Articles, Media Criticism, Panels & Presentations

Hip-Hop’s Still Troubled Narrative (or A Requiem for C. Delores Tucker)

This was a brief talk, based on the following work, given at this year’s Hip-Hop Pedagogy Conference held at LaGuardia Community College in New York City.

 

Hip-Hop Pedagogy Conference 2017 Presentation

 

Hip-Hop’s Still Troubled Narrative (or A Requiem for C. Delores Tucker) by Jared Ball

“Rap is not pop.  If you call it that then stop.” – Q-Tip, A Tribe Called Quest, “Check The Rhime”

“Let them know your logo, not a black thing, My background sing, my background sing for the crossover…” Erick Sermon, EPMD, “Crossover”

Say what you want about her but when it comes to the issue of elite corporations negatively impacting and promoting particularly anti-Black, anti-woman, anti-community rap music C. Delores Tucker was right.   She was right then, in the early 1990s when she more fully joined the fight against corporate dominance of Black art,  and she would be even more right today where just a few select companies, themselves subsidiaries of super conglomerates and international private equity holdings, now have more control over the selection, promotion and distribution – the creation of ultimate popular commercial form – of rap music than at any other point in history.  These companies assure that images which are pro-Black, politically radical, positive in their depiction of women or that are simple harmless fun are largely kept from notoriety. 

The overwhelming majority of revolutionary and positive rap music that is made is marginalized and forced to compete with well-funded and anti-Black and human commercial forms.  While young people of all backgrounds are the targets, 12-18 year olds in particular, it is the agenda of a fully grown, White and mostly male elite that determines the content and popularity of what – if left unchecked – is often a highly critical, thoughtful and radical art form.  Worse still is what Tucker cautioned against decades ago; the lived experiences of Black people – youth in particular – are worsened in part due to the symbolic and suggestive content of what is much of this commercial product.  But the correctness of Tucker’s argument came crashing up against a then developing (now fully ensconced) grand narrative that defined hip-hop’s emergence, growth and eventual acceptance by corporate America into the national mainstream as largely positive and even ultimately leading the country toward the brighter and more colorfully inclusive world in which we now currently live.

Using three examples representing key moments in the rise of hip-hop journalism and academia i mean to simply introduce how their unfortunate/unwitting complicity assisted the rise of a now dominant historical narrative one that seeks to maintain a mythic linear and happy/positive move of hip-hop, and by extension Black people, from marginalization to mainstream national popular culture.  This linearity suits the similar, broader and equally false narrative of some progressive march from slavery to freedom; a myth subsumed beneath an even more encompassing mythology of the ever-improving country.  The works used herein, Raquel Cepeda/Kierna Mayo, Jeff Chang and Dan Charnas, are representative of an attempt to replace early hip-hop scholarship that did much to set a more appropriate and critical framework for interpreting the rise and power of hip-hop. Earlier works from, for just a few instances, Tricia Rose (her later work notwithstanding), Robin D.G. Kelley, Errol Henderson or all the work from James Spady, work that more thoughtfully included the socio-political contexts and radical origins of hip-hop have largely been submerged beneath now more popular works whose narrative crashes down upon contemporary and historical attempts to provide any critical institutional analysis.  Much like other arenas of intellectual inquiry Black nationalist, anti-capitalist/imperialist and even biting and focussed critiques of the role of corporations are generally marginalized in favor of pluralist and assimilationist fantasies of, in this case, hip-hop paving the way for new and improved levels of multiracial/ethnic/cultural inclusivity.  It is this pie-eyed inertia against which Tucker found herself crashing in life and still in posthumous accounts of her hip-hop endeavors.   

