January 11, 2005
Facing Hip-hop Love Addiction
Surveying the wildly divergent reactions to Greg Tate's latest, Jeff Chang asked if there is a generation gap between older heads like us and those born after the mid 70's or so.
I think he's on to something there. I think it's a lot easier for younger heads to maintain a healthy relationship with hip-hop, because they are in a better position to see and accept hip-hop for what it is. While us old folks are still caught up in a fantasy version of hip-hop that either no longer exists or never existed in the first place. It's the difference between being in love and being love addicted.
That’s right, my fellow fogeys, we have a disease. And it’s time for us to start owning our reality and find a path to recovery. So let’s start breaking down the addictive cycle step-by-step.
1. In her book Facing Love Addiction, Pia Mellody builds on the premise that “people fall into love addiction because of the unhealed pain from child abandonment.”
How does this apply to us as 30+ hip-hoppers? Well as I said here we all grew up with a profound sense of abandonment, coming of age right when our parents’ activist/political movements were fading away, leaving us with little leadership and less momentum. And nowhere was this void more pronounced than in black community. And this inevitably led to the next step:
2. As Mellody explains “one way such children may escape the pain of severe abandonment by the parents is to fantasize about being rescued by a hero of some kind.” And as adults, this leads us to seek out “unhealthy relationships based on intensity, delusion, and unrealistic expectations, and not mature healthy love.”
Sound familiar? As soon as the late 80s “conscious era” came around, this was the relationship we all sought out with hip-hop, to one degree or another. We convinced ourselves that these young rappers were just the heroes we were looking for, to swoop in and fill that activist void. And just like in every addicted relationship, at first it all seemed so perfect…
3. When the love addict first enters a relationship, according to Mellody they experience a tremendous initial high as their fantasy is triggered, and they revel in their “fantasy image which they place like a beautiful mask over the head” of their partner.
What sweeter high could there be than what we felt in that golden age, when we truly believed in Greg Tate’s “Afrocentric dream of hiphop's becoming an agent of social change.” And for a while it was all too easy to believe the dream could come true.. so easy that some of us started to lose sight of all the artistry that really made the golden age golden. We became blinded to the whole of hip-hop’s inherent worth, focused only on that activist mask we had put over it. But fantasies never last too long..
4. Then Mellody describes the next stage, when the love addict continues showing more neediness than the partner can possibly fulfill, and the partner starts to put up walls and pull away from the addict. But the addict remains in denial and cannot see.
As I lamented here two years ago, the golden age was truly golden in many ways, and much of that magic was lost as the music got assimilated into America’s mainstream hive-mind. Just as this co-optation was going into high gear NWA’s gangsta eclipsed PE’s righteousness to establish a new paradigm of profitability for the industry, and a new standard of “realness” and manhood for the artist and audience. The game would never be the same.
Hip-hop has still remained beautiful in many ways, though, since it started down that path. Added many new layers of meaning atop the compelling musicality that is always its foundation. But for us, the golden age love addicts, our delusions have been all we could see. Even as hip-hop pulled further and further down its natural path and away from our irrational needs, we could see nothing but our fantasy mask, and kept hoping all these young artists would soon reveal their true identities as raptivist superheroes. Until one day we each reached our breaking point.
5. But at some point, the book warns, every addict reaches a point when they can no longer maintain their delusion in the face of mounting evidence, so their fantasy and denial start to crumble and they enter a state of withdrawal. As the addict truly sees their partner for the first time, and realizes they are not that fantasy hero at all, the addict often develops an exaggerated sense of resentment towards the partner. They may then become consumed with a desire to lash out the partner, or seek revenge.
How many times have we seen this? How many indignant, brokenhearted “hip-hop is dead!” manifestos have come from those among us who finally hit that wall and watched our fantasies die? Even the mighty Greg Tate, the godfather of us all, slips a bit into this trap with that Voice piece. As much as he is correct in assessing what hip-hop is in 2005, the tone of his analysis and the conclusions he draws are overstated and misguided in classic love-addict form.
I hadn’t read O-Dub’s excellent take on Tate’s piece until I was almost done writing this, and I wish I could start from scratch with his thoughts in mind. But I have to agree with David that Oliver may be crediting the piece with more nuance and balance than it actually has. The Dub is surely right that hip-hop has far reaching influences and importance beyond making booties shake, and these dimensions deserve analysis. But not much good can come of that analysis if it’s built on the assumption that hip-hop is a failure, or in Greg Tate's words that "hip-hop sucks," because it never fulfilled the unrealistic needs of our love-addicted fantasy.
So unless we can all get on the road to recovery, it may be the analysis we need will only come from these younger heads, who came of age when hip-hop was already within the mainstream machinery, and are thus burdened with none of our illusions. It doesn’t appear to me that heads like Hashim (who was maybe a little too harsh with Greg, yes) want to dismiss entirely the issues that Greg raises, and define the music as merely entertainment and nothing more. They just seem to have a more clear-headed, and non-judgmental/non-resentful, sense of how much hip-hop is merely commercial entertainment now, and how much it is not. So they are able to love hip-hop for what it is, and cultivate a healthy relationship with it, with ample room for constructive criticism and collective introspection. And that's the place us fogeys need to get to. But it’s 4AM, and I may just be rambling now.