Thursday, July 29, 2010

It's Bigger Than Hip-Hop

Recently I was asked to participate in the inaugural installment of the new City Limits web feature, City Conversations. I, along with several community activists, academics, and young people, wrote about the different effects hip-hop music has on New York City's youth today, more than 30 years after the art form first burst onto the scene.

We were asked to response to an article by Mustafa Sullivan about the negative effects of mainstream Hip-Hop music. Ms. Sullivan's article, and the abbreviated version of my response can be read here.

Below is the full length version of my response. The essay is entitled "One Card in a Full Deck." Thank you in advance for reading. Please feel free to post comments & responses! And do not hesitate to email thoughts and feedback. Peace.

One Card in a Full Deck: Understand Hip Hop and Political Change

By Michael Partis

“America got a thing for this gangster shit/They love it…”
50 Cent-Hustler’s Ambition

“Scarface the movie did more than Scarface the rapper to me/so that ain’t the blame for all the shit that’s happened to me”
Jay-Z-Ignorant Shit

To Mustafa and the brothers and sisters at Sistas and Brothas United,

I am a South Bronx resident: born there, raised there, and still living there. I am a young adult who’s coming of age was embedded in the post-Biggie/post-Tupac/hip-hop-becomes-corporate historical moment. And now I am an academic researcher who is deeply concerned with how the political context of neighborhoods and communities interact with the world-view of the young people who live in those places. It is for those reasons that I admire, respect, and appreciate your piece on Hip-Hop music. Your position, your voice, and your vision are desperately needed if we are going to seriously embark on incorporating Hip-Hop into a progressive, political movement.

I love your commitment to social justice. I love the mission which Sistas and Brothas United undertakes, and how it continues the organizing and advocacy tradition of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. In an approach which is intrinsic to the social justice tradition, I want to critically reflect on a few of the points you bring up in your article. In the spirit of love and respect, and in the spirit of being committed to creating a just society, I will also challenge you.

You have eloquently laid out the critical contexts and questions at hand:

Hip Hop music and Hip Hop culture has not only penetrated the daily workings of the global world, but has also profoundly impacted the public’s understandings of poverty, artistic expression, and the worldview of Black and Brown youth across the globe. The questions we face looking forward, are how can young people channel the culture’s transformative power; and how do progressive activists & community organizers address the negative aspects of the music—plainly, how can this complicated social phenomenon effect positive political change?

You talk exclusively about Hip-Hop music—specifically mainstream Hip-Hop music. I want to expand the conversation to also consider Hip-Hop culture, and for us to seriously meditate on where Hip-Hop music comes from. What are its origins?

Mainstream Hip-Hop has never been overly interested in “consciousness.” Mainstream Hip-Hop has never been overwhelmingly interested in political issues. It is important that we are clear about the history of Hip-Hop music, and not romanticize it. A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, and De La Soul were not a part of mainstream Hip-Hop. They did not sell as many records and were not as commercially successful as say 50 Cent, Ja Rule, DMX or the other rappers that came to fame in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Those artists represent Hip-Hop music’s corporate turn: marketable, sellable, and most importantly, profitable. They were incredibly popular to the general music consumer, broke records for album sales, and brought Hip-Hop music to Top 40 radio. “In the Club,” “Holla, Holla,” and “Where My Dogs At” is mainstream Hip-Hop. Not “Bonita Applebum,” “Fight the Power,” or “Me, Myself, and I.”

The most commercially successful and profitable Hip-Hop artists were not firebrands for activism and political action. Mainstream Hip-Hop is Run DMC; LL Cool J; Beastie Boys; Tupac; Biggie; Eminem; P Diddy; Jay-Z; Kanye West—artists and groups never associated with being political organizers, and who’s music and lives are deeply complicated and nuanced. Rather, they are artists and groups that have always been associated with: sex, drugs, and money; having fun, partying, and enjoying the best that life has to offer; rising from humble beginnings to enjoying luxurious and lavish lifestyles; and exhibiting a gangster bravado and social-defiance that often feeds our interest/obsession with “the bad guy.”

We may want mainstream Hip-Hop to be Dead Prez, Talib and Mos, Immortal Technique, and Common…but, it isn’t. Mainstream Hip-Hop music is commercially successful, profitability, and marketable—not revolutionary or political in the way we often think.

