11 December 2005
Hip Hop Matters
Politics, Popular Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement
S. Craig Watkins
Why White Kids Love Hip Hop
Wangstas, Wiggers, Wannabes, and the New Reality of Race in America
Saturday, December 11, 2005
The Dallas Morning News
To the chagrin of some, the sublime happiness of many more, hip-hop matters. Anyone who doubts that its power extends beyond music need only recall Kanye West's incendiary declaration that "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
For many, hip-hop star West spoke a very complex, political truth. Others, such as Laura Bush, found his statement "disgusting." But the line recalls Louis Armstrong, who said, during the 1957 Little Rock desegregation crisis, "It's getting so bad a colored man hasn't got any country." In the same way that jazz artists once carried cultural cachet, hip-hop stars now have political impact.
But how powerful are they? A pair of recent books, Bakari Kitwana's Why White Kids Love Hip Hop and S. Craig Watkins' Hip Hop Matters , assert that hip-hop culture – the music, the art, the fashion and the philosophical attitude – is the gateway to new interracial political coalitions, to a new American democracy.
The disastrous effects of Katrina, Rita and Wilma, not to mention this fall's "Thug Day" hijinks at Highland Park High School, have shown us in overt and subtle ways that class, racial history and political status are problems that can surge together into dangerous realities. Hip-hop artists have been detailing these combustible fusions for three decades, but they haven't always been able to overcome power by speaking to it frankly. It makes me skeptical of these two authors' claims of hip-hop, politics and interracial coalitions.
While I am a fellow traveler – hip-hop is part and parcel of my intellectual and political attitudes – I wonder whether the "white kids who love hip-hop" have much stake in it politically or existentially. Do white hip-hop fans understand all the layers of meaning in Mr. West's statement or his lyrics? Even more, do black and brown kids understand what's at stake for them? The perpetuation of hip-hop's most debilitating images, the pimp and thug mentality, impedes their access to everything from the economic mainstream to real political power.
It is true, as Mr. Kitwana and Mr. Watkins write, that hip-hop has always been interracial. It's an urban culture influenced by blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans, as well as white folks. But it isn't clear that this truth can transcend the glory of 50 Cent's gangsta motto: Get rich or die tryin'. This is a very American problem: Getting rich has always looked sexier than fighting for economic and political parity.
In Hip-Hop Matters, Mr. Watkins profiles interracial political groups that use hip-hop to seek that parity nationally and locally. Working out of New York City, Russell Simmons' Hip-Hop Summit Action Network uses celebrities to create momentum for political initiatives crucial to urban communities. Nationally, the group organizes voter registration; locally, it lobbies to increase funding for schools. Mr. Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records and the Phat Farm fashion line, knows that media exposure and celebrity can sell political agendas as well as designer sneakers.
Mr. Watkins contrasts that star-powered effort with the youth-focused approach of Bay Area political action teams Books Not Bars and Let's Get Free, which are staffed by young, interracial activists rooted in hip-hop culture. In his book, Mr. Kitwana explores what he sees as hip-hop's burgeoning political influence in the best section: his analyses of popular movies about hip-hop, politics and race such as Bulworth and Malibu's Most Wanted. He argues that these films imagine a future where whiteness is no longer supreme and hip-hop is the frankest form of political speech.
Wisely, both writers critique the commercialization of hip-hop culture. Mr. Kitwana sees two groups of hip-hop consumers: the aficionados of the lifestyle and the pop-culture consumers, who view hip-hop as another thing to be bought and sold. Both writers identify the aficionados as the potential political players.
But those players could be blocked by pop-culture consumers. Hip-hop's once prominent political and social messages are crowded out by more simplistic notions of African-American life: the bling, the misogyny and the ethos of violence.
Both writers take hip-hop seriously because they want to see their social and political hopes fulfilled. But this doesn't address hip-hop's irreverent side. As tasty as their music is, we probably shouldn't tie our political hopes to Young Jeezy or Paul Wall.
And, in light of this political potential, what do we do with hip-hop's fascination with iced-out ballers, pimping and thugging? The NBA's answer is a player dress code on and off court that's clearly aimed at rejecting the sartorial style of hip-hop.
Mr. Watkins or Mr. Kitwana should have analyzed the connections between rap lyrics and political ideals. That would help illuminate a mainstream hip-hop star such as Kanye West, last year's Grammy darling and nominated for eight more last week. The rapper's indignant claims about the government's response after Hurricane Katrina drew far more attention than his powerful, humble performance of "Jesus Walks" during the Sept. 9 telethon, Shelter From the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast. He improvised, playing with his lyrics:
"We got a flood/ now we gotta walk ...
I can only imagine/If I couldn't see my mom/If I couldn't see my family
If I had to lose my home/If I had to stay in the Superdome ...
To the victims of welfare/Feel we living in hell here/Hell ya ...
I know he hear me when my feet get weary/Cause we're the almost nearly extinct
We rappers is role models/We rap, we don't think ...
If you spit the truth/You won't get played"
It's his biggest hit from his debut CD, The College Dropout. On record, "Jesus Walks" is a loud parade march that crescendos like an aria. Mr. West, who loves to rhyme over samples of old soul songs, built the track atop a supple sliver of Curtis Mayfield's "If There's a Hell Below, We're All Gonna Go." The sample helps Mr. West make Jesus a moral representative of the socially lowdown and the economically marginalized.
But on Sept. 9, backed by a robed choir, he enhanced the song's gospel attitude and added a sober self-critique; he directed our attention to the disaster and the power of song without directing attention to himself. Ultimately, these two books illustrate that hip-hop is a strong, complex aesthetic approach to life. Hip-hop allows us to speak, dance and think. I'll shelve my skepticism in favor of the hope that these books communicate so effectively. Perhaps hip-hop can revolutionize our political system.