Media and the (Im)possibility of Democracy: A Call to Action


As a follow up and response to his keynote address on the state of mass media and journalism Robert McChesney sat down this morning with Jared Ball for a discussion of that address.  This all was part of the Center for American and World Cultures Robert E. Strippel Memorial at Miami University (OH).  McChesney and Ball discussed differences of historical interpretation, societal function of media and journalism, as well as, media (social and political) justice.*

*February 17, 2012

Hip-Hop Nation: Mixtape Revolution? A Review of I MIX WHAT I LIKE! A MIXTAPE MANIFESTO

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*Originally appeared in LeftTurn Magazine by Xan West.

“The ability to determine which forms of cultural expression are widely disseminated and which are not is purely ideological and serves a colonizing purpose”– Jared Ball, I Mix What I Like!: A Mixtape Manifesto

I have a confession.  I’ve most likely seen every episode, reunion and thrown down of Love & Hip-Hop.  Critical consciousness intact, I sit guilty and mesmerized by one solid hour of television dedicated to black women man chasing, trash talking and fist fighting.  For months I’ve tried to analyze what it could be about me, my homies, and apparently a large segment of the nation that, though we know it is wrong, can’t seem to look away.  Many of us use a train wreck analogy to justify our attraction to such a rachet show: I can’t look away because I want to see how bad it gets.

However we justify it to ourselves, most of us rely on personal responsibility and question ourselves: why do I have this sick obsession?  But, I began to notice Love & Hip-Hop and the weave-pulling drama that goes with it, is always on the air—morning, after school, nighttime, and that’s not even the marathons. If one is to turn on VH1, Love& Hip-Hop is what’s on.  The other music channels are not much better.

Jared Ball’s I Mix What I Like!: A Mixtape Manifesto properly places Black America as a colonized people within a nation, and therefore recognizes a colonized hip-hop nation within this colony.  Ball identifies the process of cooptation of culture as well as saturation of a fabricated culture as key to the continued process of colonization.  Ball argues that hip-hop culture and shows like Love & Hip-Hop serve as little more than propaganda—vaguely reminiscent of the culture of the oppressed, yet processed and repackaged with a colonial agenda.

Once a libratory art form created by disenfranchised kids, hip-hop had to be destroyed or, better yet, co-opted by empire.  In reaction to KRS-One’s U Must LearnPublic Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and more than a decade of hip-hop consciousness, empire struck back with Puffy’s Its All About the Benjamins and Rick Ross’ Aston Martin Music and a decade of promoting violence and drugs.  Yet Ball argues, while we easily blame the 50 cents for violence, the Jay-Zs for greed and Love &Hip-Hop ladies for ignorance, blame is rarely placed rightfully in the hands of those corporate execs who have carefully selected to invest in a culture that maintains colonial power.  On Love & Hip-Hop, bass beats weaving through the entire show, we learn that to be successful, Black men need to be thug rappers and Black women need to be slutty video vixens and none of them need ever get along.

This corporate investment in a particular kind of hip-hop (gangsta rap), the media’s complicity in promoting (and focusing on it), and the lack of a true alternative media that represents oppressed people (Ball especially calls out NPR), combine to serve a crushing blow to Black America and the hip-hop nation.  I Mix What I Like! is not content with simply critiquing the state of hip hop. It offers the hip-hop mixtape as a tool for emancipatory journalism.

Hip-hop mixtape

While Ball pinpoints the problem with quarterback accuracy, his proposed mixtape solution comes up a little suspect.  Primarily because, as with many nationalist texts, Ball over assumes a monolithic identity within this hip-hop nation, as if because we dance to the same beat we want the same living standards.  Little, if any, attention was given to political differences between artists most hip-hop heads would label ‘conscious’, and therefore by Ball’s standard, mixtape worthy.  One cannot underestimate the differences between vegan Common Sense, black nationalist Dead Prez, and Marxist Boots Riley from the Coup, yet all of them fall under the label ‘conscious hip-hop’.

Most distressing was the exemption of misogyny and homophobia in even what most people call conscious rap.  Dead Prez is one of the most political rap groups still making music, yet they have been notoriously critiqued for their misogyny.  Many of us recall the now infamous scene in Byron Hurt’s Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes documentary when Hurt asks a room full of rappers about homosexuality. All but one leaves, including artists many of us may have previously thought a little more conscious.

