[22 September 2008]
“The thing about hip hop today is that it’s smart, it’s insightful. The way that they communicate a complex message in a very short space is remarkable ... The question then, is what’s the content, what’s the message ...” Barack Obama’s quote opens The Nightmare and the Dream: Nas, Jay-Z, and the History of Conflict in African-American Culture, setting clear and high stakes for the project to follow. Author Dax-Devlon Ross reminds us that the personal is—still—political. And music is terribly personal.
Ross is a young man writing his fifth book, and on an emotionally loaded popular subject. He distributes through Outside the Box Publishing, of which he is a co-founder (and which he describes as a “decade-long literary collaboration between friends who have experienced enough together to consider themselves family”).
Working outside of either a standard publishing or academic context, Ross has nonetheless written a book deeply academic in structure and conceit: the introduction lays out thesis and method; individual chapters trace his subject more or less chronologically from the late 19th century to the present; a short bibliography (whose brevity and repetitions speak to the dearth of good sources, especially on the last few decades) concludes.
There is an explicit bid for legitimacy here. Ross writes in the introduction that “for too long hip hop has been easily disposed of”, in part through the fault of a culture “particularly hostile to the young and to people of color”. But even more moving, if possible, than the music’s lingering need for recognition is how Ross’s grassroots edge reinvests the academic structure with a sense of relevance and a catching fervor. He writes, “as a black intellectual”—and the pang we feel is nostalgic gratitude, in our deeply suspicious age, to hear the latter word used without hesitation or apology.
The last time the term “intellectual” held such positive connotations for the young American left probably was the Civil Rights era and ‘70s activism. Without black, feminist, radical intellectuals to legitimize us, all we are left with is a discredited and self-hating elite, in the worst sense of that word. Who then is legitimizing whom?
The central argument of The Nightmare and the Dream is that prominent black leaders throughout American history have fallen into a mobile but tense binary: the eponymous Nightmare and Dream. If Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, and Jesse Jackson, among others, dreamed of integration with/assimilation into white American culture, their radical counterparts—the names on this list are Alexander Crummel, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan—stressed the reality of the American nightmare. Whenever times were worst, separatists called for an African-American nation, to be realized internally or externally.
More than a construct by white America (although “history textbooks, Hollywood and young adult book publishers have exalted the image of the Model Negro or Good Black”), Ross holds, this dual and conflicted leadership model emerged from an African-American zeitgeist. The binary of Nightmare and Dream turns dialectic with each generation’s changing notions of race and nation, and as heightened class divisions make speaking of a single ‘black community’ “a speculative, indeed dangerous, enterprise”.
This might sound like pop Hegelianism, but pop Hegelianism isn’t a bad way to talk about the symbolic auras the names King and Malcolm, Jesse and Farrakhan (and as The Nightmare and the Dream points out, Biggie and Tupac, Nas and Jay-Z) hold in American popular imagination. When leaders metamorphose into instantly recognizable silhouettes on T-shirts, it is fair to argue with Ross that “these once human beings” have become generational icons, through whom “we announce our presence and put our stamp on the epoch”.
The book’s real appeal and contribution is that it extends the pattern, traced initially through political leaders, to contemporary pop-culture and street heroes. While there is some existing book-length scholarship on hip-hop, most of it reads as disappointingly general and casually done.
Part of the problem is the standard rift between scholarship and any cultural movement still quite contemporary and ‘hip’: writing from the scholarly half of the divide feels jarringly stiff and too often betrays a shallow understanding of its subject, whereas practicing artists and devotees fail to ground their arguments in a broader context or widely communicative language. We had this problem, in very recent memory, with both rock and jazz.
But rather than relying on associative leaps or pushing forth conclusions as self-evident, The Nightmare and the Dream painstakingly does the work, tracing connections through both history and creative analysis of the music. What emerges, or rather re-emerges, is a story of hip hop at its most compelling.
Contradictions notwithstanding, Ross’s Tupac Shakur is still first and foremost the godson of a Black Panther (Assata Shakur, herself in Cuban political asylum from the FBI since 1984). “By updating the symbols the Panthers once used for his generation and continuing to push the issues the Panthers fought for through his art and life, which often bled into one another”, Ross writes, “Tupac became the Hip-Hop generation’s revolutionary voice”.
