Hip-Hop is no different than any other cultural expression in that when not organized, “nationalized,” or conscious of its particular use at any given moment, it too can become an extension of an imperial arm. Back on January 15, 2012 a panel was convened to discuss the film Hip-Hop: Furious Rhymes of Change a documentary that largely touts the positive potential of hip-hop around the world. During the conversation differences of opinion among the panelists emerged regarding the political context of hip-hop’s deployment and whether it was possible for artists to overcome the circumstances of their sponsorship. And below that is an older radio commentary about the state’s use of nominally radical art to advance its own agenda.
Hip-Hop Against the World!
Jared A. Ball
*Originally published as a radio commentary 11/15/2011
What do empires do whenever they sense trouble? A bunch of things, for sure. But one of them is to use those they most oppress in one location to ease the process of oppressing others somewhere else. Hip-hop is now the latest in a pattern of Black radical creation to be turned against itself and, if left unchecked, will serve as the cultural equivalent of the Buffalo Soldier: a new face and representative of empire or as some form of imperial novocaine. Two recent examples demonstrate this. In one part of the world rappers are sent to cleanse an image that simply defies cleanliness while here they are sent in order to co-opt what still has to prove it cannot be co-opted. But in each case the goal is to mitigate against the multitudes of emcees whose work is to give voice to radical thought and to turn this voice of the people against itself. The goal is to turn hip-hop against the very communities who create it and ultimately to turn it against the world.
In the Arab world the State Department has been sending rappers since 2005 to, as Hilary Clinton recently made clear, “rebuild the image” of the United States. It is as if to say that we hope the lyrical bombs we drop on you will somehow make up for the very literal ones that, by the way, are still coming. But as many will remember, this is part of a legacy of sending Black emissaries overseas to convince others of “a sense of shared suffering, as well as the conviction that equality could be gained under the American political system” that began in the 1950s with jazz musicians. And today, from the U.S. to Syria people are looking for “pro-stability rappers” who will help make capitulation to the West “cool.” Today’s “hip-hop envoys” are, in the words – again – of Hilary Clinton, engaged in a “complex game of ‘multidimensional chess’” which is, in part, meant to challenge the potential support given by hip-hop to revolutionary movements. So artists we never hear on radio or see on television, and even those who are somewhat progressive, are sent to promote a version of this country that simply does not exist. Shared suffering perhaps, but by no means any “equality under an American political system.”
And back here at home, what does an empire do when it clearly has no clothes? It invents them, slaps a cool label on them and tries to sell them as proof of empire being ok. We were impressed a few weeks back when an anonymous super-sister called our former rap mogul, now just regular mogul, Russell Simmons as being part of the problem while he spoke on behalf of the 99% at Occupy Wall Street. As we said then she was right so it was of no surprise to see him hugged up last week to super rapper and businessman Jay-Z sporting his new Occupy All Streets tee-shirt. It was a brief but note-worthy attempt at commercializing an anti-commercial gathering. But within 48 hours Jay-Z’s Rocafella clothing line took down the shirt from its website and apparently got the message that this time the emperor’s clothes would have to stay off, at least for now.
But all of these attempts speak mostly to the extent to which hip-hop and all of us are disorganized. Artists need to eat and live but also need to check and be checked on who is sponsoring them. No one can claim to be representing anything when appointed as a representative by someone else, especially when that someone else is an enemy. Hilary Clinton can only claim that “hip-hop is America” without the more appropriate Malcolm X-like amendment that, “hip-hop is a response to the victimization by America,” because no organized body can stand up and demonstrate her fraudulence. Similarly, it should not take a loose confederacy of Twitter-ites to stop Russell Simmons and Jay-Z from even attempting to embarrass us with such a typical corporatist move. So while we know that hip-hop has long-been used to sell anything from products to myths of Black and Brown “success” we must again acknowledge that there seems to have been a devolution in preparing for worse forms of political abuse.
In the end sponsorship matters. The sponsor is as important as the message itself. And when that sponsor is the State Department or major corporations the message nearly loses all other relevance. And in this case it becomes again a situation where hip-hop is turned against itself and indeed the world.