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The Political Economy of Black Music

By Norman Kelley <kelleynd@aol.com>, Black Renaissance/ Renaissance Noire, Summer 1999

No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.
--Booker T. Washington
Black culture is too significant in American culture for blacks to be glorified employees.
--Russell Simmons, Def Jam Records

If there is an East Coast/West Coast rivalry over the control of hip hop, it is not unlike the "rumble in the jungle" that recently took place in the former Zaire. Like the situation in the re-christened Congo, where American and European interests are occluded by the media, masked as "humanitarian," the control of black music by the corporate entertainment industry is never highlighted. The six major record firms have a colonial-like relationship with the black Rhythm Nation of America that produces hip hop and other forms of black music. Despite the names of a few big money makers - Suge Knight, Sean Combs, and Russell Simmons - or the lurid deaths of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace (also known as Notorious B.I.G. and Biggie Smalls), rap, like most black music, is under the corporate control of whites and purchased mostly by white youths.

No better example of how black artists are colonized by white recording companies - aided and abetted by blacks - than the case of Tupac Shakur. Originally on contract to Interscope, founded by Jimmy Iovine and Ted Fields, heir to the Marshall Fields fortune, Tupac was "handed over" to Death Row Record's Marion (Suge) Knight when the enfant terrible of rap was in a New York State penitentiary. While Death Row Records was the creation of Dr. Dre and Knight, it practically owned its existence to Interscope (and some say to a drug dealer named Michael "Harry-O" Harris). Desperate to get out of jail, Tupac signed an onerous agreement with Death Row that made David Kenner, Death Row's counsel, his counsel and manager, a direct and unmistakable conflict of interest. Tupac, according to Connie Bruck in her July 7 New Yorker article, "The Takedown of Tupac," was trying to extricate himself from Death Row but was killed. Now Interscope is willing to intercede on behalf of Tupac's estate, represented by his mother, Afeni, because it might come under scrutiny and its relationship with Death Row, currently under investigation by state and federal authorities for possible racketeering, exposed.

Black music exists in a neo-colonial relationship with the $12 billion music industry, which consist of six record companies: Warner Elektra Atlantic (WEA), Polygram, MCA Music Entertainment, BMG Distribution, Sony Music Entertainment, and CEMA/UNI Distribution. These firms, according to New York's Daily News, "supply retailers with 90% of the music" that the public purchases (rap accounts for 8.9% of the total, over $1 billion in 1996; these firms are currently being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for price-fixing CDs ). While there are black- owned production companies like Uptown Records, Bad Boy Entertainment, La Face Records, Def Jam, and Death Row, which make millions, these black-owned companies do not control a key component of the music making nexus, namely distribution, and they respond to the major labels' demand for a marketable product. In turn, the major labels respond to a young white audience that purchases 66% of rap music, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), as reported by the Daily News. But the music industry's dependence on alternative music has led to flat sales and the only growth has been, once again, black music in the cultural form of rap. Rap is still on the move. For example, Lil' Kim, a protege of the late Christopher Wallace, has sold 500,000 units of her raunchy Hardcore. While Scarface has sold over 160,000 of his The Untouchable - without radio airplay.

The relationship between black music and the "Big Six" is a post-modern form of colonialism. In classic colonialism (or neo-colonialism) products were produced in a "raw periphery" and sent back to the imperial "motherland" to be finished into commodities, sold in the metropolitan centers or back to the colonies, with the result being that the colony's economic growth was stunted because it was denied its ability to engage in manufacturing products for it own needs and for export. Blacks in the inner cities, if not as an aggregate, share some of the classic characteristics of a colony: lower per capita income; high birth rate; high infant mortality rate; a small or weak middle class; low rate of capital formation and domestic savings; economic dependence on external markets; labor as a major export; a tremendous demand for commodities produced by the colony but consumed by wealthier nations; most of the land and business are owned by foreigners. With rap, the inner cities have become the raw sites of "cultural production" and the music then sold to the suburbs, to white youths who claim they can "relate" to those of the urban bantustans. If there is indeed a struggle for the control of rap, it is merely a battle between black gnats, for the war for the control of black music had been won many years ago by corporate America, aided and abetted by black leadership that has never understood the cultural and economic significance of its own culture.