Yet I find some of the people rarely named as conscious artists tend to be some of the most emancipatory, such as Outkast or Cee-Lo Green.  Also, what is to be made of corporate artists who make revolutionary songs such as Lil Wayne’s Tie My Hands or How to Love, yet the rest of their discography is less than inspirational.  While there is something to be said for allowing the readers and producers to create their own vision, we are left with little to understand the barometer for what Ball sees as mixtape worthy.  If mixtapes already exist within hip-hop, how is one to decipher emancipatory journalism from the CDs that are already present?  It seems someone can burn a 50 cent album, throw some of his interviews over it, and call it liberation.

Moreover, the crux of Ball’s argument seems to fall back on the premise: if colonized people could create ways to communicate freely amongst themselves they would be free.  Well yeah. While Ball argues that the mixtape offers more cultural relevance inside the hip-hop community than many other forms of media, his argument that it will be able to stand up to the forces of oppression he accurately catalogues is not convincing.

What happens when mixtapes are criminalized as contraband?  What happens when people start getting 5 year bids for possession of a mixtape? What happens when Lil Wayne puts out Fuck a Mixtape?   As Ball argues during the beginning of the book, there is a culture of escapism among colonized people.  Therefore, without political education, how many people would even consume such a mixtape?

Ball’s book also seems to exist in a time warp.  Published less than a year ago, the book makes little mention of new media.  The book is absent of conversations around mobile apps, radio streaming and the mixtape leak phenomenon that has taken distribution to the Internet.  How will emancipatory mixtape journalism factor into these developments?  Will this make it easier to distribute CDs, or harder because the internet is more saturated?

It is also important to note, this book is more pedagogy and political theory, and not a history of hip-hop.  People who open this book with little knowledge of hip-hop will pick up trace amounts of hip-hop history, culture and artists.  For those looking to find the role The Universal Zulu NationTribe Called QuestDeath Row RecordsRussell Simmons, and Puff Daddy played in the robbery of hip-hop cultural heritage, they will not find it here.  However, for those interested in the role hip-hop culture, such as Love & Hip-Hop, has played in creating a colonizing mindset in youth culture over the last several decades, I Mix What I Like! is a critical text.

Xan West has over a decade of experience as a multimedia journalist. She is thrilled to have interviewed people as wide ranging as Mumia Abu-Jamal, Peter Bratt, Eminem and Nas. She is currently the WestOakland blog reporter for KQED’s ouRXperience, as well as a frequent contributor to Oakland Local and VoxUnion. A proud Oakland native, Xan has lived in the Foster-Hoover area (more familiarly referredto as “Ghost Town”) of West Oakland for the past 8 years. She has worked in community organizing with organizations such as Critical Resistance, People’s Grocery and Anarchist People of Color.

A Response to Xan West’s Review by Jared Ball

I am deeply appreciative of LefTurn Magazine for requesting a book review and to Xan West for writing such a strong and principled critique.  I do, however, have a number of points I’d like to make in response:

1.  I Mix clearly and immediately explains that it is not a book about hip-hop history or that of mixtapes; it is a manifesto whose purpose is the explanation of a political, journalistic project: FreeMix Radio: The Original Mixtape Radio Show.  I Mix then is a book about political and media theory and explicitly says from the beginning that the goal is to, “under the guise” of a discussion of FreeMix Radio, make certain points about the nature of Black America’s relationship to the state and the function media play in that relationship.  The mixtape and this particular mixtape radio project are explained as a response to that relationship, one of internal colonialism.

2.  The nature of this political manifesto is such that certain issues West raises, while important, are not issues necessary to this particular discussion.  For instance, West says that I, “assume[s] a monolithic identity within this hip-hop nation” and pay little “attention… to political differences between artists most hip-hop heads would label ‘conscious’…”  In fact, I think ultimately I argue something quite different.  The fact of differences between individuals or segments of a national community is separate from the fact of their national colonization.  We do indeed act and think differently but are still collectively, nationally speaking, internally colonized.  So no one denies the fact of differences between Indigenous communities here in the U.S. but this does not mean that all are differently colonized.  They may react differently to their colonization but the national colonization remains a fact.  So I am not suggesting that different so-called “conscious” rappers have differences in opinion, quality, radicalism, etc. my point was only that those selected for promotion by a dominant industry (or “Mother Country”) are chosen for their ability to serve a particular function and all others are omitted for the same reason.

