June 8, 2007
Over the last few months hip-hop has been under attack in the mainstream media. However, the political hip-hop community (PHHC) — a group comprised of socially conscious hip-hop fans, grassroots activists, prominent hip-hop generation artists and intellectuals — has not been silenced. We have defended hip-hop from outside and feel confident in our defense. Unfortunately, most of our attempts to defend hip-hop have deflected valid criticisms of the music and culture. In response, this essay argues that being hip-hop is often a roadblock to intellectual honesty and hinders political organizing by allowing us to deflect critique.
When people identify as hip-hop, using the phrase, “I am hip-hop,” criticisms of hip-hop may be internalized and may thus pose a problem for political and intellectual work. For example, following Don Imus’ assertion that hip-hop itself was to blame for his degrading description of the Rutgers women’s basketball team, the PHHC’s reactionary response to the attack on its culture played in to an “us versus them” archetype, rather than spurring ownership and self-reflection.
Hard to earn
On Feb. 20, Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes premiered on PBS. Directed by Byron Hurt, Beyond Beats is a loving insiders’ critique of hip-hop and an excellent examination of how men involved in hip-hop construct masculinity. Hip-hop has been one of the few places where black men can express themselves publicly, and Hurt’s film focuses on the ways young black men construct their masculinity in a racist, sexist, capitalist world. Hurt skillfully probes several rappers and fans of rap music about the ways that women are portrayed in music and videos and asks rappers why their lyrics are consistently violent and sexist. By the film’s conclusion, the need to redefine masculinity is clear.
When questioned about violence and sexism, many rappers in Hurt’s film respond by saying that only explicit music makes money. Rap, for many young black men, has become a job and a way to earn a living. Yet they work in a racist, capitalist state where employees, particularly black, do not receive a fair share of profits. To further complicate matters, black male artist-employees are faced with the reality that their primary consumers, young white people, are not willing to pay black men to behave in ways that pose a threat to institutional white supremacy.
This grim reality poses a difficult problem for individuals and artists who are committed to both hip-hop and social justice.
Hip-hop is a profitable business that’s earned a handful of black people access to capital that has been otherwise elusive in the entertainment business. For many black men, looking at the career paths of Jay Z, Russell Simmons, Diddy, or equally successful independent artists who’ve made a living pressing and distributing their music, hip-hop employment seems both wise and lucrative. However, if we look at the artist-employees in Hurt’s film, the question begging to be asked is, “At what cost to the black community has the hip-hop career path come?” Gender has certainly suffered in the wake of a profit-driven rap game. The image of black women and men must certainly be considered among the costs.