This article contains opinions and views of artists presented in an uncensored and unfiltered form. Editing the musicians’ statements or lyrics would be contrary to their freedom of expression and artistic integrity. However, bits of the language featured below might be considered offensive by some. The author of this article by no means intends to displease readers’ sensibility.
Music and politics have been liaising for centuries. With music springing out of the political, as well as political ideals being often enriched and amplified by compositions of all sorts, there is little doubt that music, more than any other form of artistic expression, can, directly and indirectly, provide a powerful contribution to social and political organization. This is primarily due to the fact that music clearly feeds into people’s emotional lives and, consequently, the penetration of emotions into the public sphere can foster a remarkable sense of kinship and belonging, providing the aesthetic and emotional crystallization of initiatives based and building upon solidarity. Emotions are not, however, the sole factor making music political. In his 1984 book Distinction, for instance, French thinker Pierre Bourdieu connects the emotional facets of artistic appreciation, such as one’s taste, with class divisions existing within French society, ultimately arguing that any definition of beauty is inevitably informed by one’s class position.
Finding a solution to the debates as to whether all music is inherently political, or regarding a hypothetical dichotomy between a purely aesthetic and a socio-economic definition of this medium is a daunting task, to say the least, falling way beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, the tension between an emotional understanding of the public function of music and a materialist one undoubtedly calls for a holistic approach to the study of its intersection with politics, accounting for the analysis of its passionate, as well as political semantics. The merging of music and politics observable in the XX century seems to support the demands for such an approach. In a climate of rapid cultural and social change, in fact, political themes began appearing within the boundaries of virtually every single existing musical genre: one can conveniently think of the protest carried out by blues musicians against racism already in the 1920s; the denunciation of the lynching of African Americans made by Billie Holiday in her 1939 song Strange Fruit; the introduction, thanks to Charles Mingus’ 1959 piece Fables of Faubus, of political motifs in free jazz; the popularization of the cause of civil rights movements promoted by Bob Dylan – and his generation – during the 1960s; reggae music’s emergence as a form of contestation against the colonial forces oppressing Jamaican life; the use of traditional folk music in Eastern European countries as a means to articulate a national identity in opposition to a Soviet character; the birth of punk rock, in the 1970s, as an aesthetic reflection of political anarchism. Within the coordinates of XX century music landscape, therefore, innovation appears to have been profoundly informed and facilitated by political tension and, in some cases, concrete confrontation.
Based on these examples, one can easily conclude that the political facets of music are inevitably tied to the definition of an identity based on emotional bonds, as well as a sense of solidarity arising from social and economic forces. This dual nature, however, does not render the two strands of analysis mutually exclusive. Rather, it constitutes a call for a cohesive and organic approach to the study of the politics of music. The complexity of this discourse is perfectly observable in the history of one of the most politically and socially engaged genres, historically and culturally tied to notions of oppression, dissent and protest: hip hop.
Hip hop is generally considered to have been pioneered in 1973 in New York’s South Bronx by Jamaican-born Kool DJ Herc, who invented the so-called extended break technique. This entails the use of two separate copies of the same record on two turntables, allowing for their instrumental sections to be conveniently looped together into longer segments. Furthermore, much of the popularity of hip hop is due to its connection with rapping, namely the use of fast-paced, rhyming lyrics, whose popularity enjoyed rapid growth when, in the 1960s, African American DJs in New York began introducing songs and artists using swift, spontaneous rhymes. Hip hop, however, is much more than a mere instrumental genre or a lyrical style. Atlanta-born rapper Killer Mike, for example, provided a fascinating account of the movement’s history in a recent Real Time interview with Bill Maher, drawing attention onto its fundamental political significance and antecedents: “In the late ‘60s, all these kids that were kind of the fallout kids of black nationalism movement, civil rights, poor white people’s movement, Puerto Rican nationalism movement, they had street gangs in New York, in the Bronx, that were essentially burned out. At some point in the very late ‘60s, early ’70s, these kids were like ‘we’re going to come up with our own peace treaty’. They came up with their own peace treaty, decided that ‘we aren’t going to engage in violence’. Well, what’s the alternative to violence? The Zulu Nation was bourn out of that… Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc… These kids, they were children, got together in the park, stole public electricity, which I strongly support, and decided to do park jams as an alternative to violence. So hip hop is not rap. Hip hop is the thing that houses rap, graffiti, breakdancing, DJing and entrepreneurship. What it did was give poor kids the opportunity to organize as an alternative to violence. Now, fast forward 40 years, it worked. A lot of money came into it. Guys bought big chains, tigers, lions and bears, and shit. And we got off course. But, at our core… every time you see a successful rapper, you’re seeing a successful job creator in a community”.