Tucker took her stance in the 1990s against what was then the still incomplete corporate takeover of rap music and charged that such a trend would have increasingly harmful effects on Black people, youth in particular.  She argued that rich White men were working to control and distort a potentially powerful and community sustaining art form turning it against the very Black communities from which it came.  Today the takeover is complete, at least in that fewer corporations than ever control the commercial exchange of – and wealth produced by – rap music.  Corporate control over processes of selection, intellectual property and global distribution assure that so much of what is not anti-Black, anti-woman and encouraging of product consumption is submerged beneath apparent waves of what is.  The material conditions of the mostly Black and Brown communities producing this brilliant, vibrant and often revolutionary art continue to worsen as does the kind of mass political consciousness required to organize and sustain new radical social movements.  However, instead of Tucker’s fight being commemorated, studied and continued it remains mired in a kind of reactionary state; omitted or dubiously included, mischaracterized and diminished as a preferred hip-hop historical narrative has nearly fully taken hold. Tucker’s analysis was/is too institutional in its focus and too appropriately damming of the corporate state that is the United States.

The dominant narrative could be seen developing from the start.  As the earliest hip-hop literratti put ink to paper or text to screen with a goal of defending hip-hop’s right to exist its heavy political (at least cultural) content unwittingly (at best) worked in some ways to scuttle the very revolutionary potential these first hip-hop writers rightfully claimed was there.  Perhaps aided by the fact that much of this defense took place within similarly White and male-owned (targeted?) media and was not itself the product of any particularly well-organized political body, genuine left or revolutionary politics (those of nationalist, pan-Africanist, internationalist varieties) were lost in favor of more liberal democratic notions of hip-hop progress and nebulous feelings of “movements.”  Subsequent notions of hip-hop “nationalism” were similarly devoid of political parallels to the cultural conception and, therefore, never (to this day) evolved a necessary form of anti-colonial struggle that adequately addressed the very colonial relationship held (also to this day) between any and all “nations” globally.  As has been the case on the macro global level, the hip-hop “nation” struggling for independence, legitimacy and recognition never developed a sustainable anti-imperial, communal and international movement and relationship that would sustain genuine independence and, as is also the case today with formerly colonized countries, has fallen back into more insidious neo-colonial and wholly dependent conditions.   

What resulted is the now dominant narrative of the victorious hunter that has been imposed on the reality of the hunt itself; now formerly oppressed communities produced this hip-hop art out of the haze of newly won post-civil rights freedoms and forced their way into American popular consciousness preparing the country and world for more diverse and darker leadership.  Some foolishly call this a “Tanning of America” while others work with a touch more nuance (if not accuracy) describing the process as one of positive “multiculturalism.”  In the end, however, their point is that hip-hop paved the way for an improved world and in fact, “… played a key role in getting President Obama elected …”   That is, beyond the simple ascendency of a cultural form, hip-hop has led to legitimate barrier-breaking where Black artists and executives (sometimes all the same person) now run things, participate in real power decision-making processes and most certainly reap the material rewards.  To quote one recent mainstream dominant narrative hip-hop historian, Dan Charnas, “hip-hop is an American capitalist success story.”

Without belaboring the point here, as i and others have done for so long now, suffice it to say that this narrative is absurd.  The so-called “hip-hop nation” is at best a disorganized and colonized one incapable at present of producing its own leadership or controlling its resources or the wealth they produce.  Black and Brown communities continue to suffer record levels of incarceration, deportation, police brutality, un/under-employment and widening gaps in income and wealth.  The closest effort to perhaps address these concerns, the 2004 National Hip-Hop Political Convention, failed to solidify any particular ideology or political strategy to address real concerns of which participants there were well aware.  And Barack Obama, as the most heavily Wall Street funded, corporate democrat ever, was no culmination of a revolutionary political movement and has since his election simply increased the country’s war efforts, deported more Latinos than anyone ever, presided over an increasing police state, further internationalized drone warfare and weakened African sovereignty through AFRICOM.  Who wants credit for that?

