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Can we learn from the history of hip-hop?


Public Enemy frontman Chuck D has been hailed as the “prophet of rage,” an appropriate icon in these troubled times. - DFP PHOTOGRAPHIC / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • DFP Photographic /
  • Public Enemy frontman Chuck D has been hailed as the “prophet of rage,” an appropriate icon in these troubled times.

Writing a music column seems like such a frivolous thing at this latest excruciating moment in time.

Though culture, and certainly pop culture, doesn’t exist upstream from the political, material realities we’re all faced with, and culture’s contained worlds of narrative and catharsis are the worlds in which many of us choose to spend a great deal of time and energy. If nothing else, pop culture tends to shape our perceptions, and gives us the opportunity to see the world through another’s eyes. Maybe, just maybe, that could lead to empathy.

For instance, although some media willfully ignore this, hip-hop music has been the predominant musical cultural force in the United States for the past 40 years, and as an art form it has incorporated traditions infinitely older.

In her book Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, author and scholar Tricia Rose writes about Chuck D, the “prophet of rage” and Public Enemy frontman: “[He] keeps poor folks alert and prevents them from being lulled into submission by placating and misleading media stories and official ‘truths.’ He holds the microphone with a vice grip and protects it from perpetrators of false truths, speaking directly to the poor, using indirection and symbolic reference.”

Metaphor certainly isn’t anything new, in any form of literature, and there’s an obvious through-line from slave dances, the blues, Jamaican toasting and signifying that runs straight to the modern conception of hip-hop. The current of social critique has been a mainstay, or as Rose describes it, “the pleasure and ingenuity of disguised criticism.”

Indeed, if pop culture has a lasting value beyond aesthetic enjoyment, it can serve as some sort of ground-level history, a guidepost of the people’s opinion and experience. Public Enemy were one of the most vibrant and important voices of 1980s hip-hop, so much so you can even find their influence stamped on Nine Inch Nails or the seminal Irish-English shoegazers My Bloody Valentine. It would be difficult to listen to It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back or Fear of a Black Planet and not get a very good idea of the societal concerns of black Americans in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Even such a cursory glance at this ground-level musical history raises the infinitely disturbing question — why, nearly a half-century later, has almost nothing changed?

The cliché is that those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it, and I’d argue that an equal curse is the commodification, sterilization, and divorce of history from lived experience — the events of the past reverberate, echoing into our everyday life. History is lived continuously every day — much to the chagrin of Francis Fukuyama, I suppose — including many evils not left in a preserved stasis for us to limply grin at, knowing we’re doing so much better now. We’re clearly not.

Take a look at another artifact from what was called the “end of history” (the early ’90s), LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out. LL Cool J wasn’t one of the most socially conscious emcees of the era, but the narrative on “Illegal Search” is completely unambiguous, one that could have been written yesterday. “Illegal Search” was released 30 years ago, on a double-platinum-certified album, hardly on the periphery of culture. Nothing about it, neither the experience described nor its artistic expression was esoteric. The story remained the same as the “war on drugs” years bled into the “tough on crime” years and loathsome “superpredator” rhetoric. Much of the outrage and controversy around hip-hop’s reporting of these years was directed at the art itself, for being too angry and uncouth.

Of course, recent events in the narrative are much fresher in the mind. Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Philando Castile. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Just a few names, a few among so very many in a narrative that persists. A stasis of horror, being cataloged with anger and sorrow through culture.

I have my doubts about pop culture’s true efficacy in changing material conditions, but there’s no question that it can shape our perceptions, lead us to synthesize concepts. And maybe, just maybe, that can lead to empathy, and that can lead to an honest examination and desire to change.

All I know for sure is that if this anger and sorrow is still misunderstood and dismissed after so, so many years, even as it screams and mourns through song, we’ll have to wait that much longer to even remotely approach justice, peace and a livable world.

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