The great art style of any period is that which relates itself to the true insights of its time. But an age may repudiate its real insights, retreat to the insights of the past — which, though not its own, seem safer to act upon — and accept only art that corresponds to this repudiation; in which case the age will go without great art, to which truth of feeling is essential. In a time of disasters the less radical artists, like the less radical politicians, will perform better since, being familiar with the expected consequences of what they do, they need less nerve to keep their course. But the more radical artists, like the more radical politicians, become demoralized because they need so much more nerve than the conservatives in order to keep to a course that, guided by the real insights of the age, leads into unknown territory. Yet if the radical artist’s loss of nerve becomes permanent, then art declines as a whole, for the conservative artist rides only on momentum and eventually loses touch with the insights of his time — by which all genuine artists are nourished. Or else society may refuse to have any new insights, refuse to make new responses — but in that case it would be better not to talk about art at all.
—Clement Greenberg (“The Decline of Cubism,” 1948)
To begin a treatise on rap’s retreat into republicanism with a quote on Cubism from the ‘40s seems absurd, but it’s these absurd corollaries that allow us to see through the glare of everyday assumptions. If we take Greenberg’s argument, strip it away from Cubism, can’t we apply the forecast to rap in general? That is to say, is there a widespread retreat to past insights in rap music today? Is rap careening towards the conservative right? Have the artists in rap suffered a “loss of nerve”? Are those at the forefront guided by real insight, and exploring “unknown territory”? Surely we’re living in a time of disaster. And if that’s the case, shouldn’t we look closer at what is deemed “radical” and “new”?
From a broad socio-economic perspective, we can look back at the history of rap and see that, for decades, it’s been on the career path of conservative co-opting and commercial interests where it finds shelter today. There has been no shortage of histories published about hip-hop, and it seems appropriate that a book currently enjoying success, The Big Payback, deals primarily with the business of hip-hop. As is outlined in the book, rap music underwent a subtle shift, from being rooted in the culture that produced it to being estranged from its culture by the huge business interest that was able to take rap, as E-40 says, from the ghetto streets to the executive suites.
Looking at rap’s mode of production from a Marxist perspective, hasn’t the economic machine propelling music conditioned the consciousness of the music?
The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.
—Karl Marx (Critique of Political Economy, 1859)
I don’t like to dream about getting paid…
—Rakim (Paid in Full, 1987)
[As a quick, clarifying aside, and in defense of the lost cause that is the argument I’m making, let me first articulate what this article is not: I understand that while looking at rap through a Marxist lens I run the risk of coming off as a collegiate dickwad, or worse, the writing can read clinical and disconnected. I’m not interested in making a value judgment on rap, or setting some moral compass. In fact, this article has nothing to do with subjective interpretations of rap; what’s “good” or “bad” about the music. The focus of this writing is a critical examination of the series of subtle shifts that sustain the ideological underpinnings of how we understand and relate to rap. The point of this article is not to solve the problems of hip-hop’s materialism, violence and misogyny, but to redefine those problems.]
At inception in the late ‘70s, hip-hop abided many stripes (gang members, disco freaks, momma’s boys, fatsos, black nationalists, Blondie, etc.) and the music reflected the culture from whence it came, with non-sequiturs and ugly truths bundled in a compelling new form of self-expression. From the earliest rap recordings one can hear the seedlings of today’s violence, homophobia and materialism, but what’s most noticeable in hip-hop’s forefathers is their innocence. That is to say, the violence then was more reactionary — violence as a direct result of oppression — where today’s violence is formulaic, or worse, manufactured. The oppression still exists, but it’s been mixed with commercial incentive, a reward sustaining the conditions of oppression.
Through the Wild Style-era, rapping functioned mainly as a party-starting device (“lemme hear you say hooooo!”) or was simply a toast to the deejay running the sound (“Grandmaster! Cut Faster!”). After the popularity of “The Message,” a style of ghetto reportage became standard. Certainly, the unspeakable conditions of inner city life were familiar in every corner of the world by the late ‘80s. The exposure of oppression became a profitable expression, and this shocking “revelation” (America’s ghettos were one of its worst kept secrets, after all) is where we find the first subtle shift in the culture of hip-hop.
Much of what was rapped about then, as now, was from the standpoint of the marginalized, and as such, could be hard to swallow. And it should be, hearing the uncensored voice of the oppressed is shocking and uncomfortable. However, the shock of the it’s like a jungle sometimes-type raps acted as a spectacular report of ghetto conditions (similar to that of an embedded reporter), and it was this exploitable byproduct that piqued the interest of the business world. Surely, by the late ‘80s, gangsta rap not only made hip-hop commercially viable, but truly a spectacle. And isn’t it here, amidst this vulnerability, that we see a marginalized culture pushed further into the margin by becoming a commodity?
While there are certainly rappers that deal drugs, gangbang, or are involved in nefarious activity, it’s precisely the commercial reward of that activity which shifts our understanding of that lifestyle from a symptom of life in the ghetto to a successful mode of business. Melle Mel rapped about ghetto life with a genuine emancipatory intent (“Don’t push me ‘cuz I’m close to the edge”), and that intent to see change has been transformed into a mode of production, a financial recipe that relies on such conditions to continue. This is clear when we look at the figures that ignited the ambition of rappers in the beginning, and how they’ve shifted as rap’s mode of production changed. In its commercial infancy, rap invoked black radical leaders (“Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp!”), while today rap looks to captains of industry, crime bosses and self-serving capitalists (“You lookin’ at the black Warren Buffett”).
Capital exists as capital only in so far as it passes through the phases of circulation, in order to be able to begin the production process anew, and these phases are themselves phases of its realization — but at the same time, of its devaluation. Circulation can create value only in so far as it requires fresh employment —of alien labour — in addition to that directly consumed in the production process.
—Karl Marx (The Grundrisse, 1858)
‘Cause violence is contagious, it got me bustin’ gauges
The ’95 Larry Davis and I’m wettin’ niggas for wages
—B1 (“Take ‘Em To War”)
Rap has made millionaires of many, but as the pages of The Big Payback have informed us, the commodification of rap has conditioned the culture of rap. We don’t need Marx to see that the result of selling the world ghetto raps was not an improvement in conditions for those living in the ghetto, but instead, a means of production was developed to sell the condition of the ghetto by simultaneously sustaining those conditions.
Rapping offered those of us outside ingress to slum life, and, instead of change, our interest brought mass-market media and Hollywood (Colors, Boyz N The Hood, New Jack City, Juice, South Central, Menace II Society, Strapped, Dead Presidents). At least for hip-hop’s first decade, this exposé surely had a shocking effect, but three decades later, shouldn’t we consider the culture of rap a commercial for a contributing cause of oppression? As rap culture became a valuable commodity, the characterization of the rap persona became overdeveloped: mansions, being fully iced out, Pablo Escobar-sized tales of drug trafficking, etc. An illusory lifestyle was manufactured, with implications that all rappers of note were millionaires. Certainly, a few rappers became rich, but of course, most weren’t. Stories surfaced of rappers we thought were millionaires going broke or declaring bankruptcy. Tupac’s mother, for instance, sued Death Row Records because, although his last albums earned hundreds of millions of dollars, he had a mere hundred thousand in the bank when he died and no substantial assets. The façade of rap show business is glitzy, and if we watch the behind the scenes documentaries, we see the yachts, mansions and cars in the videos are leased, the video vixens are paid models, and, all told, the bill for services rendered is subtracted from the artist’s royalties. We learn time and again, as Marx warned, that commercial circulation requires labor otherwise it suffers devaluation. The commercial character of rap, then, requires rappers to personify gangsters and millionaires whether they are or not, otherwise no one makes money, and the field goes fallow.
In Capital, Marx talks of the “process that goes on behind the backs of the producers, and, consequently, appear to be fixed by custom.” Isn’t the shift from rapper-as-reporter to rapper-as-retailer an equivalent process that went on “behind the backs” of rap and its community? An authentic criticism against alienation turned into a simulated reenactment. Also worth exploring is rap’s treatment of authenticity and alienation throughout its history.
There was great contestation between authenticity and alienation through the ‘90s. Authenticity acted as a sovereign province, OGs, “hood niggas,” keepin’ it real, etc. The credo: “the game is sold, not told.” Authenticity was access, and being from the projects, serving time in prison, getting shot or dealing drugs lent credence to one’s authenticity. In contrast, alienation was a consequence of one’s inauthenticity, and was leveled as a judgment against anyone who wasn’t hood. Looking at authenticity and alienation through this lens — a balance of demonstration and defense of hood status — explains the beefs and crew conflicts that made ‘90s rap so volatile. This demarcation, “original gansta” v. “studio gangsta,” was fiercely defended; authenticity brought fame and record sales (“Recognize nigga, I’m straight from the street”), while alienation left carpetbaggers defenseless (“You all alone in these streets, cousin”). Paradoxically, as Marx knew, both positions become part of the production process and they are consumed (inauthentic gangsters become real gangster or get killed, and real gangsters who were elevated out of criminal life return to their past life in defense of their new life). Both sides become laborers in service to capital circulation and the process itself, behind our backs, appears “fixed by custom.” Capital wins.
On the basis of political economy itself, in its own words, we have shown that the worker sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities; that the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production; that the necessary result of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands, and thus the restoration of monopoly in a more terrible form; and that finally the distinction between capitalist and land owner, like that between the tiller of the soil and the factory worker, disappears and that the whole of society must fall apart into the two classes – property owners and propertyless workers.
—Karl Marx (Estranged Labor, 1844)
First they your rings
Now they my rings
—Ice Cube (“Amerikkka’s Most Wanted”, 1990)
By 2000, rap was sick with a host of Marxist socio-economic contradictions, and the balance between authenticity and alienation grew irrelevant as the character of rap became symbolic, fetishized, with everyone acting as though the character is real. The authenticity becomes secondary, and, in another subtle shift, being a mogul becomes the benchmark, the thing that keeps rappers from seeming like another wretched commodity. As shootings and arrests became damn near pedestrian, street fame was eclipsed by a graduated sense of crime boss-cum-tycoon (“Everyday I’m hustlin’”). While proving what you’ve done once reigned supreme, showing what you’ve got became the way to be crowned king. And wasn’t it here, amidst this age-old conservative money-grab, that the scope of interest narrowed? Think of all the different styles of rap that competed up through the ‘90s (conscious, D.A.I.S.Y/hippie, gangsta, revolutionary/afrocentric, “jazzy,” underground, trip-hop, boom bap, random rap, glitch hop, etc.). The most rewarded form was gangsta rap, and consequently, the function of rap served as a surrogate for the American dream: get rich or die tryin’. And rap’s inarguable function today, is “all about the cheddar.” Is it not clear that, exploring unknown territories (however thankful most of us are to be done with jazzmatazz!), and the nerve to pursue genuine insight, have all become secondary to the business of making money?
I dumb down for my audience
And double my dollars
— Jay-Z (“Moment of Clarity”)
Everybody want to know why the album was late
I was waiting for whitey to get my fucking paper straight
— UGK (“Don’t Say Shit”)
See, I love to freestyle, but if I can’t get paid
At the end of the day I’m like, “¿No comprende?”
Cause if keepin’ it real is being broke
Fuck this rap shit, I’m going back to full time slangin’ dope
— WC (“Rich Rollin’”)
I move rhymes like retail, make sure shit sell
—Raekwon (“Incarcerated Scarfaces”)
Conservatives practice a bootstrapping, trickle down, self-interest philosophy that works against marginalized, underrepresented communities (gays, ethnics, atheists, environmentalists, free-thinkers, the poor and hungry, etc.). In much the same way, rap, once it’s commodified, goes for delf. This laissez-faire policy aligns rap with the right wing: anti-gay, anti-woman, pro-money, pro-business, etc. With rappers as moguls, their business ventures (fragrance, clothing line, real estate, sports franchises, Vitamin Water, etc.) overshadow their music, which, in turn, overshadows their connection to their community, and they find themselves in alliance with the class who were once their oppressors. Kayne West apologized to George Bush, for fuck’s sake. The “cash rules everything around me” policy allows the two of them to find camaraderie while despising one another.