No, what the dominant hip-hop (broadly political?) narrative has missed is that the fundamental power struggle in which oppressed communities have been engaged for so long has only refashioned itself along distinct neocolonial lines.  The incorporation of elements of exploited communities into positions of apparent leadership in “new” governments or the aesthetic/symbolic mainstream is as old as is the exploitation itself.  Therefore, the presence of Black or Brown people alone – especially in the face of demonstrably devolving material conditions – can only be considered positive change or “progress” by a disorganized or politically illiterate community.  Commercial forms of hip-hop are used to negate the hyper-present radical critiques of this world within hip-hop while rap music in particular often works similarly to Obama’s presence; to negate truly radical elements within the Black (and other) political communities.  Negating the arguments of Tucker had to be part of the process were any of this to succeed.  It was only the particular – and rather unfortunate – initial timing of hip-hop rightfully feeling a need to defend its right to exist that led to its own complicity in cutting off its nose to spite Tucker.  Today the mistakes are compounded by contemporary writers simply regurgitating early anti-Tucker perspectives and even reshaping her ideas furthering their distortion.

What is a paradox of sorts is that Tucker herself was no revolutionary.  Hers was not a revolutionary nationalist critique or call to action.  She was not the vanguard.  Tucker’s was very much a mainstream, bourgeois, middle-class, civil rights sounding of an alarm, an approach with its own lineage within Black political traditions.  In this moment, however, the early 1990s, Tucker’s argument became lost in old-style intergenerational misunderstanding, smashing against a burgeoning literary defense of hip-hop and a nascent and (still) undefined political movement.  In another paradox, Tucker also, perhaps mostly so, was ruined by the growing liberal corporate takeover of art and politics, the very shift she attempted to popularly critique, one that continues to ravage the revolutionary potential extant in the art and the communities from which it originates. 

In the end Tucker, for all her bourgeois, middle class, mainstream civil rights, was still too strong an institutional critic.  Her analysis of the problem was still too much for the corporate liberal consensus developing around her and tacitly defended by artists, journalists and today’s hip-hop historians.   The corporate world could not tolerate her attack on myths of “free” markets and choices and the evolving youthful hip-hop community (including its apparent intellectual and journalistic class) was (is still?) not politically mature enough to understand this beyond hearing it as an attack on hip-hop, its lyrical component rap music and ultimately all Black youth.  In the end Tucker remains to this day, even posthumously, pitted against the unholiest of (unwitting?) bedfellows, as hip-hop is ostensibly in unity with the corporate elite that are destroying them, we, us.

We, of course, have to use terms like “ostensibly” or “apparently,” because this ignoble unity between the corporate world and hip-hop is not all-encompassing or welcomed.  It is an imposed relationship by an unequalled power structure and still-oppressed communities.  In fact, the entire conversation around corporate dominance and commercial priority is all euphemism for White supremacist, imperial control of capital and exploitation of African descendants and workers.  It remains purely colonial.  And yet we still do see a Black, hip-hop community continue to suffer the grand narrative that, while still imperfect, the ascendance of rap music has led to an improvement in the country and world.  Even with its prevailing commercial form being so anti-Black, youth and woman, it remains considered by so many a net positive that has spread the wealth of more Black people and even prepared the country for its first Black president (and by now we have to see how supremely useless that has been).  This narrative, though imposed by power, is one now often accepted by those who claim to represent all sides, or who in fact claim that there are no sides any more – that the corporate world is working with Black and Brown people to assist in the growth of hip-hop and that this is all good.  It is this colonial unification that solidifies Tucker as permanent foil, distraction, on to whom all that is wrong with the takeover of hip-hop can be placed so as to assure that her point is lost forever.

Corporations have without question assured the prominence of an anti-Black, anti-woman, anti-radical form of rap music that absolutely assists in a continued devolution of African/LatinX/(all) America (the world).  But accuracy and popularity are indeed – even necessarily – mutually exclusive.  So Tucker’s spot-on analysis of the relationship between mass media and material condition is today, as it was then, submerged beneath a more socially acceptable, palatable narrative.  Her institutional criticism and targeting of the corporate world assured that she would remain targeted by straw arguments where what should be noted and honored as first wave hip-hop feminist analysis could be dismissed as the babblings of an anti-rap, anti-youth, attention-starved, civil rights has-been.  A tendency to see freedom and power where little exists continues to confuse interpretations of Tucker’s arguments and to conflate perceived personal failings with political inaccuracy.  Tucker’s prescience is not rewarded, even posthumously.  Instead her legacy continues to suffer omission or mangled inclusion within a dominant hip-hop historical narrative that claims what we see today as largely a “success story.”

