The Politics Inside Black Pop

Def Jam

For a moment, it seemed as though Nas would dominate the rap landscape of 2008. Much of the talk a year or so ago centered around whether he’d actually title his new CD Nigger, and incur the wrath of all manner of critics, not to mention vague threats against his parent label Universal and their investments. In the end he backed off, issuing the CD without a title, sufficing with a cover picture of the letter “N” lashed onto a black man’s back, presumably by any number of blows from a whip.

The music itself wasn’t all that incendiary either: aside from the anti-corporate media “Sly Fox”, it was mostly a series of paeans to the besieged brothas of the world (“You Can’t Stop Us Now”, “Hero”, “Y’all My Ni**as”, “We’re Not Alone”). Worthy sentiments to be sure, but they hardly made for compelling fodder for talk radio and barbershop banter, much less elevation of the black man’s plight onto this year’s broader sociopolitical agenda.

Indeed, in 2008 that portion of Hip-Hop Nation not busy cataloging Lil Wayne mixtapes and remixes was dominated by Barack Obama. Rappers recorded and participated in more one-off tracks in support of Obama than for all presidential candidates in the seven campaigns since the first rap record (“Rapper’s Delight,” 1979) combined (this doesn’t count all the songs decrying what the candidates did once they got into office). Nas contributed the 2Pac-sampling “Black President”, which went against the mostly viral, online-and-mixtape grain of this mini-genre by landing onto a proper CD. Its placement as the final track on a release celebrating the spirit of the Black Ghetto Everybrotha suggests that Nas envisioned an Obama victory as a crowning symbolic achievement, a representation of the full glory a black man can accomplish.

Within the song, Nas issued a sober endorsement of Obama’s run, sounding more like a quote from an op-ed than a rap lyric (“ On the positive side I think Obama provides hope and challenges the minds of all races and colors to erase the hate”). Sentiments like that were all over the place in hip-hop; both Vibe and The Source placed Obama on their November covers. Of course, hip-hop was far from alone within the pop music universe in praising and supporting Obama’s historic run. But the level of pro-Obama cultural activity by rappers represented a new iteration in the age-old discussion of hip-hop’s political meaning and impact.

A brief recap: while one can make a case for the New York City graffiti writers’ reclamation and repurposing of public space in the early ’80s as a statement on urban policy priorities, most first-generation rap music didn’t support such sociopolitical extrapolations. It was straight-up party music, at least until Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” (1982) proved that the genre could contain weightier subject matter. Run-DMC and Schooly D, in their respective ways, set the tone for grittier lyrical content, but the genre as a whole didn’t earn its social commentary bonafidés until the beloved 1987-1992 “golden age.”

That era, as any rap fan over 40 will gladly boast, is characterized by piercing social critiques, not only from Public Enemy and N.W.A., but also from a legion of pro-black Afrocentrists, Five Percenters and the first wave of funky bohemians (in a sense, Nas’ 2008 cd recalls that era’s mindset). That was when it became received wisdom that rappers were canaries in the urban coalmine, that they spoke truths representing the realities of life in the street (i.e., Chuck D’s rap-as-black-CNN analogy).

The needle hasn’t really budged much from that point, even as the music has moved through various moments acknowledging (if not celebrating) the drug trade, launching Internet dance crazes, and passing the Couvoissier. Indeed, the most newsworthy thing about the Nas CD is that in 2008, someone who isn’t normally associated with rap’s left wing (a big tent encompassing major label-affiliated veterans like Common, the Roots and Talib Kweli, and indie stalwarts like Paris and the Coup) made any effort at all to place discussion of broader societal issues at the heart of his release, not just a throwaway cut to satisfy an audience demographic (like the posse cut, the club-banger, the pop hit, etc.).

As it stands, although Nas’ various bromides could have used some fact-checking, to say the least, his fighting-the-good-fight, at-least-he-cracked-open-a-book approach is far more useful than, for example, Lil Wayne’s zooted rambling about Rev. Al Sharpton on “Dontgetit”. How many hearts and minds were changed, or even nudged a little, by the Nas CD is almost impossible to quantify. But the attention the effort received proves, once again, that many people continue to look to rap music as some indication of how black folks — even those who hate rap — are doing, to an extent that simply doesn’t happen with any other pop genre, or any other expression of black pop culture.

That tendency looks to become only more prevalent and widespread in the wake of Obama’s victory. In the immediate wake of the election, numerous news articles and commentaries probing for links between Obama’s win and black pop culture surfaced. Among other tangents, the pieces speculated on the effect of a black presidency on black stand-up comics, examined Obama’s relationship to hip-hop and vice versa, wondered if Obama hadn’t become the real-life embodiment of the “magic Negro” of Hollywood stereotypes and Rush Limbaugh denigrations, and even whether TV’s fictional Huxtable family of the ‘80s somehow paved the way for mass acceptance of a black presidential candidate (In the November 11 Los Angeles Times article that proposed this notion, Bill Cosby himself shot it down, but that didn’t stop the Times from running with it anyway).