3.  Similarly, when West points out (accurately I might add) that many so-called “conscious” groups engage in all manner of misogyny and homophobia and that I ignore this reality (which is also true) it is because my point is simply that these groups are omitted for their politics or what they get right politically and which is seen as threatening to those in power.  Therefore, just as Dr. King was not assassinated for cheating on Corretta, Dead Prez is not kept off the radio because of their anti-woman or anti-gay content.  Obviously popular media have no problem promoting those aspects of rappers’ music.  And while West is right in general that many groups not often labeled as “conscious” are ignored by the so-called “conscious” this too is not my point.  In fact, quite the opposite.  For all the air-play Lil’ Wayne gets it never included his track “Georgia” critical of post-levees George Bush, and I as point out in my book Young Buck was censored by Interscope not because he said, “fuck,” or “fuck you,” or “fuck bitches,” but because he said “fuck the police.”  So my point, again, is that even those not often considered to by radically political are treated more or less the same by popular media once they even slightly lean in that direction.  So I would ask, of West’s reference to Byron Hurt’s film, what is his overall political framework or suggested solution(s)?  If rappers stay in a room for a discussion of their homophobia will we become free? This sounds weaker than the incorrect accusation that I claim we will be free if we communicate better.  Are we colonized because we are homophobes? What theory of society is Hurt exposing or confronting by making that point? To me that film reads more as a safe, liberal and conservative critique of the oppressed as opposed to any radical critique of the initial and far more important oppression itself.

4.  West claims that I argue somehow that mixtape-making or that I am simply saying that, “if colonized people could create ways to communicate freely amongst themselves they would be free.”  This is not at all my point, and to the extent that I lead any reader to that conclusion I apologize or was mistaken.  In fact, what I thought I said in many ways and repeatedly is that we cannot communicate freely because we are colonized and this is why I advocate such projects like “mixtape radio.”  FreeMix was born out of an attempt to expose further our condition and media’s role in that condition and what, among many other things, must occur.  Further, this was my point in the concluding self-criticism that the ultimate flaw in my own particular attempt at this project was the failure to keep it housed within and as a mouthpiece for political organization(s).  Those organizations are what is needed, not simply a new way to communicate freely.  The mixtape radio idea was born out of a need to help those organizations produce their own media, journalism and cultural content and to have that work distributed in such a way as to help expand those organization’s strength, number and power.  The book is not only suggesting an attempted project, with open and honest discussion of its potential and its flaws, but is meant to also be a critique of hip-hop and media studies work that often ignore the politics of communication and the mixtape in particular.

5.  West also says I am in a “time warp” and that I say little about social media, the internet, etc.  Actually, this is not entirely true.  On the one hand I Mix is, again, about a mixtape radio project and the nature of media in functioning within a colony.  So the point is not to focus or discuss other forms of media.  However, on the other hand, I do talk about the internet and social media.  First, in referencing throughout (though in footnotes) the work of Harold Innis I make the point that media relationship to and function within society does not change with technology.  Innis was right that “advances” in media technology, contrary to popular myth, do not free society but instead entrench more power within a tinier elite who have the skill to use or power over that technology.  Similarly,  in the book’s introduction, and later, I mention what I’ve tried to call “Our Newton’s Laws” which basically extend Innis’ point through Huey Newton to reiterate that same point, new media technology does not overthrow existing social relationships, they reaffirm them.  And the end of chapter 7 goes more in-depth in this through our discussion of Adam Haupt’s Stealing Empire, where I spend a little more time explaining why the internet is not a change-agent in this way.  And while I do not spend much time on this or the fact that mixtapes are distributed via the internet I do mention this fact even explaining how it is part of a co-optation of mixtapes.  West ignores all of this discussion, even if to critique it, including reference to the work of Matthew Hindman which I describe as part of my evidence that the internet is no promise of a better world.  But if I Mix isn’t enough on these points here are some other attempts of mine at dealing with what I consider to be the myth of social media as being progressive or ultimately useful in overthrowing power.

6. I also admit to watching the horror that is Love and Hip-Hop.

7.  I hope this adds some clarity to my attempt that is I Mix What I Like!  And more importantly I appreciate any discussion of these issues that the books assists in generating or extending.  And most importantly I hope it helps increase the kinds of political organization called for in the book and that mixtapes perhaps play some small role in that.