Music from Below:
From Urban Discrimination to Tupac Shakur and False Consciousness
University of North Texas
"Political Activity and Political education must go beyond teaching and listening, must go beyond discussion and writing, The Left must find the adequate means of breaking the conformist and corrupted universe of political language and political behavior (…)It requires finding a language and organizing actions that are not part and parcel of the familiar political behavior" (H. Marcuse cited in Tariq & Watkins 1998:129).
Music is around us everywhere, whether in the mass media, movies, social celebrations, and even mass public protests can sometimes include music as an element of political education. As a commonly noticeable aesthetic function in contemporary societies, music has been heavily underestimated and sometimes not even considered to be a vital tool in educating the confused masses. The sixties helped to change all of that. Historically, it was during these previous times in which music was commonly associated, if not the revolutionary trigger that provided a discourse of dissent that wanted to change the planet. Not since the era of the Hippies, was music such a significant and culturally produced dynamic. As two scholars named Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison discovered that, "In the 1960's, songs contributed to the making of a new political consciousness, and were often performed at political demonstrations and collective festivals. Singers and songs were central to the cognitive praxis of the 1960s social movements" (Eyerman & Jamison 1998: 106).
It took nearly thirty years before music again turned into a product for political education. It is no surprise that hip-hop was essentially born during the Administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr, when numerous economic turmoil’s started to cause many urban intellectuals (Rappers, M.C.'s -coded as masters of ceremonies) to start the process of resistance and revolt in their own expressive ways. Early hip hop at first did take a guerrilla and rebellious sound that was very aware of the social and political conditions which many were desperately saturated in. Kellner successfully recognized the degree of expression in hip hop that, “(…)show and tell us that it is a time of intense poverty and differences between the haves and the have nots, that it is the time of urban crime and violence, a time of gangs and drugs, a time of STDs, HIV, and AIDS, a time of buck-wilding and extreme sexuality, a time when the urban underclass is striking out and striking back(…)” (Kellner 2004:7).
Furthermore, one may also be able to notice a form of anti-thesis being developed from the street intellectuals, rappers and hip hop enthusiasts and perhaps even triggering frustrations stemming from previous conflicts and continuing struggles (e.g., 1992 L.A. Riots, Rodney King Verdict, L.A./ Cincinnati Police Brutality, Katrina disasters, etc.). Here musicians attempt to frame the music with vibes that stem from “Music from Below” to show the conditions of his or her life in the ghetto. All music is geared for transcending this message. A social and political underclass is continuously imagined through the musical messaging. A scholar notes that the musical frames of, "Hip-Hop's poverty signals a condition well known to be endemic to capitalist social organization- a permanent urban underclass, often ethnically marked " (Krims 2002:66). Thus, understood, hip-hop music can essentially be seen as a direct transcendence from the ideals and aims of the 1960s civil rights movement. Modern musicians have a significant chance in utilizing their musical talents for the transformation of culture, society, politics, and on the other hand, the musical past from the 1960s weighs like a source of inspiration on the minds of the living youths. They are constantly reminded through music that it was done before, now they are in the drivers seat with a distant-generation looming in the background. Of course some of the characteristics and forms seemed to have changed, but some have remained similar. It is perhaps here where the struggles of the civil rights movement also find their roots in the development and emergence of hip-hop music. Thus, Wright claims:
In the beginning, the expression of hip hop culture known as rap was the voice of the urban youth underclass(...)Rap music was a response to conditions of poverty, joblessness, and disempowerment, which still deeply affect the lives of the majority of African American urban youth today. Not only was rap music a black expressive cultural phenomenon, it was also a discourse of resistance against white America's racism, and its Euro-centric cultural dominance (Wright 2004:10).
Interestingly, the new hip-hop generation contains the same opportunities for engaging society, as the civil right movements seems to be looming in the background as a source of inspiration. In some it appears as though that the torch has been passed again. As one scholar argues that, “The civil rights generation has done its part. It's up to the children of those movements to pick up the baton" (Kitwana 2004:77). To some extend, this is a worthy statement to make. However, hip-hop music has a difficult road in front of itself. It must appeal to a huge and broad political spectrum. While things continue to change in hip-hop, like, resonance effects of white rappers. Eminem’s success confirms that hip-hop, although it grew from black inner cities, it also must grow in more diverse cultural frameworks for it to continue to grow and prosper. As an example, hip-hop continues to be a growing phenomenon in Europe as well. As one hip-hop show in Copenhagen dew some 90,000 fans an unthinkable occurrence and out-growing in some ways even the crowds in hip-hops American origin cities (e.g., New York, New Jersey and Boston)(Scott 2004:150).