Killer Mike’s emotional description conveniently captures a number of elements whose analysis is crucial for a precise understanding of what hip hop is: emancipation movements, violence, dissent, local politics, and – more importantly – non-violent protest. At the same time, his focus on the economic implications the phenomenon can ultimately support the intuition that the analysis of this genre cannot be separated from its cultural and socio-economic aspects and preconditions. Hip hop is traditionally associated with African American tradition and, in this sense, most of its characteristics can be conveniently traced back to a history of slavery, exploitation and oppression. The use of rhymes, for example, deepens its roots in the encoding of race relations between black slaves and their white masters. Characters of West African folklore and oral tradition, in fact, were often re-invented, in the context of XVIII and XIX century slave trade in the United States, as allegories of enslaved Africans who used their wits to exact revenge over their white masters. Signifying Monkey, for instance, tells the story of the eponymous character insulting the Lion and tricking him into believing that he is merely parroting the Elephant’s words; similarly, Br’er Rabbit details the figure of a trickster who can adapt his skills and devise creative – and, sometimes, morally debatable – solutions to outwit his adversaries; John the Conqueror introduces another trickster, who adopts various ploys to evade his masters.
A very interesting comparison can, therefore be drawn: if the rhyming songs of enslaved African Americans emerged as a cultural response to the experience of slavery and subjugations, rapping developed, decades later, as a mechanism of resistance to – and denunciation of – economic oppression and social segregation among black communities. On the eve of the birth of hip hop, New York’s Bronx had lost more than 600’000 manufacturing jobs, roughly equal to 40% of the labour force of the entire sector, relegating 30% of Hispanic and 25% of black households below poverty line. In the mid-70s, poverty soared to unprecedented heights, with per-capita income dropping to $2’340, that is, 48% of New York average and 40% of national average, while youth unemployment grew to an astonishing 60%. Additionally, the use of urban renewal rights of clearance allowed the administration to further strengthen the social segregation of poor and working-class ethnic minorities, via the proposition of a number of development schemes encouraging, on the one hand, white people to move out of the Bronx and, on the other, the relocation of black and Hispanic families in appalling public housing towers. Architect Robert Moses, for example, was the spearhead of the redevelopment of the South Bronx: his Cross Bronx Expressway hugely contributed to the isolation and impoverishment of the region, having caused the devastation of several low-income neighbourhoods and the demolition of more than 60’000 homes.
It seems obvious, at this point, that the topics of isolation, poverty and dreadful living conditions are inextricably anchored to the context hip hop originated in. It is not by happenstance, then, that this genre emerged as a powerful and passionate denunciation of all sorts of social ills. The 1982 song The Message, written by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, was one of the first hip hop tracks to feature an explicit political consciousness, thanks to its disturbing depiction of the living conditions of poor families in the area: “Broken glass everywhere/People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care/I can’t take the smell, I can’t take the noise/ Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice/Rats in the front, roaches in the back/Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat/I tried to get away, but I couldn’t get far/Cause the man with the tow-truck just repossessed my car […] Crazy lady, livin’ in a bag/ Eatin’ outta garbage pails, used to be a fag hag/Said she’ll dance the tango, skip the light fandango/A Zircon princess seemed to lost her senses/Down at the peep show watchin’ all the creeps/So she can tell her stories to the girls back home/She went to the city and got social security/She had to get a pimp, she couldn’t make it on her own”.