Kevin K. Gaines, the author of Uplifting the Race, argues that most black leaders (spokesmen and women and intellectuals) have had a condescending attitude toward the black lower classes, urban and rural; the black elite's world view has been built on a white, bourgeois Victorian model of comportment that internalized white beliefs about blacks and race. Gaines noted that although the black elite was outraged at whites' lucrative expropriations of black culture...," they "extolled Victorian and European cultural ideals and looked with disapproval, if not covert and guilty pleasure, upon such emergent black cultural forms as ragtime, blues [and] jazz..." Black leaders' ideas about "racial uplift," notwithstanding, were based on differentiating themselves from the black lower classes who were seen as "bringing down the race." Even today's so-called black public intellectuals use various codes to dissociate the "good black middle class" - themselves - from the "bad black under-class," which can be translated to hip hop. (Randall Kennedy's featured article in the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly is a spin on racial uplift; now it's about racial extrication based upon class positioning.) Such elitist attitudes have prevented middle-class blacks and black leadership from seeing the worth of their "own" folk culture that spawned the blues and other music forms from the lower classes, and it, black music, forms the base, the very foundation of the $12 billion music industry in the United States.

But there is a problem with black music: it is created by black people, particularly the rural and urban lower classes, and the black middle has always disdained those of their own race who are considered too Negroid, too black and too ignorant. Black musical forms have been "the juice" that has driven American musical expressions and whites have grown rich off of it. The problem has been that the black middle class has been too incompetent to champion and exploit (in the best sense of the word) its own folk culture and develop the geniuses that has produced black music. Instead, black music has never had an enlightened middle class leadership to give it a proper business footing. There has been no A. Philip Randolph or Thurgood Marshall in black music. The contempt for black artists is so palpable that even blacks have resorted to the same kind of rank exploitation that whites engage in.

Unfortunately, the history of black music has been a continuous one of whites' lucrative expropriation of black cultural forms. Black music has become a part of a structure of stealing that ranges from the minstrels shows of pre- Civil War America to white composers copying black jazz styles to white rockers covering original black R&B performer songs to segregating music by black performers as "race music" thus limiting their audience appeal to publishers stealing publishing credits to the nonpayment of royalties by record companies, etc. To be clear, black music forms are perhaps the single most critical foundation of American music which is a Creole hybrid of African and European influences, but the producers of such forms, blacks them- selves, brought over to the New World as black bodies to work for whites, have been viewed as either having no culture worthy of respect or having one that's worthy of rank exploitation and domination. This is the basis of the structure of stealing that other national groups - principally Anglo Saxons (slavery), Irish (minstrelsy), Jews (Hollywood, record industry) Italians (mob influence) - have participated in regard to black music forms. American individualism not withstanding, American society is made up of economic classes and ethnic blocs, of which a black individual can only achieve so much because he or she is a member of a weak group. "Hence, the individual Negro has," argued Harold Cruse in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, "proportionately, very few rights indeed because his ethnic group (whether or not he actually identifies with it) has very little political, economic or social power (beyond moral grounds) to wield."

The theft of black music has been so blatant and pervasive that a Rhythm and Blues Foundation was set up in 1994, with $1 million contributed by the Atlantic Foundation of Atlantic Records, Time-Warner and other music industry organizations. The foundation was set up to assist R&B artists of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, who have been "victims of poor business practices, bad management and unscrupulous record companies," wrote The New York Times. The money contributed by those record firms (which have been gobbled up by larger concerns) is a fraction of the amount of money that white-controlled record firms have made off of black artists, directly or indirectly by holding on to some of these artists' back catalogues.

Because black leaders have ignored the early years of black music development, others have come into the black community and have established a foothold before them. Even during slavery whites were dissing black folks by the back-handed compliment of minstrelsy, they just couldn't ignore the creativeness of blacks but knew "how to grow rich off of black fun," as one minstrel poseur put it. Motown was that rare exception of black control but didn't come into existence until the late fifties (and even today it is basically a shell; a mere label of Polygram, a foreign company; an expensive footnote in music history when it recently sold a 50% interests in its catalogue to EMI for $132 million). The sniping about Jews "controlling" the music business clouds over the fact that blacks have often ignored the "cultural capital" potential of blues, jazz, and R&B until it was too late. The same can be said about hip hop; it was the independents labels not Motown that produced the initial acts and the major labels rushed in when they saw the staying power of the music and that young whites were buying it. During the twenties, according to Amiri Baraka in Blues People, when Harry Pace, the owner of Black Swan Records, began selling blues, he was castigated by the black middle class for not selling music that was more racially uplifting. When jazz began circulating through the speakeasies of America during the 20s and via the new communication technology of the day, the radio, "the big brain" denizens of the Harlem Renaissance couldn't figure it out. As cited by Nathan Huggins in his Harlem Renaissance:

