Friday 22 May 2009

The politics of rap in a changing America

Somebody Scream! Rap Music's Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power, by Marcus Reeves (Faber)

In Somebody Scream! Rap Music’s Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power, Marcus Reeves makes an original and welcome contribution to contemporary history of the US. Reeves’ book is more than a history of a particular musical genre (albeit the most commercially successful new genre of the period) because he links rap’s rise to the demise of the black power movement of the 1960s. Between the assault of Cointelpro and the co-option of a new Black political elite (epitomised by mayoral electoral victories in many big cities), the movement portion of Black politics increasingly went into eclipse. While Black Power faded, rap rose from its roots in the ruins of the South Bronx to global commercial triumph.

Although the story Reeves tells is largely one where social and political content are increasingly displaced by odes to the power of money, the music never entirely severed its connection to the aspiration of its base in the ghettos. And while rap’s audience expanded so that a majority of fans were eventually white, that Black base did not lose its significance in imparting legitimacy to artists. At the same time, the misogynistic content of rap, as well as its celebration of the gangster ethos, tended to divorce it from any progressive social or political content. Additionally, corporate America became ever more confident about marketing and profiting from the music, even as police departments were announcing special task forces to monitor rap stars.

Reeves’ approach is to offer, in chronological order, chapter long profiles of the icons of hip-hop: Run DMC, Public Enemy, N.W.A., Salt-N-Pepa, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G. and Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs, Jay-Z, DMX, and Eminem. These chapters contain many interesting linkages between the music and society, and explications of song lyrics that might have been missed even by fans. The lazy grooves of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, for example, are linked to the relaxed mood in LA after the gang truce which followed on the heels of the riot in 1992.

Public Enemy’s revival of hopes for the Black Power movement among aging Baby Boomers is recounted with a certain bemusement. Bill Stephney, of Def Jam records, is quoted describing a parade thrown by the city of Philadelphia (!) for Public Enemy: ‘We saw these guys… in their mid forties. They had all run back into their apartments and homes… and gotten their Panther shit out. Got the berets, got the black leather jackets… You’re seeing these graying, forty-something men, tears in their eyes, throwing the black power salute like the revolution has come back.’ He notes how some of Jay-Z’s lyrics reflected a deep dissatisfaction with the rote elements of rap, even as he continued to churn out product like ‘Change Clothes’.

Reeves describes their trajectory against a backdrop both of unfolding events in the US (deindustrialisation, PC debates, the boom of the Clinton era) and the broader arc of rap music. The latter moved from party music offering a release for ghetto residents, to truth-telling about those ghettos, to black power revival, to celebration of gangster ethos, to glorification of the fruits of gangsters and/or capitalists. The approach of embedding rap in broader trends makes sense (in a way that it probably would not for white-dominated popular music of the time) because rap was constantly a source of political debate and alarm. Menacing rappers were the other against which Dolores Tucker, Bill Clinton, and police associations would rail. That a number of rappers (including N.W.A., Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z and DMX) described in their lyrics their earlier lives as street criminals, and to some degree did not entirely leave that world (Tupac and B.I.G. were gunned down in gang-style slayings) similarly grants the music an aura of authenticity and significance.

At the same time, to the extent that rap substituted for the Black Power movement, it must be judged a failure as a political movement. Or, since the first Black Power movement also failed to achieve many of its goals, Marx’s famous aphorism about the first time tragedy, second time farce, is relevant here. While Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Panthers leaders like Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale mixed canniness at exploiting media image with organising on the ground, Public Enemy, or Kanye (‘George Bush doesn’t care about Black people’) West epitomised the former with nary a trace of the latter. In any case, few rappers were as politically coherent as Public Enemy. While many rappers spoke suppressed truths about racism, police, educational institutions, etc, what to do about it was not so clear.

Epitomising the ‘Menace 2 Society’ of an armed young black man was a popular alternative by the early 1990s. Individually overcoming it all by triumphing as a rap star became the increasingly prominent strategy. This ‘I shall overcome’ ethos meant not attaining dignity by destroying racism, but rather acquiring Bentleys, platinum watches, and turning oneself into a franchise that could be used to brand clothing, night clubs, and vodka, as well as music. Ironically, in the last decade, one of the only rappers to inject politics into the hip hop culture was the white rapper Eminem, who embraced the fight against Bush in 2004, although his rhetoric stayed within the bounds defined by the liberalism of the day.

Although he doesn’t foreground them, class differences within the Black community are an important element of the history Reeves describes. College educated rappers like Public Enemy, Salt-n-Pepa (and later Kanye West and Andre 3000, neither of whom are dealt with at length in Somebody Scream) drew on a Black Bohemian milieu that valorised the history of Black Power and was informed by progressive political rhetoric. One can almost imagine Chuck D declaring, Lenin-style, that without the insertion of revolutionary consciousness from outside, street behaviour can only attain bread and butter goals.

Similarly, critics like Reeves, who sometimes echoes denunciations of black ‘nihilism’ or dysfunction widespread in mainstream media, clearly perceives the situation at (at least) one remove from the street. Straight outta the ghetto rappers like DMX, Snoop Dog, or Jay-Z were much more comfortable with a gangsta ethos. Tupac retains his fascination at the center of rap’s history in good part because he refused to settle fully into either of these positions.

