James Haile is a doctoral student in philosophy at Duquesne University. His research centers on the relation of philosophy to literature and sociology. His edited collection, PhilosophicalMeditations on Richard Wright (Lexington Books) is forthcoming this fall.
What are the aesthetic, social and political messages of hip-hop music? Although much has been written—and continues to be written—on the “tremendous potential” of this musical art-form for social criticism and change (perhaps even revolution), the vast majority of it centers on the more overtly ‘socially conscious’, ‘politically oriented’ groups and MCs (a few examples: Dead Prez, Black Star, KRS-One, and, most notably, the late Tupac and the now defunct Public Enemy). Conversely, there has been scant commentary on the social and political ‘consciousness’ of more mainstream hip-hop music (a few examples: Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne, and Rick Ross). Instead, many have simply relied on the too generally accepted, strict dichotomies: mainstream versus underground, authentic versus commercial, social and politically conscious versus dance/booty shake music (to name a few). And, still many of hip-hop artists (especially those who have been given the currency of social consciousness) fight these strict categories, not solely on grounds of artistic freedom (and expression), but on social and political grounds: Mos Def raps in “Close Edge”, “so stop with the nonsense that he’s conscious, I’m just awake y’all”; or, Andre 3000’s insistence on “Aquemini”, “Now question: is every nigga with dreads for the cause? Is every nigga with golds for the fall? Naw, so don’t get caught in appearance.” What is left for us to think about, especially with Andre 3000, is the nature of political expression: what do politics look like, especially for those who were born and/or grew up post-Civil Rights, what Mark Anthony Neal calls the post-soul era. Moreover, if we are to look to contemporary hip-hop to deliver a political message, to capture the post-soul era of American life, what should this hip-hop message look like?
Dangerously, what has been accepted as the ‘socially conscious’ element of hip-hop is not from or of hip-hop itself; rather, what can be brought in line with an already-present aesthetics of political expression formed at a time different than our present moment. And, while the Black Arts Movement delivered us notables like Amiri Baraka and Gil Scott-Heron, it should not be mistaken for politics itself, the pinnacle of black politics, or the most appropriate political representation of black life in America. Artistic expression always is historically situated, emerging out of and helping to frame the moment, giving it voice. Hip-hop emerged out of the post-Civil Rights (of the 1970s and 1980s) world—the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the Wars on drugs and poverty, the rise of the Multinational Corporation (MNC), the CEO, and the changing international landscape at the end of the Cold War—and, thus, its political voice has a different tone than those of the previous Civil Rights era.
I recently taught an undergraduate course in Critical Race Theory where we listened a range of hip-hop music in an effort to think about what constitutes ‘politics’ in hip-hop musical form. Less obvious were the political messages of more mainstream hip-hop, from Kanye West’s claim, “that’s my commitment you ain’t gotta ask Moses/More champagne more toast’es/More damn planes, more coast’es/And fuck a bus, the Benz is parked like Rosa Oza”; to Lil’ Wayne’s, “black and white diamonds, fuck segregation”; and, Rick Ross’, “black Maybach way trilla than a slave ship”. What hip-hop offers, as expressed in these verses, is two things: a critique of the limitation of the dominant Civil Rights discourse to understanding our contemporary political moment; and, two, an account of a new political discourse for our post-Civil Rights moment. The critique is a deconstruction of the past through the eyes of the present; the new account is the transmutation of the past through its temporalization. The past is resignified rather than ignored, temporally shifted rather than misunderstood. What West, Wayne, and Ross offer us is a view into the post-segregation neo-colonial world where the emphasis is no longer on the social inequality of Jim Crow, and the social unrest of marches, but taking what is given within hyper-materiality and transforming its oppressive qualities into an expression, perhaps strangely articulation, yet nevertheless self-affirming.
What hip-hop teaches us (across the various dichotomies) is an already learned lesson on the importance of experimentation and of riffing, which necessitates an understanding of history (both as present and as past), a vision for the future, and the ability to bridge the two. The genius of sampling is the deconstruction not only of word, but also sound. Contemporary hip-hop, especially mainstream, captures—good or bad—a moment within an epistemic gaze, and riffs on what it sees. The previous generation is taken and deconstructed with a riff that acknowledges a past (slavery, segregation, etc), and its politics, bridging it with the politics of the contemporary situation—a mixture of post-Civil Rights materialism and post-Cold War cynicism. In its way, hip-hop, even in its mainstream variety, challenges our sentiments as to the nature of politics for our contemporary situation and urges us to reflect on who and what we have become.