"Harlem intellectuals promoted Negro art, but one thing is very curious, except for Langston Hughes, none of them took jazz - the new music - seriously. Of course, they all mentioned it as background, as descriptive of Harlem life. All said it was important in the definition of the New Negro. But none thought enough about it to try and figure out what was happening. They tend to view it as a folk art - like the spirituals and the dance - the unrefined source for the new art. Men like James Weldon Johnson and Alain Locke expected some race genius to appear who would transform that source into high culture...[T]he promoters of the Harlem Renaissance were so fixed on a vision of high culture that they did not look very hard or well at jazz."

The black intelligentsia of that era could no more accept the folk reality of its own folk culture than the white intelligentsia could accept the black basis of American culture, that American society is a creolized one, pre- dating multiculturalism. Jazz and blues were urban and rural expressions of working class blacks, but the black intelli- gentsia, trained in the aesthetics of the dominant society and unable to produce a cultural philosophy its own, neglected a very vital music in hopes of it becoming something else. There was a market there, for blacks were buying five to six million discs yearly in 1925 and in 1926 the record business reached $128 million dollars in sales, and did not reach that high point again until after the Second World War.

How popular black music is developed, produced, marketed and distributed receives virtually no attention by today's so- called black public intellectuals, particularly those who claim to be cultural critics. Instead, they - Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson (whose recitation of rap is much stronger than his analysis of the music industry), bell hooks, and Tricia Rose - seek to decipher or decode "black cultural expressivity" or "representation," "tropes," or "identity." Black music is either praised for its spiritual or cultural affirmations in regard to black struggle, or music forms such as hip hop are mined for analytical nuggets before academic confabs or denounced for its misogynistic flavor by the left, right and center of American politics - or its influence is totally ignored. (Stanley Crouch denounced Tupac Shakur as "scum" but praises Quentin Tarentino who liberally uses the word "nigger" throughout his films.) Analyzing black music as part of the consumption/ commodification process is the hip and lazy way out for most new jack intellectuals. By reading some Frankfurt School theory and squeezing black culture through the bankrupt paradigm of "cultural studies," these intellectuals have no historical understanding of the role of black music in American culture and have no real analysis of how black music undergirds the music business.

The speaks volumes and it underscores a nasty secret about the black intelligentsia that Harold Cruse pointed out thirty years ago in his seminal but usually overlooked book, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: most black intellectuals, and particularly those schooled in the past twenty years, are incapable of an original thought, and particularly so when it comes to analyzing and explaining the unique set of circumstances that confront blacks, historically and presently. A case in point is the role of black music.

Curiously, there is no comprehensive historical analysis of how black music - initially mimicked by white minstrel musicians when a majority of black were enslaved - has been part of an informal process of cultural expropriation of black culture and then the more systematic neo-colonialization of black music that has occurred during the industrial era of the late 20th century, and now fed into $12 billion music industry. Today, most analyses of black culture is processed through the theoretical prism of the Frankfurt School's "cultural industry" paradigm or through the theoretical template of cultural studies, where the lexicon of post- structuralism thought can be dropped on any subject, provided one uses the requisite "Acadospeak" to obfuscate the fact that nothing of real importance is being discussed.

Rather than analyzing the trajectory of black music through the music industry, today's new jack intellectuals have been more interested in discussing or breaking down the high/low distinctions of culture. More interested in "interrogating" certain "privileged discourses," but have no interest in the nut and bolts of the music industry:

  • how artists are recruited,
  • how contracts are structured for maximum profits for record firms,
  • how much firms spend on the production of an artist's CD,
  • inquiring as to whether or not rap artists make their living solely by selling units or doing performances (a situation similar to that of blues musicians),
  • how musicians lose their copyright to their music and the lack of royalty payments,
  • and the incredible monopoly of the Big Six.