And is the lack of posse in today’s rap a coincidence? The subtle shift is clear when we compare going for dolo to the history of democracy’s relationship with barriers.
In the past, totalitarian powers were the ones who enclosed themselves behind walls, actual or symbolic (the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain) in an effort to shield themselves from the influence of democracy. Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin ruled with propaganda, military might and, in the worst cases, gulags and concentration camps. In any era, artists were among the vanguard that risked their lives to undermine established power: Otto Dix, Víctor Jara, Jacques Vaché, Simone Weil, Bertolt Brecht, Fela Kuti, Malachi Ritscher, etc.
Today, it is democracies that are building protective walls to preserve their “freedom” from the hordes of immigrants, fundamentalists and the penniless. Whether the barrier is actual or not (the wall at the US/Mexico border, secured airports and seaports, corporations with more rights than people, laws that restrict entry of people from specific countries, etc.), democracy is being walled off. If oppression was only possible behind the Iron Curtain, freedom is only possible today behind the wall of democracy, away from the tired, poor, huddled masses. From the light of the liberty lamp we see clearly that not everyone is welcome. Can’t we be sure that, whatever is practiced behind walls must function as an oppressive force?
Getting past the wall, that is, conquering pennilessness and becoming part of democracy today, one goes through a process of expropriation. In order to achieve within the competition to accumulate capital, a citizen is dispossessed of his natural citizenship, his sense of belonging, and is sublated into “security.” He graduates, mints up, and is effectively removed from his former surroundings (“From rags to riches nigga, I ain’t dumb…”).
There’s an oft-levied judgment against the materialism inherent in rap, that the ostentatious opulence is in bad taste and somehow a mark of the uncivilized. On the other side, the defenders of the flamboyant quip, “Can a nigga eat?” or, “Get that paper!” What both sides miss are the roots of this materialism, specifically that they don’t exist within “civilized” economy. From the beginning, blacks have been excluded from the economic process in America. First, through slavery, blacks weren’t even treated as human, much less rewarded economically. Later, through institutional means, blacks were excluded from privileges that were commonplace to the rest of us. When we think of the iconic image of a rapper, draped in gold, surrounded by symbols of his wealth (clothes, girls, cars, mansions, etc.), we should see this as a wall, similar to the one democracy builds up around itself to preserve “freedom.”
I’m sportin’ rings and things
That’s what money brings
—Ultimate Force (“I’m Not Playing”, 1988)
I’m wicked for digits, forgive me God for the truth
But I fiends for cheddar like a smoker with a sweet tooth
—WC (“Cheddar”, 1998)
Rap is of the cash and carry school of economy. Like the pimps and hustlers that influenced the music, the lifestyle was not one of banking, investing, stocks and property because blacks have historically been denied those activities, so it seems only logical to find blacks dubious of such prohibitive institutions. Rather than behaving “civilized” then, we see black entrepreneurs wearing their rewards, literally, around their neck. And doesn’t this façade of riches act, on one hand as a placard of wealth, but on the other, as a barrier against inclusion into “civilized” society? Doesn’t the cash and carry behavior function as a setting apart of one lifestyle from another? Even the simplest example — such as pulling a wad of bills out of one’s pocket instead of producing a credit card — serves as inference that one is not “civilized.” To witness someone producing a huge roll of money inspires suspicion, thoughts of criminal activity and the idea of “dirty” money, while payment on credit ennobles the payer with uprightness and trust. Therefore, the unjust double standard continues, as rappers are seen simultaneously as rich and untrustworthy. They are dignified by their worth, but demeaned by how they “choose” to exercise it.
Today, rappers occupy a place in civilized business, as owners of sports franchises, property developers, shareholders, spokespersons for corporations, and other such noble business figureheads. In an ironic twist, however, as rappers have been sublated into the corporate machine they’ve been doubly distanced from their achievements. First, the issue of “civilized” money having not been addressed, a rapper’s richness is seen as “dirty” or ignoble. While they are rich on paper, it’s largely, whether conscious or not, seen as a “separate but equal” type of rich, somewhere south of “clean” rich. The Forbes 400 Summit with Jay-Z and Warren Buffett is a perfect example of such a tendency. Of course the summit was on Buffett’s turf, and in the language Buffett is accustomed to, and throughout their discussion we witness Jay having to cater his response to the dominant paradigm. Besides reminding us that the extremely wealthy are unavoidably blind to the lives of the majority, we see how little of Jay’s street fame plays in his tycoon status (where’s the swagger?). The secondary way in which rappers are distanced from their achievements is, in the process of accumulating wealth the rapper is removed from the culture whence he came and, unavoidably, becomes a robber baron. A plutocracy must exercise control over the masses in order to remain in power, and so we see rappers siding with business interest over the interest of their culture.
People’s feelings get hurt
When they figure out what I’m worth
—Paul Wall (“Still Tippin’”, 2005)
Chrome looking more classy than the Transco Tower
Car drippin’ candy paint like it just came out the shower
Like ‘Face I got the money, the power and the finesse
To roll around one deep with hundred-thousand round my neck
I’m looking real shiny, you can see me from a mile away
Thought you was doing it until I came and took your smile away
—Bun B (“Draped Up”, 2005)
In reality, a small percentage of rappers are as wealthy as they claim. And isn’t it in this way that the idolatry of rap tycoons shares the same function as the American dream? It also explains why it’s no surprise that tax cuts for the richest Americans don’t cause instantaneous riots among the ninety-nine percent who don’t meet the requirement for the cuts. Isn’t the lure of the American dream the illusion that it’s available to anyone? The lower class can’t disavow tax cuts for the rich without disavowing their belief that they too, someday, may have the chance to be a millionaire and enjoy such a tax cut. This ideological indoctrination drives the democratic illusion. And doesn’t this indoctrination leave a perceptual blind spot in our enjoyment of rap music? That every rapper boasts of stacking paper and being a trillionaire, and such claims are deflated in reality, doesn’t disavow us of our participation in the idea of rap’s plutocracy. Even if we know the yachts, Bentleys and mansions are leased, the girls are paid models, and the rapper is living large on credit from a transnational entertainment corporation, we still can’t renounce ourselves of the truth that it’s literally one percent of all rappers who found the “scheme to get the seven-figure cream.”
This ain’t a figment of my imagination
This is where I live
I’m the opposite of moderate
Can’t a parallel be drawn between the newly sublated bourgeois and the portrayal of the rap character? In the case of the bourgeois, coming from rags to riches, the cultural fear of foreigners competes with his own newfound feeling of being a foreigner. The mixture of jealousy and fear he feels towards the foreigners “surrounding” him contains resentment for what he has lost. He can’t help envying the ethnic neighborhoods where, in spite of the enormous problems, there exists a bit of communal spirit, a sense of solidarity, a life outside control of the state, and an informal economy. This is clearly demonstrated in how the bourgeoisie are fascinated with the “authentic” cuisine, “artisanal” goods, and “rustic” lifestyle of peoples of the lower class. They routinely pay extra for an “authentic” experience, such as eating locally grown food; a “style” of eating 900 million people in the world are starving to experience.
The same equal parts fetishism and denial exist in our understanding of rap. A music that clawed its way out of the oppressed underbelly of culture, finding success only in reenacting the conditions of oppression. Or, as Greenberg said, retreating to past insights. Rap has become a blue chip investment for levelheaded fetishists. Capitalists (a class that now includes rappers) bank on profits from rappers who enact their own oppression. And shouldn’t we be dubious of why the style of rap that’s most detrimental to blacks remains the most valuable? There is an uneasy precedent for the oppressive class enjoying the suicidal pastimes of the oppressed.
The disqualification of black resistance is not unrelated to the peculiar and long-standing cross-racial phenomenon in which the white bourgeois and proletarian revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic can allegorize themselves as revolts against slavery, while the hemispheric black struggle against actually existing slavery and its afterlife cannot authorize itself literally in those same terms… The metaphoric transfer that dismisses the legitimacy of black struggles against racial slavery while it appropriates black suffering as the template for nonblack grievances remains one of the defining features of contemporary political culture. That notable black academics, artists, and activists participate in this gesture is nothing new, of course, but their increasing degrees of self-consciousness and virulence in so doing signal the hegemony it presently enjoys.
—Jared Sexton (People-of-Color-Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery, 2010)
This ain’t something new…
This is something old
—Ol’ Dirty Bastard (“Raw Hide,” 1995)
Can’t we add to Sexton’s idea (the hegemonic disqualification of black resistance) the role of the rapper in the ideological indoctrination into capitalism? The way for a rapper to make money is to “play the role” of gangster. Whether he’s even done any dirt is immaterial; regardless, the role to play is not some nickel-and-dime hustler, but a Pablo Escobar-level kingpin (“I know Pablo, Noriega, the real Noriega/ He owe me a hundred favors”). And this simulated reenactment makes sure that all successful rappers are seen as murderers, drug dealers, and misogynists. Put another way, rappers are elevated out of oppression by becoming pawns of oppression, by becoming part of oppression. The built-in repudiation is that, when pressed, the rapper will say of course he’s not a killer or crime boss, it’s just a character he plays, he’s speaking for the people he came up with. In the same way, us fans of rap engage in the music (murder, drugs, bitches, etc.) with a similar built-in repudiation (“I don’t believe it, I just like listening to it.”). Rappers inundate their work with hating faggots, beating bitches and killing niggas while not genuinely believing what they say, and we listen with an equal distanciation. Is this not how ideology functions, as blind adherence to a practice, against one’s own principles? This is where fascistic tendencies take root.
As an example: An average worker doesn’t believe in the political process or the business propaganda (“work hard and everything will be fine,” “your loyalty will be rewarded,” “the system is fair,” “the government is looking out for you,” etc.), but he follows the rules, pays taxes, and participates in a system he doesn’t truly trust or believe in. Thus, illusion of a democracy is democracy. A similar process is at work in rap: The listener, through fetishistic disavowal, doesn’t actually believe the rap, but engages anyway. And the rapper, enacting a persona in pursuit of profit, gives the people “what they want” knowing that’s what sells. On the surface it’s strictly business, normal and harmless, but through this cycle of resigned anti-participation, rap is ideologically underpinned with values that don’t genuinely belong to anyone involved. Thus, the illusion of rap is rap. A self-engendering cycle…
It’s clear then, that the solutions to problems that plague hip-hop do not reside in hip-hop as such. It’s here where we should remind ourselves of Derrida’s gesture of deconstruction. All too often when we discuss the inherent violence and materialism in rap, the issue is diverted, either by accusations of racism or the notion that those who are critical are disconnected or somehow “don’t get it.” It’s an uncomfortable, offensive conversation to have, and most people steer clear. I contend that it’s a conversation worth having precisely because of the offensive and uncomfortable deadlock it creates. By deconstructing such an argument we can reveal the artificiality that, through conceding such a premise, naturalizes the condition. “The gesture of deconstruction is to not naturalize what isn’t natural, to not assume that what is conditioned by history, institutions, or society is natural.” The “answer” then, to the problems of hip-hop is always-already at work within hip-hop. The answer is in redefining the question.