In his ability to reach and shake young audiences, Shakur moved well beyond Chuck D and Public Enemy, early Ice Cube, and the increasingly marginalized Black Power Rap—or worse yet, ‘progressive’ hip-hop. His early death confirmed him as the martyr-icon of a generation alienated from Civil Rights leaders (feeling “consistently misunderstood, misrepresented and betrayed by its elders”; remember the saddening Rosa Parks/Outkast lawsuit), but searching for its own brand of radicalism.
Likewise, Nas’s fifth album Stillmatic—released mere months after September 11, among all that “atmosphere of anxiety and patriotism (remember all of the flags) permeating the airwaves and choking off the voice of dissent”—rekindled “the tradition and spirit of black protest and power that had been missing from mainstream (and relevant) hip hop for several years”.
Nas and Tupac are Ross’s Nightmare radicals. Their Dreamer counterparts are the new assimilationists, the uber-capitalists of hip hop. The Notorious BIG projected exaggerated material success as a kind of tangibly realized American Dream; in passing he made ‘ghetto fabulous’ a high-fashion descriptive. Jay-Z went a step further to draw an equation sign between the artist and entrepreneur, arguably thereby breaking down categories for stereotypical black avenues of success.
And so forth. Ross shifts compellingly between analytic and personal narrative modes in this section. We relive the growing pains of a confused and embittered generation, struggling to connect past and present meaningfully. Hip hop is the soundtrack to heartbreaking isolation—there is a lot of sitting around in dark rooms and smoking “endless blunts”—but also to Farrakhan’s Million Man March.
A passage about participating in the March is worth quoting at some length:
As we marched in scattered packs down Rhode Island Avenue cars started honking. Fists pumped from car windows. Random black people slowed down just to say they were with us or that they were proud of us ... For us, it was the first time we’d ever felt affirmed as a group ... until that moment I’d never known the pride of being a black man. That feeling intensified as the day wore on. To see the Fruit of Islam—the Nation of Islam’s security force—standing around the perimeter of the Capitol Building; to stand on the hill overlooking the Reflecting Pool and see black men as far and wide as my eyes could reach; to hear the words ‘peace’ and ‘brother’ more times in a single day than in all of my 20 years combined—all of that left an indelible mark on me.
The Nightmare and the Dream has its flaws. Stylistically, later chapters border on indulgent; the dialectic logic could be clearer, which threatens to make reiterations of the thesis merely repetitive. Because contextualized close readings of even famous hip hop lyrics are rare, I wanted more of them: the historical section could be affordably condensed and the contemporary musical chapters greatly fleshed out. And at least a brief discussion is in order of hip hop’s distinctive, inherent possibilities as a musical form. For example, one rather obvious reason why rappers’ careers are more politically charged than those of jazz musicians is that their art is primarily verbal.
But the most problematic omission in The Nightmare and the Dream is that of gender. Sans apology or even much note, all of Ross’s zeitgeist heroes are men. Not only does the book miss the opportunity to comment interestingly on hip hop’s recurring misogyny controversies (a central issue in generational conflicts with Civil Rights leaders, think again Rosa Parks vs. Outkast), but it fails to ask how female leaders complicate the male Nightmare/Dream binary.
If Ross wants to make the argument that black women play the same brief cameo role in the collective imagination that they do in his book, that itself is worth talking about. I would counter in advance that American discourses on race and gender share a history profoundly and complexly intertwined—as most recently brought to light by the 2008 presidential and candidate campaigns.
None of these critiques, however, negate the fact that The Nightmare and the Dream makes a bravura attempt and more or less nails it. It delivers an intelligent book about hip hop, resides in a cross-over genre between scholarly and grassroots political writing, and seems premised on the sincere belief that this is what thoughtful people from all walks ought to be doing. The less obvious counterpoint to its stated project is no less than an effort to revive the hip, socially-conscious public intellectual. Call me a fellow dreamer.