To this point, I believe I see the crux of what Shin is trying to convey, and am in general agreement. I can’t, though, allow Hip Hop to be a considered a cultural substitute for religion amongst blacks. They are two distinct forces with their own ramifications for each group. Religion does its damage and controlling for people of any race, ethnicity, color, etc. As I’ll demonstrate later, Hip Hop is just as powerful a force in white culture now as black. Overall, both have financially benefited whites more, and kept blacks in certain positions.
Hip Hop provides quite an interesting scenario, and I posit that its interrelation with the American system is cyclical and has come full circle. Its genesis lies in black experience; its impetus is American culture. With time, Hip Hop inevitably switched the tables and affected popular culture in America. This momentum was reversed, and the American way of life then took hold of the reigns. More simply stated – Hip Hop is a culture which arose in the black segment of America’s population in response to the conditions of America’s control on that segment, eventually grew to the point that it influenced popular culture in America, and, upon reaching that status, Hip Hop became an instrument to further those conditions of American control on that segment.
It’s all one big clusterfuck where America’s influence on black culture influenced Hip Hop which influenced America which influenced Hip Hop to influence black culture.
Still with me? Good.
First I want to point out that Hip Hop is not synonymous with black culture, and assuming so would be as ignorant as suggesting all white people wear John Deer hats, watch ‘rasslin’ and NASCAR, and have mullets. In Shin’s original he clearly states this with a disclaimer of generalization. Now, onto a quick clarification.
Rapping is something you do; Hip Hop is something you live. Hip Hop is much more than music. Those in the know state there are four elements of Hip Hop (with beatboxing occasionally thrown in as a fifth): DJing, MCing (rapping), B-Boying (breakdancing), and writing (graffiti art). These are merely forms of expression for Hip Hop as a full blown cultural phenomenon, and today we see that this definition of a system of parts seriously understates the complexity of the whole.
But music is the main channel through which a culture is expressed and spread (some may argue this prominence of music above literature and art, but I propose music is literature artistically presented – this, admittedly, is simplification to expedite my premise), and in our particular case, the music is undoubtedly the most visual aspect of this culture, so I will give focus to Hip Hop music as a generic for the culture.
Shin starts by stating that musicians, as pop culture icons, are in fact role models. I am in full agreement. As not only a Hip Hop head, but also an MC, I used to hate the idea of people allowing music to influence them. If true, my conscience would attempt to censor my artistic expression. I vehemently preached that the idea was utter bullshit. I was young, hopeful, and ignorant.
I live in a rather small city (pop. 40k) and witnessed a change in its black youth when BET and MTV finally arrived on our cable. Soon after, I was no longer the only white guy at the black parties and lunch tables.
Hip Hop definitely holds influence.
Jump ahead to 2005, and Hip Hop is now pop music and popular culture (as proud as I am, I am equally jealous and disappointed). The “mainstream” form we’re inundated with is that of common thuggery, misogyny, materialism, and general low class mentality.
And it is on purpose.
Music is a cultural phenomenon, and as such, it is a commodity. Music defines one’s choice of social grouping. Music is the litmus test of consumer interest and is intricately tied to demographics. Beyond being commercial, music and videos have become forms of commercials.
Historically, white America has created a certain image to be associated with black folk, and this is further pushed through the music.
I’m not saying that the record execs sit around plotting ways to keep blacks in a certain position, but that they shamelessly utilize pre-existing conditions to keep money in their pockets. Why change the ways of the world if they lead the way to your bank?
Notice that the music which is presented glorifies the assigned criminality and hedonism of blackness, which we (white people) find safe to emulate in our own skin (I don’t have room here to postulate why we find black folk so inherently “cool” and “hip.”), and the commercial use is still manifest shuckin’-n-jivin’ and skinnin’-n-grinnin’. Entertainment is a type of service, and whites have never had a problem with what blacks can do for us – it’s what they can do to us that terrifies (and motivates) us.