At any rate, ever since the inception of the hip hop movement, its political rhetoric kept revolving around the intersection of racial and economic segregation, hence fuelling an ideological and rhetorical proximity with black nationalist sentiments and civil rights movement initiatives. The Last Poets, for example, had already merged free jazz, spoken word and early elements of rapping in their 1970s output: their songs Niggers are Scared of Revolution and When the Revolution Comes clearly served as an artistic groundwork for the emergence of later figures. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, Gil Scott-Heron quickly affirmed himself as the main proponent of a political rhetoric centered upon the amalgamation of issues of race and poverty in songs like The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Winter in America; Afrika Bambaataa founded, on November, 12th, 1977, the group known as the Universal Zulu Nation, a collective consisting of rappers, dancers, poets and graffiti artists representative of the emerging hip hop culture. The Zulu Nation enormously contributed to the popularization of the genre, organizing countless block and house parties all around the South Bronx, which Afrika Bambaataa himself described as a non-violent form of social protest and insurrection.
If the 1970s were crucial for the orientation of hip hop’s political consciousness and the definition of its aesthetics, the 1980s witnessed the extraordinary proliferation of the movement, primarily because of the political vicissitudes of the decade and the dramatic impoverishment of millions of working-class families: according to the Census Bureau, for instance, 1.2 million African Americans fell below poverty line between during the eight years of Reagan’s presidency and just as many during the four Bush years. Reports from Children’s Defense Fund show that, during the first two years of the Bush administration alone, 841’000 young people fell into poverty. These figures appear to be particularly dispiriting in connection to ethnic divisions: in 1992, 32.7% of black people (10.2 million) were formally poor, and the same can be said for 28.7% of Hispanics, 13.8% of Asians and ‘only’ 11.3% of whites. Racial resentment became increasingly representative of politically dissident rapping: the rapper Paris, for instance, referred to as the “Black Panther of hip hop” often incorporated references to Malcom X and the Black Panther Party in his lyrics; X-Clan, in their albums To the East, Blackwards (1990) and Xodus (1992), sought to develop themes of Afrocentrism, attempting to rehabilitate black tradition against the economic and social isolation of African American communities; Brand Nubian’s 1990 record All for One features inflammatory anti-government verses; similarly, in the albums Neva Again (1993) and Made in America (1995), Kam spoke critically of the insufficient measures adopted by the government in order to secure peaceful coexistence of different ethnical groups and prevent the emergence of gang-related criminality; lastly, legendary Harlem-born rapper Tupac, son of a prominent Black Panther activist, released a string of albums, 2Paclypse Now (1991), Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z… (1993), Me Against the World (1995), All Eyez on Me (1996), featuring provocative and powerful social commentaries. One can think of his first major hit, Brenda’s Got a Baby, which, to use Tupac’s own words, “talked about child molestation, it talked about families taking advantages of families, it talked about the effects of poverty, it talked about how one person’s problems can affect a whole community of people. It talked about how the innocent are the ones that get hurt”. I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto depicts present-day racism as the chief factor keeping black communities anchored to poverty: “I wake up in the morning and I ask myself/Is life worth living should I blast myself/I’m tired of being poor and even worse I’m black/My stomach hurts so I’m looking for a purse to snatch/Cops give a damn about a negro/Pull a trigger kill a nigger he’s a hero”; in Trapped , Tupac vehemently denounces police brutality and all the oppressive forces forcing African Americans in a “prison of seclusion”: “Nine millimeter kickin’ thinkin’ about what the streets do to me/Cause they never talk peace in the black community/All we know is violence, do the job in silence/Walk the city streets like a pack of tyrants […] Tired of being trapped in this vicious cycle/If one more cop harasses me I just might go psycho […] They got me trapped/Can barely walk the city streets/Without a cop harassing me, searching me/Then asking my identity/Hands up, throw me against the wall/Didn’t do anything at all/I’m telling you one day these suckers gotta fall/Cuffed up throw me on the concrete/Coppers try to kill me/But they didn’t know this was the wrong street”.
