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

“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?

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