I’m hip to all the tricks of the trade
Killin’ and stealin’ and gankin’ niggas to get paid
—Scarface (“Trigga Happy Nigga”)
So I gotta get paid, fully
Whether it’s truthfully or untruthfully…
—Ol Dirty Bastard (“Raw Hide”)
People of color have long been the pawns of imperialism. And what drives imperialism more than the incessant accumulation of capital and concentrated ownership? Is it not the case that rap has adopted the intention of its master — even while it voices its distrust of the businessmen holding the purse strings? It’s a case of the colony transformed by the colonizer. Consider how the Reagan administration intentionally infested black communities with crack cocaine; how scientist in Tuskegee, Alabama infected poor black sharecroppers with syphilis to test the results of the disease over time; how black leaders were systematically assassinated and defamed throughout the civil rights era. Of all we’ve learned about the crimes the government perpetrated on people of color (and, assuming there are many more undisclosed truths), should we not be just as dubious of the implicit market forces that control blacks today as we were of the explicit institutional forces that controlled blacks of yesterday? Through these struggles (crack, disease, assassinations) blacks today are seemingly free from tyranny and free to speak openly. The paradox is, the symptoms of the fight for independence are largely what shape the language of the independents, which is to say, crack, murder and acts of oppression dominate the subject matter of rap. In this way rap resembles many post-colonial states — the colony’s independence signifies not a return to pre-colonial conditions, but the adoption of that very form of destruction brought by the colonizers.
It’s the ghetto life, yea I celebrate it, I live it
And all I got is what you left me with
—Nas (“I Want To Talk To You”)
I’m here to deprogram you
Don’t forget what they made your great grandmamma do
What they made your great granddaddy do
Without a dollar or a penny or a thank you
The same motherfuckers wanna gank you
Cause they hate you and the pussy that you came through
Can anybody tell me that it ain’t true?
—Ice Cube (“Pressure”)
From this perspective, isn’t the way in which rappers are “rewarded” similar to the systematic destruction of Native Americans in the US? After overt genocide became “unfeasible,” a series of laws and treaties isolated tribes to near extinction. Adding insult to injury and further exploiting the sovereignty of tribal land, outside interests began building casinos on reservations. Today, mobsters, lobbyists and various multinational corporations make millions from the casinos and leave the tribes to deal with the side effects of exploitation. For anyone who spends time at these casinos, the opulence of the gaming areas, hotels and restaurants is made that much more apparent by the surrounding slums of Native Americans struggling with their “sovereign” poverty, addiction and displaced territory. Though they “benefit” from the unique business opportunity of the casinos, the reservations suffer among the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, welfare dependency, school dropout and alcoholism of any community in the US. Rather than honor their treaties, we gave them casinos. In the same way, don’t we pruriently reward the self-destructive endeavor of rappers with money and fame? Rappers are made rich and famous as a resistance to being taken seriously.
It’s jiggaboo time
If you grew up with holes in your zapatos
You’d celebrate the minute you was having dough
—Jay-Z (“99 Problems”)
I’m reminded here of Surrealist André Breton’s 1943 introduction to Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, Aimé Césaire’s book-length poem exploring the troubling results colonization had on Martinique. Breton, questioning the “reason” and “common sense” of colonizing a people, said, “If the slave traders have physically disappeared from the face of the earth, we can still be assured that they continue to ravage our minds where their ‘pieces of ebony’ are our dreams, more than half our nature plundered.”
Because we hate you
and your reason, we claim kinship
with dementia praecox with the flaming madness
soft persistent cannibalism
—Aimé Césaire (“Notebook of a Return to the Native Land”)
Capitalism is like a spider, the web is getting tighter
I’m struggling like a fighter, just to bust loose
It’s like a noose asphyxiation sets in
Just when I think I’m free it seems to me the spider steps in
This web is made of money, made of greed, made of me
Of what I have become in a parasite economy
—The Coup (“Not Yet Free”, 1993)
Considering how the colony adopts the culture of the colonialist, hasn’t the genuine intent of hip-hop been diverted? What’s more, in light of how quickly hip-hop culture was commodified by the entertainment industry isn’t this diversion two-fold? However incongruously, hip-hop found it’s footing as a marginalized youth movement (suffering racism, injustice, poverty, drugs, etc.) that was quickly transformed into a commodity, therefore its voice developed amidst a schizophrenic disassociation from itself. By evolving out of oppression, and constantly trading one object of desire for another (creating a new form of music, getting out of the ghetto, new copyright laws created to criminalize sample-based music, the prospect of social equality, fame and riches, etc.), the “state of hip-hop”, in many ways, has been in a constant state of trauma. Thus, haven’t we been living with a post-traumatic hip-hop since its birth? Nas declared Hip-Hop is Dead, but in actuality, hip-hop is undead: a living being disembodied from life.
I’m a walkin’ memorial
You can’t kill me, I was born dead
—Big L (“Put It On”)
Isn’t it exactly this schizophrenic state of dissociation that keeps rap locked in repetitious role-play? By trading one desire for another, or by constantly re-defining itself within the circulation of commodity, hip-hop is continually postponing its arrival at what it is. This is what Lacan referred to as objet petit a — the unattainable object of desire. When we confront the object of our desire, more satisfaction is gained by dancing around it than by directly engaging it. That is, desire is most satisfied by unsatisfied desire. The paradox of this kind of desire is that it is both impossible and unavoidable: it is never fully achieved, but simultaneously, never eliminated. Every obstacle to desire generates a desire for an obstacle.
How does this two-fold diversion effect rap? First, there is a conditional causality that enforces (by reward of success) the character role-play of rappers as drug dealers, killers and pimps. Second, a seductive commodfication facilitates the selling of this “character” of black culture. The effect of this double diversion leaves genuine expression lost. As a result, hip-hop, one of the most popular forms of expression in the world today, is, as Greenberg said, without innovative insight, without any investigation of unknown territories.
We be talking about the real
Motherfuckas know, that we know,
That they know, that we know the deal.
Now the originality of our principality
Is that we don’t play the pimp
But the reality of our locality (and you’ll learn this gradually)
Is that motherfuckers do this shit to pay their rent
But here’s a hint: how we gonna get it straight when we bent?
—Boots Riley (“Streets of Oakland”)
How could he know what the fuck he never knew
—Method Man (“Raw Hide”)
I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.
—Jay Z (“Diamonds from Sierra Leone”)
So now you back in the trap… just that, trapped
Go on and marinate on that for a minute
Rap exists in the uncomfortable locality of racism, shame, privilege and indifference. Those who interact with rap (a group that includes most people) should pursue a Derridean deconstruction of what “appears fixed by custom” and is falsely naturalized by the conditions of history and institution. The uncomfortable, “naturalized” truth for white people is, simply by being white, we experience privilege in society, and this privilege is often assumed as a “neutral” state. Of course whites hold sway over everyone else. It was done by force and intimidation for centuries, and now it’s done by momentum of history, by institution and societal norms. To deny this is to ignore the obvious. With power and privilege comes the responsibility not to be callous and demeaning to everyone else, particularly not the single class (black Americans) who have been the target of abuse and discrimination for our entire existence as a nation.
Rap is caught within the coordinates of inequality, naturalized privilege, and historic reinforcement of false constructions. It is further complicated because the consumers, largely white, finds rap a source of entertainment, while the rappers themselves, largely black, find it a source of economic self-reliance. This relationship, as dubious as it is, is only made worse when considering the most “rewarding” form of rap is that which is the most harmful to blacks. Shouldn’t we see this “reward” as a more tolerant, though comparably devastating continuation of the momentum of oppression? As beneficiaries of racism — whether overt or institutional, explicit or unconscious — we whites are, sadly, not pressed to change the coordinates within which racism operates. Where there was once, in the civil rights era, a radical propulsion to dismantle the system that allowed racism to exist, today, we practice tolerance, which assuages our guilt without us having to give up any of the benefits we enjoy—benefits that directly result from centuries of racism.
This is a complicated and uncomfortable issue to disentangle, and it’s precisely entangled through capitalism, a cultural condition that shapes our consciousness. While it is an ugly endeavor for each person to undertake, the more one untangles nourished racism vis-à-vis economic exploitation, the clearer the view of his position within capitalism’s ideological indoctrination.
The fact is that in guerrilla warfare the struggle no longer concerns the place where you are, but the place where you are going. Each fighter carries his warring country between his bare toes.
—Frantz Fanon (Wretched of the Earth)
I come correct and I won’t look back
Cause it ain’t where you from it’s where you at
—Rakim (“In The Ghetto”)
In a coincidental convergence of real life and fiction, the character of Omar Little is a virtual retelling of the life of Dhoruba bin Wahad. The story of these two men is nearly identical; the only thing missing from Omar Little is the radical intent we find in Dhoruba bin Wahad.
Wahad, a member of the Black Panther Party and co-founder of the Black Liberation Army, served nineteen years in prison for the attempted murder of two NYPD officers before being exonerated. The conviction and its subsequent overturning was a long, complicated ordeal in which Wahad was first tried for robbing a South Bronx social club, then tried three times for shooting the officers (the first trial ended in a hung jury, the second a mistrial, until the third, final conviction). While serving his sentence, Wahad learned of a Congressional hearing that disclosed the existence of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, a covert program designed to infiltrate and destroy black radicalism in the US. In 1975, Wahad filed a lawsuit from prison, which was responsible for the disclosure of documents that detailed the activities of the COINTELPRO and much of our understanding of how corruptly involved the government was in the wrong side of civil rights. From infiltrating the Black Panther Party, to assassinating black leaders, extensive surveillance and misinformation campaigns, the COINTELPRO operated as the transgressive force that worked in conjunction with, but “behind the backs” of the government. It took fifteen years after his lawsuit was filed for Wahad’s conviction to be overturned.
The late ‘60s ushered in a new black radicalism, which simply rejected the status quo. That rejection took the form of explosive violence and riots all over the country. People of color were finished with the systematic oppression that sustained poverty, racism, intellectual pursuits, etc., and looked instead towards Marxism, socialism and communism. While the illegal operations of the COINTELPRO worked against blacks in secret, government agencies such as FEMA worked against blacks openly. Today we think of FEMA as an agency that responds to natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes, but it belongs to a dubious governmental history that allows the president to enact marshal law, seize control of transportation, resources and media, suppress dissidents and create indices of suspected dissidents who can be rounded up during social unrest. In other words, FEMA acts, on one hand as an agency deployed to assist in emergency situations, and, on the other hand, deployed to suppress in emergency situations. The key, then, is how emergency is defined and who defines it?
Five damn days, five long days
And at the end of the fifth you walkin’ in like, “Hey!”
Chillin’ on his vacation, sittin’ patiently
Them black folks gotta hope, gotta wait and see
If FEMA really comes through in an emergency
But nobody seems to have a sense of urgency
Now the mayor’s been reduced to cryin’
I guess Bush said niggas been used to dyin
He said, “I know it looks bad, just have to wait”
Forgettin’ folks who too broke to evacuate
Niggaz starvin and they dyin of thirst
I bet he had to go and check on them refineries first
—The Legendary K.O. (“George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People”)
Gunned us, stunned us, exploited and they hung us
I’d like to take a moment to say, “Fuck Columbus!”
Millions off my back, the black on black crisis is a myth
The crack that did this to us was the one from the whip
The record skips cause my voice is kinda scratchy
From yelling, “Oh shit!” when Five-0 comes to harass me
They never pass me, no one to go and tell, bro
Trying to kill the movement with the new COINTELPRO
—The Coup (“Dig It”)
It was people like Wahad, and organizations like the Black Liberation Army that sought to unveil the ideological underpinnings of “civilized society.” John Kennedy proposed the Civil Rights Act and championed equality, and vowed to “pay any price, bear any burden” to insure liberty, and that included covert operations such as The Bay of Pigs invasion, designed to destroy anti-capitalist movements.
