From Wed Mar 6 20:41:39 2002
From: Jennifer Jones <>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] The Politics of Hip Hop—I & II
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Date: Wed, 6 Mar 2002 20:32:21 -0500 (EST)

The Politics of Hip Hop

By Manning Marable <>, Along the Color Line, March 2002

[Publishers note: This article was originally distributed in two parts. They are combined here.

The politics of hip hop culture took an important step forward recently with the Russell Simmons-founded Hip Hop Summit Action Network’s hosting of the historic West Coast Hip-Hop Summit. Organized by Summit President Minister Benjamin Muhammad, hundreds of influential performance artists, music executives, grassroots activists, public leaders, and others gathered to address key issues and to establish a progressive political agenda. Prominent participants included rappers Kurupt, DJ Quik, the Outlawz, Mack 10, Boo-Yaa Tribe, Mike Concepcion and the D.O.C., and radio personality/comedian Steve Harvey. Significantly, the keynote address was delivered by the leader of the Nation of Islam, Minister Louis Farrakhan, who also keynoted the first national hip-hop summit, staged last summer in New York City.

This latest Hip-Hop Summit Action Network followed closely after two recent New York-based events connected with the effort to build a progressive hip hop political agenda. On Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (January 21), the first hip hop youth summit was held at York College in Queens. Featuring prominent hip hop artists such as Nas, Reverend Run of the legendary group Run-DMC, Wu-Tang Clan, rap activist Sister Souljah, and Fat Joe, the conference focused on building youth memberships and chapters across the country. Programs discussed included the Read to Succeed Project, which is designed to bring hip hop artists into the public schools to emphasize literacy, and the anti-drug Game Over public service campaign. On January 28, Russell Simmons engaged in a public dialogue with me, hosted by the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University before several hundred people. Since my participation in last year’s national hip-hop summit, I have been meeting with both Simmons and Muhammad to develop a hip-hop initiative, which could include a summer youth leadership training institute, and public conversations between rap artists and political activists around social justice issues such as the prison industrial complex, the death penalty, voter education, and music censorship. In our dialogue, Simmons affirmed his deep personal affection and respect for Minister Farrakhan, whom he described as the conscience of black leadership. Simmons also criticized many mainstream African-American leaders for their failure to listen to the hip hop nation’s concerns. The civil rights leaders have the finances and infrastructure but don’t do s—t, Simmons stated. We are constantly working to connect the old civil rights leaders with creative young people.

As the founder and chairman of Rush Communications, a multimedia empire that includes Def Pictures, Def Jam recordings, Russell Simmons Television, Rush Art Management, on-line magazines Oneworld and 360hiphop, and the clothing company Phat Farm, Simmons’s political views are increasingly carrying enormous weight. His intimate relationship with the NOI reflects, in part, the strong Islamic orientation of many hip hop artists. One of today’s best and most conscious hip hop artists, Mos Def, opened his 1999 album Black on Both Sides with a Muslim prayer. Rap artists in the NOI include Ice Cube, K-Solo and Mc Ren. Even more hip hop artists have been influenced by the NOI offshoot, the Five Percent Nation—such as Wu Tang Clan, Busta Rhymes, and Poor Righteous Teachers. What also seems clear is that most of the liberal integrationist, middle class black establishment has largely refused for two decades to engage in a constructive political dialogue with the hip hop nation.

The Nation of Islam has understood for decades that black culture is directly related to black politics. To transform an oppressed community’s political behavior, one must first begin with the reconstruction of both cultural and civic imagination. Malcolm X’s greatest strength as a black leader was his ability to change how black people thought about themselves as racial subjects. Revolutionary culture does the same thing. Through music and the power of art, we can imagine ourselves in exciting new ways, as makers of new history. The reluctance of the black bourgeoisie to come to terms with the music its own children listen to compromises its ability to advance a meaningful political agenda reflecting what the masses of our people see and feel in their daily lives. It speaks volumes about the cultural divisions and political stratification within the African-American community, as Russell Simmons noted in our recent public dialogues, that Run-DMC was on the cover of Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair before they were on Emerge or Ebony.

