Meditations on Hip Hop: Of Disposability, Death and Destiny (Part III)
Tuesday 25 May 2010
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.
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
Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic whose work appears in various online journals. He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.
All republished content that appears on Truthout has been obtained by permission or license.