… Morgan State University professor Jared Ball in his new book I Mix What I Like! A Mixtape Manifesto… [offers] a penetrating look at the way Black culture has become a commodity to be exploited for profit and a tool for the control of the brown masses, as corporate interest promote the vapid and tacitly racist “bling bling” archetype as the “proper” and “authentic” form of blackness while ignoring and actively suppressing hip hop artists who would use the medium for its original purpose, as a tool for consciousness raising and “emancipatory journalism”. His book reflects many of the characteristics of the music he is analyzing; powerfully emotional, politically revolutionary, intentionally disparate, occasionally discombobulating and often brilliant.

The Revolution will not be Televised-it will be Remixed! Hip Hop Colonialism versus Emancipatory (Mixtape) Journalism a Review by Lawrence Grandpre

Young Black men are notorious for having the unrealistic expectation that they will make it out the hood by becoming rap superstars. The ubiquitous images of rappers with Benzes and Bling funneled through BET and the adulation heaped upon these rappers by many radio stations creates an environment where young people see these rappers as the epitome of what it means to “make it” in America. Unfortunately most don’t manage to fulfill this lofty ambition, and often more “realistic” (violent) alternatives become the only ways in which these kids can survive, either on the streets or through joining some armed wing of the state like the military or the police. While those from a city like Baltimore will likely have spent much time ponder this dynamic, its two components, the hip hop fantasy and the violent reality, are often theorized as separate, unrelated concepts. But what if these two mechanisms, the corporate hip-hop machine and the state’s mechanisms of control and repression, are not separate, but mutually co-constituting forces that have helped shape the modern (white supremacist) world? This is one of many tough questions tackled by Morgan State University professor Jared Ball in his new book I Mix What I Like! A Mixtape Manifesto. Ball’s book is a penetrating look at the way Black culture has become a commodity to be exploited for profit and a tool for the control of the brown masses, as corporate interest promote the vapid and tacitly racist “bling bling” archetype as the “proper” and “authentic” form of blackness while ignoring and actively suppressing hip hop artists who would use the medium for its original purpose, as a tool for consciousness raising and “emancipatory journalism”. His book reflects many of the characteristics of the music he is analyzing; powerfully emotional, politically revolutionary, intentionally disparate, occasionally discombobulating and often brilliant.

Ball argues that mainstream hip hop participates in this “creation of the colonized” by creating an image of people of color where they appear to “deserve their perpetual inequality”, giving the dominate culture permission to not feel guilty about the history of slavery and genocide that produced that inequality (Ball, 54). In short, the rapper with his bling simultaneously teaches Whites that Blacks aren’t poor (how else can they afford all that jewelry?) and that “authentic” Black culture values material acquisition and flash over more concrete actions like community or family. Ball puts on his academic hat to drive his point home, dropping names like Amilcar Cabral and Zbigniew Brezinski they way most rapper would shout out members of their entourage, making a strong case that there are serious political implications behind this dynamic. For example, if Blacks are not poor, and in fact are a disproportionate percentage of the world’s superstars, then all those who talk about the horrible statics facing Black America are seen as out of touch with the new “Obama era” Black America that can obviously pull itself up by its bootstrap, an argument Ball indicts by pointing out that Blacks still own the same percentage of American’s wealth they owned in the 1850s (only 1%) and by pointing out, with some sarcasm, that no rap album has every successfully brought down a housing project or stopped an instance of police brutality (Ball, 21). What we are left with is “an unending wave of propaganda, encouraging us to process all this through a perspective that assumes theses to be accidents, or worse the pathology of Black people” (Ball, 33), a sobering message the author relays in meticulous detail.

The implications go deeper than just perception, taking the reader deeper into Dr. Ball’s argument about the political implication of contemporary hip hop. Society chooses to promote and consume images of Blacks that meet their stereotypical images of them, thus ignoring that the majority of these images are artificially manufactured by the 4 companies that owns 95% of music played on the radio, company who sign artist based on a tacitly racist interpretation of what image will sell the most records. The song are then passed onto the black radio stations, most of which are owned by one company (Radio One) which often ignore most none mainstream and political rap music because their music is seen as not popular enough, industry code for them not having receive the customary bribe from record companies (known as payola), to play those songs. Like any good colony, Black America thus continues to serve as a reservoir of talents and skills that be exploited by the White America without worrying about any repercussions for the colonial regime. The images of Blacks as hyper consumptive and licentious is thus reaffirmed and remains a dominate social tropes which shape our world. For example, one can argue that there becomes less incentive to give blacks welfare because people fear Blacks will just abuse the system.

Old Dirty Bastard’s infamous appears in a limousine to get a welfare check it thus not the seen as a manifestation of the psychic trauma of a enslaved and colonized people, but proof that all Blacks are frauds, creating a political climate where it becomes harder and harder to make the case for things like increased welfare or, God forbid, reparations for slavery, because of this images of Blacks reinforced through (corporate) hip hop. Even more problematic, one can begin to see things like military recruit of young Black men and Black men being shipped overseas to fight wars as a positive thing, perhaps allowing young Black men to learn some sorely needed “discipline” and thus “make something of their lives”, statements that reflect the image of Black youth created through mainstream hip hop as criminals and prisoners in the making. This exemplifies Ball’s point about a final purpose of this “International Colony”; it can serve as “safety value for modern society” where by things like drugs, crime, prostitution” (and I would add the negative impacts of overseas military adventurism) can be kept far away from the “homeland”, a scandal that seems natural because the images we received from corporate hip hop makes all these things seem to have always been present in Black America (Ball, 41). Ball combines heavy hitting academic prose with quotes from hip hop artists to make his case, the two distinct forms of knowledge complementing one another and weaving together the complexities and American race relations and the music industry.