Hip Hop culture’s early evolution was closely linked with the development of a series of political struggles and events which fundamentally shaped the harsh realities of black urban life. For example, hip hop historians sometimes cite the true origins of rap as an art form with the 1970 release of the self-titled album, The Last Poets, based on the spoken word. The Last Poets was recorded and released during an intense period of rebellion closely coinciding with the murder of two African-American students and the wounding of 12 others by police at Jackson State University in Mississippi, the mass wave of ghetto rebellions during the summer of 1970, and the FBI’s nationwide campaign to arrest and imprison prominent black activist Angela Davis. In New York City in 1973-74, Afrika Bambataa (Kevin Donovan) established the Zulu Nation, a collective of DJs, graffiti artists and breakers, with the stated political purpose of urban survival through cultural empowerment and peaceful social change. Hip Hop’s first DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell) developed rap as a cultural mode of aesthetic expression.

Graffiti art exploded everywhere across the city—on subway cars, buses, and buildings—and soon is recognized as an original and creative art form. What helped to shape these cultural forms which later would become known as hip hop was the economic and political turmoil occurring in New York City during these years. The city government was lurching toward bankruptcy, as urban unemployment rates rose during the most severe economic recession since the end of World War II. This also marked the beginnings of more extreme forms of deadly violence among African-American and Hispanic young people. In 1977 even DJ Kool Herc was stabbed three times at his own party, reflecting in part escalating competition between crews, as well as the growth of violence to resolve disputes.

Yet the sites of greatest oppression, however, frequently can produce the strongest forces of resistance. The culture that the world one day would know as hip hop was born in that context of racial and class struggle.

There has always been a fundamental struggle for the soul of hip hop culture, represented by the deep tension between politically-conscious and positivity rap artists versus the powerful and reactionary impulses toward misogyny, homophobia, corporate greed, and crude commodification.

The most recent example of this struggle for hip hop’s soul was vividly expressed at the recent West Coast hip hop conference. Respected rappers such as Mike Concepcion and the D.O.C., and Def Jam founder and conference leader Russell Simmons, emphasized the need to mobilize artists around progressive goals, such as supporting voter education and registration campaigns. Solidarity was expressed for progressive feminist poet/artist Sarah Jones, who is suing over the Federal Communications Commission’s fine imposed against an Oregon radio station’s playing of her song, Your Revolution. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, in his keynote address, urged the hip hop community to renounce lyrics promoting violence and social divisiveness. From the suffering of our people came rap, Farrakhan observed. That should make you a servant of those that produced you.

The forces of negativity were also present, reflected in the controversial remarks of the founder of Death Row Records Marion Suge Knight. Launching into an attack against artists such as Dr. Dre, Master P, and Janet Jackson, Knight criticized sisters in attendance for wanting to be men. When Knight then argued that women were not strong enough to be leaders, observers were stunned. Hip-Hop Summit Action Network President Minister Benjamin Muhammad later observed: A summit is where diverse forces come together.... You saw the compassion side and the raw side of hip-hop. You saw the focus on economics and the side that focuses on social transformation.

Years before the 1986 release of Run DMC’s Raising Hell, which became the first rap album to go platinum, music industry executives saw the huge profit-making potential of this explosive new art form. Many of the Old School rap artists were brutally exploited by unscrupulous business practices of both white and black managers and music executives. Some artists were willing (and eager) to sell themselves and their creativity to manufacture music that was designed largely for commercial purposes, promoting negative values that were antithetical to blacks’ interests.

Yet also from the beginning, the tradition of politically progressive and socially-conscious hip hop has been central to this youth-oriented culture. In 1982, rap moved decisively from party- oriented themes to political issues with the release of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message. The following year Keith Leblanc of Tommy Boy records released No Sell-out, incorporating the powerful voice of Malcolm X into the rap single. This marked the beginning of the incorporation of Malcolm’s uncompromising words and political message, which would be sampled in hundreds of hip hop songs, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Also in 1983, Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel released their anti-cocaine anthem White Lines (Don’t Do It), which was designed to promote greater anti-drug social awareness within black and Latino communities. Nearly a decade later, as hip hop migrated to the west coast, seminal rap group NWA recorded the song Dope Man, which upon close examination, reveals an emphatic anti-drug message, despite its explicit lyrics.

