Mi Say WAR:
Hip-Hop vs. The Bourgeois West … and ‘Hip-Hop Studies’?
(A Review of Tricia Rose’s The Hip-Hop Wars, For Example)
by Greg Thomas
“It’s bigger than religion
It’s bigger than my nigga
It’s bigger than the government
[Erykah Badu, “The Healer / Hip-Hop” (2008)]
And it’s much bigger than academic criticism, for sure.
Sylvia Wynter draws an important line in her marathon essay, “How We Mistook the Map for the Territory, and Re-Imprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Désêtre: Black Studies Toward the Human Project” (2006). For there is a world of difference between “Black Studies in its original thrust” which was in the 1960’s a fundamental, local as well as international challenge to the whole order of knowledge of the white bourgeois West and, now, “Black Studies” in its current form which (often renamed “African-American Studies”) is by and large a subordinate, ethnicized reinscription of “Liberal universalism” in and on the basic terms of the white bourgeois West, unfortunately (Wynter 2006, 108; 114).
One was profoundly radical in many of its heretical, Pan-African aims. The other is institutional, pacified and profoundly conformist in a counter-revolutionary era grounded in U.S. or Anglo-North American empire. One dealt a dizzying if not lethal blow to Western humanism (“Man” and, of course, “The Man,” most famously), which defines us as so “wrong” in our very being while, crucially, degrading humanity as a whole. The other reanimates this colonial-imperial humanism (“Ethno-Class Man,” or “Western Bourgeois Man,” in Wynter’s language of choice), and dresses it up in a new pair of sometimes more “gender-inclusive” clothes, as the entire planet moves closer and closer to destruction under its oppressive-repressive rule.
Although Hip-Hop itself was born in the early 1970’s in the wake of the heyday of the Black Power and Black Studies movements, “Hip-Hop Studies” or the mainstream study of Hip-Hop by Black academicians and journalists generally takes place and shape in the historical context of this later rendition of Black Studies mainstreamed as “African-American Studies.” And it is what it is (“Hip-Hop Studies”). Part of a global “Hip-Hop Revolution” it paradigmatically is not. In actual fact, on the whole, it has an ambivalent or adversarial, even antagonistic relationship to Hip-Hop itself.
For like the “Negro” of twentieth century U.S. sociology, Hip-Hop is typically approached as a “problem,” albeit a potentially profitable problem for conventional public commentators. One could thus make some sense of the title of Tricia Rose’s book, The Hip-Hop Wars (2008), even as it demands interrogation on a number of fronts along with various other books allegedly on “Hip-Hop” or, more accurately, “rap.” There has been a mad dash. Yet, however crass, “intellectual” consumerism is not analyzed by consumer “intellectuals.” If it is cliché for bourgeois (petit-bourgeois or pseudo-bourgeois) critics to pontificate on “Hip-Hop” and “commercialization” (while upholding mundane bourgeois values otherwise themselves), no commentators of note have condemned (as a “problem”) its commercialization in academia or publishing as a “new” and profitable “object of investigation.”
So, voila, another book custom-made for Borders and Barnes & Noble – or a local McBookstore near you – in the scandalously manipulated name of “Hip-Hop.”
The whole approach of The Hip-Hop Wars falls apart flat from the preface. If its sensationalist packaging announces that this book is about “WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT HIP-HOP – AND WHY IT MATTERS” (its subtitle), its opening pages anxiously and awkwardly announce that it will exclude no small amount of Hip-Hop from its investigation, “talk” or conversation. The only Hip-Hop to qualify as “Hip-Hop” for Rose (Chair of “Africana Studies” at Brown U.) is “what dominates the U.S. airwaves and recording industry today,” “the most visible, widely consumed” Hip-Hop, or the Hip-Hop charged with capitulating to “the terms of the commercial mainstream” (Rose 2008, xi-xii).
By the same token, fast-food jingles; suburban step aerobics classes; all pop music with purchasable beats; and anything or anyone remotely Black or imitative of Black style in this white fetishistic society could be classified as “Hip-Hop,” bizarrely.
Of course, Hip-Hop is not U.S. nation-bound; radio-bound; or television-bound. Hip-Hop isby no means synonymous with consumerism or consumer society, unless you ask consumer society or uncritical consumers themselves. Nor is the commercialism that would like to suck the life blood out of everything denounced more heartily than in Hip-Hop: I mean the past and present, local and international Hip-Hop (and Hip-Hop interpretations) excluded from the white U.S. imperial capitalist conception of “Hip-Hop” accepted and recycled by Rose in The Hip-Hop Wars. Never does Hip-Hop define “Hip-Hop” at all for this academic argument, not even in multiple, overlapping, heterogenous ways: “The Market” is crassly given a Christian God-like power to do so, completely, with no intellectual protest or contest from this “Hip-Hop Studies.”
