June 10, 2003
What is Hip-Hop Activism?
Politicians and media folks love to play with our heads by making up new slang. The government will concoct a certain word or phrase and then repeat it again and again, every time they get in front of a microphone. They never really explain where it came from, or what exactly it means, but by sheer power of repetition they get the media to pick it up and join in the chorus, beating it into our heads every time we watch tv or read (surf) the paper. Pretty soon we are all swallowing their slang and regurgitating without a second thought.
Like when America decided Manuel Noriega was no longer a useful partner in crime, we started calling him a "strongman" every night on the news. Pretty soon whenever reporters talked about him he was Panamanian Strongman Manuel Noriega, and it seemed like none of us ever thought to ask "wait, what the hell is a 'strongman' anyway? And how come nobody called him that until 4 months ago?"
They do this because they know that by controlling the language used to discuss an issue they can shape the way that issue is delivered to the public, shape the direction and the boundaries of debate on that issue.
So I always try to pay close attention to language, and I'm always concerned when people start repeating a phrase over and over without establishing a definition for it, and confirming that what it describes is something that actually exists.
Lately I've been seeing the phrase "Hip-Hop Activism" thrown around a quite a bit, but I'm never clear on what exactly it's supposed to mean, and if there really is such a thing. It certainly sounds nice, but I don't want to slack on my critical thinking just cuz the propaganda is coming from our side and I'm sympathetic to the cause.
So when I see pieces like this one below, I always wind up yelling at the screen "But what the hell is Hip-Hop Activism?" ..does this describe any action carried out by the "Hip-Hop Generation"? Does it mean activities led by actual Hip-Hop artists or industry figures? Are there certain Hip-Hop tactics that must be employed for an activity to qualify as Hip-Hop Activism, just as Hip-Hop fashion requires wearing certain clothes, and Hip-Hop music requires certain musical elements? Just what are we talking about exactly?
Hip Hop Activism Buds Beautifully
I'm sympathetic to where this guy's coming from, and all in favor of organizing against America's bonehead drug policies. But I'm not sold on this assumption that there exists a particular entity or tradition we can accurately label Hip-hop Activism. And I'm damn sure not sold on the assumptions drawn about it here, based mostly on the Russell Simmons Celebrity Be-In: "Hip Hop is coming into political maturity" ..is it really? "Now, there is an entire genre that is budding into full political awareness" ..is there? What does that even mean?