So what solution does Ball find to the mediocrity of the mainstream? Ball presents a theory Emancipatory Journalism based upon the work of Hemant Shah, arguing that the mixtape, specifically the political hip hop mixtape best exemplified by “Freemix Radio: The Original Mixtape Radio Show”, as a means to reclaim hip hop as a form of bottom up journalism about the conditions facing minority communities. Noting that 42% of all news rooms in America have no minority journalists and that even the liberal press seems woefully deficient at addressing issues relating to Black America, Ball proposes that the mixtape, a self produced album of songs created from a mixture personal recordings and samples from other sources, can circumvent the corporate media machine and create a form of communication that can reach people in the streets. He cites the example of the organization “Organized Community of United People” (or Organized COUP) as a model for the type of utilization of the mixtape he envisioned, as this progressive community organization attempted to use the creation of mixtapes as both a means of community empowerment and as a way to keep the organization self sustaining by burning and selling CDs. By generating revenue outside the corporate stream, the organization is free to create music that is responsive to the conditions of the people, no strings attached, creating a blueprint for how hip hop can be reclaimed as a form of emancipatory journalism, as Ball writes: “By interviewing people from the community who would serve as ‘official sources’ while being fact-checked from an intellectual grounding derived from those very same communities, mixtapes could provide the space for the sorts of interpretive change necessary for political activity” (Ball, 129).

There are addition benefits to this approach. For Ball this also serves as a corrective to the limited scope of mainstream reporting, not to mention engaging people through an interesting and exciting medium. This cures one the largest problems with traditional journalistic sources like National Public Radio (NPR), its tendency to use a dry academic style which to many of the people of the streets feels, as Ball quotes from DJ Ralph Cooper, “boring as fuck” (Ball, 127). Fans of A Prairie Home Companion or other NPR shows may ruffle at Ball’s frankness here, hesitant to completely abandon the possibilities of something like NPR being political and socially productive. Yet Ball’s analysis is not geared to be responsive to those who listen to Garrison Keillor, or for that matter people who even know who the hell Garrison Keillor is, but instead is geared toward the silent majority of Black people in this country, those who turn on the radio and feel something is missing, but don’t have the words to articulate that frustration, sensing a void in their consciousness that Weezy alone cannot fill. Ball steps into this void, showing the history behind why only a few choice songs get radio play, and how what we hear on the radio is far from some authentic expression of street desires, as many are taught to believe, but instead is a manufactured and artificially selected grouping of songs designed to further the interest of a select group of (almost exclusively white male) elites.

Of course, there is the matter of whether Ball’s solution will actually be effective, an issue made more acute by the fact that the organization Ball cites as a model for the mixtape revolution is not longer functioning and that he alone is the one currently keeping Freemix Radio alive. The difficulty of getting people to pay for music in an era where Limewire and torrents allow people near unlimited free access to music is an issue for his model, as well as the issue of music copyrights and increased enforcement from the Recording Industry Association of American, or RIAA, which Ball likens to the Drug Enforcement Agency, as both state intuitions use intimidation and the threat of unjustifiably long jail sentences to prevent people (predominately people of color) from selling product on the streets (Ball, 125). While proposing alternative means of dissemination, like pirate radio station that can do unmanned broadcasts over small areas, he maintains the his model is fundamentally solid, and the call to “do it better” becomes a call to find new and creative ways for those who seek to use the mixtape to enter the digital world of people of color. In a world where the increased presence of smart phones and 3/4G access means that increasing numbers of people of color are streaming audio from sites like Pandora instead of listening to traditional radio, one wonders if something like a Freemix Radio Iphone or Android app might be effective in getting ahead of the quickly shifting digital curve and getting in the ear, or in this case earphones, of the people who most need to hear what Freemix Radio has to offer.

A suggestion like this might complicate some of Balls analysis; one wonders if his expressed skepticism over emancipatory uses of the internet (he argues it is increasing being locked down through regulation and is not accessible to many of the poorest and less tech savvy people on the streets) would lead him to resist such a move, or if his expressed desire to work around corporate radio and find new and interesting ways to “do it better” would make him more receptive to such a solution. Either way, his basic point remains solid; since “no [community] enjoys the type of close knit relationship held between Black America and Black Radio” then the only way for there ever to be a wide scale emancipatory movement in the Black community is to find ways to stop Black radio from being part of the problem and instead make it a critical medium for the dissemination and development of the solution (Ball, 15).

Some may read his text and still wonder what exactly emancipatory journalism really looks like, wondering if a mixtape can replace Wolfblitzer, but this misses the point. The text itself is an example not only of emancipatory journalism, but, as AK Press editor Kate Khateb puts it, his writing style itself is like a mixtape, and thus he performs his vision of what journalism should look like. The books copious quotes and citations, 645 of them over 150 pages, perform the role the “samples” DJ cut and splice into tracks on a mixtape. It’s hard sometime to pick out specific quote from Ball himself; like any good DJ he fades into the background and lets the flow seem to carry itself, a refreshingly different approach as compared to most academics, whose grandiloquent verbosity can obscure their arguments the way DJ Clue screaming his name over the track obscures the flow. There is no pretense from the man who calls himself “The Funkinest Journalist”, just the message, one that rises above both the post modern philosophical prattle about internet open source utopias and the mainstream medias bemoaning of the nihilism of the hip hop generation. It’s a message that reaffirms the hip hop vision of people like KRS-1, Rakim and the Nas of Illmatic, and while one can lament the fact that many under the age of 18 may not know who these rappers are, we should instead be thankful that there are still those like Ball around to “carry on tradition” and show that sometimes the best way to secure the future is to look to past.

This review was originally published July 3, 2011 by Lawrence Grandpre of the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.

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