By Duppy Assassin
If you were to ask what the 20th century’s greatest turning point in music was, most would say the emergence of rock and its infamous counterculture. Others could bring up the post-punk 80’s synth era with its drum machines and lush electronic sounds. But it might surprise you to learn that the rise of hip-hop has had the greatest influence on modern-day music. Music informatics researcher Matthias Mauch and his colleagues, have analyzed over 17,000 songs that have topped the Billboard charts over the years, and concluded that hip-hop’s ascent has led to the greatest musical revolution in terms of chords, rhythms and tonal properties. While rap is the most ubiquitous form in hip-hop, we can understand more from the genre’s overall culture: hip-hop culture has led to numerous developments in fashion, art (i.e. graffiti), new ‘languages’ which are too often dismissed as ‘ghetto’ or ‘slang’, and new styles of dance. For the urban underclass, hip-hop is more than music, but encompasses a whole way of life.
Yet for all its ‘clout’, hip-hop culture is still so often maligned, disdained by polite (read: rich, white) society. We find it associated with all things reprobate: drugs, violence, poverty, lack of a future. Psychiatrist Alvin Francis Poussaint, and Cosby (yeah, that one) accuse hip-hop for promoting the “moral breakdown of the family”; conservative social commentator Thomas Sowell specifies that hip-hop is the largest factor holding back African-American youth. Numerous groups endeavor to censor hip-hop, while politicians blame it for “desensitizing teenagers to the effects of guns, drugs, and gangs and inciting violent incidents.” Hip-hop culture is outright tarnished, its elements deemed cancerous to social order.
Hip-hop is a socio-cultural movement that sprung up in New York City, specifically in Bronx and Harlem, by and among young African-Americans. Cultural anthropologist R.H. Codrington traces hip-hop back to three antecedents: the West African griot tradition of wandering storytellers, the black church with its ‘call and response’ style of music, and oral competitions called “playing the dozens” in which people faced off with their verbal skills. Hip-hop’s originators utilized whatever was around them in their daily lives – DJ turntables, paint spray cans, block parties, samplers and so on, in order to express themselves. They railed against the system, a system that spawned hopelessness under heavy oppressive, racist structures and spiteful policing. From the very start, hip-hop, aside from being an artistic outlet and landing pad for daily expression, was political.
However, in its late stage, hip-hop has largely succumbed to the adverse effects of neoliberal capitalism. Its absorption into capitalist systems stems from the distance that “polite society” maintains with the hip-hop world – a world that is generally lower-class/urbanized. This is an underclass that French intellectual Georges Bataille would describe as miserable for it is “excluded from the general community whilst being exploited for financial gain.” All the while, in the words of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, polite society maintains itself as the privileged empty point of universality, perched at an elevated position from which they can gaze down at these ‘miserables’.
When polite society secludes itself from the hip-hop underclass, neoliberalism slyly steps in to fill this distance by packaging and commoditizing hip-hop into an easily consumed form in the global market. In her article “Corporate America Cozies up to Hip-Hop”, Claire Atkinson delves into the marketization of hip-hop as a vessel for merchandising products by business firms. The most revealing facet of her argument is that hip-hop’s appeal is not just limited to a narrow scope of companies: almost every corporation is trying to cash in on the hip-hop image, from automobile manufacturers to fast-food restaurants to telecom companies. Atkinson quotes the advertising agent Larry Summers: “Hip-hop is where rock n’ roll was in the ‘70s. It’s evolved into a safe place… there’s too much bling-bling in it for everyone.” Of course, by safe space, Summers implies a safe space for corporations, rather than the actual creators and practitioners of hip-hop. Polite society, on the other hand, embraces this heavily commodified hip-hop – hip-hop as product – under the guise of multiculturalism.
There are two main drives behind corporations’ engulfing marketization of hip-hop culture. Firstly, they have identified a desire in polite society to embody the other without actually becoming the other. At the heart of hip-hop is a jouissance that seems inaccessible to those outside of the culture. Hip-hop celebrates the notion of being different from the mainstream ,whether it is through one’s attire or language or even their gait. Moreover, hip-hop exalts the very libidinal pursuits that are suppressed in polite society: fulfilling one’s innermost sexual passions, seizing power, taking control of the ‘block’, defying authority. Corporations appropriate this jouissance and peddle it to those outside of hip-hop culture who wish to get in whilst still staying out. On this, Zizek quips that in “…today’s market, we find a series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol.” A person who wants to project the image of a gangster without the actual lived experience could buy and dress up in hip-hop attire in order to ‘feel’ like one. Those who do not even know what pimping in the streets is could listen to heavily sexual hip-hop songs and live out their crude erotic fantasies without literally acting them out. A teen who has never gone against the law could use hip-hop slang and rap along to the top hits just to derive the feeling of being rebellious amid their suburban comforts. The appropriation goes on and on.
Corporations also capitalize on a trend which French philosopher Rancière describes as a shift from the politics of passion to the politics of compassion, where all that polite society could offer to the hip-hop underclass [is] mere pity without actually addressing their deep-seated issues. In the music industry, the sob stories of hip-hop artists with rough upbringings are ever-emphasized so as to appeal to those who misguidedly think that buying their albums equates to ‘saving’ them from the ghetto life. In the art world, as scholar Lynn Powers notes with regards to graffiti, “in most cases the work’s popularity was based more on the novelty of being produced by poor minority criminals than on any intrinsic artistic value.” Even in today’s heavily charged political environment, with rampant (recorded) police killings and wanton mass-incarceration of the black, marginalized underclass, protest slogans from the hip-hop community are soon commodified into fashion statements for polite society to drape themselves in as a means of showing ‘support’, all whilst maintaining their privilege.
