Hip-Hop Fridays: Rise up Hip Hop Nation - Wise up, Part II: Bridging the Hip Hop Divide before it Implodes....Again by Kristine Wright
First, I'd like to big up and offer respect to all souljahs in the struggle - the struggle for freedom, justice and equality continues and must continue. These souljahs fight on many fronts, from full-time revolutionaries, to full-time parents, taking care of their families and raising up stronger individuals for the future. From those doing what they should do, to those doing what they can do to just get by, we all are in the same struggle. We must start working a little harder to disrupt the status quo(please see Rise Up, Part 1: http://www.blackelectorate.com/articles.asp?ID=617), but to do this will take UNITY.
Hip hop once again faces a moment in its history that may prove defining. Over five years ago the world watched the first implosion...East Coast vs. West Coast rivalries leading to the premature deaths of two hip hop truthsayers, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. It was a wake up call, and a lot of us woke up, at least for a minute. But truth be told, we still get caught up in wrong battles fighting wrong enemies. The latest frontiers: Mainstream vs. Underground, or New School vs. Old School. Again, we've taken our eyez off the prize.
For the past year, I've been carefully watching where hip hop was going and if it could reach its inner potential, and as we say in hip hop, move the crowd. I've seen some good things happen. Community activism in inner cities across the country is taking on a hip hop sensibility and offering real alternatives for youth at community levels. This activism has recently experienced national level successes, particularly thanks to Russell Simmons' Hip Hop Action Network. It has been responsible for organizing hip hop summits bringing artists, activists, spiritual leaders, and politicians to the same table for change. Most recently, the Hip Hop Action Network joined forces with New York educators and students to protest budget cuts in education, and due in part to these efforts, achieved retribution. Chuck D, KRS-1 and others have never stopped speaking truth to power and living their activism. Minister Farrakhan has also reached out to the hip hop community and offered his guidance to help us reach our revolutionary potential. Good things are happening.
At the same time, however, I've also noticed a growing tension and division within the community, a community so close to organizing and reaching its powerful potential, but knocked off track time and time again. Is it a coincidence? I don't think so.
The growing battles within hip hop around mainstream vs. underground, new school vs. old school, or "real" hip hop vs. commercial, are dangerous to real progress. A community divided is a community conquered indeed. Two most recent distractions center on the KRS-1 vs. Nelly beef and Nas vs. Hot 97. Both need careful consideration and real critical analyses.
On her new CD, Lauryn Hill asserts, "Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need." Well, here's the reality when it comes to these feuds and others like it:
1. Although battling is a pillar of hip hop culture, the KRS-1/Nelly beef highlights a real generational divide. New school artists are always accused of selling out for the money, disrespecting the roots of hip hop and its founders, and perpetuating negative, stereotypical images in lyrics and videos. In retaliation, new school and mainstream artists call out old school and underground artists for being haters, jealous and has beens, out of touch with the community. Growing up in the KRS-1, Public Enemy era of hip hop, I owe my understanding of the struggle to them. My students consider me old school, and that's fine by me. But in this beef, I see both sides. Yes, the new generation needs to show more respect for those that paved the way. But old school folks must also show respect to young brothas and sistas still trying to maintain in the only way they know how in this world where few opportunities exist for the have nots. In many ways, the majority of youth we want to represent in the struggle relate much more to Nelly (if you live in Midwest), or Snoop (if you live in LA), or Ludacris (if you live in the South), than they do our more "conscious" hip hop keepers like KRS-1 or dead prez. That's real. We need to stop living in "what should be" and start dealing with "what is". So for KRS-1 to call for a boycott of Nelly, it solidifies the division. Only those that are of like mind were even listening, inevitably preaching to the choir, never reaching the congregation; never uniting or progressing. And what about all our young brothas and sistas in hoods around this country that like Nelly? Are we dissing them too? We need to think more carefully about possible repercussions.
2. If us old school folks tell the truth, bling-bling in hip-hop is hardly new. Old school hip hop had its share of references to the material. Who can forget the gold rope chains? Black folks have always liked nice things because we've rarely had them. This dates back well before hip hop. The zoot suits and fancy cars of the Harlem Renaissance come to mind.
Mainstream "bling-bling" artists are really no different then the countless brothas in hoods all across the country that drive nice cars but live at home with mama. Let's stop blaming the new generation and mainstream artists for values we instilled long ago. In the same way, I remember as a high school girl singing along with my girlfriends to our favorite rapper/pimp, Big Daddy Kane: "Anything goes when it comes to hoes because pimpin' ain't easy". I know better now; then I didn't. We have to accept people where they are and for who they are, instead of telling them who they "should" or "should not" be. People do and can change, but criticism rarely motivates. Support and guidance may prove better motivators.
3. Although I applaud Nas for his courage to speak truth to power and highlight the corruption inherent in radio and corporate co-option of the culture he loves so passionately, I'm afraid his energies are misplaced and will not reap the results he would like. By calling out individuals from Flex to N.O.R.E. to Nelly, the focus of his warranted criticisms become personal and attention gets shifted from where it needs to be: on the oppressive system in which they are ALL pawns. The result: more division, no solution. And is Nas blameless, or am I the only one who remembers "Oochie Wally"? We can't be selective when we're keepin' it real.
4. I recently attended what I thought would be a "real" hip hop show featuring talented and often conscious artists including Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Blackalicious, The Roots, and Outkast. Unfortunately I left disappointed (and very early). I felt like I was more at an under-aged rave than a hip hop show that highlights "real" hip hop culture. I left wondering, what is so "positive" about this? Moreover, what is so "hip hop" about this? Because many of the underground "diss" mainstream so tuff and claim a "moral" high ground, it was strange to see this scene that didn't seem all that "positive" to me, where most in its young crowd were much more interested in getting stoned and ecstacied out than they were in the music or message. I think there's been more romanticism in revolution than real dedication to it in the underground and we need to talk more on this.
Although I've noticed more hip hop activism, I'm fearful that the growing division in hip hop will undermine our progress. It's like the activists are underground but those that need it are the mainstream masses. No progress can come from this equation; so systemically, little has changed. We are (our youth especially) still victims of oppressive educational and judicial systems that lock us up and out of self-determination, the only real solution. And this solution must come from a united people. We are all different, coming from different places, but hopefully we can become out of many, one people (borrowing from the Jamaican national motto). Without the masses, there can be no movement (please see insightful piece by Adamma Ince, No Masses, No Movement: Black Boomers Shout Reparations in the Court - But Go Silent in the 'Hood, http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0221/ince.php).
The Civil Rights Movement had the church as its catalyst. We have hip hop, and hip hop media outlets (radio, BET, magazines, web sites) must play a role in any movement to reach the masses. Even Nas must admit that, dissing one station while on another corporate owned radio station. If he didn't have access to this medium, only cats on his block would have heard him. Iyanla Vanzant once said, "Be against nothing, just be clear what you are for." If you are clear what you stand for, you need not be anti- anything or anyone, and the power of clarity circumvents any power gained from division. Although I understand that battles and beefs have been a part of hip hop culture since its beginnings, I hope they won't become another pawn for the oppressors' use to keep a revolutionary community and culture from realizing its potential for a greater good. Let's now work together and unite for progress and become truly, out of many, ONE PEOPLE.... ONE LOVE.
Unity must have to start now, because I mean how long will we have to suffer to just learn these things...that we must be united - Bob Marley, Chant Down Babylon
Kristine Wright teaches a course in Hip-Hop at the University of Califorina - Irvine and can be contacted via e-mail at Wrightk@uci.edu
Friday, July 12, 2002