Certainly, one could agree with the claims of one scholar that," Hip Hop is the most powerful intergenerational force in the world and is still growing" (Martinez 2004:197). No one disputes that hip-hop’s appeal as reached enormous heights. Its framing and internal political struggles confirm that much more work must be undertaken, if hip-hop is to become a political agent for serious political change. Sadly, the winds of musical change have not yet been materialized in actual social change. Still, hip hop music continuous to be music under development and extends to various artists and groups like: Arrested Development, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Geto Boys, Dead Prez, Ice-T, Ja-Rule, E-40, 50 Cent, N.W.A., Nas, Naughty by Nature, Black Sheep, Ice Cube, Outkast, Salt-n-Peppa, 2-Pac, 2 Live Crew, Queen Latifah, Wu Tang Clan, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, House of Pain, Nelly, all still having an impact on urban culture (Kellner & Best 2004:2). There are simply too many musicians and artists to mention, either-way they are all part of the growing hip-hop scene. One could possibly make a fair statement that hip-hop continues to blossom and perhaps may be "the most powerful intergenerational force in the world and is still growing" (Martinez 2004:197).
Music from Below
The social construction of critical music enables the discourse of resistance to be established. The conception of "Music from Below" has its ties in the cultural reproductions of working-class identity. It also returns to the importance of culture and aesthetics in contemporary society. Some may see it as an attempt to critically examine the current social, political, economic, cultural structures of the established society. It underlines the notion that the cultural dimension is fundamentally connected with the political condition. For most industrial cities, this directly implies to the poor ghetto lifestyle, also the visual depiction of working-class Youths (who mostly listen to Hip Hop) who live in extreme levels of frustration and political alienation. In the United States, this could also be illustrated with the radical inequalities amongst certain levels of the population (e.g., poor trailer park communities, poor housing projects, and heavy manufacturing neighborhoods). Ironically, these are mostly 16 and 17 year-old youths who are employed in the fast food and retail establishments. They usually make low wages and are already paying adult taxes, but still having no political right to vote. The new wave of ‘Zero Tolerance’ policies have in many ways also restricted political expression (Dress Codes) and further added to the vacuum of urban alienation. Also in Europe, it may be depicted in the growing poor-immigrant neighborhoods and ghettos that are scattered across the European Union. Still, poverty and homelessness exists-- as shown with the economics of discrimination and the actual quality of life between rich Europeans (mostly Eurocrats who drive Volvo’s and BMW’s), versus the immense majority of poor Euro-workers who barely make it. The adoption of the Euro did not free them from their chains! Critical music tells the untold story when the market-friendly press fails to mention or discuss it. To be sure, music is similar to a piece of critical-art that depicts the cultural divisions of the established hierarchies. A scholar once noted:
The most direct way in which art and politics are related lies in the injection of art, artfulness, and spectacle into governmental operations, modifying their meanings and accenting hierarchical relationships between those who govern and those who submit to their rule. The presentation of politics as a form of aesthetics includes the deliberate or unwitting use of symbols and rituals in values, and it enhances the ability of officials to influence and dominate the public (Edelman 1995 :91).
Of course, there may be visible divisions between societies. Ideology is always governed within the ruling consensus. The political opposition (if there exists one) usually has enormous barriers in front of itself. First, the ruling class has great amounts of symbolic power in an effort to frame issues that support their own private and political interests. Secondly, the ruling classes efforts are usually geared for the purpose of discrediting the critical political opposition. Censorship is usually a common tool for preventing oppositional discourse to be heard. Music is much more difficult to be censored than traditional press and written publications. Musicians usually can use their microphones to frame their social and political values almost freely to the masses, but with consequences attached. Still, all hope is not lost. Many radio stations have lost serious significance over the years by the direct bombardment of advertising and commercials to the music listeners. Mp3 players and laptops have become more common amongst a larger section of the population. This gives enormous mounts of power back to musicians again. This is when music can become a platform for framing political messages (i.ex. Tupac, Eminem, 50-cent,Dead Prez, Black Sheep, Arrested Development,etc.). Thus, the tendency to mix music and musical lyrics with critical political discourse is increasingly becoming noticeable with hip-hop musicians. Still, the academic recognition and publication of critical and political Hip Hop is still within its infancy. This follows the logic that the revolution will not be officially aired on the radio. It also will not be officially taught in the curricula of universities.