As time goes on, the corporate world’s infatuation with hip-hop culture is being taken to the most absurd, extreme degree. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze notes that in this age of neoliberalism, differentiation has taken the place of actual production. There are now ‘hip-hop dance clubs’, ‘hip-hop video games’ ‘hip-hop movies’. By the same token, essayist Thompson Ahmir quips that, courtesy of corporates, we now also have ‘hip-hop food’, ‘hip-hop politics’, ‘hip-hop intellectual’ and even ‘hip-hop architecture’. Of course, corporations will do whatever it takes to reap more profits, even if it means marketing things that have nothing to do with hip-hop as authentic ‘hip-hop’.
The commodification of hip-hop thereupon leads to a watering down of its content. As corporations try to capture as much of the market as possible, they ‘tone down’ hip-hop’s radical aspects to make it as palatable for consumers as possible. As earlier stated, hip-hop emerged as the voice of the voiceless within inner-city ghettos; it was an assertion of their abject agency. However, according to the writer Blanchard Becky, “the commodification of rap has allowed large paychecks and platinum records to erase the historical, social and economic contexts out of which rap has emerged, from public consciousness.” Consequently, the hip-hop underclass is left without a tool to speak out against their oppression. Isn’t this what polite society wants after all, a pretense that everything is fine, since the ‘end’ of politics has set in?
Furthermore, the commodification of hip-hop magnifies the simultaneous dehumanization and fetishization of the ‘other’, the hip-hop underclass, by polite society. Though these processes seem disparate, their outcome is of the same vein. The dehumanization of the hip-hop underclass arises from the dynamics of social abjection, for as Bataille emphasizes, “…it is fitting that the insolent rich evoke the bestiality of the miserables: they have taken away from these the possibility of being human.”
Fetishization, on the other hand, arises from polite society’s desire to imitate the other. This is highlighted above: we have seen how corporations capitalize on and peddle the ‘real’ within the other.
But how does this depreciation of the other manifest itself to taint the hip-hop underclass? Blanchard points out that “… rappers have been pressured to take on the limited roles that have proven profitable… that of the ‘pimp’, the ‘gangsta’, and the ‘playa.’” The artiste Michael Franti adds that “Through commercialization of today’s music, there is a lot of pressure for young black men to conform to very specific roles.” The market has a very narrow misconstrued picture of what, to use Zizek’s terms, the ‘typical’, or the ‘folklorist other’ in the hip-hop underclass constitutes. When polite society desires to become the ‘other’ by purchasing commodified hip-hop, they do not really yearn for the ‘real’ other, but rather desire to imitate the ‘typical’, the ‘folklorist other.’ This then indicates to the hip-hop underclass that they must suppress the ‘real’ in them in order to embody the ‘typical’, for this is what polite society is willing to spend money on. However, the ‘typical’ as construed by polite society is damaging to the underclass. This typical image of hip-hop as gangster, materialistic, decadent, lawless, hyper-sexualized, and drug-fuelled is ultimately absorbed back into the underclass, piling onto the socio-economic problems they already bear.
The corporatization of hip-hop has resulted in the dilution of its politics, and the fetishization and dehumanization of the ‘other.’ This deviation is encapsulated comprehensively in the journalist Christopher Farley’s perspective, which Blanchard quotes in her article:
Corporate America’s infatuation with rap has increased as the genre’s political content has withered. Ice Cube’s early songs attacked white racism; Ice-T sang a song about a cop killer; Public Enemy challenges listeners to ‘fight the power’. But many newer acts are focused almost entirely on pathologies within the black community. They rap about shooting other blacks, but almost never about challenging governmental authority or encouraging social activism.
Yes, there has been a shift in hip-hop. However, commodification alone by the corporate world does not fully account for this shift; it is an external factor after all. There are internal factors too, behind the shift of hip-hop from its socio-political aims, which most if not all critics and writers such as Blanchard and Farley fail to see. All these concealed internal factors can be summarized by one word: hate, in the Baudrillard-ian sense of the word. When Farley talks about how ‘many newer acts are focused on pathologies within the black community’, it is hate at play even though Farley does not recognize it as that. As Jean Baudrillard states, this hate is “a logo, a kind of label, one that, like graffiti displays a modality of living: ‘I exist,’ ‘I live here.’’” This hate is also an expression of alterity, for as the hip-hop underclass is secluded from polite society, it embraces this exclusion: “I won’t join the consensus. It’s not negotiable. It’s not reconcilable.” The source of this hate lies in what Deleuze observes as a change from disciplinary societies to societies of control. Thus, when Farley laments that hip-hop nowadays does not take on the big Other due to commodification, he and many other critics fail to see that in societies of control, the big Other is no longer centralized: the big Other has effectively rendered itself invisible, dissolving into the consensus of the majority. Thereupon, hip-hop no longer has a conspicuous control tower to which it can direct its protest towards. Without an object to channel its passions towards, the hate becomes self-hatred, self-destruction. This self-hatred and self-destruction then materializes itself as the perpetual violence and decadence in hip-hop culture. It is a hatred that only further aggrandizes a people whose only means of asserting the self is that very same hate.
The most vital discussion that hip-hop needs right now is of its future. And this future definitely entails a return to its past- to its role as the force of the urban underclass marching against societal oppression. However, mapping out hip-hop’s forward trajectory entails resolving both the effects of commodification and hate. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Talib Kweli and Dead Prez are pushing hip-hop in this direction. We can only hope that more notice, and join in.
Photograph by Juliana Kasumu
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