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As I suggested in my earlier post on the genre, the reputation of hip-hop as a product of popular degeneration has misled many into thinking that it lacks a conscious, intelligent, or political agenda. Indeed, it is ludicrous to some even to consider it. The’ rapper’ as a social type is lazily imagined to be equivalent with the semi-feral street thugs or sub-standard White trash kids who consume his products. This is both wrong and potentially dangerous. To underestimate here is to misunderstand and so let us here again push back against the trend.
There is – I believe – no better contemporary example of hiphop’s insidious politicking than the artistry of the Chicagoan rapper Kanye West.
Mr West, you may have noticed, is a figure of particular ridicule among the educated (and those who believe themselves to be so). His outlandish public statements, his ‘humourous’ naming of his first-born ‘North’, and his marriage to the absurdly proportioned celebrity Kim Kardashian have made him low-hanging fruit for a predatory satirical class.
Nevertheless, West is, relative to his contemporaries, especially political, his lyricism often highly intelligent and his art loaded with racial significance.
The first lyric we’ll consider by way of illustration, is from a recent song entitled ‘New Slaves’:
“My momma was raised in an era when,
Clean water was only served to the fairer skin
Doing clothes you would have thought I had help
But they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself.”
This freezing of the clock in the era of slavery provides the keynote for much of West’s work. In this verse, West begins by acknowledging the cooled nature of ‘his’ complaint, but then proceeds to reheat it by placing himself in a previous historical time (“Unless I picked…). This speaks volumes about the faded thinking involved in Black Power movements.
It’s true to say that African-Americans have every right to be angry at the moral barbarism inflicted on their ancestors by slavery, but to make of it – as Mr. West does – fuel for division in the present is tawdry.
In ‘Black Skinhead’ West attempts to weather accusations of such irresponsibility in the following lines:
“Middle America packed in, came to see me in my black skin
Number one question they asking, fuck every question you asking
If I don’t get ran out by Catholics, here come some conservative Baptists
Claiming I’m overreacting like them black kids in Chiraq bitch”
Chiraq, as you’ll know, is a slang name for Chicago, the southern region of which has been transformed into a war zone by exclusively black gangs for a over decade. Even given this situation, or rather because of it, it’s pretty rich for Black hip-hop musicians like Mr. West to request sympathy for the problems he himself has long served to glamourize.
These two examples are not especially typical of all rap music. Indeed most of modern rap lyricism devotes itself to material wealth. I have chosen them rather to highlight two dominant political demands made by rap music;
1. (African-American) Entitlement because of the crimes of the past –
2. Sympathy (for African-Americans) because of the self-inflicted chaos of the present.
This twin-track manipulation – when understood – can be perceived everywhere, from the innocent-seeming romance described as RnB, to the nakedly aggressive ‘drill’-music emanating from Chicago, Detroit and other metropolitan Zimbabwes.
A third demand, detached from but germinated in the soil of the first two, is that African-Americans be allowed to incite hatred against their historic oppressor.
At the end of ‘New Slaves’ West seeks out revenge for the White crimes of the past with a tirade of sexually explicit aggression:
“They tryna lock niggas up
They tryna make new slaves
They prolly all in the Hamptons
Braggin’ ’bout their maid
Fuck you and your Hampton house
I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse
Came on her Hampton blouse
And in her Hampton mouth”
The Hamptons area of Long Island, New York is a middle to upper-class enclave populated mainly by Caucasian Americans of the suburban style. We can at least thank Mr West for not being cryptic in his sentiments.
Now let’s turn it around:
(forgive the lack of rhyme)
“They tryna rob us all
They tryna shoot us all
They prolly in Compton
Braggin bout their welfare
Fuck you and your Compton house
I’ll fuck your Compton spouse
Came on her Comptom blouse
And in her Compton mouth”
All I’ve done here is substitute the stereotypes West uses for Whites for those racists use for Blacks. What would happen do you think, if Ted Nugent, serenaded a rough-neck audience with lines like those?
African-American musical achievement is almost unparalleled in the modern era. From the blues to soul and jazz, to the first green shoots of rock and roll; Black innovation underlies the complex garden of modern music like rough but necessary soil, without which the garden could not have flourished at all. One still sees flashes of benign excellence from the same community today (the song ‘Happy’ by Pharrell – for example – is a simple but uplifting old-fashioned soul number well worth listening to.)
It’s all the greater shame then that Hip-Hop, with its divisive political methodology, threatens to overshadow what could otherwise be a fine legacy.