This developing critical music then, illuminates this alienated position from a standpoint of critical artistic position. It connects to the “imagined opposition’ and class consciousness becoming realized through the common political values being discussed in the hip-hop songs. Such a useful mechanism, ultimately details that arts and culture may be used as an aesthetic weapon. Not to say that weapons as forceful means are required, but that no other options may yet be available or yet discovered, and that music may serve as a fruitful mechanism for enlightening the oppressed. That is, music that uses frames of depiction that is increasingly becoming critical in nature; Music that shows the contradiction of present society; Music that does not get trapped into the chest of cultural production for capitalist interests; Music that shows things which make people think, as well as engage in critical self-reflection.
Music in its self- is still however, very much a utopian imagination. Putting the actual instrumental forces to work for the purpose of fruitful social change can be difficult. I cite Kristine Wright, “Revolution may start in lyrics but they must end in action. It’s bigger than hip hop, and it should be” (Wright 2004:17).
Music from Above
Of course, music sometimes may also serve as a legitimating function for the forces stemming from above. For the most part, I am speaking about the existing political establishments and their submission to the rule of capital that blindly supports the rule of ‘King Market’ in all areas of society. Listening to music can act as an avenue for understanding reality. This however may not be the real reality. It also depends on who is constructing this reality. What exactly does the ruling class do when it allows us to listen to music that has already been bought and sold on the market? Evidently, the genius, and at the same time, cunning power of ‘music from above’ is that the music that many people listen to and heavily relied upon in the past seems to have changed nothing and still keeps us clueless on the dynamic of ideology as a form of power / and power as a form of ideology. The discussion of critical issues facing society are usually never brought-up, or censored by the corporate-owned radio-stations (mostly controlled by Clear Channel Communications!). Perhaps, this is exactly what the existing political establishments wants to create tendencies in which music listeners become dominated by the music themselves – no one really knows.
One might also speak of the pure profit mechanism for producing albums, records, hit-songs and the desire to force musical creativity to be transformed into sellable commodities. Usually, the struggle of ownership and the struggle for free music is still evident. In other words, the music, which is produced by artistic men and women falls prey to the system of capitalist system of domination. A further explanation of ‘culture industry’ performing in action, was better illuminated by Adorno and Horkeimer, that:
The assembly-line character of the culture industry, the synthetic, planned method of turning out products (factory-like , not only in the studio but, more or less, in the compilation of cheap biographies, pseudo-documentary novels, and hit songs) is very suited to advertising: interchangeable, and even technically alienated from any connected meaning, lend themselves to ends external to the work (…) Advertising and the culture industry merge technically as well as economically. In both cases the same thing can be seen in innumerable places, and the mechanical repetition of the same cultural product has come to be the same as that of the propaganda slogan. In both cases, the insistent demand for effectiveness makes technology into psycho-technology, into a procedure for manipulating men. (Adorno & Horkheimer, cited in Kellner 2005a:10)
Even in the year 2006, the fight over controlling internet music downloads continues to be that of the question of capitalist interest vs. the interest of spreading music, enjoying music, and even sharing music among friends. The legal ownership of music is usually motivated by economic motives. To be sure, the question in which ways "music from below" may influence the culture industries as well as the prospect for social change are all still in question. What may be learned from critical music discourse is that under the umbrella of instant celebrity acclamation (like in the case of Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Kelly Clarkson, and others) the manufactured culture is not aiding the process of emancipating men and women from the bourgeois order that in fact uses this culture to further fuel false consciousness. It is also no big surprise that these female musicians also were mostly supporters to the Bush regime by giving donations to his political campaigns.