For such star-spangled dollarism, what matters Hip-Hop in Brazil, Cuba or Puerto Rico, or all of South America and the Caribbean; Asia, Palestine (“Slingshot Hip-Hop”), Arab & Black Diaspora in France; Hip-Hop in Senegal or all of continental Africa, for example, let alone all of the critically under-recognized “Hip-Hop Nation” under U.S. North America that continues to communicate with this greater Hip-Hop International?
Still, here is what gets repeated daily by Hip-Hop aficionados all around the world: Hip-Hop does not simply refer to “rap.” The term-concept was conceived and promoted internationally, several decades ago, in the organizational context of Afrika Bambaataa’s Universal Zulu Nation. Hip-Hop refers to its four composite “elements,” graffiti/writing,deejaying, break-dancing and emceeing (i.e., “rapping”), each of which may be exist in isolation outside the unifying cultural frame of Hip-Hop. A double-motto or mantra emphasized and continues to emphasize the principles of “peace, love, unity and having fun”and being “warriors for the community” (cf. Yes, Yes Y’all, 2002). A “fifth” element of knowledge (“holding it all together”) was explicitly articulated as a central part of the planetary movement of the “Mighty Zulus,” if KRS-One’s Temple of Hip-Hop would later offer another elemental schema advancing “street knowledge,” specifically, among other things. For Hip-Hop enthusiasts all around the world well-versed in Hip-Hop’s conceptual foundations, keywords of Hip-Hop self-expression include “culture” (“a way of life”), “movement” and “elements” over and against the bourgeois watchwords of “nationality,” “commerce,” and the “mainstream.”
This is far from “commercial rap,” especially as it is interpreted by what we might very well call “commercial criticism,” or consumer-critics, which is to say, conventional criticism which also fails to question its blanket dichotomy between “commercial” and “non-commercial” “rap,” as if little or nothing worthwhile could possibly take place in commercial spaces against the grain and despite the commercial interests of Western capitalism.
With so much in disregard, The Hip-Hop Wars is pedestrian as well as provincial in its discourse and structure: Rose pretends to adjudicate the “two sides” of a “debate,” after eliminating how many other “sides” from discussion in the scholar’s pose? Her liberal (and quasi-Aristotelian) line of inquiry splits into these sections: “PART ONE: TOP TEN DEBATES IN HIP-HOP,” a section of ten colloquial chapters subdivided into “Hip-Hop’s Critics” and “Hip-Hop’s Defenders,” and a short section of three colloquial chapters, “PART TWO: PROGRESSIVE FUTURES.” The David Letterman (“Top Ten List”) technique aside, “war” is casually reduced to “debate” between forces which are by no means comparable in size or power: the “conservative” or overtly fascist voice of ruling class, primarily white North America on the one hand and on the other hand a bunch of “rappers,” or Nelly, Jay-Z and Lil’ Wayne, some of Rose’s “Hip-Hop” representatives of choice. The Hip-Hop Wars is disingenuous, in short, on too many levels to count. Clearly, a book by the name of “The Hip Pop ‘Wars’,” “The U.S. Hip Pop ‘Debates’,” “Consumer Rap vs. ‘Conservatives’” or “Kanye West (etc.) vs. FOX News (etc.)” could not be pitched as a lofty “public intellectual” affair of much urgent political merit.
How could “Hip-Hop” be invoked definitively without consistent reference to the fact of other elements besides emceeing (or “rap”); the fact that many of the pioneers of Hip-Hop have not ceased to practice it and make records (e.g., Afrika Bambaataa’s Dark Matter Moving at the Speed of Light  or KRS-ONE & Marley Marl’s Hip-Hop Lives ); the fact of ample Hip-Hop emcees, lyricists or “rappers” who do not fit the category of rap commercially accessible via radio and television or video, not to mention those artists who do not make or distribute music through the official U.S. record industry; the fact that music labeled “commercial rap” may easily exceed the standard critique of commercialism; or the fact of Hip-Hop movements booming globally across both hemispheres in the spirit of Afrika Bambaataa and the Universal Zulu Nation?