Such consideration didn’t happen without just cause. Rappers and others of the ever-growing hip-hop generation aren’t the first black pop artists to engage big-picture issues in their art. Black pop culture has always had something to say about American social conditions, sometimes through sly entendre and sometimes through outright agitprop. But up until this moment, those comments have always come from the perspective of speaking truth to power as outsiders to the political mainstream. Will black pop artists still see themselves as outsiders now that a black person is President? Will they use their cultural platform to criticize him if need be, just as they did to help elect him?

The Politics inside Black Pop

Like all the other what-ifs circling about in political discussion nowadays, it’s way too early to know. Having a President of color is as big a sea change for black pop as it is for the rest of America. As we await Obama’s inauguration and all the twists and turns of his time in office, we can gain some perspective on the matter from two books published earlier this year that examine the historical dynamics between black politics and black pop, taking approaches that couldn’t possibly be more dissimilar.

John McWhorter’s All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can’t Save Black America (Gotham) is by far the slimmer read, and also the one more likely to get thrown across the room in disgust by most rap fans. One may not have suspected it from any of his neo-conservative books and op-eds, or from the jacket blurbs dutifully supplied by black conservative elders Stanley Crouch and Shelby Steele, but McWhorter is a hip-hop fan. He doesn’t claim to live and die for the music, but he appreciates the artistry and audacity that has fueled many a great rap record. His problem is with the assertion that rap music represents a political movement, an idea he says has been advanced by not only artists but also by a self-styled hip-hop intelligentsia of academicians and journalist/critics.

Author: John McWhorter
Book: All About the Beat
Subtitle: Why Hip-Hop Can’t Save Black America
US publication date: 2008-06
Publisher: Penguin
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9781592403745
Length: 192
Price: $20.00

Author: Richard Iton
Book: In Search of the Black Fantastic
Subtitle: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era
US publication date: 2008-06
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780195178463
Length: 422
Price: $29.95

Specifically, he’s got three bones to pick. One, McWhorter reduces many lyrical accounts of urban inequity to posturing and spouting off at the mouth. He derides various tales of police brutality, for example, as adding up to little more than “cops hate us cops hate us cops hate us cops hate us cops hate us cops hate us cops hate us and we hate them.” He doesn’t hear anything further than a raw, unprocessed spouting of post-civil rights urban clichés, divorced from a fully nuanced and thought-out analysis of all the dynamics in play within the ‘hood.

Second, at various points throughout the book, he falls back into neo-con mode to argue that if rappers really cared about improving ghetto life, they’d take into account the full breadth and depth of urban issues (i.e., inner-city education programs that are working, and the reality of black employment patterns and opportunities) — and from the same perspective, not coincidentally, that he and his homies at the Manhattan Institute neo-con think tank do, at that. Finally, after dispatching all claims in favor of rap’s political potency, he claims that the only reason anyone assigns it any potency at all is because the musical beats and production are so compelling, that most folk just get swept along by all that funky momentum.

I’ll grant McWhorter his first point. There’s been a lot of wild-eyed nonsense, uncritical rehashing of conspiracy theories, and half-backed tripe that’s been slapped on wax in the name of “political content.” And he’s absolutely right to call rap on its misogynist bluster. But while the facts of some lyrics may not connect with reality, the emotion behind the lyrics does, and that emotional connection between artist and audience is what gives rap its sociopolitical currency, more so than what’s actually being said.

As for his faulting rappers for not being center-right policy wonks, or at least opening their eyes to that point of view, that’s not their job, nor is it the job of any art form, nor should it be. Artists aren’t political operatives or community organizers. They don’t build movements. They can advocate for change, they can prophesize that a change is gonna come, but no work of art can possibly do the heavy lifting of conveying the hard-cold facts of a matter, and translating that knowledge into actual change. Only the most impressionable among us would believe that real political change happens just because some people rent studio time to make a record.

Despite hip-hop’s tendency to parcel out hype about its effect on society by the truckload and believe far too much of it for its own good, most rap fans understand the difference between political expression and political action. If McWhorter really wanted to get those ideas out there, he might consider making his own rap record instead of writing a book, but his polar opposite Cornel West has made two CD’s, and neither one of them exactly lit up the charts.

