I used to write fairly regularly about rap for this magazine and a couple of websites, but a few years ago I stopped. It wasn’t that I don’t love the art form anymore, or that I feel I don’t have anything to say about it. Rather, as a white guy from a privileged background, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that I lacked any real familiarity with the experiences described by the music. I had no idea what it really felt like to be black in America, and because of this I doubted whether I could be an effective judge of music that sought to convey that reality.
One of the many powers of hip-hop, of course, is the intimacy it offers. Spend enough time listening to a certain rapper, and you begin to feel like you know that person as well as you do your own friends. Chuck D’s famous pronouncement that hip-hop is “CNN for black people”, pointed though it is, seems to miss part of the story. Hip-hop is CNN for white people, too, if you acknowledge the media’s systematic neglect of America’s black population. Through hip-hop, rappers are telling the stories that many journalists, and their publications, couldn’t be bothered to cover.
As a white hip-hop fan, there’s a seductive tendency to congratulate one’s self for gaining cultural competencies in African American culture, as if memorizing Tupac lyrics and attending Wu-Tang concerts confers a master’s degree in black studies. But the truth is that even in its rawest, most detailed form, hip-hop gives only what is at best a keyhole-sized view of the African American experience.
Jooyoung Lee’s Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central represents a jump through the keyhole into the world of hip-hop as it is lived by some of the art form’s most dedicated practitioners. Lee is a sociologist, and the book is the result of a five-year ethnographic study of the noted Los Angeles hip-hop workshop, Project Blowed. With the dedication to detail you would expect from a social scientist, Lee catalogues the rituals of rapping at Project Blowed. He investigates the rules, unspoken and spoken, surrounding one-on-one rap battles as well as ciphers, collaborative jam sessions in which rappers trade one freestyle verse after another. He outlines the proper way to hold a microphone, breathing techniques, crowd-hyping strategies, and the subtle tricks used to maintain the appearance of freestyling even when relying upon prewritten lyrics. While his discussion of lyrical content is scant — there are only a handful of transcriptions of actual verses, when you might have expected them to appear on every other page — Lee does an admirable job of conveying the hard work these young men put into their craft, with the hope of “blowing up”, or making it as a rapper.
While Lee’s initial intent for the project was to focus on the Thursday night open mics at Project Blowed, he eventually is led to document the lives of his subjects, many of whom he befriends, outside of the workshop, as they struggle to turn their passion into a sustainable career. The reader starts to identify with and root for the rappers Lee follows — Big Flossy, E.Crimsin, Flawliss, Nocando, Open Mike — as if they are characters in a novel. Dodging gang activity in their neighborhoods, flitting in and out of shitty jobs, providing for their young families, the Project Blowed rappers pursue their dreams with a heroic sense of purpose.
None come close to blowing up, however, and even the few brushes with success (e.g., one rapper garners interest from a few major-label A&Rs, another is invited to open for E-40) seem to offer as much frustration as encouragement. The book’s setting, South Central Los Angeles, only heightens this disparity. Even as these young men believe themselves to be one chance meeting with a celebrity or other power player away from making it, they are nevertheless trapped in an environment bereft of support systems and real economic opportunities.
In his introduction, Lee admits that one goal of his project is to argue that hip-hop can be a positive influence in the lives of young black men. This seems a fact hardly worth proving to me, but Lee brings up comments from the noted hip-hop scold John McWhorter, who has accused the art form of stifling academic achievement, and a regrettable statement from Michelle Obama, who has complained about black youths “fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper” when they could be dreaming about being a teacher or a doctor, and I’m reminded that there are still a lot of people out there who think hip-hop is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
Lee’s book reveals the tangled connections between hip-hop and violence, as the rappers use their experiences in South Central as lyrical fodder, but it’s also clear that their commitment to the art form has emerged irrespective of their circumstances. In other words, they are drawn to rap for the same reasons that a suburban white kid is drawn to start a punk band in his garage. The desire to express oneself in musical terms is universal.
When that suburban kid’s punk band breaks up, he applies to college or he goes out to get a job, but the rappers at Project Blowed don’t have anywhere near the same set of options, and that’s the tragedy of their situation. Lee uses the phrase “existential urgency” to sum up the motivation felt by his subjects: “Existential urgency is a heightened sensitivity to time. It is motivated by experiences that foreground a person’s diminishing time to achieve life and career goals.”
On one hand, this feeling should be familiar to anyone with ambitious goals who feels him- or herself getting older. But it’s different for the rappers in Blowin’ Up because the costs of failure can be so great: if they don’t make it here, they might not ever make it anywhere. Near the end of Lee’s fieldwork, one of his central subjects, Flawliss, gets shot in an apparently mistaken gang hit, in a sadly unsurprising turn of events. Flawliss survives, and initially the response from the rapper’s compatriots at Project Blowed is that this is a good thing. Like 50 Cent, Tupac, and other rappers before him, Flawliss could use the increased street cred that comes with surviving a shooting to further his career. (This unfortunate reality of the market is also reflected in the stories from Lee’s book about rappers who admit feeling the pressure to conform to the “gangster” stereotypes expected by a white audience.) But even as Flawliss claims to be energized by coming so close to death, the adverse health effects and the lingering trauma caused by the attack lead the reader to worry that his story will not end in success.
With the growth of social justice movements online and increased media attention to inner-city issues, we’re closer to that reality than we were just a few years ago. Yet we shouldn’t necessarily bemoan the fact that Kendrick Lamar is still more famous than the most well-known Black Lives Matter activist. Like a rose growing in a crack in the concrete, hip-hop has emerged from adverse circumstances and brings pleasure to millions worldwide while sustaining and inspiring some of America’s most underserved people. Necessary and important, Blowin’ Up provides an intimate look at this essential art form.