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Hip-Hop Fridays: Is Hip Hop an Agent of Change? by Brad Lena

Hip Hop is sometimes promoted as the agent of change heralding a new social paradigm. I do not think the historical record reveals a case where entertainment alone has led to economic, cultural or social transformation on anything like the scale envisioned by some Hip Hop advocates.

More often, the "arts" have been co-opted by visionaries whose social utopias are usually promoted at gunpoint to cheer lead for the "new order." I think what is the most interesting and perhaps the most lethal to those caught up in the world of Hip Hop is the ability of commercial interests to harvest so many dollars off what are clearly expressions of social pathologies and human misery while presenting it as "cutting edge" "real-world" or some other cliché.

It is also said that Hip Hop is a reflection of contemporary black experience in America. If one accepts that, then by default if nothing else, the black music of an earlier period must be a reflection of that particular era as well. To deny that this is the case would be to strip away the humanity from black artists of a previous generation. If we can, for a moment, set aside the larger cultural assertions made on behalf of Hip Hop, consider it simply as black pop music and then compare it to the black pop music of an earlier era, several points of distinction become readily apparent.

Growing up in the Detroit area in the 1960's makes the black music of Motown my case in point. I think an argument could be made that the cultural, institutional, societal and economic racism experienced by Black Americans then was more severe and brutal in its expression than what is experienced by Black Americans today. If Hip Hop music is an expression of contemporary experience, as it is asserted, then to be consistent, the content of the music of Motown should have been replete with misery and perhaps hopelessness. On the contrary, it contained expressions of joy, hopefulness, love, honor, responsibility and respect. The militant might say that was only because the racist white society would not have tolerated anything else. I think, however, there were other factors at work. Primarily, I believe it was the inability of the racist dominant white culture to destroy the integrity of black men, women and their social structures even after centuries of slavery, Jim Crow and blatant discrimination. The enduring resiliency and character of Black Americans was expressed through this popular music. The emergence of destructive social pathologies in black communities was a later phenomenon and parallels the increasing level of the intervention of the State into the lives of black people through social engineering and programs designed to remedy the damage done through the racism of its own policies and the dominate culture of the whites.

Hip Hop is also said to be a measurement of economic conditions. I would offer that the only useful measurement regarding poverty for any group of people is how their condition changes overtime (i.e. more or less hunger. more or less economic activity, more or less freedom, more or less income, etc.) It is somewhat less than useful to think that these conditions do not expand and contract as a result of social, political, cultural, geographic, demographic, and technological inputs.

Additionally, some make the case that Hip Hop is the most potent global youth force in a generation. Those who make such claims may be engaging in a form of racial profiling about "people of color." Such sentiments can, for example, denigrate people of color from around the world who have come to America, during the same time frame, and found the world-view of American Hip Hop proponents and participants to be unattractive as either a model of upward mobility or as culture. I should say that there are, of course, plenty who have exploited Hip Hop for their own enrichment, a rainbow coalition of races if you will. The misery and frustration articulated by Hip Hop or Rap are, with much sorrow, only too true. Deliverance from these conditions will not come through these carefully choreographed charades any more than the 60’s charade of sex, drugs and rock in roll created a better world for the dominant white culture's youth. The degeneration American politics into naked authoritarianism with its attendant powers of surveillance, control and incarceration was not created to restrain only the Hip Hop generation but simply follows the well-established historical evolution of political tyranny over a populace in general.

As the European-centered American power structure fades away through abortion and immigration, the new set of rulers will indeed be people of color. If current trends continue, they will be Asians and East Indians. One only has to look at the race of post-graduate students in the hard sciences. Considering these developments, the best thing one might do for the consumers of Hip Hop is to tell them to emulate these people of color whose thirst for education and opportunity is strengthened by self-control and restraint. Don't take it from me, Minister Farrakhan says something similar just about every time he speaks. The way out might begin by turning off the TV and radio.

I do not think Hip Hop, as a "movement" or a philosophy, has the staying power of say Marxism (which is now mostly confined to academic ghettos) although I will admit Hip Hoppers can rhyme and sing lot better than Cornel West. Hip Hop or something like it will exist as long as the complex economic, social, communication and technological infrastructures supporting it remain in place. If they fall, I'm not confident that Hip Hoppers will be the architects of the new paradigm. This deserves some explanation. In order to do so the focus needs to shift from the micro view of Hip Hop and temporal black conditions to the macro view of the political systems of coercion and control in the 20th Century. The primary goal of the nation state during the last 100 years has been to exercise as much political, cultural, social and economic control over their populace as humanly possible. The results were human misery, inhumanity and war on a scale never before experienced. In the case of the fascists, communists and democratic socialists, (the Nazis) control was exercised through brutality, fear, execution, slave labor camps, ownership of the means of production, genocide and war. This proved to be very costly to the State and ultimately unsustainable.

In America, on the other hand, maintaining a modicum of self-determination for the populace and the abundant production of material goods proved to be more cost-effective and more sustainable. It requires, however, a populace that is pliant, satiated and fractionalized so as to better tolerate an extreme level of State control and taxation. Control as exhibited by the other political systems needed constant external pressure.

The American way of control has been to debase the society through vice (i.e. promiscuity, drugs, fraudulent public education, mindless consumption and debt) has proven to be much more effective as the population slowly becomes acculturated to their vices and willingly participates in their own "enslavement", it much more difficult to control a moral people.

Black Americans of the past, by the very fact of existing in a racist society made them counter-cultural and as the record indicates fairly impervious to moral decay as a tool of political control. The most blatant and I might add the most fearless voice for the black community's to return to counter-cultural status is Minister Farrakhan. That is why he is so feared and despised by the controlling political elites. It should be noted that his exhortations have more in common with the content of the black pop music of Motown and the community it represented than it does with Hip Hop. I think it a mistake to believe, as some do, that the development of a more just and humane society will come about with cleverly presented pop music incessantly promoted and disseminated by the very power structures they apparently wish to depose. If the methods of political control turn from the self-perpetuating system of the acquiescence to vice to more overt repression, will Hip Hop still enjoy its current level of influence and manufactured popularity? My bet is that it would not. What's yours?

Brad Lena is a freelance writer from Asheville, NC
and can be reached at

Brad Lena

Friday, May 3, 2002

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