The obvious problem, then, was that groups like the Black Liberation Army saw capitalism itself as the root of oppression, and Kennedy’s explicit pledge to “pay any price” for liberty implicitly included black nationalists as part of that price. Just hours after Kennedy made his famous address on civil rights, the black civil rights activist Medgar Evers was killed in his home. Is this not an extremely vulgar display of the “worth” of liberty? Kennedy demanded that it be
possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation, such as hotels and restaurants and theaters and retail stores, without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the streets
without fear of reprisal, and that
We have a right to expect that the Negro community will be responsible, will uphold the law, but they have a right to expect that the law will be fair, that the Constitution will be color blind.
And so the coordinates were set: blacks should be free to participate economically within the capitalist system while being confined within the law. Kennedy, later in the same speech, shed light on the history of how equality was enforced:
One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.
Thus, the speech that enacted the Civil Rights Act also signaled a subtle shift in the oppressive forces at work within the capitalist economy. Just as Lincoln ended slavery and injustice found a way to flourish, Kennedy proposed a solution for injustice that contained a similar loophole, allowing justice to remain unjust. For liberals it seemed like a win, blacks could vote, spend money in “white only” businesses, and justice would be a little better, if not just.
Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
—John F. Kennedy (1961 inauguration address)
Ask not what you can do for your country, but what in the fuck has it done for you?
—Watts Prophets (Rappin’ Black in a White World, 1971)
Amidst the year it took for the Civil Right Bill to pass, Malcolm X delivered his famous speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet.”
You don’t have a revolution in which you love your enemy, and you don’t have a revolution in which you are begging the system of exploitation to integrate you into it. Revolutions overturn systems. Revolutions destroy systems.
For Kennedy, equality meant blacks being fully integrated into the capitalist system, while, for black radicals, equality meant completely destroying that system. For liberals comfortable within the democratic system, the “revolution” was getting the Civil Rights Bill passed, and for radicals the revolution was overthrowing the system that needed such a bill at all.
For people such as Dhoruba bin Wahad, the civil rights struggle was not a demonstration asking for a change in the law or the hope that fellow citizens recognize their rights within democracy, theirs was a total rejection of the premise of what their fellow citizens understood as democracy. And as such, their work included armed struggle. Wahad’s initial arrest, the robbery of a South Bronx club, was an Omar Little-style robbery. Wahad and the BLA were engaged in efforts to rid the inner city of drugs, which included knocking off stash spots. And what we learned from the release of the COINTELPRO documents was, instead of the police working in conjunction with black communities to keep drugs out of the ghetto, it’s the police who were collaborating with the drug traffickers, providing escort, protection and legal cover.
The interconnectedness of politicians, gangsters and the media is part of what makes The Wire arguably the best show in the history of television. And Omar Little is a big part of what makes the show so interesting. Omar is a gay, black, homeless Robin Hood of the inner city who lives by a strict code of principles (“rip and run” — only robbing drug dealers, do no dirt on Sundays, “it ain’t about the money”). Existing outside the law, faithful to a code, anti-materialistic, completely fearless, drug free, Omar is almost the consummate revolutionary character. The only thing missing from his canon of ethics is any sense of nationalism or radical emancipatory intent. Looking comparatively at Wahad and Little, they both enact a fearless Robin Hood set of principles, but Wahad is driven by radical politics while Little is driven by radical individualism. It’s interesting then that damn near everyone on the planet (including President Obama) can agree that Omar is the most fascinating, well-liked character, yet, when we look at the characteristics of Wahad, we get squeamish.
What do [young black men in the inner city] know? How to rob, steal and kill. What did Columbus know? And what is in the best tradition of capitalism in this society? …This is something that is as integral to the United States as breathing. I do not have a stake in saving a racist nation. I do not have a stake in maintaining American hegemony over people of color around the world; I do not have an interest in maintaining this system that causes the misery of billions of people…
—Dhoruba bin Wahad (PBS, “The Issue is Race”)
It ain’t what you takin’, it’s who you takin’ from, ya feel me? How you expect to run with the wolves come night when you spend all day sparring with the puppies?
—Omar Little (The Wire, “Home Rooms”)
Omar’s violent radicalism is enacted within the constellation of democratic morality (“sure the world’s not perfect, and people are going to take matters into their own hand sometimes, but somehow, some way, justice will prevail”), while Wahad’s violent radicalism is aimed specifically at the system which sustains an unjust democratic morality. Doesn’t the character of Omar, then, work in much the same way as rappers who engage role-play when they portray themselves as murderers, dealers and pimps? Rather than directly engaging the object of desire (injustice), and thereby finding fulfillment, the desire is reborn time and again in its own unfulfillment. In other words, isn’t Omar, by attacking one of the symptoms of injustice (drug dealers) rather than the disease itself (an unjust system), sparring with puppies?
The subtle shift from Dhoruba bin Wahad to Omar Little disconnects the radical activity from its radical intent, leaving in its place a prolonging of the conditions of oppression. Omar is radical in many ways, radical in his popularity, radical in his extremity, radical in his portrayal, but completely stripped of any radical emancipatory politics, and therefore, left radically impotent.
Got more dope than a pharmacy, hoe
Got a job for the city, bitch, I’m shoveling snow
That’s that crack music nigga
That real black music nigga
Fresh out the fryin’ pan, into the fire
I be the music biz’s number one supplier
All in the game, yo, all in the game
It is Omar’s impotence that allows him to be popular instead of loathed, in the same way rappers such as Ice-T, Jay-Z, Too Short, 50 Cent, Ice Cube, Gucci Mane, Tupac, and so on, are made celebrities and criminals simultaneously. Their cultural weight as a celebrity is voided by their criminality. Conversely, their criminal record taints their integrity. It’s all part of the continually unfulfilled desire, all, as Omar says, “part of the game.”
Isn’t it this same perpetuation of unattainable desire that makes The Wire such a powerful show? Don’t we, as viewers, engage in a similar fetishistic disavowal while watching? That is, the show obviously deals with “real world” issues; there are endless examples of Wire-esque incidents in daily life: crooked cops, corrupt politicians, media deception, people struggling against oppression, etc., and the conclusion of the series brutally confronts us with the truth that there is no end: corrupt politicians stay in power, journalists lie and win the Pulitzer, drug dealers who die are replaced by other drug dealers, and so on. We are overwhelmed by the fact that the world is bad, shit is fucked up, people are dying, we’re being lied to, and yet we actively disavow the actual state of things. The Wire is so good because it has so little fiction, and it allows us, through a subtle shift in our resigned cynicism, to believe that by enjoying the show we are actually part of the solution to the problems the show so engagingly articulates. With The Wire as our voice, we “speak out” about societal ills, much in the same way that by studiously lapping-up the mass-marketed “black” culture, we avoid actual interaction with blacks. Put another way, in having The Wire affirm, quite publicly, our view of all that’s wrong in the world, we get some satisfaction that all these “dirty little secrets” are exposed, when, in fact what happens is the dirty secrets, societal ills, are absorbed back into society as commodities and re-sold to us. We take the poison as the cure.
For an hour of television that is equally as unsettling as The Wire, check out the 1992 PBS special, “The Issue is Race,” hosted by Phil Donahue, in which Dhoruba bin Wahad debates among an extensive panel of professionals about racism in America. Many, if not all, of the issues inherent in The Wire are explicitly discussed among the panel. And isn’t it precisely the radical emancipatory intent that Wahad levels in reaction to his fellow panelists that causes Donahue to call him “angry” and “hateful”? Compare Wahad’s discussion on the panel with “All Prologue,” the episode of The Wire in which we learn a great deal about Omar’s code. In the episode, Omar testifies against Bird, a drug dealer who murdered his boyfriend. Before taking the stand Omar corrects a court bailiff who mistakes Mars for Ares as the Greek god of war, which reveals to us that Omar is well schooled in myths and legends. On the stand Omar is called an “amoral parasite” by opposing counsel and accused of “feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade,” and “stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city.” Omar retorts, “Just like you, man.”
In much the same way, Omar’s testifying against Bird contains the same critique against the capitalist system as Wahad’s statement on “The Issue is Race.” The difference, of course, is that Wahad’s object of desire is a radical emancipatory process, and Omar’s is to avenge his dead lover. Omar’s code, strict as it is, is devoid of political content, and impotent beyond his personal constellation. In other words, the Omar character functions within the coordinates of “right and wrong” in an exploitative capitalist economy, he administers justice within justice, where justice is unjustly blind — it’s all part of the game.
That is why President Obama could cite Omar Little as his favorite character and The Wire as his favorite television show. Consider, however, if the Omar character possessed Wahad’s political intent, if, for example, he not only went after drug dealers, but bank executives, developers, corporate tycoons, oil barons, legislatures, lobbyists, presidents, etc. That is to say, if Omar Little radically redefined the constellation in which we understood exploitation, pulled the symbolic veil off of capitalist ideology, president Obama would likely condemn such a character.
Is this impotence also not at play in the way Obama, back in 2008, announced — through discussing what was on his iPod — that he was a fan of Jay-Z, qualifying the compliment by both admonishing the misogyny and materialism and circumscribing rap within capitalist coordinates:
What I’ve appreciated, watching this hip-hop generation, is to see how entrepreneurial they’ve been. In the past, musicians oftentimes were commodities. They were just shuffled around. Obviously, they did well, but they didn’t have the vision to say, “I’m going to build a business. I’m going to build my own studio. I’m going to create my own production operations.” I think they’re a lot more sophisticated than in the past, and that is a wonderful thing.
Misogyny, materialism and economic exploitation are unacceptable, but such exploitations combined with an “entrepreneurial spirit” within the capitalist system are acceptable? It’s easy to make the argument that musicians (especially rappers) are still treated as commodities, while the handful of entrepreneurial rappers who’ve become millionaires serve a symbolic function to sustain the unattainable desire for those still oppressed by commodification.
Talal Asad, in his book, Is Critique Secular, contrasts how seduction is treated between Islam and the liberal West. For instance, the West condemns rape but celebrates seduction, while in Islam, seduction is considered the worse act. Asad claims, “To seduce is to incite someone to open up his or her innermost self to images, sounds, and words offered by the seducer and to lead the seduced — complicitly or unwittingly — to an end first conceived by the former.” Television, film and advertising seduce viewers towards a “choice” of commodities. In liberal societies seduction is a key component of commodification; everyone is the victim of external stimuli, manipulated by the seductive forces of capital circulation. The customs, standards, tastes, sense of honor, notion of good and evil, are all permeated with the value created by this production process — lubricated by seduction. The paradox, then, is Western liberal society is perverse and corrupt, relying on seduction to attain its political and economic goals, while at the same time, it publicly admonishes the practices resulting from such perversions and corruptions.
Black radicalism was subverted with seduction. Ice Cube’s “I Wanna Kill Sam” (a call for overthrowing the government along the lines of Galleani’s propaganda by the deed) ends with a sample reinforcing the sentiment (“We’ve gone nowhere in 200 years?” — “That’s correct.”). The sample repeats as the song fades, and it’s clear why “The Man” deserves to buckle (“I wanna kill Sam ‘cause he ain’t my motherfuckin’ uncle!”). Instead of blacks overthrowing the government, beheading the tyrants and rising out of systematic oppression and institutional racism, Ice Cube was made rich and famous as a resistance to being taken seriously, and now stars in the “fun for the whole family” film, Are We There Yet? The seduction that undermined his political intent was always-already in the way of his prophetic rage.
Isn’t this veil of seduction that is draped over our view of society extremely detrimental to the women in rap? Haven’t we witnessed a post-feminist redefinition of equality — specifically, by the women of rap themselves seductively delivering an antifeminist message? Wasn’t this process, from feminism to its opposite, a process that went on “behind the backs,” and was, as Marx said, apparently “fixed by custom?”
