Why is the “hustler” the iconic figure in hip-hop? The corporate consolidation of the music business has led to a dumbing down of hip-hop if not intentional perpetuation of racist stereotypes being carried out by corporate executives as they laugh all the way to the bank. Of course we still get our Talib Kweli and Common or the Roots in the mix occasionally to give at least a thin veneer of diversity, but new artists aren’t getting signed for speaking truth to power. There is a corporate filter on the music that strongly prioritizes the most materialistic, misogynistic and nihilistic artists. But as winds of change sweep across our society hip-hop will –to one degree or another- give voice to new progressive movements.
The corporate influence is not the only factor contributing to a glorification of gangsterism in hip-hop. Why does the hip-hop culture produce and fetishize so many Bentley pushin, yayo slangin murderers? Jay-Z who epitomizes the celebration of gangsterism has described himself as a “product of Reaganomics”. This is so true. Some tenets of Reaganomics included, giving more money back to the rich with the idea that it would “trickle down” to the rest of society while the racism of arguments that scapegoated the poor were disguised by the thinnest of viels. The welfare cheat, not the greedy CEO we were told, was to blame for society’s problems.
Fundamentalist free market economics replaced a more socialized version of capitalism in the mid 1970s and continued to dominate right through the presidency of Bush II. Reagan’s era was its pinnacle but not its beginning or end. This was a period in which the collective responses to social problems exemplified by the civil rights movement were de-legitimized and the pull yourself up by your bootstraps individualistic response was pushed as the only viable option, this period also happens to coincide with the existence of hip-hop culture. The “greed is good” mantra of free market capitalism has come under fierce scrutiny in recent months as de-regulated markets collapsed on each other like a house of cards, the hegemony has been broken, there is an opening for new ideas to be articulated and archetypes for a new era formed. As the pendulum swings back from right to left collective responses to social ills can be re-legitimized and hip-hop music has the potential to play a vital role in giving voice to this changing mood. As new social movements are born in the experimental struggles to win change, hip-hop will be offered new realities to reflect upon.
A New Era
The election of Barrack Obama as president has certainly signaled the beginning of a new political era. The broad rejection of Bush’s policies was already established before the U.S. economy plunged into its worst crisis since the great depression. The desperation for a new direction created by these conditions pushed many voters to look past the wedge issues of “family values” and barely disguised racism that have served Republican Party so well. The sheer magnitude of the situation led many centrist voters to look past these distractions and allowed Obama to win the election not by the razor thin margins of past elections, but with a slam dunk victory of a 7 point lead. Obama’s campaign raised people’s expectations leading the electorate to “vote their hopes and not their fears”. While Obama’s messages were often mixed –allowing people to hear and focus on what they wished for- the idea that “change comes from the bottom” has clearly resonated with many at the grassroots level.
One striking example was the December unionization victory –after 16 years of organizing- of the workers at the enormous Smithfield pork processing plant in Tar Heel North Carolina. North Carolina has the lowest union representation in the country and the Smithfield plant contains an almost even mix of black and Latino workers whom the employer has attempted to pit against each other. But as Smithfield worker and union activist Aleisha Rascoe told the Fayetteville Observer “If we can change the White House, we can change the hog house,” she said. “And we did, we made history all in the same year.”
In addition, the day after Obama’s victory ten’s of thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of California to protest the passage of Proposition 8 banning same sex marriage. The actions in California inspired lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists across the country to breath new life into a broad movement for equal rights. In January when Israeli attacks in Gaza led to the deaths of more than 1,000 civilians a protest movement quickly took shape in the U.S. culminating in a march on the Whitehouse of 20,000. The fact that demonstrators were predominately Arab and Muslim is extraordinarily significant given that this population has been targeted and marginalized since September 11th. At the January protests for Gaza a potent synthesis of anger and hope was on the display. In all of these examples and many others (not least of which being the victorious sit in by factory workers in Chicago) a new confidence and willingness to fight has been shown which seems more likely to consolidate than dissipate in the coming months and years.