These are just some of the primary areas that are not addressed by today's black intellectuals who parade themselves as "experts" or "interpreters" of black culture.

Books such as The Power of Black Music by Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., Black Noise by Tricia Rose, Between God and Gangsta Rap by Michael Eric Dyson and One Nation Under a Groove by Gerald Early underscore the intellectual bankruptcy of this generation of so-called black intellectuals are. They are skilled in mimicking Euro-theory intellectualism, but they don't ask a very important question in regard to the development of the Rhythm Nation: Why is it that a people who have invented several genres of music don't have more control over their artistic creations? Instead, rappers have been more keenly alert to the lopsided condition of black creativity and its lack of economic rewards. They have understood the nationalistic and economic group potential of black music more so than the intellectuals who pimp off interpreting black music and culture before white audiences. It seems that no one expects blacks to control their own resources and have accepted white or corporate domination as the natural course of things.

While black scholars seem to be asleep at the wheel over this issue, whites have produced such work as Rock and Roll is Here to Pay by Steve Chapple and Reebee Garofalo; Rockonomics by Marc Eliot; The Rise and Fall of Popular Music by Donald Clarke; Hit Men by Frederic Dannen; Stiffed by William Knoedelseder; American Popular Music Business in the 20th Century by Russell Sanjek and David Sanjek, and, most recently, Mansion on a Hill by Fred Goodman. With the exception of Rock and Roll is Here to Pay, none of these books explore the economic exploitation of black music as a main subject. Chapple and Garofalo's book, to their credit, has one chapter on it. The point is that whites are at least cognizant of the issue of commercialization and exploitation of music and its creators while black intellectuals who are supposedly "experts" on black culture are not. Never has one people created so much music and been so woefully kept in the dark about the economic consequences of their labor and talent by their intellectuals and politicos.

Four years ago at a New Music Seminar, Public Enemy's Chuck D made an astute political and economic observation: "If we don't get up on the good foot - I'm talking to my people - then we're going to be behind the eight-ball again." Chuck D also noted that, "White businesses have built themselves up and blacks are still working for the white businesses." What is it about the political economy of the Rhythm Nation that he understands that the neo-Talented Tenth doesn't?

This lack of scrutiny by black intellectuals (a term that is slowly becoming an oxymoron) allows rap to be treated as another "black problem" or something that needs to be contained by moral commissars like C. Delores Tucker and William Bennett. They object to the moral content of gangsta rap (or the lack thereof) and are willing to take on the record industry because of that, but don't seem to cast a discerning eye on the exploitative relationship that record companies have with young black artists. Interestingly, musicians are considered, in the lexicon of black intellectuals, "cultural workers" and as such their labor and creative endeavors are fed into the cultural industry. But black intellectuals, wishing to demystify the so-called "privileged discourse" of "Art," don't seem to be too interested in the day-to-day working conditions that confront these so-called cultural workers, particularly the plight of black musicians.

If these artists are indeed cultural workers and their work is no more privileged than any other form of work and subjected to the same vicissitudes of the market place, then perhaps they should be organized into some collective bargaining units when facing the music industry, which is represented by two trade associations nationally and internationally, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) What do rappers have? Nothing - except for a fledgling watchdog group called the Rap Coalition that was formed in 1992. Rappers are sort of a free-floating sweatshop posse, but unlike their third world sisters who produced their footwear of choice, Nikes, most of them live large for a brief moment and then disappear from the music scene, not ever knowing what they were up against. Given the failure rate of most public schools in urban America, it isn't surprising that young rappers get slammed; the same thing happened to their blues grandfathers who were cheated out their copyrights and royalties. It happened during the halcyon days of early rock and rock, and it happening now to rappers, along with the violence and the headmoe lyrics.

But the music industry is virtually off the radar. In a March Newsweek issue that focused on rap music generation gap between black adults and youth, rap was, once again, blamed for all the ills of black America, but the white controlled industry was no where to be found nor the white youth buying public. White youths, according to the RIAA, buy 60% percent of rap, yet no generation gap article was written regarding white parents and their children's musical taste. There seems to some sort of fire wall constructed around two white aspects of rap, namely the corporation's marketing of it and the white youths buying it.

