Race, Representation and Resistance: Hip-Hop History and Politics in a Capitalist Culture
written by Michele Wong
What is hip-hop? Where is it derived from? What did it stand for and what does it stand for now? Why are there controversies in media? More often than not, those who engage in the culture and the world of hip hop, whether it be dancing, rapping, deejaying, spinning or admiring, do not think or know about the systemic roots of hip-hop. Sure, there are the “true school” kids who pride themselves in knowing what song came out when, or the complete anthology of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, or whatever, but still have no idea of its systemic issues. Why is that? How did the historical role of hip-hop come to be ignored by today’s generation of hip-hop contributors?
In this article, I will be discussing the topic of hip-hop history and politics in a capitalist culture through the theoretic framework of the following articles: Gangsta Culture- Sexism, Misogyny: Who Will Take the Rap? by bell hooks, Check Yo Self Before You Wreck Yo Self: The Death of Politics in Rap Music and Popular Culture by Todd Boyd, The Politics of Hip Hop by Manning Marable, This Dark Diction Has Become America’s Addiction: Language Diaspora, and Hip Hop’s Billing Economy by Michael Eric Dyson and Bling Bling… and Going Pop: Consumerism and Co-optation in Hip Hop by Imani Perry. These articles all have one thing in common: they all recognize that hip-hop is a social changing culture. However, how has this culture really changed?
In Oprah Winfrey’s Town Hall Meeting on the hip-hop in the post-Imus era, she failed to acknowledge the major systemic issues of racism and sexism in the context of the capitalist culture paradigm.(1) Rather, hip-hop critics on the show attacked individual artists, radio stations and television network, Black Entertainment Television (BET) drowning the issues with personal stories of their experience with discrimination. Specifically attacked on the show, rapper 50 Cent responded with a valid point that it is very easy to attack an individual rather than large media empires that run media outlets. (2)
Although guests Russell Simmons, Common, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, and Kevin Liles attempted to create a forum on the historical positive impacts of hip-hop, it too largely ignored the issues of hip-hop within a capitalist culture. Marable’s article supported Russell Simmons’ emphasis on educating the artists(3) by creating strengthening networks within the hip-hop community, such as the Hip Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN).
According to Marable, hip-hop was rooted through decades of racial and class struggle looking for social change and cultural empowerment, thereby believing that HSAN is necessary to reconnect civil rights leaders with the young hip-hop contributors today. This vaguely illustrates a relationship between politics and hip-hop. The words economics (money/bling), power, capitalism are all description words within the political science dictionary as well as associating with hip-hop culture when dissected into their own roles. Hip-hop now is fueled with a multi-billion dollar industry from top dog record labels to television shows like Randy Jackson’s America’s best dance crews showing off the art of breaking to millions. Increasingly so, hip-hop has submerged into the capitalist culture.
Marable depicts a degree of positivity that hip-hop plays in mainstream society. With HSAN, Marable believes that hip-hop can be an element in shaping society today. Still, he acknowledges the reactionary impulses of current hip-hop toward misogyny, homophobia, and specifically corporate greed that were “brutally exploited by business practices of managers and music executives.”
In describing corporate greed, bell hooks coined the term white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks 115) highlighting the predominant white capitalist society that has created a cultural vacuum crossing the world into white values while rewarding young rappers with monetary compensation for their contribution. Similar terms can be found within the same context such as white supremacist corporate capitalism (Dyson 58) or as the media’s eager embrace of the ghetto lifestyle (Boyd 327). The description of “ghetto lifestyle” points to a desire of white capitalism that young hip hop listeners are subscribed to.
This all mighty powerful hungry moneymaking machine is what has changed hip-hop into allowing “the success of a plethora of MCs with mediocre skills.” (Perry 191) It is the very topic that the guests of the Oprah Winfrey show have failed to address. They neglected to dig into the reasons why these young rappers are expressing words of hate. Most of these young musicians see what they have to do to make money: through commercialism dictated by the capitalist culture. The bottom line is; if you wave a million dollars across a poor man’s face, he’ll do whatever it takes to get it.
What is hard to understand is the belief that white supremacist capitalism is what caused hip-hop to create music endorsing violence, misogyny and materialism. The type of music heard during hip-hop’s youth is parallel to what is being heard on the radio now. But because money is heavily involved, it has been tainted. Materialism, objectification, violence and misogyny were always prevalent in hip-hop and more specifically it was already deeply embedded into the patriarchical society. The only difference now is that it has been exploited. Those negative connotations are glorified now because it sells records.
While Afrika Bambataa established Zulu Nation for a political purpose, hip-hop was also developing from local block parties in the poverty-stricken Bronx. In the 1970’s, most of the young men in these types of communities were exposed to the violent gang wars in New York City in the seventies.(4) Hip-hop was established as the voice and heart of a neglected part of society, not as a voice of political embrace, but as a voice for their reputation. Eventually, the voice transformed into a political cause. All-in-all, DJ Kool Herc wasn’t attempting to develop a whole new genre of music or a brand new cultural expression rather he did so to formulate innovative mixing and scratching to establish a name for himself, or simply to put food on the table.
In a smaller scale, gangsta rap can be compared to mondo films, a type of documentary exposing really shocking and disturbing subject matter.(5) It started as one documentary and then it got more and more extreme to the point that it started turning into exploitative sales, encouraging to become more notorious. The content and shocking matters had always existed, yet the divergence of capitalist culture had tainted its original value. That is what hip-hop has developed into now. What it will evolve into later, we can only wait and see.
(1) Oprah Winfrey Show. April 17, 2007. After Imus: the Hip Hop Community Responds. click here
(2) Black Tree Media. You Tube. 50 Cent Response.
(3) “All throughout history the poets who have been a reflection of society have always been under fire. We don’t like what they have to say, but some of it has to be examined. It’s important that we teach artists more. It’s my job to teach artists to know more and say more.” – Russell Simmons on Oprah Winfrey Show
(4) There are many examples of New York City gang war references in the 1970s including: New York Times. Bronx Gang Leader is Slain Trying to Arrange Peace (December 3, 1971) p 36
Other examples include novel the Warriors by Sol Yurick and the movie directed by Walter Hill.
(5) Examples can be found on http://www.mondomovie.com