The symbolic neutering that happened to black radicalism in the late ‘70s attacked feminism in the ‘80s. Consider when second-wave feminism radically re-plotted the coordinates of society’s understanding of decency, forcing the public to confront its inherent inequality. Groups such as the Jane Collective (who performed underground abortions before Roe v. Wade), New York Radical Women, and The Stanton-Anthony Brigade forced radical critique through gesture in much the same way as Dhoruba bin Wahad and the BLA. One of the gestures of radical feminism was exposure, literally, exposing one’s body, to subvert domination and deflate men’s control over what’s decent and “lady like.” Exposing oneself pulls back the symbolic veil that keeps people at a distance from that which they unconsciously participate in. Artists like Hannah Wilke, Judy Chicago and the Heresies Collective all used the female body, themselves, as weapons. The nudity wasn’t only to draw attention, but more, to reflect the prejudices always-already in societal customs, standards, notions of good and evil, and so on. The actions of the radical feminists proved a transgressive mirror of the unchallenged assumptions of male dominance, heterosexuality, monogamy, pornography, and sex-roles.
Isn’t there an abundance of facile rationalizations about the kind of post-feminist art that uses the same nudity of the subversive second-wave without any of the intent? In place of transgression, we get repurposed seduction; in place of subversion, we get affirmation of male dominance, heterosexuality, pornography, etc.; in place of inventive insight we get more boobs, bigger boobs, real boobs… The series of subtle shifts, from the radical gesture of shocking the public by defying norms to the seductive gesture of shocking the public into participating in commerce, went on behind our backs. This is evidenced today by how few women identify themselves as feminists; how a reckless past is viewed with scorn for women and how such a past, for men, is a capstone, a tale worthy of their eulogy; how women in the arts are regularly objectified, and the majority of women in popular culture all conform to a set of “sexy” standards. There is a certain style of discussing this lack of insight, and its first pitch is usually a moronic statement such as, “Isn’t it interesting…” followed by a totally uninteresting recycling of banalities. We witness this phenomenon when the forces working against women are veiled and, instead of revealing them, we’re offered an “interesting” view of the positive aspects of an overwhelmingly negative situation. For example, a blow-by-blow of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” video ends with, “isn’t it interesting to see the idea of a strong — yet hurt — woman?” Really? Isn’t this what we see everywhere, every day, in the marginalized and oppressed? What’s “interesting” is how we’ve come to see subjugation as entertainment.
Check the booty, yo, it’s kinda soft, and
If you touch, you livin’ in a coffin
I’m in the ‘90s, you’re still in the ’80s, right?
I rock the mic, they say I’m not lady like
But I’ma lady, who will pull a stunt though
I kill suckas and even hit the blunt, so…
—Yo-Yo (“You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo”)
I don’t want my kids to see me getting beat down
By daddy smacking mommy all around
You say I’m nothing without ya, but I’m nothing with ya
A man don’t really love you if he hits ya
This is my notice to the door, I’m not taking it no more
I’m not your personal whore, that’s not what I’m here for
—Queen Latifah (“U.N.I.T.Y.”)
The backlash against feminism coincided with hip-hop’s absorption into popular culture, and it’s from this convergence where we should view women in hip-hop. From the earliest female rappers (Roxanne Shanté, MC Lyte, Sha-Rock, Salt-n-Pepa, Queen Latifah, Dimples D, Yo-Yo, etc.), the ground on which they stood was in defense of who they were. Most of the early raps were women rebuffing advances of horny men (e.g., all the “answer” records, the male/female duets fueled by back and forth sexist jabs, etc.). What started as a defense of subjugation and resistance against inequality soon took the form of sublimation into the dominant archetype. By the mid-‘90s we had gone from Latifah’s “who you callin’ bitch” to Foxy Brown’s “who’s got the illest pussy on the planet?”
Look I ain’t tryin’ to suck ya, I might not even fuck ya
Just lay me on this bed and give me some head
Got the camcorder layin’ in the drawer where he can’t see
Can’t wait to show my girls he sucked the piss out my pussy
—Lil’ Kim (“Suck My Dick”)
Not on the bed, lay me on your sofa
Call before you come, I need to shave my cho-cha
You do or you don’t, or you will or you won’tcha
Go downtown and eat it like a vulture
—Missy Elliott (“Work It”)
“Isn’t it interesting,” then, how Missy Elliott’s “Work It” video, for example, uses seductive clichés (a “back to the old school” nod, fanciful choreography, cutting-edge video technology, celebrity cameos, etc.) as a smokescreen to obscure the fact that Elliott hits all the anti-feminist G-spots. Commercial seduction and popularity remove the thorns, allowing us to celebrate that which we would condemn if it were presented as a social issue: men don’t like fat women; if he’s drunk you might seem more like Halle Berry, thus, more fuckable—it’s only rape if he says no; and rather than “respect yourself,” adopt the male attitude and offer a seductive challenge: “you think you can handle this pussy?”
With the help of a Timbaland beat, “Work It” stayed in the Top 5 for ten weeks. “Isn’t it interesting” how seduction allows this backslide (from the ‘80s stance of constant defense, to this if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-type capitulation) that makes losing ground not only acceptable, but cool, fun and popular? The song purports to be a “return to the old school,” while in actuality, it’s a seductively disguised redefinition of the old school.
The foggy lens through which women are encouraged to see the dismantling of their rights as a way to “enjoy” a “return to the old school” is a favorite tactic of Sarah Palin. For instance, Palin believes in overturning Roe v. Wade as a way for women to “enjoy” more “rights,” by way of making it a state issue — a return to smaller government is better for everyone!
The typical counterargument against pointing out such ideological indoctrination is, “Relax, it’s just a song.” This opposition, in large part, is a function of seduction, which, through ideological mystification, engages the listener in disorientated adherence to principles they abhor. As consumers, we’re stuck between an oppositional tugging of fantasy (“can you handle this pussy?”) and a conservative morality that acts as ballast (e.g., the PMRC, RIAA, FCC). We use an outside agency to temper, to keep us tethered to our principles as we fetishize, demoralize and subjugate women. All under the seductive disposition, “it’s just a song.”
And isn’t it precisely this opposition that is always-already present in commercial ideology? At the unconscious level, people enjoy these songs by allowing themselves an exception for what they would otherwise find offensive.
Think of the veil that commodity stretches across popular songs: “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp,” “Get Low,” “Nuthin’ But A G Thang,” “Rumpshaker,” “U and Dat,” “Brass Monkey,” “Buy U A Drank,” “Super Bass,” etc. What would happen if one made a pronouncement similar to any of these songs, stripped away from the seductiveness of the song? Taking “Brass Monkey,” for example: to sincerely advocate drugging a woman in order to fuck her would surely cause outrage. When such acts are presented to us as news, we are outraged; yet, we all enjoy singing along to “Brass Monkey.” I use this vulgar simplification not as a condemnation of rap, but as an illustration of how even our basic shared pleasures are ideologically indoctrinated, a product of commercial exchange. Without seductive allure as a lubricant, wouldn’t much of what we enjoy repulse us?
Returning to Missy Elliott, Under Construction, the album that contains “Work It,” is a perfect example of how this antifeminist ideology comes bundled as its opposite. The other single from the album, “Pussycat,” is a call to Elliott’s own vaginal superpowers in order to override her man’s inherent propensity to fuck around. The chorus:
Pussy don’t fail me now
I gotta turn this nigga out
So he don’t want nobody else.
Similar to “Work It,” Missy Elliott ends the track by speaking directly to the listener after the music ends, an informal address to the audience. Elliott’s justification of “Pussycat” as a women’s issue works as a seductive counteragent against the thrust of the song:
… I just wanna talk about how people always say
“Yo, that’s too nasty!” and “why your mouth so vulgar?”
“Why you gotta sing all these nasty records?” and all that
But I be representing the ladies
And we got something to say
We been quiet too long; lady-like, very patient…
We always had to deal with the guy, you know,
Talking about how they gonna wear us out on records
And you know, I had to do records that
Strictly representing for my ladies
And how to keep your man,
Keep his eyes from wandering, looking around
Sex is not a topic that we should always
Sweep underneath the rug
And I’m not saying go out and do itBut if you do:
Strap it up before you smack it up, flip it, slow it down
As an ideological whole, the song lays the responsibility for the man’s monogamy in the power of the woman’s pussy, and this excessively antifeminist position is couched in Missy’s post-song chat as a woman’s reclaiming of her place in hip-hop. To boot, she leans to the conservative right with her admission that there’s a time and place for discussing sex, and then leans to the liberal left by advocating condoms. It’s a clusterfuck of bi-partisan positions tugging against one another, a pro-pussy-cum-antifeminist anthem! The single was released with little controversy, and the lack of astonishment isn’t astonishing if you consider the constant bombardment of seduction that surrounds us: media, politics, business, art, etc. We freely “enjoy” this seduction as it incites us, as Talal Asad said, to open our innermost selves — complicitly or unwittingly — towards a “choice” of commodities.
Doesn’t the lack of astonishment, of any critical consideration, prove how cynically resigned we are to the seductive lure of commodification? And isn’t it obvious, that, in order for commercial intercourse to maintain the constant cycle of profit, the degree of absurdity has to constantly increase and shift to keep us freshly enticed? It’s from this position — a state of constant bombardment, constant intrusion, constant seduction, constant absurdity — that we interact with today’s rap.
Much attention is currently focused on “the future of hip-hop.” The two most discussed acts at the front of this futuristic vanguard are Lil B and Odd Future (including Tyler, the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt and Frank Ocean, among others). The future that Lil B and Odd Future represent, while at a distance from the disagreeable aspects of crack rap, seems to be filled with other disagreeable elements that have the world atwitter. Both Lil B and Odd Future have saturated social media, and fans are friends, and friends see the uncensored “truth” of the artist(s). An uproar has been made about the crazy antics of these new rap icons: rapping about Ellen Degeneres, the “Free Earl” campaign, Tyler eating bugs, going nuts on Jimmy Fallon, everyone being called “faggot,” satanic regalia, and, more than anything, a joyful irreverence for anyone who may get their feelings hurt in the process. The consensus is these kids just don’t give a fuck. Their raps are crazy, random, stream-of-consciousness, vibrant with the overwhelming exuberance of youth. The humor is lowbrow and a close relation to skate punks of decades past. Doesn’t this “new” form of rap share in all the seductive commodification with its predecessors minus the gruesome gangster/crack aspects?
I would argue that what’s being argued as what’s new about these rap groups is not new at all. What is new, however, is rap is finally elevated to a place within the commercial market that has previously been the domain of a largely white set. The biggest difference I see is, instead of representing the customary crack dealer/gun slinger fans have come to expect from rap, Odd Future (and to a lesser degree, Lil B) are conformingly non-conformist in the fashion of trendsetting indie rock groups. Rather than adopting the host of blaxploitation clichés, they have adopted “new” clichés from the wealth of abhorrent skateboarders and drunken “punks” (Anti-Hero, Dogtown, the Norwegian black metal scene, G.G. Allin, Suicidal Tendencies, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, etc.).