And what of the white audience - seventy-five percent according to Soundscan - that's buying the music that the moral commissars love to bash? As critic Leslie Feidler observed, "Born theoretically white, we are permitted to pass our childhood as imaginary Indians, our adolescence as imaginary Negroes, and only then are expected to settle down to being what we are told we really are: white once more." In other words, whites have options and black culture becomes another commodity to purchase when young and complained about as either soccer moms or suburban Republicans when older.

Then there's the rebellion factor. "People resonate with the strong anti-oppression messages of rap, and the alienation of blacks," said Ivan Juzang, Motivational Educational Entertainment, to American Demographics. "All young people buy into the rebellion in general, as part of rebelling against parental authority." On one hand, this amounts to a sort of vicarious emotional pimping that whites across the board engage in vis-a-vis blacks. Blacks serve as the "other" for whites; the "others" are allowed to "act out" since they are out of the bounds of "civilization." For marketers who want to appeal to white teenagers they go through the black community and target the inner city and then the black middle class. Says Juzang: "If we develop the hardest core element, we reach middle class blacks and then there's a ripple effect. If you don't target the hard-core, you don't get the suburbs." In other words, blacks are unwitting trendsetters whose tastes and talents are observed, detailed and crunched out as marketing tip points to music and fashion companies (aptly described by Malcolm Galdwell in his article "The Coolhunt" in The New Yorker, March 17, 1997).

This has some particularly nasty ramifications. When blacks react to their environment it is taken up as a style by whites who have gotten it from an intermediary source, rappers and music videos. This "style," particularly the music, is seen as having the desired effect of boosting sales and thus it becomes the music that allows a rapper to get paid. The record companies push the music to white markets and some gangsta rappers then feel the need to act out the scenarios they have created. Black and white youths style themselves as hard-heads and act out the music they have heard, trying to authenticate themselves. The result is two dead rappers: Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. Neither of the moral crusaders, Tucker or Bennett, focus on the mainstream culture - whites - that buy rap music. Instead, they attack the creators of rap and the distributors, the music industry. If gangsta rap is seen as a moral blight, what does that say of the whites who are purchasing it? Are the commissars saying, by accusing the record firms, that the white buying public has no choice in its taste? Are they victims of a marketing conspiracy? If it is just rebellion, at whose expense?

The music industry's profits have been flat for the previous two years, with alternative rock bottoming out, but with some growth during the first half of this year. The music with get up and go? Hip-Hop. As quoted by an anonymous music insider in The New York Times: "The whole music business is built on rock and roll, but what's selling is urban music," meaning hip hop. "...This is troubling," he went on, "because we're supposed to be making money." According to the Times later in the article: "What is keeping some labels solvent, many executives agree, is hip hop and contemporary rhythm-and-blues." As reported by The Wall Street Journal, "sales of rap records have grown, to 26 million from 24.8 million in the first half of 1996. The largest category, however, is rhythm and blues, the broad category that includes soul and some pop-sounding rap artists; its sales grew to 63.6 million from 56.3 million." "This year [1997], largely on the strength of rock, the world wide record industry will gross over $20 billion, and global media giants like Time Warner, Sony, Bertelsmann, Philips Electronics, and Thorn-EMI will view rock bands as key assets," wrote Fred Goodman in Mansion on a Hill, his investigation into rock commerce. But when rock takes a licking, what music forms keeps on ticking?

Warner Music (WEA) has taken a beating because it sold its interest in Interscope Records which labels Snoop Doggy Dog and the late Tupac Shakur. MCA, once seen as the weakest of the labels, has become a contender because it picked up Interscope when Warner sold it due to stockholder pressure because of gangsta rap's lyrics. And EMI picked Priority Records, home of the ice brothers, Ice-T and Ice Cube (and purchased a 50 % interest in Motown's catalogue). But there is a problem with "urban music." Because it "evolves more quickly," said the Times, "it is more trend-based" and "generally does not foster career longevity or back- catalogue sales, two factors crucial to long term health of the industry."

This obfuscates the fact that the music industry makes short work of artists who don't perform quick enough to keep the industry's profits "healthy." Contracts are structured in such a way that the odds are against musical neophytes remaining in the business for very long. They see the likes of Michael Jackson, Prince, Tupac, Snoop Doggy Dogg or Quincy Jones, dazzled by the big money makers but don't understand how the music industry depends on a fresh crop of naive, young and talented artists - black, white, and Latino - to grease the industry's wheels. Most of those who sign contracts will not enjoy long careers and the industry has ways to recoup the money that it spends on producing and promoting what they call "talent," but viewed as either disposable or exploitable.