Music sometimes may also contradict itself. Is this because music is simply a social construction of the social programmers? Is it because the ruling class has different opinions from the musicians? Is it that these interests could clash out in the open? This central question surrounding the issue of ‘mass society’ was also reflected by works of the famous Frankfurt-School writer Adorno relating to the Hollywood films he was exposed while living in California during 1950’s reflecting that, " Every Visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse". (Adorno 1950: 25). Such a feeling may also be felt when one turns on MTV today. This music is generally not related to the social, political, and economic relations at hand, but rather illusionary works of "Toxic" trash that resembles computer animation at its finest. Art and music from the streets is rejected, the condition of the present is ignored. Just by listening to the values being presented in many of these songs, one fails to understand that they do nothing more but promote a society of bourgeois emulation. One can come to the realization that what is commonly sold on the capitalist market are not just the wide choices of nice gadgets, products ( like in Music CDs and MP3 Players and DVD Recorders), services or whatever else. What is however sold in conjunction together with the commodity is also social relationships, the time spend to produce those products, the sweat by the laborers who thought of, produced and then packed those goods into the ready-to-be-sold form. Fast Capitalistic culture is driven together with commercials marketing more and more products to the music listener, while the music listener feels worse oft then he or she did before turning on the television and radio. Such tendencies reflect the current culture industry that aids fosters the current political order.
Tupac meets K. Marx?
- "And the raps that I'm rapping to my community shouldn't be filled with rage? They shouldn't be filled with same atrocities that they gave me? The media they don't talk about it, so in my raps I have to talk about it, and it seems foreign because there's no one else talking about it"- Tupac Shakur Quote (TupacQuote 2005)
Tupac’s music has been floating around hip-hop, even after nine years following his very sad and sudden death. Because of this unfortunate tragedy, "Tupac became the unlikely martyr of gangsta, and a tragic symbol of the toll its lifestyle exacted on urban black America" (Blackburn 2004:94). Tupac may be dead, but his ideas and emotions continue to live in the songs he produced and the fans that are spread across all over the hip hop music world. Indeed, he has become an important icon for hip-hop and for the next generations of young musicians who try to imitate him. One thing is for certain, Tupac has become the object of present political discussions and hero-worship. This has less to do with his controversial thug lifestyle or his associations and support for a new form of Black Nationalism and black power. Rather, his main message stems from the imagined hardships and forgotten ghettos of America. This is combined with a musical revolt from below. Ironically, some, to this day, argue that Tupac’s explosive popularity was due in part because of the instrumentality of his death and usual conspiracy theories that claim, ”Hip Hop participation led to the deaths of Tupac and Biggie. Death boosted sales for both estates” (Blackburn 2004:95).
Thus, it is also important to understand the origins of Tupacs selected name. Tupac or sometimes coded as 2Pac , is known as Tupac Shakur , the name that his mother Afeni Shakur gave to him after an historical Inca chief named Tupac Shamur who led a Indian uprising in 16th century Peru - against Spanish conquerors (Iwamoto 2003). His mother who was a Black Panther party member very much had an influence on Tupac's thinking and also it's reflected heavily in his lyrics whom he would honor in a song titled ("Dear Mama").
Tupac attempted to see himself as a poet and philosopher calling one of his Albums Makavelli - after one of the medieval Italian philosophers named Niccolo Machiavelli. This in many ways confirms the principle that gangster rappers carry a cliff-hanger lifestyle, on the one side, they have been called "(...) poets who often wield their skills in battles for supremacy", and on the other hand, they understand the political realism that," Hip Hop is a culture driven by capitalism" (Blackburn 2004:87). Moreover, many of Tupac’s songs continue to be aired and spread - including the newly re-mixed songs, “Until the End of Time” (2003), “Ghetto Gospel” (2005), have achieved a steady wave of continued resonance and listener-ship of his music. This is quite an abnormal phenomenon for a dead hip-hop star.
Of course, new musical talents have appeared since Tupac’s death. Many new hip-hop musicians like Jay-Z and 50-cent, Dead Prez, have usually similar tones and styles parallel to Tupac. These usually represent empirical evidence that a developing “music from below” runs across space and time with numerous hip-hop artists. For instance, Jay-Z also takes political messages to his lyrics. Even recently, Jay-Z was framing contemporary political issues in his lyrics when he said, “Bin Laden been happenin’ in Manhatten/ Crack was Anthrax back then/ Back when, Police was Al’Qaeda to Black men” (Boyd 2004:58).
Undoubtedly, when Tupac first began his production of various rap-hits in the mid nineties (also the birth of NAFTA and the WTO), he was capable of awakening and questioning many of the policies and practices as they appeared to him in his own backyard and ghetto. Tupac was perhaps witnessing and realizing himself that the social constructions and images of hip-hop are, "(...) born out of many struggles: poverty, crime, drugs, racism, police brutality and others" (Martinez 2004:197). Many of his lyrics framed the worldview of the harsh urban life from the lower spectrum of society (Music from Below), also achieving much resonance with his listeners as visible through his lyrics and sale of his records with some 22 million sold even after his death (Iwamoto 2003:1).These all now could also become realities to listeners, as they also could identify themselves with the aid of Tupac’s illumination of social reality.