One reason for this is the imperfect person Tucker was.  Perhaps there is truth to the claims of some that she was at one time a shady landlord, that she desired the limelight and that her drive to her own ignoble ends led her to unfortunate alliances with members of the conservative elite which eased the developed perception that she was attacking hip-hop and Black youth.  But these are not excuses for the treatment of her analysis and has, interestingly/paradoxically, led so many to support (tacitly/implicitly) even worse bedfellows.  How else could it be that Tucker’s correct analysis is dismissed based on perceived character flaws while the personal shortcomings (and worse) of those who control the art are excused?  Tucker’s alliance, for instance, with conservative culture vulture William Bennet is lambasted while hip-hop’s subservient relationship to even more conservative, powerful and exploitative companies is largely excused (even extolled!). 

The pantheon of hip-hop journalism and scholarship have dismissed her along these lines.  In the June 1994 issue of The Source magazine, in an article collected by Raquel Cepeda for her And It Don’t Stop anthology of “The Best American Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years,” (2004) hip-hop’s first and most prominent (of course White founded, run and owned) periodical dismissively described Tucker as one who, “fancies herself a type of modern-day Moses…” and as, “crusading against it, this horrific, monstrous thing – making public appearances, marching, picketing, getting arrested and crying.”  Tucker was further diminished in this piece by author Kierna Mayo as being more interested in corporate “conspiracy theories” than appropriately defining precisely what gangsta rap is or as being unwilling to sit with rappers and members of the community to discuss her concerns.  Unfortunately, Tucker’s as yet unpublished memoir (that this author has seen and has a copy of) explodes that particular myth (and several others) showing that not only was Tucker willing to meet with particular emcees but was in fact at one point attempting to create a record label that would promote a more conscious form of the art. 

Further, almost as if to perfectly foreshadow my current argument, Mayo accuses Tucker of inappropriately addressing larger structural issues like “white supremacy (racism)” that “plagues every American institution” in favor of targeting rap music.  However, Tucker’s assault on corporations – which are of course White supremacy organized – and their ability to distort via contracts and promotion the very hip-hop that Mayo claimed she was defending demonstrates the kind of confused, anti-institutional analyses that so many continue to this day.  Further, Mayo goes on to defend rap’s lyrical content by citing Nelson George’s comments  about the need to understand those lyrics as a “subset of… {an} outside framework of forces that influence it…” However and somehow, in Mayo’s conception – one that still pervades the imposed narrative of hip-hop’s history – corporations are either not White supremacist or are not part of this influential framework.  Worse still Mayo references the often (and still!) misplaced commentary of Michael Eric Dyson who, again, routinely, as usual… pick one, misses the point in favor of a more simple one geared for applause rather than substance and demonstrates another pillar of this absurd narrative that Tucker’s response is born of her being part of an “embarrassed {by rap music} black bourgeois culture.” 

Again, and somehow, an institutional analysis that properly places corporations at the center of a process by which Black expression is distorted and turned against itself, a process long in play in this country and around the world, is itself defined by this foolish narrative as being anti-hip-hop, anti-Black youth and simply bougie.  And for his part, the author of what has widely been considered the definitive book on hip-hop history Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Jeff Chang extended this faulty notion of a generational divide and culture gap to dismiss Tucker’s approach as at best anachronistic and worse ill-intentioned.  Chang, in just a few short pages, pits Tucker against a younger activist and describes her as a “fading Black Pennsylvania politician” who by 1966 had been singled out as one of Philadelphia’s “worst slumlords” and simply “seeking the civil rights limelight” (p. 451).  Chang goes on to acknowledge that Tucker had been extending “the same critique that hip-hop feminists had been leveling at media monopolies and rap misogynists for years” but that “there was something disingenuous and opportunistic about her attacks” (p. 452). 