Entirely absent from both of these positions is the experience of the Black working class (also largely invisible in left (and mainstream) media in the US). Although mass unemployment is a fundamental reality of impoverished African Americans, it does need to be said (because it so rarely is said) that many people in poor neighborhoods, inside the projects and out, have stable jobs. The experiences of the labour market – getting a job, issues in the workplace, being fired or quitting – are practically never a part of the experience described in rap music, in contrast to country music.

The sociologist Martin Sanchez-Janchowski offers a framework that provides some insight into this absence. He identifies two cultural orientations dominant among the residents of these neighbourhoods. On the one hand, there are those who seek to maximise excitement, living for the day and expecting others to share what they have. On the other, there are those who attempt to maximise security, desperately saving all they are able to in order to prepare for impending doom (in the form of personal crises). Broadly speaking, the latter are typically those with more stable jobs. Clearly rap music—its ethos, its personnel, its hardcore fan base—draws from the former, the excitement maximisers. Excitement maximising is also a good way to describe the ethos of consumerism, which may help explain why rap has had such a spectacular commercial trajectory. Furthermore, the excitement maximising ethos likely holds some romantic appeal for middle class bohemians, further marginalising working class experience. If rap was a purely cultural movement, this marginalisation was not a big deal. But as a political vision, it is ‘problematic’. It reinforced, rather than subverted, a major division among the poor and the working class.

Subcultures like hip-hop (and before rap, hippies and punks) hold considerable interest for the left. First, adopting their trappings usually means, to some extent, standing apart from, and even against, some broad mainstream of American (and/or global) society. Hippies adopted elements of native American or Eastern cultures to counterpose a world of free love to the corporate rat race; fans of rap adopted the postures of gang members, precisely those African American men most dreaded in the larger American culture. Within the subcultures, some things can be said that would be considered shocking and out of bounds elsewhere in American life, and that includes, occasionally, left-wing perspectives.

This stance also comes with an egalitarian valorisation of members of the subculture. Although hip hop was never anti-consumerist in the way of punks or hippies, there was always a strong and explicit sense that this was one cultural area where young black men would not be condemned. ‘To my hustlin niggas… Niggas on the corner, I ain’t forget you,’ rapped the Notorious B.I.G. But any engagement with larger politics by these subcultures tends to be fleeting and limited. The very act of setting oneself apart from the mainstream, which is gratifying for members, makes a larger political impact less likely.

Furthermore, no subculture has insulated itself against a process of commodification and transformation into a set of styles with a much weaker connection to a social base for long. Although the subcultures develop means of communication outside of corporate channels (think of Grateful Dead concert tapes, punk fanzines and indie labels, rap mixtapes), corporate America becomes ever more comfortable marketing them, and the version of the subculture marketed at the mall becomes increasingly the way it is understood by most Americans. About this time, many members of the subculture realize their symbols have been rendered almost meaningless.

Ultimately, rap’s biggest triumphs were psychological and economic, rather than political. African Americans in cities took pride in witnessing the style they invented become the most popular form of music in the US. Some may claim that this is barren fruit, since this pride could not be translated into broad economic or political power, or even help keep them out of jail (quite the contrary). Ultimately, that is the same sort of thinking that says poor whites should worry about corporations or the wealthy rather than guns or gay marriage. People’s priorities are not determined outside of their experience, and poor people are not obligated to fall in line with the priorities of middle class radicals or liberals. Given the immense barriers to transforming economic or political structures, it is not surprising that they find meaning in culture. Those who measure success in American society by mainstream standards may disparage pride in rap music, but the originators of the style are likely to feel differently.

Rap also produced economic benefits. In contrast to other forms of African American music that have become widely popular, much of the wealth produced by rap remained in African American hands. Between their record labels, clothing lines, nightclubs, video games, movies, etc, Jay Z, Puff Daddy, Fifty Cent, Master P amassed major fortunes. Does this matter? Isn’t the only colour of money green? Isn’t it the case that while Jay Z moved from the ghetto to a world of mansions, yachts, and corporate suites, most of his peers stayed in the projects? The money matters for a couple of reasons. First of all, some of it will eventually flow back into the African American community in the form of philanthropy. This has already happened to some degree with professional athletes (although it has gotten little attention).

In a country as privatised as the US, it is a good idea for an ethno-racial group to have some bourgeois of its own to advance political, cultural, and economic projects. Secondly, the African Americans at the top will be more easily pressured than white capitalists to share skills and networks with African Americans. All ethnic groups do this, and there is little to be gained by arguing that African Americans adopt the patience of saints and wait for the anti-capitalist revolution, or even the perfect social democratic storm, before they get some share of the pie. The hundreds of millions accrued into African American hands as a result of rap is enough to launch some important political, economic, or cultural projects, depending on the vision of those who control the money and those who surround them.

Between the completion of Somebody Scream and its publication, two events of extraordinary significance occurred. The US financial sector collapsed, and suddenly credit-fueled luxury spending, which rap music often provided the soundtrack for and explicitly celebrated in many songs, seemed insipid and self destructive. Secondly, an African American man was elected president; indeed, his ascension was greeted with euphoria by much of the population in the US and beyond. Barack Obama was no closer to the ethos of rap than Bill Clinton. But his election clearly transforms how whites see blacks, and how blacks see themselves, in ways likely to be consequential for popular culture and everything else (whatever the political trajectory of his administration).

It may be that the demise of conspicuous consumption and the rise of Barack Obama will open the possibility for rappers to stake out new positions against the increasingly trite terrain of strippers, Hennessy, and guns. Or it may be that rap’s moment has passed.

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