While this does appear like the beginning of a new black aesthetic, transitioning away from gangsterism, it’s informed by the same misogyny, homophobia, violence and materialism. The commercial potential is good, contrary to music writers who are quick to point out how the groups are “risky,” and how “scared as fuck” major labels are of the groups. This “future” of rap will inevitably be profitable because it tremendously expands the reach of “past” rap by simultaneously combining the rap market with that of angry teenage rockers and the hipster forefront. Simultaneous columns at Pitchfork, The Fader, The New Yorker, XXL, Complex, Billboard, NPR, Rolling Stone and CNN all attest, it’s a Diplo-like mash-up of repurposed spectacle disguised as new territory. To be more precise, the subtle shift in this case went from gangster rappers who played a role, representing something authentic, to the “future” of rap, authentically detached from what they represent. Gone are the days when rappers need defend themselves with, “it’s just a character I play in my raps.” Today, as Tyler exemplifies, their vindication is played on the offense, “You fucking stupid faggots, you can’t read between the lines? I ain’t gonna spell it out for you motherfuckers all the time…”
These “new” aspects of rap were established years ago. Specifically, we’ve been witness to the same level of vulgarity (notably with Too Short, Geto Boys, Ice-T, Eminem and 2 Live Crew), as well as abhorrent subject matter from those seemingly on the outside, or “underground” (notably Aesop Rock, Atmosphere, Anticon, El-P, etc). With Lil B and Odd Future, the delineation between insiders and outsiders is obscured, partly, I would guess, because rap is now ubiquitous in our culture. Problematic, however, is the implicit issue of race that largely maintained the delineation of years past. In a recent Pitchfork article comparing Tyler and Eminem, the race-related double standard is illustrated clearly, “…even at his most debased, Eminem never quite made skin crawl the way Tyler can.”
Isn’t the most shocking aspect about “the future of hip-hop” that it’s being led by self-determined blacks who are making their own decisions, and not that the subject matter is somehow more debased? Because, when we compare the lyrical content of these black futurists to their white predecessors, there isn’t a striking difference.
I went to John’s rave with Ron and Dave
And met a new wave blonde babe with half of her head shaved
A nurse aid who came to get laid and tied up
With first aid tape and raped on the first date
Susan — an ex-heroin addict who just stopped using
Who love booze and alternative music
Told me she was going back into using again
I said, “Wait, first try this hallucinogen
It’s better than heroin, Henn, the booze or the gin
—Eminem (“My Fault”, 1999)
I blame it on the model broad with the Hollywood smile, aww
Stripper booty and a rack like wow, Brain like Berkeley
Met her at Coachella, I went to see Jigga, she went to see Z Trip, perfect
I took a seat on the ice cold lawn, she handed me a ice blue bong, whatever
She said she wanna be a dentist really badly, she’s in school payin’
For tuition doin’ porn in the Valley, at least you workin’
But girl I can’t feel my face, what are we smokin’ anyway
She said don’t let the high go to waste, but can you taste a little taste
—Frank Ocean (“Novacane”, 2011)
Thinking of Greenberg’s argument as it relates to the seduction of commodity, isn’t it true that we often mistake scandal for the exploration of unknown territories, and spectacle for genuine insight? If an artist, such as Odd Future, relies on the insights of the past and, as a result, creates controversy, we often mistake this demoralizing reaction for a sign of the artist’s visionary prescience. But isn’t it true, if we look back through the annals of controversy, Odd Future proves a simulacrum of Geto Boys, 2 Live Crew, Gwar, Slayer, etc. As a result, there exists little real insight, the artist is propelled into popularity instead of being taken seriously, and the public, as unwitting participants in this cyclical simulacrum, feel validated to see such “controversial” artists become wildly popular. Thinking of controversial figures of the past (Courtney Love, Marilyn Manson, Britney Spears, Ice-T, Keith Richards, Madonna, Nikki Sixx, etc.), and their presence as fixtures in culture today, we can see such behavior, not as controversial, but instead, as a stepping-stone to success. It’s the object of unattainable desire, constantly tickled, that keeps these acts just dangerous enough, but still within the constellation of commodity, to make them bankable.
Novocane, baby, baby, Novocane, baby, I want you
Fuck me good, fuck me long, fuck me numb
Love me now, when I’m gone, love me none
Love me none, love me none, numb, numb, numb, numb
Hello, hello, hello, how low…
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid, and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
We witness the obscene over-indulgence of these artists, watching them reveal their solipsistic immaturities, mistaking this narcissism for daring vision. And this self-indulgent naiveté we mistake for epiphany operates as a kind of prideful self-consciousness. Exorcising the personal in this way fails to lead into unknown territories because it lacks a genuine attitude towards creative substance, and instead, relies on form, on gossip column seduction. This formula functions as a kind of excessive display of self-ignorance, keeps the artist facing backward, away from the future, and this narcissism mistaken for exploration results in turmoil, scandal, anger. The artist, rewarded for excessively purging what’s personal, lashes out at those who’ve meddled in his intimate affairs, which he shared willingly to begin with:
Since birth I’ve been cursed with this curse to just curse
And just blurt this berserk and bizarre shit that works
And it sells and it helps in itself to relieve
All this tension dispensing these sentences
Getting this stress that’s been eating me recently
Off of this chest, and I rest again peacefully
But at least have the decency in you
To leave me alone, when you freaks see me out
In the streets when I’m eating or feeding my daughter
To not come and speak to me
I don’t know you and no
I don’t owe you a motherfucking thing
—Eminem (“The Way I Am”, 2000)
What the fuck I look like saying I’m sorry
To a bunch of fucking fags that can potentially harm me?
I ain’t never gonna bow down to your expectations
By the way, I got sixty fucking Wolves that’ll guard me
That skate hard, Thrash black hoodies, try something
Make sure your fuckin’ feelings end up up in a Glad bag
Fuck all your opinions, I’m tyin’ ‘em with a shoestring
And fuck the fat lady, it’s over when all the kids sing
—Tyler, The Creator (“Goblin”, 2011)
And isn’t it here, in the reaction against what the audience sees as “what makes the artist tick,” that the artist reflexively opposes himself, as if for the first time seeing his reflection? Whether consciously or unwittingly, the artist participated in a formula of excessive narcissism, which came seductively disguised as creative substance, only to see it reflected in culture as a shallow parody. Either because what the audience sees as “what makes the artist tick” is not what actually makes the artist tick, or because the artist realizes he himself doesn’t know what makes him tick. The adherence to a seductive formula, whether deliberate or not, renders the artist impotent. And isn’t the predictability of such “controversial” artists a sign of their work being ensnared in the ideology of capital?
In the mass media there’s been a concerted effort to circumscribe Odd Future within a nebulous “punk” realm, whether it’s their miscreant performances, self-releasing albums, or their unpredictable behavior. Detractors, on the other hand, cite the predictability of their unpredictability as a sign that the Odd Future is the same as the odd past. Aren’t both sides of the “Odd Future are Punk as Fuck” debate missing the inherent, oppression-informed, foundation where punk found it’s footing?
First, we take a close comparative look at the roots of punk and hip-hop. As a largely white movement, punk was born in rebellion of popular culture, from within popular culture. Punk started with access, with all the benefits of cultural inclusion, and then rejected that culture, and moved to the margins of society. Rap, on the other hand, was largely black, and born in the margins, excluded from popular culture, tenaciously fighting the forces of oppression to be included within popular culture. Both movements have grown and morphed and become part of popular culture, but they still remain inherently informed by these distinctly contrastive origins.
Second, we should pay attention to how popular culture’s language of punk (“Odd Future’s visual sensibility looks more like something from an ’80s punk demo”), excludes the transgressive catalyst of punk. What is punk in popular culture is the image that’s been codified as punk. In other words, commercial “punk” is a commodity that evokes the philosophy of punk, but as a commercial product, lacks the anti-commercial intent.
There have been many forms and sounds to punk rock, but generally, punk can be defined by an impetus to act as a subversive counterweight to social order. By nature, then, in its rejection of the mainstream cultural agenda, punk didn’t care about popular culture because it operated within its own independent, alternative culture. It’s no surprise then, that when mainstream culture adopted punk, it was in the form of an “alternative” music genre, devoid of an oppositional intent. When mainstream culture sought to co-opt the network of independent record labels that operated outside the media conglomerates, “indie” culture was born, a dollhouse version of mainstream culture with a punk veneer: punk publicists, punk managers, punk lawyers, punk A&R men, punk accountants, punk salesmen, etc. In the process of condensing punk into a commodity, mainstream culture filtered out the essence of punk. In other words, punks didn’t need lawyers and accountants, so a “punk lawyer” is not only oxymoronic, but also patently pro-asshole!
While there are punks who are reactionary, there are many who rebel simply by ignoring mainstream culture. Having a publicist, an accountant, a lawyer, are all ways of facilitating involvement with mainstream culture. By simply ignoring the culture, punks enjoy a great deal of freedom. Of course, being on the outside means those within mainstream culture are unchecked in what they believe. This un-involvement explains the lack of information as well as the misinformation that exists regarding punk in popular culture.
Comparatively, the most reactionary faction of punk are those that have become part of the consciousness of mainstream culture (e.g., Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Black Flag, The Germs). It is precisely the controversy and spectacle of these groups that inform popular culture’s branding of punk: crazy haircuts, drug abuse, incendiary behavior, and so on. When the behavior of this reactionary excess is re-enacted outside punk it lacks the inherent principle of rejection, and it becomes simple spectacle. When we look at the “punk” behavior of groups like Odd Future, we can see that their behavior is part of a system of explicit rules that comes bundled with implicit transgressions, and as such, is not punk, but, not transgressive at all.
Within our culture we are regulated by a system of explicit laws and norms, which forbid certain behaviors, actions, trespasses, etc. These explicit prohibitions are balanced with implicit allowances, which generally go unspoken. Our understanding of, and participation in society is framed within this system of explicit prohibitions and their implicit permissions.
We have cops that protect us and keep order, though we see time and again how cops transgress the law, cause us harm, and go unpunished. The public exchange — the question, “How are you?” And the answer, “Fine, and you?” — is a hollow formality that is required etiquette, but meant to be disregarded; answering the question honestly would be impolite. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” era of military service allowed homosexuality but forbade discussion of homosexuality. In civil society, homosexuality is explicitly tolerated, while homosexuals are routinely discriminated or assaulted; in the obverse, homosexual behavior, jokes and rituals are routinely enacted as a practice of heterosexual solidarity.
Through this process of indoctrination, then, we learn that the social system as it functions within capitalism is not to be taken seriously. The best citizens of such a society are those that can move about with an ironic distance, ignoring some rules while obeying others. In the landscape of music there is a similar framing that clearly lays out the rules and subtly allows for transgressions. The way popular culture defines “radical” and “groundbreaking” artists works within the parameters of implicit allowances of explicit prohibitions. The portrayal of a rock star (throwing a television through a hotel room window, infidelities, drug abuse, unprovoked exclamations, etc.) is a portrayal that complies with the implicit allowances of culture’s explicit prohibitions.
How can one be truly radical then? In two ways, either by playing strictly by the rules (obeying the rules completely, ignoring the implicit allowances), or, completely ignoring the rules and their implicit allowances. Isn’t this why we find, for example, those who refuse to jaywalk completely strange? It’s as if they are foreigners, and not familiar with the customs of our culture. Conversely, aren’t those who completely ignore cultural customs equally off-putting? Fugazi, for example, are often derided (even called “non-punk”) for stopping shows when attendants slam dance or stage dive. We look with suspicion on those who disregard custom, not because we don’t agree generally with their beliefs, but simply because of our secret (perhaps unconscious) conviction that such customs can’t be changed. Isn’t it exactly punk rock, then, to subvert a punk custom (slam dancing/stage diving), challenging its validity as a function of form?
If we look again at Odd Future, with this specific understanding of how our culture is shaped by custom, isn’t the controversy enacted actually quite conventional? Tyler, throwing a milkshake from the window of his manager’s Porsche SUV at a group of “respectably dressed people,” is exemplary of the implicit permissions that work beneath explicit prohibitions. Same with causing a “riot” on the Jimmy Fallon show, making a video depicting a rape fantasy, outrageous statements on twitter, and so on. Further, all such permissible “controversy” is enacted within the sphere of capital (from the window of a manager’s SUV, on a commercial television network, a music video, social media), and, as such, is a product of seduction, which serves to increase the value of the commodity.
