January 7, 2004
Politics, Dentistry and Why Hip-Hop Matters
A few comments on the conversation I posted between Bob Law and Louis Farrakhan:
No doubt I am tired of all these emcees reheating the same thug-life leftovers, and I'd love to see more new dishes on the menu. No matter how dire your circumstances you can always strive for more than simply "keeping it real" by taking what you see around you and presenting it at face value. Bob Law illustrated this nicely with his prison art analogy: "If you ever see the paintings that prison inmates do, they never paint jail cells. They paint landscapes, they paint freedom. They paint what can be, what they would like to create."
But my problem with much of this discussion, especially Farrakhan's initial comments, is the assumption that hip-hop's importance derives primarily, or even solely, from its potential to instill political consciousness and initiate social activism. Many of us might see nothing wrong with that, and feel flattered that our elders have found some value in our work. But it is false flattery, based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what hip-hop is, and why hip-hop matters.
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but hip-hop music is just that, a form of music, that is made by musicians. Hip-hop matters because at its best it is an incredibly innovative and vibrant form of music. Hip-hop artists are important because of their contributions to the world of music.
These words should not appear strange to anyone. But they probably will, because our sense of hip-hop's worth has been so distorted by this overemphasis on its activist potential. If I said that Duke Ellington, James Brown, or the Beatles were important because of their contributions to the world of music, nobody would bat an eye. But when I say the same about hip-hop artists, someone is bound to reply: "No they are much more than just musicians, they are this generation's leaders/teachers/soldiers! Hip-hop is not just music it's a culture/movement/revolution!"
These protests (especially from older speakers like Law and Farrakhan) tend to carry an underlying assumption that hip-hop's musical contributions alone are not enough to make it worthy of respect. And perhaps more importantly, they promote a faulty conception of how effective activism can be realized.
The confusion is understandable. If you don't have an ear for what is going on musically, hip-hop probably just sounds like a bunch of people talking, so it's only natural to conclude that they can only become relevant by choosing relevant things to talk about. Plus, hip-hop became the dominant cultural force in Black America at a time when we had developed a gaping void in Black leadership/activism. The last generation of militant Black activist had faded away, whether due to cointelpro or whatever other factors you want to blame.. at the same time the church's influence continued to wane.. and it was in this setting that hip-hop rose to prominence.
So it may seem proper to assume that hip-hop was sent here to fill the void. It's certainly a convenient interpretation for our elders who were never able or willing to comprehend hip-hop's artistic merit, but still yearn for some way to connect with us and embrace us (or at least for a chance to shift the blame for this leadership void onto someone other than themselves). After all, rappers are the only ones around these days who can capture the attention of our young people, so it must be a rapper's responsibility to educate and politicize them, right?
Wrong. If your family dentist retires and a plumber moves into his office space, would you tell the plumber it's his job to fix your teeth, since he has a bunch of tools and there's no dentist around anymore? That's basically what you're doing when you implore rappers to provide our activist leadership just because they're the ones our kids watch on TV.
Musicians and artists can play a crucial role in assisting and supporting bonafide activists in any social movement. But calling on those artists to "lead the revolution" themselves is not just unrealistic, it's downright ridiculous, and nothing constructive will ever come out of it.
Nobody will ever say that Muddy Waters or Sarah Vaughan or Eric Dolphy or Minnie Riperton failed us because they did not propagate a comprehensive political platform. Judging hip-hop by such criteria is equally foolish, unfair to the artist, and counterproductive for whatever cause you hope to aid by coronating these rappers as leaders.
(this is expanded from an old comment in Lynne's blog)