An example is the trio TLC. Last year the members of the Atlanta-based rhythm-and-blues and hip hop trio - Rozonda Thomas, Tionne Watkins and Lisa Lopes - had declared bankruptcy despite the fact that two of their albums had gone beyond platinum, generating more than $100 million in sales while getting around $75,000 a year each. Profligacy? According to the paper of record, The New York Times, these young ladies "have spent money more like yuppies than like stars. They shopped at Rich's and the Limited, ordered jewelry from Zale's and bought Jeeps and BMWs..." Why then bankruptcy? Maybe it's their contract. As explained by the Times:

"TLC's contract with Pebbitone [then the group's manager] gives the group 7 percent of revenues from the sales of the first 500,000 copies of the debut and second albums. That increases to 8 percent over a million copies - a "platinum" seller. Even if the group stays hot long enough to justify an eighth album - a rarity in the genre - the members' percentage increases to just 9.5 percent on sales of more than a million copies. The royalty ranges in the industry varies from TLC's rate at the low end to up to 13 percent at the high end."

In April 1996, a federal bankruptcy judge upheld the bankruptcy filings of the trio.

Recording artists are resorting to bankruptcy as a means of extricating themselves out of onerous record contracts. The very structure of recording contracts are often designed in anticipation that an individual or group will not survive long enough to make subsequent albums. In other words, given the lack of longevity of talent, which on the average is short, the contracts are designed to maximize profits for the management firms, and record companies. A group can be of a short duration but make a great of deal of money for a record company and still not make any money because its royalties are extremely low. In TLC's case, management was Pebbitone, and the recording company La Face, a unit of one of the largest recording firms in the world, Bertelmans. What is also interesting to note is that both Pebbitone and La Face are black-owned firms which means, despite the chestnut about "Jews controlling black music," there is a fair amount of collusion between whites and blacks in exploiting black artists, especially those who are unaware about the business aspects of music: contracts, copyright, and music publishing. Motown was known for its below the board practices with some of its artists. Yet these are some of the sort of businesses practices that have gone on in a field of business and art that blacks have contributed their immense talents to. When the record industry is scrutinized, as the NAACP did roughly ten years ago in its report "The Discordant Sound of Music," it is usually done toward securing cushy management positions for arriviste blacks who are neither concerned about the industry's practices nor about the plight of rank and file black musicians. The exploitation of black artists by black record labels is known in some quarters as "black-on-black crime."

Some blacks within the music industry serve as "compradors," agents who bring in a fresh crop of black talent into the neo-colonial system, into the music industry's exploitation of black music. Since the days when illiterate blues musicians where robbed of their royalties and publishing rights, black leaders have been virtually silent on the music industry's business practices. It is much easier for Jesse Jackson to complain about blacks not getting enough Academy Awards nominations rather than systematically and consistently take the music industry to task over its exploitative practices. Black leaders have never understood that black music is cultural capital that has been turned into a valuable commodity outside black control. (Now that Suge Knight has gone back to the big house, guess who may be running the day-to-day affairs of the multi-million enterprise called Death Row Records? A white attorney named David Kenner, Suge Knight's chief counsel. Need I say more?)

With the NAACP reconsidering the efficacy of busing and integration for integration's sake, integration itself now appears to be a failure due to the simple fact that black leaders rushed into it without adequately thinking about the economic consequences of integration. They had no plan or desire to build an economic base because integration would be the salvation of blacks, especially the poor. Blacks are a $400 million segment of the U. S. economy, but that money, spent by black consumers, is directed and circulated into the dominant economy, not into the black communities of America, and rap music itself generates $1 billion! Now, with the slow chipping away of affirmative action programs and minority set-asides, blacks are beginning to think, "Uh-oh..."

W.E.B. DuBois once proposed that blacks strategically engage in self-segregation in order to address certain problems that society would not address in the black community and then integrate into the majority society from a position of strength. He argued that a black economy would have been incomplete but was prescient when he wrote:

"It is quite possible that it could never cover more than the smaller part of the economic activities of Negroes. Nevertheless, it is also possible that this smaller part could be so important and wield so much power that its influence upon the total economy of Negroes and the total industrial organization of the United States would be decisive for the great ends toward the Negro moves."