What are the perspectives of this Hip-Hop on the rap that Rose recommodifies as “Hip-Hop,” on the “wars” or “debates” over Hip-Hop? Moralistically, Rose criticizes her two target paradigms without a hint of the possibility that the paradigm from which she criticizes is a paradigm and one in dire need of criticism itself. For even if the subject at hand were to remain the likes of Nelly and Kanye West, under a less overblown rubric, the evaluation of Hip-Hop and the “commercial” sold in The Hip-Hop Wars would change drastically as soon as the Hip-Hop repressed by it returns to attack exploitation, Western empire and the complicit academic critic with an oppositional perspective or set of critical values, norms and ideals.
In The Hip-Hop Wars, Rose crudely and predictably casts her objection to “Hip-Hop” as an objection to some “pernicious brand of Blackness” (Rose 2008, xii), or the matter of mass-class Blackness itself. She casts It as if her objection to “thuggish, promiscuous, sexist and violent” Black people or images of Black people (211) signifies not a specific social-class objection and characterization but some objective judgment cast beyond both conservative “hyper-critics” of Hip-Hop as well as “super-defenders” of Hip-Hop (217), in her binary’s parlance. But what is she conserving without calling her conservatism what it is?
This position had been demystified in advance by bell hooks in “Gangsta Culture – Sexism and Misogyny: Who Will Take the Rap?” (1994). There, hooks had opposed “the sensationalist drama of demonizing black youth culture” by showing how standard charges of sexism and misogyny in “rap” turn out normally to be about something else – racism and classism, or the way Hip-Hop disrupts white bourgeois protocols of social domination (their specific and hegemonic modes of sexism and heterosexism included): “It’s a contemporary remake of Birth of a Nation – only this time we are encouraged to believe it is not just vulnerable white womanhood that risks destruction by Black hands, but everyone” (hooks 1994, 115). Like the academic-intellectual class overall, hooks still could not embrace the “bad men” and “bad women” of the Black masses’ transvaluation of “gangsta” in their collective rejection of bourgeois domination, even though she criticized capitalism or the bourgeoisie and herself would embrace the figure of the “outlaw,” republishing “Gangsta Culture” in her next collection of essays, Outlaw Culture (1994).
So what is the Black “middle-class” elite’s “brand of Blackness,” and why is not a political or intellectual problem for the “Hip-Hop Studies” that make a “problem” out of Hip-Hop, or for most contemporary “African-American Studies,” which was once Black Studies in a previous ideological life? Why is it never “pernicious,” for them, after the profound class analyses crafted by classic anti-compradors such as Amilcar Cabral and Kwame Nkrumah; Cheikh Anta Diop; Léon-Gontran Damas; Carter G. Woodson and Zora Neale Hurston; Claudia Jones; Frantz Fanon and E. Franklin Frazier; Malcolm X; Ousmane Sembène; Walter Rodney and Ifi Amadiume; George Jackson, all Black Panthers and Assata Shakur, as the list goes on? The Black “middle-class” everywhere almost always finds the “brand” or forms of Blackness of the Black majority class to be “pernicious,” unless and until it manages to mediate or moderate this mass of Blackness with Black “middle-class” modes of appropriation, in distinctly white-dominated, colonial or neo-colonial, bourgeois public spheres. Without a doubt, Black “middle-class” crises concerning Hip-Hop can only be understood in this critical light.
So it goes as well for elite etiquettes of gender and sexuality, and elite rhetorics of “sexism and homophobia,” in and outside of academia (e.g., “Hip-Hop Studies”). In a folk-based, sex-radical Hip-Hop fashion, L. H. Stallings makes this much plain in Mutha’ Is Half a Word(2007): “There is a war on Black female bodies, and strategies for the fight have been marred by reducing approaches to turning bad girls into good girls instead of making men and women change their limited notions of gender and sexuality” (Stallings 2007, 256-57). That’s from a chapter entitled “Representin’ for the Bitches: Queen B in Hip-Hop Culture.” She helps expose how sexual “explicitness” (according to an unexamined, taken-for-granted standard of the erotic status-quo) can be essentially identified as sexual “exploitation” or “self-exploitation” (Rose 2008, 122-24) – in the case of the most sexually guerilla Black female lyricists or emcees (i.e., the artists who challenge sexual sexism among males andfemales, in and outside of rap, most of all), as public and aggressive sexuality is still presumed to be essentially “male” or “masculine” in the Victorian, puritanical tradition of empire.