One might find it odd that Tucker is dismissed as an opportunist or that this characterization is not at all detailed or supported with evidence from Chang (nor applied to anyone to establish a standard for who exactly is not an opportunist).  Rather, curiously and even more oddly, Chang offers as evidence only that Tucker allied herself with and was indeed, according to Chang, “enormously helpful to…” – “…white culture conservatives…” and that Tucker was working with “cult-cons” by “mobilizing fresh troops for further attacks on youths of color.”  But then, worse still, to support his claim (while also ignoring the point previously raised that somehow powerful corporations run by elite White and old men are not somehow “white culture conservative(s)”) Chang irresponsibly truncates Tucker’s public testimony on the subject to support this distorted and poorly framed perspective on her work.  Describing the following as evidence of Tucker’s “broadening of the War on Youth” he quotes the following from Tucker’s Senate testimony in 1994:

As we have seen in the last 30 years, increasing law enforcement and correctional facilities have not reduced crime. These short-term fixes will do nothing to improve the lives of children like the that were recently removed from a home in Chicago because of parental neglect and abuse. They are prime examples of the children that gangster rap will influence. Because of the lack of positive influences, their minds will be fertile and receptive ground for internalizing the violence glorified in gangster rap. Children such as these, our most neglected population, will become a social time bomb in our midst. Being coaxed by gangster rap, they will trigger a crime wave of epidemic proportions that we have never seen the likes of. Regardless of the number of jails built, it will not be enough. Neither will there be enough police or government programs to contain the explosion of crime. We as a Nation must act now, and we must act decisively (Chang, 453).

It should be noted from the outset that nowhere in this excerpt is Tucker calling for a “broadening” war on youth as Chang claims.  Instead, taken in context, Tucker was attempting a defense of or protection for Black youth.  Further, and in direct contradiction to the description of her work by Mayo and later Chang, Tucker explains clearly that her target is not the general creativity of Black youth but the misshapen and politically damaging corporate form.  The following unquoted excerpt from that same Senate testimony is clear:

For the record, I wish to state that NPCBW is not against rap. It is not against hip-hop. To the contrary, we support and encourage the artistic creativity of our young people. We love our young people. However, we are against gangster rap and misogynist lyrics. Some $780 million worth of rap records were sold in 1993, with more than half of the purchasers being under the age of 17 and 50 percent of these minors were between the ages of 10 and 14 years old. Something must be done. It is our moral responsibility to halt the sale of not just gangster rap, but porno rap.

Further, and quite in line with an entire history of media criticism whose focus has been and continues to be the deleterious impact media can have on young people, particularly the youth of oppressed/colonized communities, Tucker continued:

As an illustration of this, let me share with you excerpts from a letter that I received from a prisoner in Lorton, VA. He said: Rappers make it sound so good and look so real that I would drink and smoke drugs just like on the video, thinking that that was the only way I could be some- body. My hood girls became hoes and bitches. What is so bad about it is they accepted it. You know why? Because they put themselves in the video, too, and the guns, money, cars, drugs and men became a reality. Look where this kind of thinking got me, facing 25 years to life in jail. Racism and greed are the sustaining forces behind gangster rap. It is no coincidence that the characters displaying the most indecent behavior for all the public to see are African Americans. Some argue that these artists are merely speaking frankly about their reality and the black cultural experience. But as Dr. Benjamin Hooks, former Executive Director of the NAACP noted, our cultural experience does not include debasing our women, glorification of violence and the promotion of deviant sexual behavior.

