Who Owns What?: Engaging the Fog of Hip-Hop


How do the "artist" and "critic" reconcile each other's presence? How literally must one walk this way in order to talk that way?

"You can't go to college, then say you [are] hip-hop...otherwise you writing about hip-hop.... How're you going to critique something you ain't even doing?"

-- KRS-One, at Know-the-Ledge: Hip Hop Scholarship Meets Hip Hop Media

"You can't redefine it yourself."

-- Davey D, response to KRS-One

When I taught at the Brooklyn Museum, one of my favorite objects was a Yoruba door. The door is made of a deep chestnut-colored wood, measures about four feet by four feet, and has a community "map" carved in. It depicts each member of a society in a linear, hierarchical order: from citizens harvesting food at the bottom to the leader and his soldiers marching across the top. I liked the object because it was rich with rendered figures and visual information that viewers could use to learn about this community, its citizens, and their roles.

Except for one figure. Removed from context, it is difficult to determine this man's function from visual clues alone. Research tells us he is an interpreter, a literal mouthpiece who passes information from the leader to the entire community. I often shared this information with my students, and segued from identifying the roles of each depicted citizen to drawing parallels between the door's society and the student's own. The students quickly saw similarities between the leader and a mayor / president and the soldier and a soldier / police officer, but often had trouble relating to the interpreter. In providing more detail about the man's work, likening it to that of the functionality of a microphone and the diplomacy of a press secretary, several students perked up and smiled. "Yes, what person do you know has a job like the interpreter," I'd ask. "You," they replied.

* * *

In March 2006, the Hiphop Archive's Know-the-Ledge: Hip Hop Scholarship Meets Hip Hop Media conference at Stanford University received some unfavorable Internet press. A heated verbal exchange broke out between several panelists and audience members, stemming from a disagreement between emcee KRS-One and writer Adisa Banjoko. The greater contention ultimately centered on how a conversation about hip-hop should be facilitated and who should lead such a discussion, but the above quotes from the fracas summarize the main point: whether the practitioner's word counts for more than that of the non-practitioner's.

Certainly, this debate is hardly unique to hip-hop. "Everyone's a critic", so the saying goes. But what better pastime than watching an artist bite back; all of a sudden, the weekend editorial warriors go ghost and titter from afar as the front line dukes it out. However, hip-hop has had a contentious relationship with criticism from the jump; from having its existence denied to being portrayed as a self-defeating minstrel show, it has been difficult to pose the question without being second guessed, "Who are you to ask?" That said, folks both a part and outside of the hip-hop generation -- defined more broadly here than Bakari Kitwana's conception to include any person that consumes hip-hop -- have eagerly sought to define hip-hop since its inception. Needless to say the conversation, when it gets rolling, is rarely taken lightly. Appropriate considering that when hip-hop beckons you to show and prove, you best (pardon me) "bring it".

Which may explain why months after this incident, I am still stewing over how to respond. As a decreasingly performing musician who is increasingly doing the two things most artists swear they'll never do -- write about and teach the arts -- the question hits close to home. How do the "artist" and "critic" reconcile each other's presence? How literally must one walk this way in order to talk that way? What defines credibility? Who defines credibility? The questions are familiar, as are the responses. Yes, I agree that practice helps cultivate appreciation and understanding. When learning a language, one speaks with others to strengthen their grasp, as opposed to practicing with one's self. Yet, I also do not find practice to be necessary. An educator can study the etching process as background research for a lesson on Goya's Los desastres de la Guerra, but if the theme is recurrent themes in cyclical works there is no need to learn every intricacy of the process. However, I can't help but feel this question of credibility is more of an ego trip. And the ego trip is a fog obscuring the real question: who’s making sense to whom? In the battle for braggin' rights, it is easy to forget that engagement is the common goal for both the performer and non-performer. What good is your work unless the audience is connected in a critical and responsive way?

Then it dawned on me (days after deadline, of course): there is no answer. No, this isn't a Zen parable or trick spin. Rather, I'm trying to pass on this argument in favor of a bipartisan solution: finding questions. As in, why not rally performers and non-performers around the questions we all ask: What is it about hip-hop that is "black"? What is it about hip-hop that is multicultural? How is it sexist? How does it unify? What makes it violent? What makes it a cultural movement? And for how fucking long has it been dead? Sure, they're all familiar questions. But instead of battling over which "is" reigns supreme, why not start a collection of "becauses"? For all the scholarship and grassroots talk of hip-hop being the quintessential postmodern statement, why not treat it like one and build on its hybrid body?

At Stanford, KRS-One spoke of using "empirical evidence" to support his observations and distinguished himself as a "scientist" as opposed to a theorist -- as if the former is somehow less beholden to inaccuracies or mistakes. On a semantic level I agree: yes, the best we can do is observe, hypothesize, experiment, and repeat. But hip-hop hardly exists in a single petri dish. The combination of people's two cents originally made this Frankenstein freak-at-night uprock to "The Mexican" and downrock to "Sex Machine". Let's see if we can embrace what Jeff Chang means by "Generations are fiction" in his book Can't Stop Won't Stop. Or what Robin D.G. Kelley means when he blasts scholars in Yo' Mama's Disfunktional! "for their inability to see complexity." Categories and definitions often have fluid and soluble boundaries. So, there is no one embodiment of hip-hop. There is no one definition of hip-hop. There is no one answer or solution, just interpretations and questions to uncover why those interpretations exist. Which isn't such a bad thing to think about, even if you're "just writing about hip-hop", right?





The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.


90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

‘The Avengers’ Offer a Lesson for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.