At the same time, the proliferation of political themes in rap, voicing a strong feeling of resentment against the government, was accompanied by frequent denunciations of the lack of media coverage on the isolation and living conditions of ethnic minorities in poor and working-class areas. Rappers, therefore, began developing a new consciousness of their civic role and political engagement: from political agitators, they affirmed themselves as news reporters, aiming at disseminating information and fostering awareness of the ills riddling social groups generally relegated to the margins of mainstream media. In 1988, rapper Chuck D, front man of Public Enemy, famously defined hip hop as “the black CNN”, thus proposing an understanding of hip hop culture as the ‘voice of the voiceless’. Songs like Fight the Power, Don’t Believe the Hype, or Fear of a Black Planet draw attention, on the one hand, on the political and economic isolation of disadvantaged working-class areas and, on the other, on the complete lack of media coverage and attention on the pathologies existing within such communities.
Things, however, radically changed by the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the ‘90s, when hip hop was absorbed and by big business logic, ultimately disenfranchising it as a form of resistance. According to Los Angeles Times, the hip hop industry was worth $600m in 1990 and $700m in 1991 and there are a number of significant reasons for this astounding growth: first of all, the widespread idea that, as a traditionally black form of artistic expression, hip hop could hardly enjoy any popularity outside of black communities was completely dismantled, thanks to the success of white artists, such as the Beastie Boys, Steinski and 3rd Bass during the 1980s, as well as DJ Shadow and House of Pain in the 1990s, coupled with market research revealing that the chief consumers of hip hop music were white. In addition, massive market deregulations had already been allowing, ever since the 1970s, for corporate absorption of small, independent record labels, radio stations and information outlets. These measures were further enhanced by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which diluted ownership limitations for media corporations, thus encouraging the conglomeration of media platforms in the hands of a small number of large companies. Intuitively, this marked the disappearance of small labels, radio and TV stations, systematically absorbed by larger corporate entities: jobs were lost due to massive downsizing initiatives for the purpose of profit maximization, local interests were subjugated by regional – or national – ones, and radio playlists became standardized.
Disentangling hip hop from its political significance and cultural history essentially entailed, for the industry, the opportunity to create and manipulate a product whose competitive edge was linked to its aesthetics alone, irrespectively of its content. The industry’s growing interest in rap music, then, came at a price, namely the de-politicization of the genre and the mere exploitation of its most superficial form, with no consideration whatsoever to the historical contexts in which it originated. In order to be exploited, rap had to be rationalized, adapted to the standards of the industry and the expectations of the public. By the turn of the century, when only five major labels (Vivendi, Sony, AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann and EMI) virtually controlled more than 80% of the entire music industry, hip hop looked like a grotesque parody of what it was born to be: the calls for social equality introduced from the 1970s onwards were progressively replaced by boastful displays of wealth, demands for justice substituted by a reprehensible celebration of gang culture, the condemnation of living conditions in disadvantaged areas exchanged for the glorification of drug use, the attempts to rehabilitate and uphold a historically grounded cultural and political identity turned into self-referential, self-contained self-aggrandizement. This is obviously not to say that poverty and injustice ought to be the sole concerns of hip hop culture. After all, the last decades gave birth to many artists who conceived rap music as non-political and oriented toward entertainment alone: one can think of the Sugarhill Gang in the 1970s, Kurtis Blow or the Fat Boys in the ‘80s, and the 2 Live Crew in the ‘90s. The problem, though, lies in the proposition and perpetuation of stereotypes enforcing the complete subversion of hip hop’s cultural and historical preconditions.