The irony is that DuBois, the progenitor of the "Talented Tenth" concept, which he later repudiated, was the sort of black elitist who would not have seen black music as that important part that could wield so much power and influence on the black and the larger economies. And it is black music, as part of the "culture industry," that "wields so much power" over one aspect of the American economy.

Blacks are now vulnerable because black leadership has sought "civil rights without seeking group political power and, then demands economic equality in the integrated world without having striven to create any kind of ethnic economic base in the black world," as Harold Cruse wrote. Hence, the weakness of the black middle class is that it has never been able to employ its own people, but, in the words of Carter G. Woodson, the author of the Miseducation of the Negro, "Foreigners, who have not studied economics but have studied Negroes, take up ... business and grow rich." They have grown rich in black fun.

This invariably leads into a discussion about the "black economy" which is now a moot point. Granted, there were structural impediments that hampered blacks in businesses and the development of blacks in music - lack of credit, under-capitalization, poor distribution, inability to advertise, etc. Intellectuals have always scoffed at the possibility of so-called black economy but as Cruse has written:

"The black economy is a myth only because a truly viable black economy does not exist. It does not exist simply because Negroes as a group never came together to create one, which does not mean that it would be a simple matter to create a black economy. But it could be done - with the aid of attributes the Negro has never developed, i.e., discipline, self-denial, cooperative organization and knowledge of economic science."

But that, as Cruse also argued, would take a

"....[C]ertain community point of view, a conditioned climate, in order to exert impact (political, economic and cultural) on the white economy. It means the studied creation of new economic forms - a new institutionalism - one that can intelligently blend privately-owned, collectively-owned, cooperatively-owned, as well as state- sponsored, economic organizations. It means mobilizing the ghetto populations and organizing them through education and persuasion (if not through authoritarian measures from above)."

While the rise of rap had not been foreseen, what rap represents - breaking the "bonds of solidarity in chains" between the black lower class and the middle class - had been foretold by E. U. Essien-Udom in his book, Black Nationalism. Written more than thirty years ago, Essien- Udom observed that class tensions were developing between the lower and middle classes, with black middle-class leadership assuming that its leadership represented the strivings of the masses. "Lower class-Negroes," observed Essien-Udom, "are beginning to define themselves in relation to the Negro 'image' portrayed by the middle class and are attracted to it; they are also repelled by it because their conditions do not permit genuine identification with middle-class Negroes. As it is in their relations with white society, lower-class Negroes tend to withdraw and disassociate themselves from the middle and upper class Negroes. This estrangement suggests the beginning of class consciousness and conflict among the Negro masses, not directed against whites, but against the Negro middle and upper classes." Today's black leadership cannot relate to those who are the engines of a $1 billion genre of a multi-billion dollar industry. Such an estrangement is self-inflicted cultural, political and economic genocide.

Black leaders have bought into a whole set of assumptions based on white beliefs and the American rules of the game. Consequently, they have never be able to educate those who have talent about protecting their rights as musicians and artists, to expect to be able to earn a living from their crafts. If black music had been nurtured and understood as a source of cultural pride and cultural capital, blacks would have been able to more fully develop an entre- preneurial class of artists, businessmen and women, lawyers, and accountants, create and support their own institutions. In other words, build the sort of true bourgeois class that would have not been afraid to express its own nationalism and build some level of group economics on its own people's talent, and such a development would have entailed making black workers and artists realize that they are enmeshed in an economic system that had to be struggled against by organizing on their terms and interest rather than just racial solidarity. They, like the Jews who invented Holly- wood, could have had "an empire of their own," as Neal Gabler documented in his aptly titled book. Black music could have been the engine of a black-led music industry with all the necessary contradictions of capital and labor.

Contrary to Russell Simmons's view, blacks are now glorified employees in American Culture, Inc.

Norman Kelley is the author of Black Heat <http://www.akashicbooks.com/blackheat.html>.

His next novel, The Big Mango (Akashic Books) <http://www.akashicbooks.com/bigmango.html>, will be published in September 2000.

Copyright (c) 1997-2000 Norman Kelley. All Rights Reserved.

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