Tupac's songs titled “Changes” appeared to hold social as well as critically framed political messages. It was a song being honored by many western music-hit-charts and other things, but still never was really understood by most -who never cared (or were unconsciously unaware) about the growing situations in the ghetto, the "Risk Society" and the globalized world (Beck 1993). In many ways Tupac was constructing an oppositional discourse in his music that was both critical and conscious of the open contradictions visible in the ghetto.
Towards a Neo-Marxian Approach?
Just as the young radical university student named Karl Heinrich Marx overturned Hegel on top of his head, now Tupac is overturning the new established society on its head. But instead of using lyrics that may be alien to the public as a whole, he chooses lyrics which are all too familiar to the repressed victims from the ghetto. The process entails agency, as well as self-reflection and self-realization by musicians (e.g., Tupac, Jay-z, 50-cent and others) that the process of critique can even exist within the melodies hip hop. Being a African American, and even further, a African American who understood the janus-faced nature of American Capitalism, Tupac exercised criticism against American society and its affluence and even made young Chicanos and college-educated whites rethink their own place in society. It has been said that Tupac musical influence and production continuously re-educates society and acts as a constant reminder that hip-hop was as much a black and white product of political expression and frustration. It also holds opportunities to educate its listeners about politics, the economy and the cunning power of the ruling establishment.
It is well documented in the academic literature that many in Hip Hop aimed to make Black Nationalism and Black power a critical part of its framing goal. It is here that some argue that Hip-Hop is in reality an "outgrowth" or even a direct connection to the Black Power movement (Nuruddin 2004:235). Hip-Hop music in its entirety was rather seen as a political vehicle manifesting the explicit aims and desires of the new Black Panther movement for social engagement and revolution. A perfect example of synthesizing Hip-Hop – and Black Nationalist thought under a neo-Marxist framework -could be made from below:
A spectre is haunting Hip Hop, the spectre of Black Power ! And I cannot resist the temptation to add: Since Black Power is already acknowledged by Hip Hop, it is high time that the Black Power generation should openly in the face of the whole Hip Hop world, publish their views, their aims, their tendency, and meet this nursery tale of the spectre of Black Power, with a manifesto of the movement itself (Nuruddin 2004: 235).
False Consciousness in Hip Hop
False Consciousness is a major problem in hip-hop. I do not simply define false consciousness as the ideological influence that has brainwashed the lower working class. This would make the discussion rather simple and not taken into account that even theory must sometimes remain reflexive enough for contemporary society. In the case of hip hop and urban culture, I see false consciences as a complex and ever-expanding theme:
1). The mystification between truth, fiction, and class emulation within music culture.
2). The common bombardment of the so-called “pimp ideology” that neutralizes dissent and supports capitalism.
3). The lack of critical political content (in music), as well as an increasingly de-politicized population.
4). The Capitalification of Hip-Hop music and product-Commodification of social values.
5). The stupidification of Hip Hop discourse, rhetoric, seen as a cultural sexual-fetish, PIMP-MASTER etc., and further contribution to the modern class myth.
6). The normalization of the N-word.
7). The One-Dimensional Black Panther
Thus, I see numerous critical problems that exist in hip-hop that seems to contribute to this. First, the lack of identity and class-consciousness that starts with the debate around the “n-word”. Secondly, the lack of political vision and the failure of hip hop to construct a more radical discourse and unified political movement. Many hip hop musician’s use the n-word in their lyrics and music – thereby constructing potential contradictions and inconsistencies, as well as fostering alienation. Now, there are multiple critics that could be voiced. To begin, when speaking of the usage of the “n-word” still contains and encompasses the realities of a harsh and brutal historical past that African Americans have experienced. Ironically, here even certain famous black intellectuals proclaim the importance of knowing ones history. It was namely Marcus Garvey who once stated that, “Those who don’t know their history (…) are doomed to repeat it”, as well as, “a people without knowledge of their history is like a tree without roots” (Nuruddin 2004:255).