Considering the universal hostility leveled against the most transgressive punk groups (Swans, Whitehouse, Crass, Suicide, Rapeman), we can see clearly that, besides the shocking spectacle, they functioned as an emetic, a mirror of societal horrors, specifically in the way they ignored the explicit prohibitions and implicit permissions of culture. Isn’t this precisely why so many of these groups were labeled racist, fascist, sexist, etc.? Because their reenactment of the prurience and violence of society, enacted outside the system of commodification, lacked the veil of commercial seduction. Without the sugar of seduction, reflecting the bitter pill of our culture’s ills is often viewed as criminal.
You nearly drove me crazy in your asshole schools
Grooming us all to be fucking fools
Working for the government as zombie tools
But we won’t be satisfied till we trash your rules
Put a gun in my back and I’ll do what you say
But I’ll burn down your house if I get away
Throw me in jail and I’ll spit in your face
‘Cause anarchy is gonna take your fucking place
—The Crucifucks (“Democracy Spawns Bad Taste”)
Well since the days when I was shittin’ in diapers
It was evident the President didn’t like us
Assassination attempts I’d root for the snipers
My teacher told me that I didn’t know what right was
Well she was wrong cause I knew what a right was
And a left and an uppercut, too
I had a hunch a sucker punch is what my people got
That’s why I was constantly red, black, and blue
—The Coup (“Not Yet Free”)
For rap to enact a truly radical standpoint, then, would involve asking for more of the same. That is, what we see in radicals, as they walk headlong into universal hostility, demanding the impossible, is a confrontation with that which the rest of us (outsiders) believe can’t be changed. And it’s this mode of radical recklessness, void of commercial seduction, where blacks have found not only universal hostility, but poverty, prison and assassination. Beyond the spectacle of the controversy it causes, this form of radicalism in rap, a music born of the marginalized, when it represents the marginalized, is, in a way, bound to fail. Look at groups like The Coup, whose first album, Kill My Landlord, was a blueprint for insurgency. The album confronts all of society with it’s own inherent inequities, calls into question the habits, norms and pastimes of culture, and demands the impossible; it opens the gates of hell, as it were, inviting condemnation.
It’s no surprise that rap artists like The Coup, Dead Prez, Paris and Point Blankk Range are plagued with failures in the music industry, as they are not, as Mac Dre said, “playing the game like it’s supposed to be played.” The language of capital inscribes these kinds of artists in a way that seductively codes their intent as a failed model of business (e.g., “unable to break out,” “underdeveloped,” “critically slept on,” etc.). But if we compare this “failure” to the “success” of similar artists who tempers a radical message with the seductive lure of capital, we see the same game being played the way it’s always been played. Take, for example, Killer Mike, who has won a Grammy, enjoys the riches and reach of being on a major label, and is quite critical of capitalism. For anyone who pays attention, Killer Mike clearly articulates the fearlessness of revolutionaries like Malcolm X or Fred Hampton. What’s different, however, is Mike’s revolutionary erudition is balanced with that which, as Mike says, “makes violence more graphic.”
And the whole world loves it when you’re in the news
And the whole world loves it when you sing the blues
—Outkast ft. Killer Mike (“The Whole World”)
Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work
—Frederick Douglass (My Bondage and My Freedom)
To be clear, this line of thought is not following the well-traveled false dichotomy of “true hip-hop” versus the “sell-out” rappers. It’s precisely not that Killer Mike or Outkast are sell-outs while The Coup and Dead Prez are true hip-hop revolutionaries. The truth lies in rejecting the premise of such narrow options. What all these artists vocalize quite clearly is that they are advocates for the underdog. It’s been nearly a half-century since we lost Malcolm X and Dr. King, and the principles those leaders fought for are still priorities today. What does this tell us? Clearly, it’s a sign that the systems of law, legislation and reform are not working very well, if at all? What impelled Malcolm X impels Killer Mike. Whether it’s Bobby Hutton, Rodney King, Oscar Grant or countless others, every era has blacks who are senselessly sacrificed. If the capitalist system, by design, is built to sustain such wicked conditions, than isn’t participating in such a system just a way of sustaining those conditions? To think of rap interacting with the entertainment industry, one should think of rap (as the advocate of the underdog) being always-already infected with its counteragent (a system that works to marginalize). The view of rap artists, then, shouldn’t be framed in seeing some (such as The Coup) as radicals, and others (such as Outkast) as non-radicals, but instead, seeing all of them as precisely not radical enough.
The question is what is more radical than what these artists already do? What can be done? What is there left to do? The answer is clear, to do nothing…
It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent.
—Alain Badiou (Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art)
It must be rather grim to hope for nothing except that life might continue indefinitely in its present course.
—Jean-Paul Sartre (The Reprieve)
Our silence will speak louder than the voices you strangle today.
—August Spies (Last words before being hanged)
It is a question not of elaborating the spectacle of refusal, but rather of refusing the spectacle.
—Raoul Vaneigem (Fifth SI Conference, Göteborg, Sweden, 1961)
How can doing nothing be radical? The main threat today is not a lack of activity, a lack of participation. There is activity and participation everywhere. That the activity today is actually a pseudo-activity — somewhere between passivity and real activity, where endless false debates and meaningless dialogs are engaged in — is obscured by the false sense of power such pseudo-activity produces. The real challenge is to withdraw, be silent, and forcefully confront the fallacy of “democracy” with vacuity.
It’s a false choice for rappers, but if the choice is to be “real” and spit venomous raps about inequality and, as a consequence, go broke (or worse, go to prison, get killed, etc.) or, alternatively, to temper this “truth” with the spectacle of selling rap music (crack, hoes, killing) and be “rewarded” with fame and riches and possibly get killed; then what a better answer than to do nothing, to not participate in such a system. Of course, there is a long history of blacks being the victim of violence when choosing to abstain from participation. The key to the success of such a practice depends then on us, the consumers, as we sustain such a false choice. If we withdrew, and confronted the spectacle (crack, hoes, killing) with it’s own irrelevance, the demand for such content would cease to exist.
There is certainly a seductive lure of capital at work that shapes our appreciation and understanding of rap, but isn’t there something hopeful located there as well? The African diaspora, slavery, the civil rights struggle; the black experience doesn’t exist only as a shameful part of our history, but it informs our culture. These catastrophes are at the core of artistic expression; they are where much of our music finds its roots. The love for the underdog is a theme throughout American culture. Or, as Cornel West says, it’s the “leaven in the democratic loaf.”
Can’t keep playin both sides of the fence, you got to choose now
It’s a shit-storm and you bout to get showered
—Bun B (“Re-Akshon”)
Within our culture a complicated balance is enacted between capital, which generates prurience in watching a marginalized culture self-destruct, and conversely, genuine love, which advocates for the underdog. This complication is intensified in the arts, where we make idols of some and demonize others, often in a misguided, dubious, fashion. Isn’t it precisely our “post-ideological” cynical resignation that allows for such complications?
It’s never been clearer than today that all the various redemptive, all encompassing ideologies (capitalism, communism, socialism, etc.) have failed in their utopian promise, and a natural assumption is that we are living in a post-ideological world. The problem with subscribing to the notion of post-ideology is that such a belief is supported by the current dominant system, which is capitalism. It suits capital fine for its participants to be uncritically resigned to the notion that nothing is going to change, because this resignation feeds capital consumption. And isn’t it here, again, where we find Odd Future and the idea of the conformingly non-conformist?
Whatever ragtag, charter-less form in which it existed, the punk catalyst was anti-establishment, anti-capitalist. It ran to the margins. What’s easily visible in the “punk”-like behavior of rap artists such as Odd Future, who work within the post-ideology mindset, is they run from the margins straight towards mainstream culture. Their rebellious outbursts come bundled with there own counteragent. The music operates within the dominant ideology (capitalism), and, as such, is devoid of the punk catalyst.
What is sold as punk today is a seductive spectacle: wacky hair style, predictably destructive behavior, t-shirt slogans (“fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!”). While Odd Future share in the “fuck you” seduction, do they really operate as a subversive counterweight? Isn’t Odd Future following in the footsteps of their predecessors (Beastie Boys, Geto Boys, 2 Live Crew, ICP, etc.)? While what they’re doing may sound and look slightly different, can we expect any genuine difference when they work within the system of commodity? Their pursuit is the same as those who came before them, the pursuit of perpetually unfulfilled desire:
Kill people, burn shit, fuck school!
Kill people, burn shit, fuck school!
I’m fuckin’ radical, nigga
I’m fuckin’ radical, I’m motherfuckin’ radical
Tyler, The Creator (“Radicals,” 2011)
All those motherfuckers that want to step up
I hope you know I pack a chain saw
I’ll skin your ass raw
And if my day keeps goin’ this way
I just might break somethin’…
—Limp Bizkit (“Break Stuff,” 2000)
There’s no time to discriminate,
Hate every motherfucker
That’s in your way
Hate! Hate! Hate! Hate…
—Marilyn Manson (“The Beautiful People,” 1997)
Immigrants and faggots
They make no sense to me
They come to our country
And think they’ll do as they please
Like start some mini Iran
Or spread some fucking disease
—Guns & Roses (“One in a Million”, 1988)
Drums beating, cold English blood runs hot
Lady of the house wonderin’ when it’s gonna stop
House boy knows that he’s doing alright
You shoulda heard him just around midnight
Brown sugar how come you taste so good, now?
Brown sugar just like a young girl should, now
—Rolling Stones (“Brown Sugar”, 1971)
Looking back at the popular charts, it’s not that Odd Future’s subject matter stands out as transgressively excessive, but just the opposite; Odd Future fills the slot this decade needs, where we see the explicit prohibitions of culture “defied” through implicit permission. Odd Future acts as a proxy we use to enact our indignation, as the moral ballast for our excessive engagement in the subjugation of others. This is cyclical: “Smack My Bitch Up,” “Darling Nikki,” “Suicide Solution,” “Kim,” “Relax (Don’t Do It),” and so on; over and again we use these songs to transgress the prohibitions imposed on us by societal convention. From Nine Inch Nails’ “I wanna fuck you like an animal,” to the Rolling Stones depiction of slave rape, we’ve been subject to this prohibition (and it’s transgression) in popular culture since there’s been popular culture. The problem, then, is not with Odd Future, or rap, but our relationship to seduction and commodity.
Despite what some would like to believe, we can hardly expect revolutionary innovations from those whose profession it is to monopolize the stage under the present social conditions. It is obvious that such innovations can come only from people who have received universal hostility and persecution, not from those who receive government funding. More generally, despite the conspiracy of silence on this matter, it can be confidently affirmed that no real opposition can be carried out by individuals who become even slightly more socially elevated through manifesting such opposition than they would have been through refraining.
—Guy Debord (In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, 1978)
Isn’t the cynical resignation that allows us to believe we live in a post-ideological era also what keeps us patrons of a kind of art that narcissistically looks inward? In our age of “emo” and American Idol, isn’t this persistent state of self-consciousness, which continually defines and redefines itself through the Other’s gaze, without any contemplative self-awareness, driving us further from being? As a truly radical redefinition of Cartesianism, the chorus of Eminem’s “The Way I Am” is a contemporary rebuttal to Descartes’ cogito ergo sum:
I think, therefore I am
I am whatever you say I am
Coming out of the era of Existentialism and Postmodernism, finding ourselves post-ideologically un-tethered to anything, we seem to be spectrally disembodied from our own existence. We’ve undergone a subtle shift from ontology to homology, from asking, “what is?” to begging, “what?”
