hip hop music

September 11, 2007

America’s Two Destinies


On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in Los Angeles, a continent away from my family — my biological kin on the East Coast and my metaphorical relatives, the people of New York. The worst part, for me, was not being here.

Later that morning, I finally got my father on the phone. Dad doesn’t get mad, but sometimes you can hear him quietly seething. As he watched the smoke rise from Ground Zero, he said: “What good is all this power if we can’t use it?”

I don’t think my father meant that the United States immediately march off to war, much less invade the wrong country. But I understand the frustration. We are rich. We are strong. We are smart. Why can’t we have more control?

What my father said on the morning of September 11 brings to mind another quote that answers his question:

“Those magnificent Americans. So much power and so little understanding of what to do with it.”

These words were written by a Hollywood screenwriter named Dennis Feldman, and spoken by Victor Wong, an actor portraying Gompa, a peculiar Himalayan monk in Eddie Murphy’s 1986 vehicle, “The Golden Child.”

My own teacher, Yogi Bhajan — who was born but a few hundred miles from the Himalayas — said much the same thing time and again. America has the potential to be a spiritual superpower. But nobody knows how to use our power, both individual and collectively.

For individuals, you learn to use power by channeling it through slavish faith to a discipline, a daily spiritual practice. For a nation, the answer is slavish faith to an ideal.

What is that American ideal? I like to think the ceremony at the one-year anniversary of 9-11 provided an almost perfect picture of it. The commemoration took place at Ground Zero, literally in a hole in the ground that had been created after the ruins of the World Trade Center had been lifted out. The mourners — representing all the races and ethnicities of America — filed down a long ramp to the dirt floor, where they made a loop around a big, circular altar, and then ascended another long ramp to the surface.

Think about this metaphorically. The two towers represented the male. Not just any male. Two times the male, two times the potency, two times the audacity. When those towers were knocked down, so was our manhood. And what were they replaced by? A hole. A vessel. The ultimate masculine replaced by the ultimate feminine.

What does a phallus do? It projects. It forces. What does the vessel do? It receives. It shelters. It nurtures. It protects.

America has ever had this dual identity, this androgyny, this split personality, this ambivalence that needs to be resolved. As a nation, we grew to power by force. We forced the Native Americans off their land. We forced Africans onto tiny ships and forced them to work. We forced other nations to do our bidding. But that is not the only story of America. Even before we took on the national karma of slavery and subjugation, we were a vessel, a refuge. We were a collecting place of nations. Our heritage as a multicultural haven precedes — if only by a few months — our legacy of patriarchal terror. And it is the more feminine ideal that is enshrined in our nation’s founding documents (aside, of course, from the three-fifths clause).

America has never resolved this ambivalent dialectic between the two distinct versions of its Manifest Destiny. The patriarchal version is that of the monochromatic, conquering, Christian nation. Its power comes from singular vision and singular direction. It’s George W. Bush’s America. The matriarchal version is of the dynamic, polyglot, polycultural cauldron. Its power comes from the explosive reaction between different elements. It’s Hip-Hop’s America.

In that transformation at Ground Zero lay the lesson that America needed to learn. Was the answer simply to find a suitable target and blast away? To symbolically rebuild those two big gun barrels and get our power back? To use brute force to retain our place as the first among all nations? Or was the answer to stand down for a bit. To grieve. To plan. To gather information. To accomplish by stealth what could not possibly be accomplished by force. To use out intelligence to attain our rightful place, not as the first among nations, but as the best. To rebuild, not towers of steel, but towers of light.

This is what could have been after September 11, 2001. But it wasn’t. America got what we deserved. We voted, twice, for the favorite son of a patriarch, and we got patriarchy. We got repression at home and wars of expedition abroad. The vision of the American patriarchs is no different, really, from the Islamist patriarchs. It’s just another fundamentalism: a singular vision of the world led by a singular nation, run by a singular people.

Meanwhile, our generation, the hip-hop generation, has really sat this one out. The meager lyrical reaction to 9-11 was tantamount to a shrug. Nas offered a mere, “What goes around comes around.” Everybody blamed Bush. And when Bush sent thousands of young Americans to die in a desert, in turn imperiling hundreds of thousands of innocent humans, hip-hop shrugged again. Blamed Bush again. Eminem was the only high-profile hip-hop act to make some kind of grand artistic statement in an effort to sway the 2004 election. Eminem.

Perhaps our generation remained apathetic because — between Bush and Kerry — we didn’t see much of a real choice. That’s fair. Perhaps we’re indifferent because we too are stuck in that American ambivalence — between our patriarchal money and gun worship and desecration of the female on one hand, and our matriarchal soul on the other. I’ve said it before: As hip-hop became mainstream, it adopted the mainstream’s values.

But as far as America’s true Manifest Destiny goes — the destiny of America to be a nation of nations — there is and has been no greater example of that ideal in the history of our country as the hip-hop generation. We are the caretakers of this ideal! It lives or dies with us.

I am amazed, time and again, that people miss hip-hop’s most essential gift to this country and this world: That we created a generation of Americans (and more specifically, white Americans) who have largely lost their fear of the Other. As abysmal as the recent MTV Video Music Awards were, I was amazed by how dominant hip-hop was, how the country’s major acts are now either Black or interracial (especially if we count Timbaland’s omnipresence with Nelly and Justin onstage). I cannot tell you strongly enough how impossible this would have been 25 years ago, when MTV was founded. I cannot tell you how segregated kids listening and socializing habits were. What hip-hop accomplished — simply on its power to tap into the multicultural ideal that’s imprinted deep in the spirit of this nation — is simply astounding.

In the Golden Child, when Gompa was talking to his daughter (played by the very multicultural Charlotte Lewis), she was complaining about Eddie Murphy's character, Chandler: He is rude, he is selfish, and so on. And Gompa keeps reminding her of his virtues. It didn't even matter to Gompa that Chandler flipped into hip-hop mode ("I said-a-I-I-I-I-uuh-I-I-want the kniiiife"). Gompa called him "The American." He saw beauty. He saw power.

We still have lots of power. Lots of it. We simply have no idea how to use it.

But on this sixth anniversary of a tragic but important American turning point, I have some advice:

Start with yourself. I just did.

Posted by dcharnas at September 11, 2007 11:12 AM

Weblog Archives