When hip hop musicians expressively use the “n-word”, whether intended or unintended, they frame the historical past that has often been intertwined within the bourgeois interpretation of history (not a ‘music from below’!). History in many ways was believed to be the motor of the enlightenment for all of humanity, with the structural racism and institutionalized bourgeois propaganda, however, it became proof that the enlightenment was nothing more but a fabricated myth by bourgeois society (see, Adorno & Horkheimer 1943/2002). Mass deception is still mass deception even when people are born as Free-Americans. Many people are forgetting that ideological forces are truly powerful and are now hindering praxis/realization as it only further consumes them. It is the formal and usually accepted denial that classes and class conflict do not exist in modern society. Simply, the master still controls the slaves, even when slaves no longer legally exist “on paper”. African Americans were free “on-paper” after the Civil War, but still were actively discriminated with Jim Crow laws in the Southern States. Just as much as the ‘stolen election’ in the 2000 Florida political elections is real proof that there can be a defacto ‘stolen democracy’. Manipulation, Fascism, and domination can easily co-exist as shown with the expressive usage of the ‘n-word’ amongst numerous people within society. Hence, one black scholar argues:
From this new historical perspective of the heights to which Black people had risen in the past and which they could reach again, we could plainly see that the social roles of ni**er and negro had been imposed upon us by our oppressors and in turn internalized by us (Nuruddin 2004: 259).
Thus, when frames are intertwined with the “n-word” it makes the audiences believe that the slavery-past was forgotten, or even reversed. This could mean that progressive social development is stalled and frozen. It further reinforces a tendency which could stimulate racist, as well as cultural biases that claim that, “Ni**gers and negroes were (…) negative personality types characterized by ‘backward’ tendencies, whose unconscious thought practice was out of step with the evolving black consciousness of the 1960s” (Nuruddin 2004: 257). In a Marxist interpretation, one might be able to argue, that the frame makers (like the musicians discussed) are under the dynamic of false consciousness, as the oppressed are further deprived from achieving class and political consciousness by realizing ones own past. The further extension of false consciousness is geared for the end goal to completely mislead the underlying population and for the purpose of falsifying their rightful place in society. This is usually noticed when U.S. workers are denied to participate in union action, and sometimes even severely punished for speaking their mind on things like wages, pensions, etc. One might see it as the attempt by the ruling classes to legitimate inequality. The commonly accepted bourgeois ideology thus then has the potential for legitimating racism, inequality, and manipulation – also further extend bourgeois control. To this end, the n-word creates a paradox within the vocabulary of a politically consciousness society. The Hip Hop Community is thus faced with a growing obstacle. As one scholar points out:
Using the example of the n-word, many will defend their use of it by either claiming to be ‘hip hop’ or indicting rappers for normalizing the word, thus claiming a ‘double standard’ by African Americans. They ignore context in their analysis, where the word’s 400-year place in black vernacular records. They also ignore the consequences of its use, within and outside of the community. For some, the word is just a word, but for others, it is a legacy of racism and, possibly, internalized oppression (Wright 2004:16).
Essentially, there are different competing discourses being expressed by different sources, ideologies. In other words, while there is a certain progressive opinion being fostered by certain sectors of the socially conscious, politically active, intellectually stimulated strata of agents, on the other hand, rappers, as well as gangster rappers are conflicting and even in some ways contradicting such political work. Essentially, what hip-hop needs is fruitful political education that emancipates the oppressed-sector of the population. One might replace the ‘n-word’ with the word ‘homie’. This would at least give an acknowledgement to stimulate inklings of class equalization and ghetto solidarity. Sometimes musicians are not the perfect leaders or speakers of a movement. Neither are the academic gods that live and teach within the academic establishments. The people do not live in the universities – they usually live in the streets and in the ghetto.