Some of us fight for “Hip-Hop Revolution” and revolutionary alternatives to hegemonic Western bourgeois gender and sexuality, Western bourgeois sexism and heterosexism. Others fight for Western bourgeois “notions” of “civility” – with slavish neo-colonial cults of “true manhood” (for “boys”) and “true womanhood” (for “girls”) in tow. And, in the process, these others exploit the freshly commodified issues of gender and sexuality in a class-interested fashion to enforce the “civilizing missions” of Western bourgeois imperialism, while pretending that their own Western and Westernized elites in and outside of academia (e.g., “Hip-Hop Studies”) are not powerful practitioners of the governing sexism, heterosexism, or homophobia. One should very well ask, then: Who do these critics “represent for,” themselves, truthfully – if covertly, or no less so when fully dressed in “Hip-Hop intellectual” clothing, so to speak?
What must be further exposed and changed in this “war” along with “notions” of “civility” disguised as concerns for “sexism” and “homophobia” (or “proper” gender and sexuality) are concepts of culture, art, eros and politics, for example, in addition to certain conceits of the state. In one chapter, Rose rebukes Lil’ Kim, Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes for embracing a “criminal subculture” and refusing to “share” information with police: “Lil’ Kim went to jail for lying rather than be considered a snitch…. [T]he reality is that refusing to give information about serious crimes only empowers criminal activity and vigilante justice; it does not reduce police brutality or racism” (226). So the police are not part of the “war” metaphor ofThe Hip-Hop Wars. Who so selectively defines criminality here; how; why? Nothing may differentiate Hip-Hop from “Hip-Hop Studies” more than their differential relationship to the state. For Rose and her audience, Hip-Hop has neither the power of self-definition and nor the right to question state power, state violence, state repression or state crime; that is, to resist the whole bourgeois state of U.S. settle-colonial super-empire with its bourgeois “ethics” of “law and order.”
Davey D demonstrated the hypocrisy of the “pro-snitch” campaign of the U.S. state and corporate media on his Hip-Hop blog, pointing out standard class-protective policies against “snitching” in federal government and police departments as well as capitalist corporations. We should no doubt add academia to this list. Immortal Technique of Peru and Harlem would make this same point brilliantly in rhyme, on The Third World (2008): “Everybody knows how the government do / They never snitch on themselves / But they want you to snitch on you.” A Hip-Hop historian, journalist, deejay and community activist, Davey D would connect the current elite demand for informancy strictly among the masses to counter-insurgency on the plantation of chattel slavery (since 1619) and to federal counter-insurgency programs (i.e., “COINTELPRO”) infamous for murdering, exiling and imprisoning Black liberation movement activists (since the 1950s officially till the 1970s and unofficially ever since).
The topic Rose dared not confront in The Hip-Hop Wars therefore is the topic of “Rap COINTELPRO,” “Hip-Hop Cops,” or recently exposed counter-insurgent, counter-intelligence squads concocted across the country to police, persecute and prosecute Hip-Hop artists, icons and activists. This is what Lil’ Kim had already discussed in lyricism – as “Big Momma/Queen Bitch” or “The Notorious K.I.M.” on The Naked Truth (2005), uniquely combining radical sexual politics (“I’m the only bitch in the world that got two pussies!”) and radical anti-state politics (“The youth them bang at the cops off the roof … / My town is the truth: Welcome to Brooklyn!”) to produce the first Hip-Hop album ever to take on this topic as its principal theme. She went to prison (not “jail,” but federal prison) for refusing to collaborate with this scheme or the federal government that tries to infiltrate the Hip-Hop that hates it with provocateurs and informants – in hopes of “neutralizing” or “liquidating” it. What “intellectuals” by contrast articulate their role in society, “Hip-Hop Studies” or “African-American Studies” as obedient spokespersons for the state?
“I’m here to laugh,
and drank liquor …
And help the damn revolution come quicker.”
– The Coup, Pick a Bigger Weapon (2006)
All things considered, not much could be sillier than Jill Nelson’s blurb for this book: “The Hip-Hop Wars is Crisis of the Negro Intellectual for the new millennium. Tricia Rose’s take on hip hop is smart, provocative, analytical and gutsy.” The Crisis of the Negro Intellectualby Harold Cruse (1967) shook up worlds with its iconoclastic, even heretical critiques of U.S. colonial racism and orthodox Marxisms as well as Negro elitism or the Black “lumpen-bourgeoisie” (following E. Franklin Frazier, whose coinage precedes Andre Gunder Frank’s claim to the term by decades). Tricia Rose does not heretically upset professional intellectuals; she tells them much of what they want to hear about “Hip-Hop.” She does not call out lumpen-bourgeois “Negroes,” or even recognize them as lumpen-bourgeois. There is no anti-domestic colonialism in her book. She does not blast the so-called “Left,” white or Black, in North America; she assumes U.S. (imperial) nationalism (when Hip-Hop is as international as Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association) and waves around the word “progressive” like it’s a magic wand that can disappear all the class conflicts writ large in The Hip-Hop Wars. Yet, it is true, old millennium or new, blurbers often don’t actually read the books they’re commissioned to blurb, let alone Harold Cruse.