Thus, we have to consider what the roots of Hip-Hop music are. Hip-Hop music’s origins start with the party. It is dancing, DJs, and partying. The music is the fusion of dancehall, funk, and salsa. It is the innovation of blending two records together; of playing only the “break beats;” of extending certain parts of a song so people could dance longer. Hip-Hop music is the central component to break-dancing. The sound, the music, is made for you to dance; or nod your head. This is what Kool Herc and the early Hip-Hop DJs of the 70’s where trying to accomplish; this was Hip-Hop’s foundation. It was the party that Sugar Hill Gang gave us in “Rapper’s Delight” (1979). It was the party that the Beastie Boys fought for the right to have.

And maybe, that’s not a bad thing.

The roots of Hip-Hop culture come from the pinnacle of governmental disregard for the urban Black and Latino poor. Hip-Hop culture rises from the shadows of “benign neglect” and “planned shrinkage.” It is the outcome of President Ford telling New York City to “drop dead.” It is the result of fiscal crisis, tickle down economics, and neoliberalism. It is at the epicenter of the post-Civil Rights, post-Black Power, post-Vietnam War historical moment; a moment of disillusion, social reorganization, and political re-prioritization. Socio-economically, Hip-Hop’s origins come from the worst of times. Was it “Great Depression” or Jim Crow south bad…probably not. Was it a time of incredible hardship, struggle, and pain…absolutely.

How do we balance struggle and joy? How do we remain committed to a progressive political agenda, yet reconcile the problematic aspects of Hip-Hop music?

First we must always remember the poignant words of Dead Prez: “It’s bigger than Hip-Hop.”

It is not mandatory that we use Hip-Hop music to address the poverty, racism, and economic dislocation that Sistas and Brothas United want to address. The issues that confront the youth of the South Bronx, and ghettoes and hoods across the country, are not caused by a 50 Cent song; even the most vulgar, most despicable, most immoral Hip-Hop song, does not induce unemployment or budget cuts. These issues have a much larger context, and it is important that we always remember that. The decision-making process in the United States has many players, stakeholders, and operatives; people that effect policy, legislation, and political decisions, and that create the context of our neighborhoods, our communities, and our people. That reality…is bigger than Hip-Hop.

It is critically important that our young people understand that context. It is even more important for us organizers to teach young people about these systems; about this context; to help them and ourselves disentangle this complicated system of interactions, perceptions, and realities. Mentors and organizers have to teach young people that we can effect these systems; that we are actors; that we can affect the context, and make it our own.

And most importantly, we have to realize that the problems of the urban poor are multi-dimensional. Again, it’s bigger than Hip-Hop.

I am not arguing that we ignore Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop culture can play a critical role in our organizing. This is especially true because as you pointed out, it is a part of the daily life of many youth in our communities; it is fundamental in shaping their world-view. And for these very reasons I agree with you—we can’t allow the sexist, homophobic, misogynistic, gratuitously vulgar, unnecessarily violent thread of Hip-Hop music to continue unopposed. It has tremendous impact on the psycho-social health of our young people, and on how others perceive urban communities and the people who live there—it affects what they understand to be the social reality of these communities. The reality is more than pimps and drug dealers; or gangster rap. The reality includes Sistas and Brothas United, or Fordham University’s Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP). Or the Bronx Brotherhood Project (BBP), a college readiness and mentorship program for Black and Latino high school males which I co-created and co-direct. The reality is rooted in what is called “the beautiful struggle:” a confluence of pain, joy, hardship, resistance, strength, community, organizing, and support.

And that is bigger than Hip-Hop music. That is the root of Hip-Hop culture. While that may not be the mainstream understanding of Hip-Hop, it is a profound ethos that can realized if we deeply study the culture; if we have a clear understanding of the context behind the culture, and the origins of the music.

It’s Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.” Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Tupac’s “Brenda Had a Baby.” Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” Biggie’s “Juicy” or “Everyday Struggle.” Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation. Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life.”

It is also the New York State Senate; City Hall; the Comptroller; the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation; the Right to the City; “The Race to the Top;” “Promise Neighborhoods;” charter schools; diminishing tax-bases; fiscal issues; job creation; finance capital; Community Voices Heard; and a long list that goes on.

The point is: social change does not happen in a vacuum, it takes a remarkable amount of actors and interactions. We cannot have singular explanation for our communities’ problems; we can’t have singular solutions either.

I admire you all for taking the first steps towards creating solutions. I look forward to learning more about your organization’s planning, process, implementation, and desired outcomes. I will continue to do my part to create impact, and work towards social change. And let us continue to think through how to reach our youth, and what role Hip-Hop can play.