of the native organization, out in the windy, noisy and crowded expanses of the agora,” wrote Zygmunt Bauman on a topic of equal relevance, “the specific intellectuals (if they step beyond the strictly circumscribed expert role, acting as themselves, not as the spokesmen delegated by the organization) find themselves on their own.” [Zygmunt Bauman, Mortality, Immortality, and Other Life Strategies (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 82.]

Loneliness is tough for most people—and most lonely are the red zones where dissidents in any society and of any organization have been banished to. The few dissident artists in the Hip-Hop community have little to show since being flung outside the golden gates. And “public humiliation,” which Canibus, one such dissident, has written courageously about (calling it “the worst pain”), does enough good in ensuring less dissidence in a society where popularity counts more than conviction and courage.

As defense, many rappers raise stories of growing up poor, of squatting in shacks, of being forced to street life to stack food on the table. While much truth is found here, childhood poverty should never excuse a zombifying opulence that denies far more than this travailing childhood they seek to run so fast away from. A few toys and meals and apparel should never tally up the price of the soul of anyone—much less adults traumatized as kids by a rancid capitalist culture arguing opposite. And Art should never fall victim to the abuse of artists trying to win a financial war with the past. Wallace Shawn, in his nonfiction collection Essays, explained:

Now, if you write with the expectation that what you say will be heard and understood, then you and your audience are actually involved in a common endeavor, and while you’re writing, they’re sitting there beside you, helping you to know how best to reach them. … If you’re writing to “make your living” as well, a further valuable disciple asserts itself, because the more successful you are in speaking to your audience directly and clearly, the nicer the life you’ll be able to lead. [Wallace Shawn, Essays (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009), p. 111.]

Hip-Hop artists, if they would have any worthy impact in the coming days, must drop this senseless mode of sales-pitching, and restart the work of working up consciousness within the generation they were called to serve. They must come to see their role as equal to the critical educator, the emancipator educator—the public intellectual. Unwavering, Unaccommodating, Unnerving.

It’s time for rebirth

Burning up the branch and the root

The empty pursuits of every tree bearing the wrong fruit

Two decades back, renowned educator Henry Giroux demanded teachers understand their roles as central to any progress in society, as one of the only channels through which the young masses could learn about their world and develop the political agency required to engage and transform it. “Any educational theory that is to be critical and emancipatory, that is to function in the interests of critical understanding and self-determining action,” he instructed, “must generate a discourse that moves beyond the established language of administration and conformity.” [Henry A. Giroux, Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Learning (Granby, CO: Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Inc., 1988), p. 3.]

Hip-Hop artists must see themselves under this light—as responsible for the perception of the world fostered by a generation deprived critical thinking skills; a generation unloved and unwanted. And as this generation unravels the mystery of iniquity suffocating their society, it is set upon artists the task to help foster self-empowerment to “critically appropriate those forms of knowledge that traditionally have been denied to them.” (Giroux, Teachers as Intellectuals, p. 106)

None of these would roll down the sleeves seamlessly. None of these would rush through with the kind of haphazard, emotionless, thought-pierced practice that produced stale, predictable commercial Rap records through the last decade. And no shortcuts or easy-way-outs can offer sufficient bail out. No more would “conscious artists” feel superior to their commercial counterparts simply for stating the obvious—that the world is a bad, bad, bad place; that Black history is Whitewashed; that Egypt lies in Africa; that the original peoples featured dark skin; that all human trails lead back to The Motherland. Enough of the decayed and dusty scripts which rather than meet their own standards—of setting free colonized minds—only identify the artists as well-read in Afrocentric texts.

“We invent the opportunity of setting ourselves free by perceiving, as well, that the sheer perception of inconclusion, limitation, opportunity, is not enough,” declared Paulo Freire almost two decades back. “To the perception must be joined the political struggle for the transformation of the world. The liberation of individuals acquires profound meaning only when the transformation of society is achieved.” (Freire, Pedagogy of Hope, p. 100)

Artists bold enough to claim their function as intellectuals must rise up without fear of consequence, without dread of loneliness, and stay committed through this long distance fight for restoration of hope amongst a cynicism-seized community, for restoration of dignity amongst a dehumanized society. They must understand their moral responsibilities as firing up dreams of a better tomorrow and an unfinished today.

And whereas a money-cureth-all philosophy might have sufficed in past years as worthy response to complex moral, social, historical, and political crises, they must firm their grip around this very loaded moment anchoring our existence, refusing to give into fatalism, invoking non-market principles upon which livable societies depend, utilizing all the blood and pain and sacrifice of the present “to unveil opportunities for hope, no matter what the obstacles may be. After all, without hope there is little we can do. It will be hard to struggle on, and when we fight as hopeless or despairing persons, our struggle will be suicidal.” (Freire, Pedagogy of Hope, p. 9)

If not, if the sickness of despair should entice stronger than this call, Thomas Gray’s “Elegy” would dictate our fate:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:—

The paths of glory lead but to the grave
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