Social critics like Kevin Powell have described the period between 1987 and 1992 as the golden age of hip hop music, a time of enormous creativity and artistic originality. More than any other group at that time, Public Enemy (PE) set the standard for progressive, socially conscious rap. Though not as commercially heralded as PE, the emergence of KRS One and his group Boogie Down Productions, also changed the content of rap albums, beginning with the 1987 album Criminal Minded. Other similar examples include: the 1989 release of Daddy’s Little Girl by MC Nikki D (Nichelle Strong), who was the first female rapper to rhyme about abortion, from a young woman’s perspective; the emergence of the brilliant (and underappreciated) rapper Paris, the self-proclaimed black panther of hip hop, who called for radical social change and incorporated the images of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party into his videos; the 1989 release of the debut record by A Tribe Called Quest, preaching Afrocentric awareness, collective love and peace; the establishment by KRS One, also in 1989, of the Stop the Violence Movement, and the release by Boogie Down Productions of Self Destruction to promote awareness against black-on-black violence, featuring legendary artists such as Public Enemy, MC Lyte, and Kool Moe Dee; Salt-n-Pepa’s 1991 remake of the song Let’s Talk About Sex into Let’s Talk About AIDS, a public service announcement that promoted HIV/AIDS awareness and sex education, with all the proceeds from the sale of both the single and the video donated by the group to the National Minority AIDS Council and the TJ Martell Foundation for AIDS Research; and the collective protest response to the brutal police beating of Rodney King in March 1991, by progressive rap artists such as Chuck D, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and Sister Souljah.

The most progressive black womanist artist in hip hop’s golden age was Queen Latifah. Although Latifah did not describe herself as a feminist, her video Ladies First depicted powerful images of freedom fighters Angela Y. Davis, Winnie Mandela, and Sojourner Truth. Her strong support for the struggle to overthrow the apartheid regime of South Africa and her criticisms of corporate power at that time opened new avenues for the development of other women hip hop artists.

While art and politics are indeed connected, it is not the case that cultural workers, musicians, and even entertainment entrepreneurs like Simmons, coming out of hip hop culture represent a new political leadership. Yvonne Bynoe, one of hip hop culture’s most insightful observers, paraphrased Chuck D by saying that we do not need hip-hop doctors or hip-hop politicians. The leadership that will come from the post-civil rights generation must be able to do more than rhyme about problems; they have got to be able to build organizations as well as harness the necessary monetary resources and political power to do something about them.

Bynoe’s argument makes absolute sense, because the most politically-committed artists throughout history, such as Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, and Bernice Reagon, understood that while all art is always political, artists usually shouldn’t be politicians. As Bynoe notes: A rap artist who aspires to be a community leader cannot lead a dual life.... The electorate for instance would not be expected to call their representative, Congressman Ol’ Dirty Bastard.... Political activism is a full-time, contact sport, necessitating players who are fully dedicated to learning the rules of the game, then playing to win.

It must be emphasized, however, that hip hop artists can lend their legitimacy (or in the hip hop vernacular, their juice) to many different political causes or public figures. Their very presence or words can act as lightning rods of attention for the masses of youth who identify with hip hop. When Public Enemy’s Chuck D rhymed Farrakhan’s a prophet that I think you ought to listen to, many listeners were attracted to the Nation of Islam’s message of black nationalism. As a result, rappers such as PE and Ice Cube in his prime helped the NOI to reach a whole new generation of disaffected youth. Political leaders have often sought the aid of influential musical artists, and in the realm of black liberation and struggle, hip hop culture has provided an undeniable galvanizing platform.

What the essential politics of art is about is the politics of collective imagination, the transformative politics of freeing one’s mind. In a recent interview, KRS-One observed that hip hop is the only place where Dr. Martin Luther King’s `I have a dream’ speech is visible.... Today, with the help of hip hop, they’re all hip-hoppers out there. I mean black, white, Asian, Latino, Chicano, everybody. Hip-Hop has formed a platform for all people, religions, and occupations to meet on something. KRS-One adds, that, to me, is beyond music.

There is no longer any question about the significance and power of hip hop music and culture as a transnational commercial force. One recent example of this was last year’s release of Tupac Shakur’s Until the End of Time, which debuted at number one on Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart, selling more than 425,000 copies in the first week. Since his murder on September 8, 1996, Tupac has sold more than three times the number of albums than during his lifetime.

In my recent conversations with Russell Simmons, he estimated that rap music’s consumer market in the United States is approximately 80 percent white. This brings into sharp focus the central political contradiction socially conscious hip hop cultural workers must address: how to anchor their art into the life-and-death (and def) struggles of African-American and Latino communities, which largely consist of poor people and the working poor, the unemployed and those millions who are warehoused in prisons and jails. Even a nation of millions cannot hold us back, if we utilize the power embedded in hip hop art as a matrix for constructing new movements and institutions for capacity and black empowerment.