This brings me to the second point --the political failure. The failure of hip-hop music to construct a real oppositional party and create a fruitful political vision is just part of the existing false consciousness. The majority of hip-hop music seriously lacks critical substance and persistency, as well as support among other hip-hop musicians. Hip Hop did badly to convince the majority of voters to vote for the opposition party, and most could not even identify themselves as a movement in opposition. Even if hip-hop had put together a Hip Hop Political party, it might have further failed in finding a political instrument to funnel the frustration being voiced by the masses. Thus, the masses could usually not identify themselves as being hip-hop. Perhaps, hip-hop needed something more than just a marginal standing within the Democratic Party. Hip Hop needed to have its own party and own political platform for it to have a real chance! Hence one author argues:
The Democrats lost to Bush, Jr., seemingly a beatable candidate, because they didn't get enough of their potential base—the poor, minorities, the working-class and students—to vote (...) Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, in their excellent Why Americans Don't Vote, make the case that those who don't vote are largely poor and Democratic." ( Agger 2005)
This factor is not just related to the electoral outcomes of the 2004 U.S. Presidential election. It also relates to the mechanisms in which hip-hop attempted to enter the stage of politics. Perhaps, the National Hip Hop Political Convention failed to realize this trend in early 2004. The growing Hispanic factor, as well as the growing alienated voter base and frustrated feminists contributed to this vacuum of uncertainty (its important to recall that woman now make up a large percentage of voters than men!). Hip Hop in many ways was successful in alienating itself from the broad public sphere. The lack of actual effort undertaken by hip-hop musicians also doesn’t appear to be surprising. Most Hip Hop artists in many ways hurt their own creditability and contributed to the forecasted political failure. As Martinez argues:
Then we see artists saying, let’s vote, rock the vote, rap the vote, and yet they don’t vote themselves. Rap celebrities, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Puffy, Master P, Eminem, out of all of those folks only one person has voted in the last four elections (…) Jay-Z registered in ’88 and never voted for office ever. 50 Cent is not even registered. Yet these people perform and go out and spit that rock the vote and rap the vote stuff. (Martinez 2004:201)
All of these trends only added to the growing disconnect with the mass and a further developing legitimacy crisis for hip-hop. Al Sharpton was the only African American political candidate that attempted to run for office – only to be rejected by his own people and own Democratic Party. If Tupac and Biggie were still alive they could have taken a larger chunk of protest-votes and even performed better than Al Sharpton any day. These signs only further add to the claim that hip-hop remains to be within a leadership crisis that is leading towards a serious political crisis.
Reframing a New Radical Hip Hop Movement?
One may ask -how should we fix and reframe Hip Hop? One of the many frame inconsistencies that I discovered in the literature was the absence of a radical discourse and no serious political will for democratic action.. This has to do with the left not taking democracy seriously. I agree with E. Laclau and C. Mouffe that the main political goal and social obligation of progressive forces is that , “…The objective of the Left should be the extension and deepening of the democratic revolution initiated two hundred years ago “ (Laclau & Mouffe 1992:1) Hence, in many ways the modern hip hop music movements represents a mere extension and widening of ‘democratic revolutions’ to every strata of society.
Black Power and Black Nationalist movements within hip-hop appear to be out of date and in many ways do not garner far-reaching support from the masses. I call this the One-Dimensional Black Panther. It is well known that Tupac makes references to Huey Newton in some of his songs. Huey was a Black Panther Party member who was active in political activities and sought by the FBI COINTELPRO during the turbulent 1960s. Tupac’s attempt to make frame connections from Black Panther Party or Black Power ideals into his songs could potentially have irreversible inharmonious messages. Mostly, because most average Americans are not familiar with such language and such radical political values. They may already have certain opinions and ideas that can longer foster fruitful discussions on such movements. Although, many lessons can be learned from the Black Panther Party and some core socialist ideas written within the initial 10-point plan:
1. WE WANT FREEDOM. WE WANT POWER TO DETERMINE THE DESTINY OF OUR BLACK AND OPPRESSED COMMUNITIES.
2. WE WANT FULL EMPLOYMENT FOR OUR PEOPLE.
3. WE WANT AN END TO THE ROBBERY BY THE CAPITALISTS OF OUR BLACK AND OPPRESSED COMMUNITIES.
4. WE WANT DECENT HOUSING, FIT FOR THE SHELTER OF HUMAN BEINGS.
5. WE WANT DECENT EDUCATION FOR OUR PEOPLE THAT EXPOSES THE TRUE NATURE OF THIS DECADENT AMERICAN SOCIETY. WE WANT EDUCATION THAT TEACHES US OUR TRUE HISTORY AND OUR ROLE IN THE PRESENT-DAY SOCIETY.
6. WE WANT COMPLETELY FREE HEALTH CARE FOR All BLACK AND OPPRESSED PEOPLE.
7. WE WANT AN IMMEDIATE END TO POLICE BRUTALITY AND MURDER OF BLACK PEOPLE, OTHER PEOPLE OF COLOR, All OPPRESSED PEOPLE INSIDE THE UNITED STATES.