This is why in the age of the self-merchandizing academician, the politics of endorsements should be addressed beyond the commercial advertising of other media. How is a whole roster of the highest-profile establishment personalities assembled to envelope a book ostensibly on Hip-Hop with the highest praise, without the slightest trace of irony? Besides Nelson formerly of The Washington Post, Michael Eric Dyson appears on the back of The Hip-Hop Wars in his unabashed pop-intellectual hustle. As does Robin D.G. Kelley who (almost in the vein of “Oprah’s Book Club,” or like Homi Bhabha to Fanon after Fanon) now supplies the obligatory name-brand foreword or introduction to a vast expanse of books, not excluding those by C.L.R. James, Aimé Césaire and Cedric J. Robinson, as if they could need to be legitimized by whom? There is also Cornel West who, in spite his own commercial attempt at abysmal “rap” albums, is not slated for criticism by The Hip-Hop Wars, which quotes him authoritatively instead. Queerest of all, however, is a royal front cover blurb supplied Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the academician as pure entrepreneur who, throughout the years leading up to his recent Harvard Square arrest for “trying to enter his own house while Black,” regularly disavowed the masses of Black folk and routinely made public his “hatred” for Hip-Hop. Comforted by Rose in The Hip-Hop Wars (which advertises her new website after these endorsements, of course), they embody precisely the type of “Negro intellectual” commerce condemned by Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual — not to mention Elaine Brown’s up-to-date hardcore tour-de-force, The Condemnation of Little B: New Age Racism in America (2002).
“Everywhere is war,” as Bob Marley sang on Rastaman Vibration (1976) – from Haile Selassie I’s speech made in 1963 before the United Nations weeks after the inaugural Organization of African Unity conference in Ethiopia; and, what’s more, in a genre of music central to Hip-Hop’s sonic formation in the African Diaspora. Part of a legendary “Holy Trinity” of Hip-Hop with DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa maintains he founded the Universal Zulu Nation as global ambassadors of Hip-Hop after his viewing of a film, Cy Enfield’s Zulu (1964), or a particular scene of Black male and female warriors rising up against British empire circa 1879 in southern Africa. Recalling Malcolm X, Ward Churchill describes the British offshoot of the United States of America in On the Justice of Roosting Chickens (2003) as “a country which has not experienced a time when it was actually at peace since its conception” and “a country that has after more than two centuries yet to evidence a single year during which it was not making war upon someone, somewhere, for some reason” (Churchill 2003 40-41; 87). A book about Hip-Hop and war for which war is not just a weak literary device would be welcome. But that book is not this book, Tricia Rose’s The Hip-Hop Wars. Like “Black Studies” co-opted, such “Hip-Hop Studies” don’t have a trace of the politics of resistance and revolution of, say, Carolyn Cooper’s Noises in the Blood (1993) or Sound Clash (2004). Although criticism is absolutely vital for Hip-Hop, for sure; not just any critical pose will do – no more than just any rap do on wax. And the capacity for criticism is hardly the exclusive property of academicians, as much as this idea is propagandized in the West. (It is so easy to argue instead that irrepressible Hip-Hop is the artistic capacity for criticism, and self-criticism, itself, in an overwhelming Black popular mode of expression, no less.) All political masquerades aside, this academic criticism aims to commandeer Hip-Hop and mobilizes criticism to support what Sylvia Wynter zeroes in on as “Ethno-Class Man,” or “Western Bourgeois Man [andWoman],” not “Hip-Hop Revolution” itself.
Brown, Elaine. 2002. The Condemnation of Little B: New Age Racism in America. Boston: Beacon Press.
Churchill, Ward. 2003. On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Fricke, Jim and Charlie Ahearn (eds.). 2002. Yes, Yes Y’all: The Experience Music Project’s Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade. New York: De Capo Press.
hooks, bell. 1994. Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. New York and London: Routledge.
Rose, Tricia. 2008. The Hip-Hop Wars: What We Talk about When We Talk about Hip-Hop – and Why It Matters. New York: Basic Civitas Books.
Stallings, L. H. 2007. Mutha’ Is Half a Word. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.
Wynter, Sylvia. 2006. “How We Mistook the Map for the Territory, and Re-Imprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Désêtre: Black Studies Toward the Human Project.” Not Only the Master’s Tools: African-American Studies in Theory and Practice. Ed. Lewis R. Gordon and Jane Anna Gordon. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers: pp. 107-69.
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