And, again, in the poorly interpreted and unquoted subsequent portion of her statement Tucker clearly distances herself from some (certainly White) conservative position that calls for increased policing and imprisonment of Black youth Tucker clearly shows hers to be a pragmatic, liberal attempt to stem to ravaging outcomes of the already hyper-policed and carceral experience of Black people.  Tucker continued:

Finally, the solutions that I am suggesting today require that we think in terms of curtailing crime at its earliest stages by investing in our youth. As a weapon to combat today’s violence, Congress needs to establish public-private partnerships which create live-in schools patterned after the Milton Hershey schools in Hershey, PA, the Stephen Girard College in Philadelphia and Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in the Midwest. These facilities provide a wholesome and educational environment free of violence and are cheaper than jails. In addition, since the Government is in the process of downsizing the military. Congress now should examine the idea of converting military bases into training academies for first- and second-time youth offenders. These bases could be put to good use by giving youth the skills they need to be productive citizens rather than jailing and condemning  them to a life of crime. In closing, I wish to remind the Senate that banning the sale of  gangster rap to our children is one preventive action Congress can take to curb violence, but it is one that is imperative to begin the process of healing our Nation. No one, and I say no one and no industry, should be allowed to continue the social and psychological poisoning of the young minds of this Nation that is occurring with gangster rap. So I say to you again that the record industry is out of control and if they don’t clean up their own act, they must be regulated. May I finally say this word? Coming here to this hearing today, I prayed first and I got on the elevator and I heard these words: “I believe the children are the future,” Whitney Houston said. “Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside. Give them a sense of pride.” Our children need heroes. They need someone to look up to.

It can only best be described as odd that an argument that challenges the national emphasis on criminal punishment in favor of redirecting resources to creating healthy, safe, self and life-affirming spaces for Black youth is redefined by Chang – the definitive hip-hop scholar – as “broadening the war on Black youth.”

Finally, to complete a brief look at the hip-hop narrative timeline, the more recently published and highly touted book on hip-hop, with an equally and notoriously flawed perspective, is ironically quite helpful here.  Dan Charnas’ The Big Payback applies its theoretical porousness to Tucker in much the same way.  In fact, Charnas simply regurgitates the established narrative approach and reminds readers (who may have forgotten in the 5 year gap between his and Chang’s) that Tucker was “seeking public redemption” after being fired in 1977 from her post as Pennsylvania’ s commonwealth secretary, developing a “reputation for greed and vanity,” and for she and her husband being “branded slumlords” (p. 410).  Tucker was, after all, suffering a “sense of entitlement {that} nearly always proved destructive” and was of course an old-school, out of touch former civil rights worker looking to reclaim some spotlight or someone just looking for a “newfound press pulpit to strike back at her enemies” (pp. 410-411). 

Tucker battled with Ben Chavis, who according to Charnas – and based apparently exclusively on his willingness to agree with the narrative – “was young and knew hip-hop”  while “Tucker was older and didn’t” (p. 411).  Again, and foolishly, Michael Eric Dyson’s comments are returned to prominence by Charnas, who first claims Tucker was an “antirap” activist, and that Dyson “got a standing ovation” (see?) for his description of Tucker and those like her as “petty, bourgeois Negro intellectuals” who, back in Charnas’ own words, “condemned obscenities in the art of disenfranchised Black youths while tolerating the obscene conditions under which they lived” (p. 413).    

The preferred, supported and regurgitated narrative that hip-hop has been a net positive finds its defense in a variety of places, with various voices speaking it.  Charnas opens his book saying, “This book is about an American success story.”  He continues, reaffirming the mythic tale called for in the early stages by some of hip-hop’s defenders and trumpeted by its leading academic/journalistic mouthpieces, that hip-hop went from being a “marginal urban subculture” to a “global” one that has “changed our society” and “helped elect our country’s first Black president” (p. ix).  Of course, all of this “change” and electoral happenings are taken as unquestioned net positives and in this sense Charnas is right when saying this is an “American success story.”  That is, Charnas and the broader narrative he, Chang and Mayo before them all in one way or another have shaped and defended is correct only if symbolism can be a substitute for real change or progress and an actual devolution in material lived experience can be somehow recast as an advance.  And, again, this is why Kwame Ture reminded us so long ago that, “Black visibility is not Black power.”

Send this to friend