8. WE WANT AN IMMEDIATE END TO ALL WARS OF AGGRESSION.
9. WE WANT FREEDOM FOR ALL BLACK AND OPPRESSED PEOPLE NOW HELD IN U. S. FEDERAL, STATE, COUNTY, CITY AND MILITARY PRISONS AND JAILS. WE WANT TRIALS BY A JURY OF PEERS FOR All PERSONS CHARGED WITH SO-CALLED CRIMES UNDER THE LAWS OF THIS COUNTRY.
10. WE WANT LAND, BREAD, HOUSING, EDUCATION, CLOTHING, JUSTICE, PEACE AND PEOPLE'S COMMUNITY CONTROL OF MODERN TECHNOLOGY.
(Source: Black Panther 10-Point Program from Marxist.org)
Although, much can be learned when reading the 10-point program from the Black Panther Party (1966), I argue that the specific usage of Black Power slogans and symbols should be discouraged, or at least in some ways reframed in a manner that it does not hinder from creating a less inclusive political and social movement. The majority of points in the ten-program may still be compatible with cotemporary political problems in the U.S. Still, many left symbols and socialist plans may not formally be accepted in the U.S. Certainly, Black Power symbols connect to old left symbols that may (at least for some) appear to connect to the old left political movements similar to Maoism and Leninism. Something that can be adapted from the Black Power movements is the need for radical democratic action. Much of Tupac’s lyrics are the direct experience of his mother who was directly involved within the Black Panther Party. Many of his values depict the Black Panther mentality of political resistance and the aim of local communities to fight back. The frame and slogan of “black power” also has dangerous implications for certain members of the immense population. Also what might members of the old La Raza Unida Party think about such a slogan? I fear that this could only further cause ethnic struggles amongst the masses and cause ethnic splitting. It puts white against black, black against white, not the larger struggle of have-nots versus the haves. The Black Panther Party neglected to realize that class really does count.
Points one through five are perhaps some of the repeating core social problems that modern day capitalism still finds difficulty in solving. Freedom of choice does not mean real freedom to live, to eat, and to study freely in the United States. I take point six very seriously. The health care problem in the United States has reached to every major city and every ghetto in this so-called affluent system. As a student and worker, I was not covered once in the United States over a 10-year span. I’m sure that others may have not even had insurance their entire lives. This is an outrage and unacceptable for a democratic country with enormous amounts of financial resources. When the nationally- elected government fails to provide for simple health insurance – it then also fails to meet United Nations guidelines and obligations. Even when comparing to European values and the E.U. Constitution, the right of health care is seen as a human right that is a basic requirement for all democracies to uphold!
Hip Hop has until now neglected to push for a new outcry for radical democracy. Hip Hop could aim to fill this political opportunity. In West Germany, during the 1970’s many activists were able to come together under the Green banner and Green movement. Whether such a thing could be achieved after the sad failures of Ralph Nader in the United States is very doubtful. Perhaps, it is time for hip-hop to establish a New Democratic Party modeled after the Canadian Left Party? What about a Hip-Hop Party? However, labeling a political party as implied “Left” party may also only further alienate some members of society. Whatever occurs in years ahead, it is high time for hip-hop musicians to take advantage and implement a real political plan and to circumvent the establishment before history and time passes up the opportunity once again. Reframing efforts could in many ways attempt to grasp many radical democratic projects into domains of hip-hop. Thus, what needs to be reframed by hip-hop musicians are the lyrics of new social ideas and radical democratization (even if sometimes they represent old common senses). The promotion of multi-culturalism, ecological, feminist, anti/neo-liberal, anti-neo conservative and anti-poverty, anti-war are just some worthy causes to mention. The effects of globalization on music also continue to be a potential developing theme. Haves and have-nots on a global scale is much more visible to the people than the daily propaganda of national public opinion that depicts the ‘golden years’.
Furthermore, I think that much more political work must be undertaken within the realm of music and social movements. While my research focus was confined to the American hip-hop scene(especially my emphasis with Tupac Shakur), there are overwhelming amounts of non-American hip hop musicians . Especially in Germany, I hear that many musicians there are making load music that rejects the new conservative establishment and its close ties to the Bush Administration. Mostly, I see an inkling of the left music scene also being present in the anti-globalization movements, i.ex. ATTAC. Much is still on the line and hip-hop is still in the game.
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