White teenage boys would not be (and weren't) rushing to the stores en masse to buy Paris, X Clan, or Public Enemy or Talib Kweli and Immortal Technique. That voice doesn’t portray the image of blackness they’re familiar with, and therefore isn’t “genuine” enough to be marketable. Educated and socially conscious? Please! The news doesn’t show black graduates and entrepreneurs, it shows composite police sketches of suspects. Blacks graduate from the streets (school of hard knocks) and black entrepreneurs are drug dealers and hustlers (and now record execs). Likewise, little teenybopper white girls want to dance, be the desired sexual objects portrayed in the music, and see Ja Rule and 50 with their shirts off.
A sad result is a proportion of the black youth running around with bandanas hanging out of their pockets (thanks to Snoop, at least they're on the correct sides, but this only provides further emphasis – a profound example indeed) and belittling one another for not wearing as much (African slave) jewelry and being equal victims of capitalist oppression and materialist superficiality. There’s an influx of individuals who don’t own property but have four-figure-dollar rims on their cars; buying hundred-dollar sneakers instead of paying tuition.
It may be argued that Hip Hop has drastically improved race relations in America. Today’s white youth are much more likely to associate with black youth and be aware of some of the issues that face these fellow Americans. Interracial relationships are much more prevalent. White kids idolize black men, something unheard of in their parents’ generation. As legendary MC KRS One puts it, “what go around come around I figure: Now we got white kids callin' themselves ‘niggas’.”
But look a little deeper. Most white guys who are “down” don’t emulate KRS. Their mold isn’t Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Tavis Smiley, or even John H. Johnson or Martin Luther King, Jr. – eloquent, conscious, educated bothers. They idolize 50 Cent and Young Jeezy. They put on their “blackcent” and emphasize how “hard” they are. They perpetuate images of poverty, ignorance, violence, and criminality. Liekwise, white girls don’t aspire to be Oprah, Shirley Ann Jackson, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou or myriad other positive, strong sisters. It’s Lil’ Kim’s lofty status they aspire to, and they continue myth’s of promiscuity and animal-like sexual drive and prowess (while carnal excellence and gifted endowment may possibly perceived as positive for black men, a look into these myths’ origins quickly present an ugly truth).
And more and more black kids are doing the same.
Shin touches on this by presenting the underachievement speculation:
“Anyone who succeeds and grows as a person is seen to be abandoning the culture and as somehow less ‘black’.”
This is a frequently voiced situation, which I’ll admit does have some value, though it is hardly exclusive. It is human nature to need belonging and to define what merits it accordingly. “Misery loves company” is a truism. Nearly all lower class and economically challenged people exhibit apparent underachieving qualities and engage in ostensibly self-sabotaging activities in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It provides comfort, and can be seen as choice instead of submission or defeat. It is perceived as a reclamation of sorts to take what is perpetuated against you and use it to define yourself.
Shin also believes that black society’s exclusive “blackness” is ultimately negative for an inclusive society to flourish. This is a more tricky issue.
I disagree that a “separate ‘black culture’ is detrimental to human society.” I hold it is the complete opposite – variety is the spice of life. The only alternative is assimilation, which has historically proven disastrous. Conformity of cultures translates to a loss of identity. A separate black population is detrimental (perhaps this is what he meant). It is not the separation of black culture but its place in overall American [read: white] culture that impedes human society.
His statement, that as a result, “they therefore…don't contribute to human society as a whole” is quite dangerous territory. I think I see where he’s coming from and what he’s getting at, and I offer that individual and categorical differences define, not defeat, human society.
All in all, for lack of better term, everything's not black and white. Hip Hop, its roots planted in black culture, has become American and, increasingly, world culture. This has had definite positive impact, but its long-term effects aren’t proving to be completely constructive, or even benign. What we see manifested is a conditioned, socially engineered, self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Hip Hop presents an increasingly complex paradox and reflection of the fires that provided the spark of its creation. Sadly, it has defeated itself through its own success.