Recently, I was involved in an online discussion with three African American cultural scholars about hip hop artists Jay-Z and Kanye West and their latest collaborative CD, Watch the Throne. Since that discussion of a few weeks back, I’ve been increasingly bothered by what I see as the apologist stance of fans and hip hop scholars alike for the misogyny, rampant materialism, and apolitical nature in most of commercial hip hop music; this apologist stance comes in the middle of a very politically charged time in American history, when White Supremacy is gaining more open popularity among moderate White conservatives.
It’s no secret among my scholarly and creative colleagues that I expect more sense of a political conscience and consciousness from commercial hip hop artists, and that I am continually disappointed. My friends and colleagues argue that since commercial hip hop is a product of post-Civil Rights America, with its materialist mores, I shouldn’t require the sort of political “core” from the mainstream version of the music. But last night, while in the middle of a heated discussion, it dawned on me what is really wrong with hip hop: the music fails in its contract with African American literary and historical traditions.
I’m not the first person to point out that hip hop has its roots in African American literature, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to draw parallels between hip hop and, say, early Black resistance narratives. For example, during the Revolutionary War era Belinda, a former slave of the house of Issac Royall, petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature for reparations and won (though she’d have to come back around another time to eventually be paid those reparations). In her petition, Belinda executes an extraordinary move: she not only discusses the tragedy of slavery in the Americas, but also, she refers to the Yoruba gods of her homeland, the “orisas.” This locates her as someone both deeply American and still deeply African, stretching her community and spiritual loyalties across both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Less than a century later, the slave narratives were used by northern abolitionists to gain sympathy for their anti-slavery cause. These narratives differed in the details, but whether written by males or females, the narratives retain the same three-part structure: the “lowly” life of slavery with all its attendant miseries; then, the realization that freedom was a right of all human beings; and finally, the capturing of freedom which leads, of course, to a better life for the former slave.
In Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave, he describes slavery as a state vulnerable to physical cruelty, and he talks in gentile terms (for us, but direct at that time) about the sexual brutality toward unfree Black women. Once he realizes he must be free, he becomes a better man and when he gains his freedom by running away, he dedicates his life to service of others. This three-part structure—identification, exploration, and resolution–marks the slave narratives as early blues prose texts.
But what does this all have to do with hip hop?
First, I’m not calling any hip hop artists slaves here. Let’s be very clear about that. I’m simply using African American historical narratives and the devices of those narratives to draw obvious (to me) parallels.
If you look at commercial hip hop, it uses most of the same core literary devices as the slave narratives. For example, all of the authors of the narratives came from humble origins—you can’t get much more humble than slavery. The descriptions of these humble backgrounds elicited sympathy from the White reader, as they were meant to, for once enough sympathy was roused the reader hopefully would lift his or her voice and cry out against the sin of slavery. But the humble backgrounds were important, too, because the slave narratives are deeply concerned with issues of African American authenticity; thus, one who has suffered through slavery has earned the right to speak the loudest about the plight of other slaves.
The overriding message at the end of each narrative is about the responsibility of the former slave to the Black community. Freedom has been attained, yes, but this freedom is less freedom from and more freedom to. Freedom to marry legally. Freedom to have and love children without worrying about their being sold away. Freedom to worship God in the open. Freedom to belong to a Black community. Freedom to live as a fully ethical and moral human being.
Hip hop has many of these same requirements. For example, it is a requirement that a hip hop artist come from a poor background. Besides Kanye West, there has never been a hip hop artist who gained world-wide and sustained fame who came from a middle or upper-middle class Black household. But other hip hop artists such as Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, etc. all have working-class or poor backgrounds. When any of these artists rap about their poverty, there is anger in their words and in the tones of their voices, and we know that underneath that is pain, though the performance of “hard” Black masculinity keeps them from admitting it. And so we consumers first feel sorry for the hip hop artist and then, we admire his accomplishments.
Just as in the slave narrative, authenticity is a very real concern as well. Contemporary hip hop consumers hear the much-repeated phrase “keeping it real.” (Which, by the way. has been the bane of many a middle-class Black American’s existence.) Keeping it real means that though you might have worked hard and secured a good job and moved out of the ghetto, your values, your way of life, your set of friends, and the people you want/need to impress all still reside in the ghetto, which is (strangely) assumed to have only one set of folkways, mores and ethics. If any of the aforementioned adjust to your new set of circumstances, you are most definitely not keeping it real.
However, keeping it real also means that you might end up killing one of your friends if you deem it necessary—if, for example, your friend sleeps with your woman, disrespects you verbally in action or in word, or steals or gets in the way of your making money. According to commercial hip hop, the only ethical code of the streets is “keeping it real,” but that code can change depending upon the mood of the artist, because he only has to answer to himself. There is no sense of responsibility to the Black community that contains real people, only to the vague “streets” and to the performance of “realness,” which includes speech, dress, and body language. And one can never challenge the behavior in “the streets,” even when that behavior is criminal or unethical. Challenging “the streets” is not keeping it real.
So let’s go back to that three-part structure of the traditional slave narrative. First, there is suffering in humble circumstances. Then, there is an awareness that those circumstances must change. Finally, there is freedom, both physical freedom and freedom to act in ethical and moral ways. Hip hop has no problem using the first two movements of this structure for its own purposes, but refuses to participate in the third, ethical, movement.
For some scholars or fans of hip hop, this refusal is perfectly okay. To paraphrase a friend of mine, times have changed and there is a generational divide between old school Black community expectations and new school behavior. And that is true. Things do change. There is no longer one Black community, but rather several under one umbrella. And there’s no longer one hip hop, either. I don’t believe in legislating what people make art about, and unlike W.E.B. Dubois, I don’t believe all Black art should be propaganda. But the very real problem today—and for a while—is that hip hop artists trade on old school African American traditions, but want to pick and choose what suits them ethically about those traditions.
For Black consumers, we feel a particular and tender community connection with Black male hip hop artists, for we can rely on a centuries-long body of ancestral knowledge about persecution of Black men when we listen to their narratives today–their music. Further, we don’t assume that Black folks are poor because they don’t like to work or even, they just caught a bad break. We know the truth: patterns of African American poverty go back to slavery. (Patterns of White poverty are pretty ancient, too, for that matter.) Thus, there’s a special relationship between the Black hip hop artist and his Black listener, and both parties are fully aware of that special relationship.
There’s also an assumption that simply by living in Black skin, the hip hop artist is living a political existence. And again, that’s true to some extent, if one is still poor and not just dredging up memories of poverty. But for wealthy hip hop artists, there is insulation from the brutal, racial realities of “the streets.” Yet hip hop artists still access the anger of a racialized past but do not include a community in this anger. Rather, this anger is for themselves only, and maybe, extended to their immediate families.
There’s Black community loyalty at work here, but it’s one-sided loyalty. The Black male hip hop artist takes the Black consumer’s loyalty for granted, even while living in an individualist manner. Even when ignoring issues that affect the Black community in very real ways. This loyalty to Black men and the need to ease their historical suffering keeps hip hop scholars and fans alike from holding hip hop artists accountable for the apolitical nature of their music, but in exchange for our Black community loyalty to hip hop artists, we receive no love and no loyalty in return.