Institutional and corporate opposition to forms of politically conscious hip hop certainly contributed to its marginalization. As Source magazine editor John Shecter aptly put it, “as we’ve seen over the years, it doesn’t take much for the bottom-line bigwigs of big business to flip on hip-hop. It seems inevitable that the raw honesty of many rap records would offend enough of mainstream America to put the product at odds with the company selling it”. Founded in 1985 by Tipper Gore, vice president Al Gore’s wife, and Susan Baker, wife of George H.W. Bush’s campaign manager James Baker, the Parents Music Resource Center forced congressional hearings on record labeling, imposing severe restrictions on the commercialization of rap albums. One will find it rather bizarre – or perhaps not – to notice that the PMRC’s censorship was particularly harsh toward works by African American artists championing vocal political dissent. Tipper Gore went so far as to connect, in a 1990 editorial for the Washington Post, rap music and rape. The republican vice president Daniel Quayle labeled, in 1992, Tupac’s debut album 2Paclypse Now “a disgrace to American music”, arguing that “there is absolutely no reason for a record like this to be published. It has no place in our society”; the 1992 song Cop Killer by Body Count, characterized by a strong denunciation of police brutality with regards to the well-known death of Rodney King, received harsh criticism by Quayle and president Bush. The album Black Bastards by KMD, originally scheduled for release in 1993, was indefinitely postponed as the label Elektra records, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group, opted to shelve it due to its explicitly black nationalist lyrics and controversial artwork, depicting a Sambo figure being lynched. These events ultimately caused KMD to be disbanded.
The election of Barack Obama seemed to represent the chance for politics to reconcile itself with hip hop, at least at a formal level: the president publicly stated, for example, that it is “an honor” to be able to engage in friendship with Jay Z and confessed his admiration for the rapper, since he tells “American stories”. Yet, their friendship can – and ought to – be seen as an allegory of the paradoxical connection between today’s politics and hip hop, as well as the latter’s complete de-contextualization. Forbes, in fact, estimated Jay Z’s net worth in 2015 to be an astounding $550 million, resulting from endorsements with Budweiser, Hewlett-Packard, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Reebok and, in recent times, thanks to the launch of his music streaming service Tidal. In other words, with the political world embracing only a politically neutral and ideologically ‘clean’ music, a significant share of responsibility falls on the musicians themselves: Jay Z, in this sense, can be seen as an active promoter of that corporate logic and economic forces which greatly contributed – and still do – to the historical marginalization of socially engaged hip hop. There is little doubt that, today, numerous voices of dissent can be, nonetheless, found: many rappers, in fact, do challenge, in their lyrics, Obama’s politics, but their work is systematically kept at the very edges of the music industry. Chicago-born artist Lupe Fiasco, one of the most vocal and outspoken names in political hip hop, did attempt to express his sentiments during a performance in January 2013 at The Hamilton in Washington, just one block away from the White House, but was promptly escorted off the stage as he proceeded to perform his track Words I Never Said, in which he vehemently states: “I think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit, just a poor excuse for you to use up all your bullets” and “Gaza Strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit”.
This, in short, appears to be the conflictual and, sometimes, paradoxical relation between politics and hip hop, a genre conceptually grounded in African American oral tradition and racial segregation, oppression and exploitation: contexts certainly changed over the years, but the experience of those dreadful phenomena is intuitively connected to the economic and social isolation of the XX century by the persistence of a non-violent cultural and aesthetic response. Yet, market forces triggered a dramatic loss of hip hop’s historicity, as well as its complete de-contextualization, ultimately fostering the perpetuation of stereotypes profoundly antithetical to the collective imagery the movement emerged in, and the systematic exclusion of political hip hop from mainstream entertainment. With this process of artistic and ideological impoverishment being imposed by corporations and market deregulations from the 1990s onwards, it is legitimate to wonder what hip hop represents today, what its political significance can be deemed to be and, possibly, what the future of rap music looks like.