This new political terrain will surely be reflected, observed, and influenced by Hip-Hop artists and this experience will change the character of culture (as all cultures are constantly evolving). But to consider the future of hip hop of we must understand its past and its context. As Jeff Chang wrote in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, “If blues culture had developed under conditions of oppressive, forced labor, hip-hop would arise under conditions of no work.” Hip-hop became identifiable as a cultural movement during the last major economic crisis. But the crisis of the mid 1970’s resulted in a very different shift in direction than the current crisis. Hip-Hop in a New Era
Rapper and one time prison guard Rick Ross recently expressed this ruling class sentiment with clarity when he declared “if you ain’t getting money that mean you done something wrong” in the recent mega hit ¨The Magnificent¨. While Ross is having great success playing the exaggerated character of a wealthy mobster, the hegemony of this individualistic outlook is waning. The dynamic is about more than Obama but he is certainly a major influence on and reflection of the changes in society and the impact on hip-hop has been dramatic. During his run for President numerous rappers lent their voices in support of his campaign. Certainly this was not the first time that hip-hop artists have encouraged their fans to vote, rappers have been involved with MTV’s rock the vote (a campaign to encourage young people to register to vote) since the 1990’s. In 2004 rappers Puff Daddy and 50 Cent led the Vote or Die campaign that was more specifically aimed at the hip-hop audience, but there damn sure weren’t any hip-hop artists writing inspired anthems about John Kerry’s candidacy. There have obviously been countless Obama references in Rap songs including Young Jeezy’s simple statement of fact that his president is black, while his lambo on the other hand is blue. And of course there was Three Six Mafia’s “Lolli Lolli Pop That Body” (dubbed “worst Obama reference ever” by one blogger –tuberaider-). There have also been thoughtful and nuanced Obama related rap songs, one of the most notable being “Black President” by Nas. Nas is easily one of hip-hop’s most brilliant orators who has often painted himself as both street thug/gangster and black revolutionary while recognizing the contradictions of his own persona. In “Black President” Nas mused on what could follow an Obama victory:
KKK is like ‘what the fuck’, loadin’ they guns up
loadin’ mine too, Ready to ride
Cause im ridin with my crew
He dies – we die too
But on a positive side,
I think Obama provides Hope – and challenges minds
Of all races and colors to erase the hate
And try and love one another, so many political snakes
We in need of a break
Im thinkin’ I can trust this brotha
But will he keep it way real?
Every innocent nigga in jail – gets out on appeal
When he wins – will he really care still?
In these few lines Nas captures the gambit of fears, hopes, and doubts that swirl together in the consciousness of many. The video hit “Something’s Gotta Give” from Outkast member Big Boi and R & B icon Mary J. Blige is a beautifully composed ode to the struggles of the poor and a call for social change that clearly presents Obama as solution, but also goes deeper. For the song’s hook, Blige brings her legendary talents to bare, but his time as cry for change instead of tales of love and heart break:
They try to tell us to stay strong, but every day we losing jobs, from College Park down to Beverly Hills, Something’s gonna have to give Across the world they live in fear but it’s the same thing over here. If you can hear me on Capitol Hill, Something’s gonna have to give.
The promise of change has arrived in Washington and there is much to be hopeful about, but Mary J’s plea is in fact still a necessary one and for those who think the idea that “change come from the bottom up” is more than rhetoric, the work has only begun. Anyone who has hoped that the hip-hop generation will produce another Dr King should keep in mind that he did not descend from the heavens fully formed, but came to be the man he was through a process of collective struggle with hundreds thousands of others. As activist rapper Son of Nun lamented of an anonymous member of the hip-hop generation “he could have been a Malcolm but he’s Detroit Red”. We all have ability to make our own history, but not in circumstances of our own choosing. The objective conditions are shifting, the terms of the debate are changing and the next leader who has yet to emerge may be at this very moment doing the stanky leg in some bright fluorescent sneakers.