musings on music

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C.R.E.A.M. | The New Sensibility of Hip-Hop

Pop culture, race and ethnicity are all factors that make up the essence of what Hip-Hop is. Since its inception in the 1970s in Bronx, NY, the culture of Hip-Hop, everything from break-dancing to graffiti art to street style to rapping, has been influenced by social changes.

Hip-Hop, which some may argue is the fastest growing musical genre in the United States, is often associated with black culture. But really, it has always been apart of American culture; in “What Is The ‘Black’ In Black Popular Culture?,” cultural theorist Stuart Hall states, “the fact of American popular culture itself, has always contained within American popular vernacular traditions."

Mainstream American pop culture has always been influenced, in large part, by the black community, but in no way are these influencers apart of the “black” tradition. Social conditions of marginalized groups like unemployment, poverty, criminality and police brutality, expressing political speech and resistance all played a role in shaping what became the essence of Hip-Hop—especially in the 1980s and on into the early 1990s.

According to Hall, “black” signifies the black community (the site or location of the experiences, pleasures, memories and everyday practices of black people), the “persistence of the black experience (the historical experience of black people in the diaspora), of the black aesthetic (the distinctive cultural repertoires out of which popular representations were made), and of the black counter-narratives we have struggled to voice." Hall further declares that “good” black pop culture can pass the test of authenticity when the form or product refers to the black experience and black expressivity (aesthetic and counter-narratives).

The entire culture of Hip-Hop is about authenticity and being an accurate and artistic representation of the struggles experienced by marginalized groups--at least these are the principles it was founded upon. The source of rap music’s claim to authenticity lies within its origins. Rap sprang from a literal community—predominantly black youths of inner city New York. The black experience, street dancing and eventual MC-ing are lenders to the authenticity of Hip-Hop.

In “Mapping Popular Culture,” Lawrence Grossberg speaks of “sensibilities” in pop culture. He says, “every formation puts into place a particular sensibility, which describes its effects in people’s daily lives and thus the way in which a particular formation is lived…it defines the relationships that can exist between specific practices and the individuals or groups located within the formation." In this instance, the formation is Hip-Hop.

The sensibilities, sounds of the music, physical styles of the people within the culture and behaviors, social awareness (or lack thereof) of the artists work together to define the culture. If those elements are missing, then Hip-Hop becomes something else—something different from what it was originally created to be. Over the years, the culture has shifted dramatically. It has gone from being a mouthpiece of creativity, filled with conscious artists like Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five releasing “The Message”—a song demonstrating social protest, cultural expression and inner-city black life to generally, a watered-down genre saturated with capitalistic intent. The sensibilities have changed. An entire culture has adopted the mentality of the consistently “authentic” group, Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 song, “C.R.E.A.M." (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)—largely driven by power and money. Dolla, dolla bill, y'all.

What once was considered exotic and unique or in the words of Hall, ‘a bit of the other,’ has become devastatingly mainstream--very regular degular. The themes that made Hip-Hop thrive have somehow faded away and bourgeois cultural hegemony has engulfed the culture and perpetuates certain social constructs that are designed to limit our way of thinking and behaving. The potent and productive messages of rap have been replaced with “bubblegum” rap artists like Nicki Minaj or the Instagram thirsty, Soulja Boi who have mainstream, white appeal and often stay in heavy radio rotation (although I can't think of one song worthy of mentioning from Soulja Boi, but we all remember that silly Superman dance of his). Heavy radio play means more publicity. More publicity means more opportunity. More opportunity means more money. It’s a vicious cycle of commodification and consumption that has catapulted Hip-Hop into a global culture.

Narratives and representations of Hip-Hop have been put into the hands of capital and White America--less concern has been placed on social awareness or directly addressing issues within Black and Latino communities. Take entrepreneur/mogul Sean "Jay-Z" Carter for example. He’s gone from pushing drugs in Marcy Projects to being one of Hip-Hop’s largest cash kings. He sells an image; an image of power and capitalistic success—the new sensibility in Hip-Hop.

Word on the street is, Mr. Carter has recently added a new leg to the Roc Nation dynasty--a sports agency called, Roc Nation Sports. That's nice. I guess.

The very interesting thing about cultural hegemony (power and access of a certain group) is, it isn’t about pure domination of another—it is always about shifting the balance of power in relations of culture. Highly influential people in the Hip-Hop realm, like Jay-Z, are not doing enough to promote virtuous behavior or social and political concerns of the black community. However, it is important to note that not all black people, and the same goes for rappers, are resistant against hegemony.

Not all Hip-Hop artists are counter-hegemonic. Jay-Z has spoken openly about wanting to always have constant streams of revenue and being a household name, while Nas, another influential rapper, cared more about education and taking over the government for reform as expressed in the 2006 single, “Black Republican.” He dedicated an entire album to the notion that Hip-Hop was indeed dead. The album’s content is a critical analysis of how Hip-Hop has gone astray, giving into pop culture and straying so far from the original concept of resistance, but provides seeds of rebirth and renewal. That renewal depends heavily on artists with power in the industry—with power comes access. Access provides the ability to put out a certain message. If that message, in terms of Hip-Hop, is not reflecting cultural authenticity, then perhaps politically, Hip-Hip is dead.

It's arguable that not enough of the people that consume Hip-Hop culture challenge the ideas and leaders in this industry. We're all guilty of it. Sometimes when that bass drops on your favorite rap song, you're not thinking about the social implications of that track. At all. That my friends, is called affect; the rhythms, the beat of that song just make you wanna move or bob your head.

In one of my classes recently, we discussed there is no challenge of common sense vs. “good” sense.  Common sense, which has deeply shaped popular life, tells us to accept the standards and the world the way it is presented to us—instead we should be thinkers, use creativity to think critically about alternate possibilities. The purpose of receiving an education is to not just accept things the way they are at the surface, but to think critically  about the systems in which we operate under. In Hall’s, “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity,” Gramsci notes, hegemony creates a system of rules, so to speak. “Every state…its most important function is to raise the great mass of the population to a particular cultural and moral level which corresponds to the needs of the productive forces for development, and hence to the interests of the ruling class."

Jay-Z has the power, influence and access to address and at the very least, bring light to the struggles of marginalized groups. But Jay-Z no longer identifies with marginalization—yes, he doesn't consort with the peasants in his Tom Ford fitted. So what he took the subway to his final concert. What does that mean? If anything, it was a very desperate attempt to prove that he's still 'real.' Look. If you've got to prove that you're real, you ain't real.

I don't like Jay-Z, in case that wasn't painfully obvious. I don't like his music and I don't like what he represents. He’s a member of the ‘ruling class’ who has chosen to not use his power to raise moral conviction, but instead feed his entrepreneurial and capitalistic agenda. His actions are reflexive of the entire culture of Hip-Hop. It takes power and a certain amount of resistance to provide an alternative. Currently, there are not enough members within the community with the power, access and desire to shift Hip-Hop from being a capitalistic machine back to an avenue of social awareness. Until that happens, the culture will remain in search of a balance of power.