McWhorter’s final assertion, the central point and title of his book, is the most infuriating. The unspoken assumption at its core is that hip-hop fans are hopelessly naïve and intellectually unsophisticated, and that they’re caught up in this unformed mindset because the music has them under some spell. This is nothing more than an updated version of the age-old trope about darkies entranced by the insistent call of primitive jungle drums. If a white person made this claim, s/he would be denounced as unapologetically racist. To suggest that millions of people – of all ethnicities in America, and by extension millions more around the world – are under the intellectual sway of a funky beat is beyond irresponsible.

It’s true that for many people, a track by Public Enemy or KRS-One (or Ice Cube, or David Banner, or any of countless others) was an introduction to a discussion of a larger social issue. But most people who have their minds opened up by a song, and are serious about digging into the issue it explores, go to the effort of acquiring more substantial knowledge about that issue, and taking further action based on that pursuit.

It shouldn’t take advanced learning to deduce that anyone whose entire political education comes from entertainment products — and at the end of that day, for whatever other meanings and values that are assigned to them, that’s primarily what rap records are — has no real political education at all. The only folks more clueless about that are those like McWhorter, who would have us believe that such people are the multitudinous lifeblood of a worldwide culture he claims to love.

At the other end of the spectrum is Richard Iton’s In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Oxford University Press). Where McWhorter’s tone is breezy and tries to be down with the young folk, Iton’s writing is chock-full of constructions only a lifelong academician would appreciate (“If the prophylactic state depends on the exclusion of certain groups, their nonrecognition as citizens, and the impossibility of their ever being members, disapora provides a means by which these marginalizations and theographies can be recognized, contested and profaned.”).

Don’t despair if you don’t have the deep theoretical background to help make sense of sentences like that. Iton, a professor of African American studies and political science at Northwestern, is attempting to lay down a framework for considering black pop moments from the ‘50s to the present day within a rigorous political context. If you can get through the denser passages, the reading becomes surprisingly accessible, as Iton opens up a new way to consider how black politics and black pop have shaped each other.

By “politics”, Iton isn’t referring to liberal-conservative policy debates or electoral campaigns, but rather the intricacies of black political thought and action. Despite the book’s subtitle, he begins his discussion in the ‘50s, with an exploration of how, for many black public figures, the inflammatory tenor of the times trumped racial solidarity when it came to supporting Paul Robeson against red-baiting witch-hunts of alleged Communists. Yet he also shows how Robeson’s personal fusion of art and activism set the stage for Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, two certified Race Men who would cast a long shadow throughout the succeeding generations of such fusions.

Iton places writer Imanu Amiri Baraka as the next crucial figure at this nexus, tracing his evolution from Greenwich Village darling LeRoi Jones to the firebrand who co-chaired the 1972 National Black Political Assembly convention. He proceeds to draw parallels between the black politics and the black pop of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s; he’s not the first to head down that road, but he breaks new ground by examining the era’s seminal R&B for the implications this music, made almost predominantly by men, would have on gender considerations.

Iton goes on to discuss the black pop-black politics intersection from a variety of angles. The chapter, “Let Them See Only Us” pulls in everything from technological advances to the aftermath of the fall of South African apartheid. He takes a broad perspective on the question of the black diaspora, moving from Marcus Garvey in the 1920’s through Bob Marley 50 years later, and the subsequent influence of West Indian culture on the development of hip-hop.

He follows that with a look at gender roles in the hip-hop era (gender issues come up repeatedly throughout the book, but he doesn’t center on them for any extended stretch), and from there to a recap of Kanye West’s post-Katrina “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” charge. Such reach is impressive; not many volumes will talk about both former Congressman Adam Clayton Powell and Tricky. But that also means that this book isn’t necessarily for black pop newbies, at least those without a handy reference guide nearby.

Similarly, those looking for a single idea to carry through this impressive sweep will be somewhat disappointed. Iton’s basic idea isn’t that black pop has shaped black politics in any distinct and consistent way, or vice versa, but that many of the core issues and debates that have framed black political life these last 50 years have also been in play on the cultural stage. He doesn’t examine specific works for their direct messages, but identifies trends and developments that few other historians have explored. He probably could have found a more layperson-friendly way to establish the theoretical underpinnings of his argument, but when his discussion shifts back to the nuts and bolts of black cultural work, his insight and analysis come through with imagination and clarity.

Of course, these books and their authors are completely different animals. McWhorter is an opinionated essayist, Iton a detailed historian. But as the afterglow of the election continues to recede, and all those Obama anthems find their way into the deeper recesses of music libraries next to “We Are the World” and “Free Nelson Mandela”, we can anticipate both will see their theses validated going forward.

Critics, pundits and barbershop banterers will continue to parse rap music for clues about the black pulse, whether McWhorter approves of what rappers are saying or not. And learned observers like Iton will look at what those rappers and other black pop artists say and how they say it, and extract a deeper sense of what it all means about the broader state of black American discourse. And on and on, to the break of a brand new dawn.