Sunday, September 25, 2005

Hip Hop and America...

In response to my race and religion post, Shinsyotta directed me to a post he wrote entitled “Hip Hop’s Influence on Black Culture.” Utilizing an admitted fascination with memes (which I share), he draws a comparison between Hip Hop and religion. I too see the obvious correlations, and agree that musical genres and faith systems both play large roles in the development of an individual’s behaviors and personal preferences, and even influence political and social convictions. What I also note is that both are more specified (child) cultures within a larger, more general (parent) culture – in this case American culture. Influence traverses a two-way street in this system and, predictably, parental sway is more pronounced.

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.

5 comments:

Shinsyotta said...

Hey DUB. Thanks for taking an interest in my post. I would like to respond and comment on yours.
First, I'd like to say that I share your emotions about the popularization of hip hop. I too used to be the white guy at the party and while I'm proud that hip hop reaches more people now, I'm sad to see the shift in culture.
What you say about the American way of life taking over hip-hop is spot-on. Unfortunately, when you mix two sets of memes, it's survival of the fittest, and shiny rims must be a better meme than graffiti.
Hip hop of today does glorify what can only be described as thuggery and thoughtless behaviour. It also glorifies thoughtless spending. None of this can be considered good from the point of view of culture.
Unfortunately, it seems to me that the thoughtful rappers have yet to learn how to entertain. For sure, Talib Kweli has a lot to say, but he says it over lacklustre musical backdrops and he appeals to the backpackers. The backpackers are the choir and he preaches to them.
This, I believe, is where Kanye West comes in. I disagree with many of Kanye West's views (on religion, for example), but he sells thoughtful products to the thoughtless. How does he do this? He compromises his image (consciously or not) by accepting some of the memes such as bling that appeal to the masses and sticking intelligent lyrics among his more amusing and attractive lyrics. He also uses excellent beats. I think there is a major lesson to be learned here, not just for thoughtful hip-hoppers, but for science advocates and skeptics alike. Frankly, we need to be more human if we are to appeal to the public. We need to show ourselves as having flaws, not just picking on those of others. When we make a comment about someone else, we need to admit that we share the same flaw so that it doesn't sound like a putdown from an intellectual bully.
I believe that "black society" is detrimental because it creates a rift where none is needed or desirable. By all means, people can maintain their culture, musical styles, idiosyncrasies, etc., but we must work together, and if you want to live in a society that works for you, you must contribute to society as a whole, not just your corner of it.
This comment was "keystyled", so it probably will read poorly, so my apologies for that. I think I might develop my own post based on this discussion. I will focus on what we can learn from those, like Kanye, who do cross over.

DUB said...

During a freestyle session on a radio show in the late'90s, I spat the line "simple rhymes appeal to simple minds" and used it as a theme.

Now, what pop culture tells you is hot, is hot. Bottom line. If the execs and advertising dollars started pushing the Talibs and Immortal Techniques, they would be selling platinum, and the ballers and thugs would be, well, ballin' and thuggin' it up to get their money. People are programmable sheep, bottom line.

Thing is, the legions of consumers wouldn't understand what they were consuming. I used to argue that 95% of the masses were fundamentally retarded. My brother argued it was apathy, not stupidity. So, I changed my view: 90% of the masses are fundamentally retarded.

What's the recipe for a hit song in 2005 (since always?)? Bouncy club beat + brainless lyrics (that have a catchy delivery) + easily remembered hook = multiplatinum. It has to be automatic. People just don't want their entertainment to make them think. How artistic a beat is means almost nothing. If it moves asses means everything.

I happen to appreciate Kweli's aural backdrops. I fully admit I wasn't CRAZY about Beautiful Struggle, but I thought Reflection Eternal's album Train of Thought was nearly the perfect combination of beats and rhymes - one of those rare combos that just worked. I question if it isn't in fact the greatest album I've ever heard. And I'm 30. I've been into Hip Hop since the early 80's.

I'm quite proud of Kanye. I just still cringe everytime he rhymes. He is a lyricist, the boy gets clever with his similies and punches, and he can even work a multisyllabic extended rhyme scheme.

But his delivery is DiGiorno. No breath control, no cadence, arrgh.

Fortunately, it's grown on me.

If by "black society" you mean "exclusively so", then yes, that's just foolish and detrimental.

I look forward to reading your post.

Tanooki Joe said...

I find this whole discussion fascinating, even though I have nothing of substance to contribute.

Shinsyotta said...

Kanye's delivery does suck. Every line has a drawl at the end. I think he might be mimicking 50 Cent, who he once said was his favourite rapper.
I must say that as someone who values intellect, reasoning, etc, I am very sad about the FACT that people are mostly programmable sheep. I think it is mainly apathy. People have functioning brains, but they are flabby and sick.
I think that as I get older, my musical taste is shifting towards more intellectual music. I used to love gangsta rap, and I still love the LOX, etc. but the new stuff like Jeezy, which everyone seems to love... nnnhhh. I'm not so enthusiastic... aaaaayyy. I have always loved Canibus, and I think he may be some kind of half-breed between thug-rapping and intellectualism. Maybe I'll get into Kweli properly one day.
I suppose I keep hope alive that we can somehow buff up the gem that is rational thought so that it gets the same appeal as the diamond-encrusted Jesus piece seems to have.

Shinsyotta said...

By the way, have you heard Canibus' "Channel Zero"? He almost sounds like The Bible Geek from InfidelGuy.com.