Coinciding with this post-ideological era is the dawn of giving a fuck about what people think disguised as not giving a fuck what people think. It’s contradictorily clear in the way rappers such as Eminem and Odd Future continually tell us how much they don’t care what we think of them through their publicists and managers and social media outposts that, actually, they are defined by how “we” care. Not only that, we see them shape their art, in a sad way, to meet a perceived notion of what “we” want. And, as if behind their backs, following a genuine creative vision is lost in pursuit of satisfying the seductive lure of valuable capital. By acting out some predetermined character of what rap “is,” and then, in reaction to that façade being defaced, there is never a genuine article.
Okay, you guys caught me
I’m not a fucking rapist or serial killer, I lied
I tried to hard, huh?
—Tyler, The Creator
Haha, I’m just playing, ladies
You know I love you
On cue, with Odd Future’s percolation into popular culture came the predictable, level-headed, prohibitionary backlash. One such critic was Sara Quin of the indie rock duo, Tegan and Sara. As a lesbian, her outrage is both warranted and foreseeable. Her indignation of the glorification of rape, the excessive homophobia and the hateful rhetoric was, also predictably, rejoined by a tweet from Tyler: “If Tegan and Sara need some hard dick, hit me up!”
Isn’t this conflict (“why you gotta hate on bitches?” v. “why can’t you stay in your lane, bitch?”) a false conflict? Not that there aren’t legitimate moral issues involving Tyler’s subject matter, but instead of censoring rappers, the task should be to change the conditions so that rapping about faggots and rape is unnecessary. And what makes such rap necessary?
In an industry driven by seduction and commodity, where “products” are thrust at a cynically resigned consumer, things like faggot-calling, rape fantasies and other scandal create interest, and interest is a valuable commodity. It’s not that Sara’s point was not valid, it’s that everyone knows it’s meaningless. She will never win playing against the capitalist market—there’s a long list of losers in that game where capital remains king. In a way, Sara is trying to make the impossible possible, to instill some morality in the market. Instead, what she should aim for is to make the possible impossible, to reveal the market’s inherent immorality. Capitalism is morally neutral (or, to be blunt, it has no morals), so proposing moral solutions to capitalism never affect the true ills of the system. That is to say, raping bitches and killing faggots will be a market concern only when it stops producing profits.
In a coincidental conspiracy of equals, within two days of one another Rihanna and Tyler both released videos that seductively repurposed rape. In the case of “Man Down,” Rihanna shoots and kills the man who sexually assaults her, and in the case of “She,” Tyler enacts the scenery surrounding voyeurism, stalking and rape, using a popular dream-within-a-dream plot device, enabling him to satisfy necrophilic desires without, you know, actually killing and fucking the woman in the video (I just wanna drag your lifeless body to the forest/ And fornicate with it but that’s because I’m in love with you, cunt).
Don’t these two videos work in a Droste-like loop, mirroring one another, acting as the other’s antitheses, yet, at the same time, feeding one another? Both videos reflexively work together: Rihanna, as the woman pushed too far, who suffers an “acceptable” reaction, killing the assailant with a lack of malice aforethought; Tyler, on the other hand, represents the repressed underside of Rihanna’s video, with premeditation generated through fetishizing the woman. The two together are the quilting point which creates the necessary illusion of how we understand the seductive symbolism of rape. Together, these two redouble themselves, endlessly reflecting one another, each working as the other’s counteragent, each regenerating the other.
Shouldn’t we see this unintentional plan between Tyler and Rihanna as a question that is already informed by its answer? Isn’t this reflection/imitation staged in much the same way as a Hegelian presupposition and an Aristotelian mimesis?
Reflection finds before it an immediate which it transcends and from which it is the return. But this return is only the presupposing of what reflection finds before it. What is thus found only comes to be through being left behind.
—Hegel (Science of Logic)
Imitation always involves selecting something from the continuum of experience, thus giving boundaries to what really has no beginning or end. Mimêsis involves a framing of reality that announces that what is contained within the frame is not simply real. Thus the more “real” the imitation the more fraudulent it becomes.
—Michael Davis (On Aristotle’s Poetics)
Tyler (who immaturely explains in an interview what he means by “the walking fucking paradox”) simply, in the Hegelian sense, is the negation of the negation. Paradoxically, his work centers around this passionate, paradoxical struggle, but this struggle is nullified once we see how it is already impregnated with oppositional logic.
This negation of the negation is present in the “based” philosophy of Lil B as well. As a self-professed Based God, Lil B describes being based as being positive, being yourself and not being afraid of what others may think. In repurposing the dismissive view of baseheads (crack addicts), Lil B has turned the wasted outlook usually reserved for drug addicts on its head, and, instead, offers it as a way of life, being pure at heart, clean, and totally swagged out. The positive proclamations of based philosophy are coupled with equally naïve obscenities that act as a based antipode:
I just wanna say I love you, you can be healthy right now, but sick tomorrow, I love you honestly if you are reading this, let’s live
—Lil B (via Twitter)
Word around town bitch I’m a nasty neighbor
30 on my dick and I’m running like the mayor
Young based god bust a nut in her hair
Violate the bitch man make her turn square
—Lil B (“Violate That Bitch”)
Lil B doesn’t need a prohibitive Other to act out against, he carries within himself his own cancellation: titling his album I’m Gay while adamantly assuring people he’s not gay; professing a philosophical lifestyle all about love and positivity while at the same time rapping the opposite; simultaneously publishing testimonials from mothers who claim his music saved the lives of their children and meme-pictures of “based god fucked my bitch.” In the Hegelian sense, Lil B sublates himself into that which he opposes.
What is sublated is not reduced to nothing. Nothing is immediate; what is sublated, on the other hand, is the result of mediation; it is a non-being but as a result which had its origin in a being. It still has, therefore, in itself the determinate from which it originates… ‘To sublate’ has a twofold meaning in the language: on the one hand it means to preserve, to maintain, and equally it also means to cause to cease, to put an end to. Even ‘to preserve’ includes a negative element, namely, that something is removed from its influences, in order to preserve it. Thus what is sublated is at the same time preserved; it has only lost its immediacy but is not on that account annihilated.
—Hegel (Science of Logic)
Young Based God gives a fuck about your problems
Label left me dead and they gave me no options
Fuck you rap niggers cause you scared of your damn self
Bitch suck my dick cause it’s good for her damn health
—Lil B (“Wonton Soup”)
Through this universal indifference, by acting as his own opposition (“based god fucked your bitch” b/w “stay positive, smile for me, it’s all love”), Lil B is able to redefine the commodity seduction of rap, so that he preserves the misogyny and materialism standard in rap while simultaneously appearing to attack it. The spectacle of this “new” style creates value, and novelty is repackaged as freshness.
In this way, doesn’t Lil B share a similarity with Sara Palin? On her One Nation bus tour, Sara Palin invites the media to follow her while she simultaneously criticizes them (“lame-stream media”), continuously disregarding reporters for missing the point (e.g. the Paul Revere incident) while obsessively focusing on her image in the media (e.g., the email archive).
As long as Lil B’s endeavors are found within the coordinates of the seduction of capital commodity, aren’t his “unpredictable” antics impregnated with the predictable oppositional logic? In an interview with CNN regarding the I’m Gay album title “controversy,” Lil B said
I hope that I can turn some of my fans that might be homophobic or supporters that might be homophobic and say, “You know what, we’re all one people…” I call myself the human sacrifice, because I look at it like, no one else is going to do it and push that line for the people, and I’m going to do it, and they’re going to look at me and say, “Well, you know what? If that guy can do it, I can be myself too, and if that rapper can be himself and be free and be happy and still hold masculinity and love people and love flowers and just be happy being alive, well then, I can do that too.”
No one else is going to do it? Never mind all the people who are doing “it.” Wouldn’t a genuine heterosexual sacrifice for gay equality — besides being “happy” and “free” and loving “flowers” while retaining his masculinity — be Lil B sublimating his life into gay culture, totally? Sucking cock, or being the “violated bitch” to some gay dick? It’s a vulgar example, without doubt, but it is precisely the “ultimate human sacrifice,” though Lil B would likely never “push that line” for “the people.”
And this is where I think music writers sell themselves short with the their mystifications of Lil B, such as, “if you didn’t get it, then you didn’t get it,” “you had to be there, I guess,” and “By not being a friend to Lil B, you critically misread his intent.” In truth, it’s not terribly complicated. People aren’t misreading much, nor are they too dumb to “get” how a dude who’s not gay can say that he is gay all the while calling people faggot. Homophobia, when couched in the language of tolerance, is still homophobia. If we strip Lil B of the seduction of capital consumption, the spectacle of celebrity, the oppositional logic that cancels out much of what he says; when we examine the remainder, the genuine element of Lil B, what do we find?
I don’t think that the Negro problem in America can be even discussed coherently without bearing in mind its context; its context being the history, traditions, customs, the moral assumptions and preoccupations of the country; in short, the general social fabric. Appearances to the contrary, no one in America escapes its effects and everyone in America bears some responsibility for it.
—James Baldwin (Notes of a Native Son)
To reiterate the first paragraph of this treatise, this is not an effort to provide answers or fix rap. The point is not to solve problems, but to redefine them. As a fan of rap music and an advocate for the underdog, my best show of support for rap is in being unremittingly critical and offering a logical disputation of that which is assumed as truth. To consider Greenberg’s argument vis-à-vis hip-hop, it’s reasonable to consider this a period of retreat into past insight, plagued by a loss of nerve, amidst a time of disaster. And what’s being advertised as radical and new is actually just advertisement for commercial exchange.
Hip-hop now lives within the system of capital and entertainment, and as such, exists in a moral vacuum. To be critical of the seduction and the societal norms that underpin rap is to be an engaged participant in culture. To engage in the false dichotomy that offers only two choices: to be saved by capitalism (stardom, wealth — “check cheddar like a food inspector”) or destroyed by it (anonymity, poverty — “cocksucker take one for your team”), is to align rap with the freedom of bourgeois aspirations. And we should be reminded here of Marx’s point in The Communist Manifesto, that bourgeois freedom is the freedom to trade, to buy, and to sell. When a handful of rappers become millionaires through the exploitation of capitalism, they become freely bourgeois; traded, bought and sold in the system that continues to exploit them.
Hip-hop, refracted through global capital, will no doubt accentuate the logic of inequality that runs through the rule of capital. Thus, I’m not advocating a return to “conscious rap” or that rappers need to start bombing banks and killing capitalists. However, like any creative expression, rap can’t be hors de combat. The neutral ground moves, and by remaining still, remaining unaligned, a noncombatant “outside the fight” gets carried away, is embedded in the fight. Besides, persistent un-engagement, being ironically distantiated, leaves an artist on the outside of a genuine attitude towards creative substance.
The same is true for us, the listener. Without critical engagement, by remaining lulled within consumptive seduction, and by being cynically resigned, we believe ourselves to be on neutral ground; post-ideologically nonparticipating. By believing ourselves so, as Talal Asad said, we allow ourselves to be lead — complicitly or unwittingly — to an end first conceived by consumptive seduction.
It’s doubtful that hip-hop can dismantle itself from the ideological underpinnings that provide the coordinates from within which it operates, but it cannot not reflect and interact with the social and ideological antagonisms caused by those underpinnings. The more rap tries to be purely aesthetic or removed (“I’m just fucking around”, “It’s just a character I play”, etc.) and/or commercially functional (“It’s all about the cheddar”, “I’m just trying to get some money to feed my daughter”, etc.), the more it reproduces these antagonisms. And, following that tract to its logical conclusion, the more at risk we all are, as Greenberg warned, of living in an age without great art.