First of all, politically dissident hip hop never ceased to exist, albeit in obscure and remote regions of the music industry: names like Lupe Fiasco, Dead Prez, Mos Def, KRS One, Lowkey, Kool Keith, Immortal Technique, Public Enemy, Killer Mike, El-P (the last two converging as the incendiary Run the Jewels), Outkast, Aesop Rock, and many others continue challenging their listeners thanks to a solid musical output and passionate social and political commentaries. At the same time, steadily increasing poverty rates, frequent cases of blatant social injustice, police murders and racial discrimination make political rap’s message more relevant than ever.
And then there is Kendrick Lamar. With two superb LPs, Good Kid M.A.A.D. City (2012) and To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) met by universal acclaim, Kendrick is nowadays seen as the most influential rapper of his generation. Perhaps it is from his songs that insights for the creation of a new paradigm informing the re-politicization of hip hop can be drawn. In particular, the song The Blacker the Berry, arguably the most thought-provoking rap song of the current decade, Kendrick refers to himself as a “hypocrite” and then proceeds to detail a long list of stereotypes commonly associated with African American identity. By the end of the song, he refers to the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin and moves on to reveal the nature of the hypocrisy he repeatedly lamented. The song, then, ends with a sensational twist: “Why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/When gang banging made me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!”. In other words, Kendrick seems to question the extent to which his anger and dissent and resentment can be genuine, considering that his taking part in gang culture – the very same one which he ferociously criticized in Good Kid M.A.A.D. City – ultimately made him preserve divisions and enmity within his own social and cultural contexts, much as the traditional XXI century formula of a rapper contributes to the preservation of the imagery which rap aimed at combating in the first place.
On a more abstract level, therefore, The Blacker the Berry could possibly be seen as the manifesto of the re-orientation of the politics of hip hop: with the industry enforcing stereotypes for the sake of sheer profit, or to simply satisfy consumers’ taste, rappers ought to be the harbingers of a new consciousness and question their own responsibility in the perpetuation of present-day clichés of hip hop culture. The economic pressure exerted from above by big business, then, can only be countered by real change coming from below. And change does not exclusively mean challenging the factors harnessing the natural deployment of cultural capital. Rather, it also – and primarily – entails the systematic re-thinking of rappers’ role within – and outside of – the boundaries of the music industry. As producer Terrace Martin, who worked with Lamar on To Pimp a Butterfly stated, music is “the fastest way of getting a message to the movement” and, in this sense, rappers’ recognition of the antinomy between their present-day hypocrisy and their historically political function can conveniently tie in with the social implications of their enormous popularity.
Rappers ought to propose a re-definition of the “American stories” politics seems to sympathize with. Narcissistic tales of wealth and success clearly promote a romanticized and, therefore, erroneous depiction of the living conditions of large segments of society, regardless of ethnical distinctions. This is rendered even more paradoxical if coupled with data revealing that the material conditions of those contexts in which hip hop originated have not changed much over the years. The US Census Bureau, for example, estimated that, in 2010, 28.4% of black and 26.6% Hispanic citizens lived below poverty line. Nor could one observe any significant improvement in the administration of justice. At a time when social injustices are too big to deny or ignore, there is an urgent need for hip hop to revive its dissident language and ideological core, thus encouraging the propagation of a collective consciousness positing culture and tradition, rather than economic considerations, at the very center of artistic production. This is a matter of artistic emancipation and authenticity: as Run the Jewels’ member Killer Mike put it, rap music “is just for that guy that comes home, pours a shot of whiskey, reflects on it all”, and, as such, it should “talk about practical stuff, about regular people, because I think our regular lives are amazing, beautiful things”.
© Alessandro De Arcangelis, 2015