Thursday, March 22, 2007

Are We Hip Hop?

Claremont, California is a predictably unpredictable place. Tucked 45 minutes east of Los Angeles, it’s nestled exactly half an hour from the snow-covered mountains of Mt. Baldy and the sun kissed waves of Huntington Beach. It’s got an identity complex of sorts, a prosperous college town held in tact by strict zoning regulations, complete with Northeastern-like vegetation, rising fountains and an inordinate amount of trees smack dab in the middle of the desert. Here, people drive calmly down College Avenue exactly at or below the speed limit because no one seems to be in a hurry. People jog at noon while pushing their weary dogs in strollers and dragging their children along on leashes. The area is home to the largest concentration of white supremacist groups in the country, but Claremont seems to embrace diversity like a nineteenth century Northern abolitionist might have embraced a slave: full of self-indulgent good intentions but without any true predilection toward institutional change. At any moment an unsuspecting person of color might mistake its seemingly cute idiosyncrasies for suburban naiveté, be greeted by a bandwagon of community members dressed up in Shakespearean garb yelling “halt! Who goes there?”, realize they’re serious, turn to drive away, try not to get shot nineteen times, and head west down Indian Hill Blvd. to its less prosperous, but far more manageable neighbor, Pomona.

Despite and because of this, Claremont is undoubtedly hip hop.

And on the night of March 7, 2007, Hip Hop legend KRS-One came to town to show exactly why. KRS-One is hip hop. Standing in front of a packed auditorium at Pitzer College in front of an audience of eager Foucalt and Nietzche inspired college students he aroused the pride, dissatisfaction, joy, anger and downright contradictory rhetoric imbedded in hip hop. The lecture, sponsored by the college’s Sociology department started off in all the Hip Hop messiah ways one might expect – a lengthy introduction, followed by a thunderous applause and the beginnings of an important lesson given by The Teacher, KRS-One.

“There is no definitive history of Hip Hop” he began. “All the histories written by journalists and writers and scholars have missed the point. Rap is something that’s done. Hip Hop is something that’s lived.”

He then began to outline what he knew as the causes of Hip Hop – the charitable acts of DJ Kool Herc and the emcees who rocked free shows in the parks of the South Bronx, the individual empowerment that’s necessary for each artist, and communication. It’s this last point –communication –that simply didn’t translate for me. In trying to explain his theory, he pointed to hip hop’s racially diverse beginnings, but followed it with very faulty logic.

“Hip Hop is beyond race, class and ethnicity,” he said. “Race is a dead concept.”

Here is where things began to fall apart.

To an audience of predominately privileged white college students, KRS-One, the highly decorated Hip Hop legend, began to talk about race and privilege as if they were concepts aptly dealt with back in the 60’s, saying that our country has made tremendous strides since the days of marches on the Washington Mall and boycotting lunch counters in the South. The challenge for our Hip Hop generation was to move past race, and the leaders of that movement had to be white people, since they are the most privileged and are most capable of changing institutional barriers. Throughout this it seemed as if people of color and other historically dominated groups had absolutely no agency, a glaring contradiction to the oppositional gaze from which Hip Hop was supposed to have been born. His was a hip hop based on theory, an egalitarian culture that transcended the constrictions of racism, classism, heteronormativity, etc (system(s) of domination here) and found itself in the well-intentioned hearts of every socially conscious

Was this what Civil Rights, social justice and Hip Hop were about? So that enlightened college students could line up to get their autographed posters and pictures taken to be uploaded to their Facebook and Myspace accounts the next morning? Was this what Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of on Washington? That one day we’ll live in a world that has so transcended the hardships of America’s racialized past that black and white children can hold hands, listening to their downloaded versions of Malcolm X speeches on their ipods? Who’s Civil Rights Movement was KRS-One talking about? And who’s Hip Hop did he represent?

Amid the rousing applause to close off his lecture, sprinkled with the uncertain and outraged glances of the few in the crowd who had disagreed but remained silent, Hip Hop became glaringly clear. It sat in the confused heads of those in the room who were furious because their life experiences had by no means transcended the havoc the work that race and its interlocking systems of domination do in our society. It was the kids in the audience who felt safer in their South Central LA neighborhoods than on the quiet, tree-lined streets of Claremont. It was the German-born DJ who stood and applauded until his hands got sore and nearly began to bleed. It was everyone in the crowd who had deflected their agency and their voices in hopes that someone else in the room might ask a question or make a statement that said what they hadn’t yet found the words for. Hip Hop was everything and nothing that anyone wanted it to be, laying on a hospital bed on life support and living energetically all at once, because Hip Hop is us, our country, our tears, our pain, never to be divorced from the context within which is was created or the world it currently lives in.

KRS-One was all hype and very faulty rhetoric. And he admitted it. He was working through his theories and concepts just as everyone else was working through theirs. The only problem was that he was expected to have a definitive answer to a question that most people hadn’t even formulated. (What were those questions?) How can we even begin to talk about transforming society into a better place when we haven’t yet begun to meaningfully articulate our struggles? And that is probably our generation’s biggest challenge, to remove the star studded crowns we bestow upon our most widely recognized speakers and place the onus of change on ourselves. We’ve got the Che Guevara t-shirts and special edition Muhamad Ali adidas tennis shoes, but rarely picture ourselves to be the revolutionaries we search for. We are hip hop, and hip hop is whatever we want it to be, yet it is deadly if not articulated from our perspective.


Mike said...

Great post Jamilah. When it came through my RSS reader I had to save it and re-read several more times. Your writing was SO on point in not only capturing the environment of the talk but in your critique as well. Its refreshing to read a writer who has a fresh and critical perspective and dares to write about real shit. Whatever you do KEEP WRITING. You've got a valuable gift and voice. Know that.

As far as The Blastmaster is concerned, he's been pushing this line for awhile now. With "The Temple of Hip Hop" he's been trying to stake his claim in controlling and dictating what Hip Hop is and isn't. But the only way KRS or any other founder can make their desired position legitimate is by denying the contexts outside of them that shaped it to what it is. How can you be a founder and spokesperson for a culture and art form if you have to acknowledge that it grew from a rich musical evolution of blues, jazz, and funk and was shaped by social conditions that were beyond your control? That's my two pennies. Is this from the purity of his heart? Are there financial stakes behind it? I'll leave those speculations to others who've done it better than me. All I can say is that if anyone can legitimize themself in the public's eye as the foremost Hip Hop authority/historian/caretaker he or she stands to make a lot of money.

Ju said...

"The area is home to the largest concentration of white supremacist groups in the country"

I didn't know this.