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Where Hiphop Is "going" And Where It Never Was

The roundtable on hiphop over at the Atlantic is interesting. A discussion on what's new on the hiphop scene? That'd make perfect sense to me - but then that alone would fall somewhat outside of the Atlantic purview and be more like a piece by Sascha Frere-Jones at the New Yorker.

No, the roundtable participants are musing over hiphop as something Potentially Important. It is this treatment of the music that has confused and bemused me for years. When I wrote a book explaining why, a common response (to the extent that there were any!) was that the whole idea that anybody thinks hiphop is more than just good music was a figment of my imagination.

But bookshelves groan with work describing rap as "prophetic" and breathlessly exploring the possibility of a "hip hop revolution" and its potential to "motivate" young people. This Atlantic roundtable is cut from that cloth. Whence this idea that music, rather than effort, can change things politically?

For example, the participants look back fondly on the days when more of the music was "political,"  with Alyssa Rosenberg opining that it's unrealistic to decree that musicians follow our bidding and be "constructive." But this whole wing of the discussion presupposes a hypothetical possibility that hiphop could serve some kind of purpose beyond being just entertainment, that it is at least worth discussion whether rappers have some kind of "responsibility." Gautham Nagesh even thinks that way back, rap actually did play a crucial part in making people aware of ghetto life ("rap has played a key role in raising awareness of issues such as urban poverty").

The question here is: what is the purpose of this supposedly politically important rap supposed to be? Let's even say consciousness is raised: now that Scarsdale Chad knows what it's like growing up in the ‘hood, then what? What does Chad do besides walk down the street lurching and mouthing along to Tupac or whoever it was he learned this from in the early nineties? The consciousness was raised - and what legislation did it create? In a history book 100 years from now, we will see it written that "Because of hiphop raising consciousness of ghetto poverty starting in the late 1980s, _______." Fill in the blank. Note the difficulty.

My sense is that my even bringing up this issue of purpose is seen as somehow beside the point, but that very impatience, the grouchy feeling that my asking this means that there is something I don't "get," is revealing of a serious problem with what we have been taught to think of as politics. Namely, we assume that it is meaningfully political to strike poses and say things rather than do things.

Few are aware of it, but this traces back to the way smart people have for decades been misinterpeting Antonio Gramsci, the Italian political theorist. The key text would seem to be The Prison Notebooks, where he argued that the ruling class creates ideological structures, such as educational systems, that support their interests while obscuring the evil underpinnings of society. Subordinate ("subaltern") groups accept these ideas and end up oppressing themselves. Thus they must counteract the "hegemony" through attempts to revise cultural conceptions.

So, under this analysis, which starts with intellectuals and spreads outward to the general consciousness, rappers are presenting a new Cultural Paradigm, with their academic celebrants as conduits of that new "message" to the ruling class. Poor blacks are the subalterns; Washington, DC, William Bennett, and suburban whites who don't "see" blacks and preserve their "white privilege" are the Hegemony, and so on.

But Gramsci himself would be surprised to see how his ideas have been recruited for the subtle and complex race situation in America of the late twentieth century. He was a practicing Communist who wrote The Prison Notebooks from, well, prison, where he spent the last ten years of his life. He wrote in reference to working-class and peasant folk for whom the barriers to advancement were concrete and required no careful indoctrination to understand in the way that the black victim orthodoxy does today.

And the problem is that in black America and beyond, as historian David Steigerwald puts it, "the more the intellectuals have analyzed cultural hegemony, the less real political effect their radicalism has had." He notes that "Where the hard and gradual work of organizing revolution is dreamed away and the Left becomes willingly content with ‘cultural resistance,' the best radicals can hope for is directionless, feeble, and scattered opposition to the state of things."

Gramsci did not mean that striking anti-authoritarian poses on pop recordings, videos, and posters was meaningful sociopolitical activity. This is how modern academics have distorted his argumentation, and is the source of the idea that hiphop's "subalterns" have accomplished something sublime because their lyrics disrespect authority.

What these roundtable participants don't seem to quite understand is that this is all even political rap could ever do. It is the DNA of the form to be confrontational - whether about politics, women, social pecking order (i.e. the in-your-face bling, etc.) or anything else. Rap that was about solutions, as Rosenberg calls for, would be about as plausible as opera about physical fitness.

Take Cam'ron's "I Hate My Job," which I have commended for even broaching the very real problem of getting a job as an ex-con. There are solutions a-plenty, as I have also blogged here about: but how many of us can really imagine a rap about getting an apartment, waiting for a driver's license, or holding down a job? It's a meaningless issue. As Nagesh notes, when rappers have tried to just sit back and celebrate that Obama is in - i.e. nothing to be mad about - they don't quite know what to do.

I really like the new idea floating around that hiphop may have helped elect Barack Obama. Once more, that impulse to see hiphop as something other than fun. If one must speak of hiphop and Obama in the same breath -- beyond noting that he, rather unsurprisingly of a black man under 50, listens to some - then what Obama has shown us is what a real revolution is, as opposed to the kind written about with 20-dollar words in books.

To wit: after decades of people wondering when the Great Hiphop Revolution might be coming -- tell me no one was waiting for that since Public Enemy and explain stuff like Vote or Die and Russell Simmons' Hip-Hop Summit Action Network well into this current decade - Obama strode in and galvanized exactly the demographic in question with real political organizing, with inspiration that was about something other than having your middle finger stuck up, with, in a word, work.

It is unclear to me that hiphop played a significant part in making Obama president. Certainly it brought some people to some concerts where people registered to vote, but that very thing made no difference in the 2004 election and I am unaware of evidence that it tipped the scales to Obama this time. A thought experiment: if hiphop didn't exist and Obama had come along anyway, I see no reason to suppose that Obama would not now be President.

Nagesh seems to think that hiphop moguls like Jay-Z helped get white people used to the idea of black authority figures - but that revolution in thought started long before. There has been a general "browning" of our culture that has accustomed all of us to blackness as mainstream that Leon Wynter, in a book that never got enough attention partly because it was published around the first anniversary of 9/11, dates to 1980, in the commercial where Mean Joe Greene tossed an admiring white boy his jersey.

Politics is work. Hiphop is music. Hua Hsu seems to get this, although it's less that it's "unfair" to expect rap to be "constructive" - implying that it could be -- than that it is purely illogical. The idea that hiphop, because it makes the body feel good to move to it and it makes the soul feel good to hear out angry young black men, can be transmuted into changing the world is narcotic but nonsensical. Wherever hiphop is ever "going," we can be sure it will not be in a constructive direction, anymore than fashions in the color of cars. And it shouldn't "concern" us in the least.