Rhyme and Resist
For many activists, the creation of hip-hop amid social devastation is in itself a political act. "To--in front of the world--get up on a turntable, a microphone, a wall, out on a dance floor, to proclaim your self-worth when the world says you are nobody, that's a huge, courageous, powerful, exhilarating step," says Jakada Imani, a civil servant in Oakland by day and a co-founder of the Oakland-based production company Underground Railroad. Concerted political action will not necessarily follow from such a restoration of confidence and self-expression, but it is impossible without it. Radical movements never develop out of despair.
It's too early to say whether the culture can truly be a path into politics and not just a posture, and, if it can, what those politics might be. But what is emerging throughout the country--when the influence of the black church has diminished, national organizations seem remote from everyday life and, in some sense, minority youth have to start from scratch--is an effort to create a space where youth of color can go beyond pain to resistance, where alternative institutions, and alternative politics, can develop.
As Tricia Rose, professor of Africana studies and history at New York University and author of Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, puts it, "The creation, and then tenacious holding on, of cultural forms that go against certain kinds of grains in society is an important process of subversion." It is "about a carving out of more social space, more identity space. This is critical to political organizing. It's critical to political consciousness." Because of its osmotic infusion into the mainstream, Rose argues, hip-hop culture could be used to create a conversation about social justice among young people, much as black religious culture influenced the civil rights discourse of the sixties.
Come on, baby, light my fire/Everything you drop is so tired/Music is supposed to inspire/How come we ain't getting no higher?
--Lauryn Hill, "Superstar"
The parallel may stop with broad social appeal. There are critical distinctions between black religious culture and hip-hop that make using hip-hop for social change a complicated gesture, suggests Richard Yarborough, English professor and director of the Center for African-American Studies at UCLA. "Black religious culture didn't threaten mainstream white liberals the way hip-hop does," notes Yarborough. "It grew directly out of black social institutions, while hip-hop has few sustained institutional bases. Black religious culture never became fodder for the mainstream commodity economy the way hip-hop has. It provided a central role for black women, while the role of women in hip-hop is still problematic. Black religious culture was associated with the moral high ground, while hip-hop is too often linked to criminality."
Indeed, Davey D dubbed 1998 "The Year of the Hip-Hop Criminal." Scores of artists, from Busta Rhymes and DMX to Ol' Dirty Bastard and Sean "Puffy" Combs, were arrested that year on charges ranging from assault to drug and weapons possession to domestic and sexual violence. Given the hip-hop mandate to "keep it real," to walk the talk of rap music, the inescapable question becomes, What kind of perspectives are youth tapping into and drawing on in hip-hop music?
At the 21st Century youth camp, students are attending the workshop "Hip-Hop 2 Educate." Discussion facilitator Alatunga asks the students to list the music's major themes, prompting a lugubrious litany, in this order: death, pain, drugs, sex, alcohol, gangbanging, guns, struggling in life, reality, murder and childbirth (an odd inclusion, perhaps provoked by Lauryn Hill's joyful ode to her firstborn). The young woman who offers "childbirth" then suggests "love." A fan of Kirk Franklin's hip-hop-inflected gospel says "God." It is Alatunga who suggests "politics." The students duly note it on their list.
For the next exercise, he has each person name a "positive" rapper. The first to respond cite the obvious: Lauryn Hill, Goodie Mobb, Outkast. The rest struggle, coming up with current, though not necessarily politically conscious, chart toppers: Jay-Z, DMX, the whole No Limit family. Gospel singer Fred Hammond is allowed because Kirk Franklin was before. Tupac gets in because everyone feels bad he died before fulfilling his potential. Master P, chief exec of the No Limit label, raises some eyebrows because of his hustler image but slides in because it's argued that the distribution contract he negotiated with Priority Records, which secures him 80 percent of the sales revenue, upsets the classic master-slave relationship between the industry and artists. Alatunga finally draws the line at master marketer Puff Daddy, reminding the group that by "positive" he means political, not just "getting paid."