Interview | Tricia Rose: “Hip-Hop can be a poetic force for a social movement”
Interviews, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Monday, October 29, 2012 13:19 - 1 Comment
In June, London’s Barbican hosted Hip-Hop on trial, a high-profile event where the merits of Hip-Hop culture were debated by a range of different artists, writers and activists. One of the panellists was Professor Tricia Rose of Brown University. She specialises in Hip-Hop Studies, and wrote the hugely influential book Black Noise. Ceasefire caught up with her to discuss the debate, her 2008 book The Hip-Hop Wars, the state of Hip-Hop today and the deeper connections between culture, race and politics.
Hip-Hop is an art form which many academics would not regard as worthy of scholarly consideration. With the recent release of your new book, The Hip-Hop Wars, how do you feel the reception of its academic analysis has changed since you first started writing on the topic?
When I first started writing in the 1990s, there wasn’t really anything published of any magnitude on Hip-Hop, and a lot has changed since then. There is now a lot of scholarly work on Hip-Hop. I think it’s important to recognise that in some cases there has been significant embrace of the culture, but at the same time the study of Hip-Hop suffers from the kind of response that the study of music and culture that comes from people of African descent always suffers from, and that is first and foremost a profound disregard. Every black art form has had to overcome the widely held notion that it just wasn’t worthy of consideration.
It might be hard to believe, but jazz got the same response as hip hop did at the outset. Many like to re-write history now and pretend that jazz has always been considered “America’s classical music” as it is sometimes dubbed these days. We are seemingly uncomfortable with the facts of race in relation to black music. Someone recently sent me a Henry Ford diatribe against jazz. It was remarkable how absurd it was. This kind of dismissal also encourages a protective defence of black culture that retards critical analysis and perhaps the expressive forms themselves.
This kind of context is crucial to a proper understanding of the practice, reception and study of Black culture. It’s a struggle to create proper terms, serious respect and analysis of black culture. And, in a hostile or disregarding climate especially, it’s very important and we also hold cultural practices to high (and relevant) standards that we would hold anyone else to. When I say the same standards I don’t mean the same aesthetic standards, I mean the same scholarly standards of serious inquiry.
The reception of recent work has been really interesting in this regard because it challenges the traditional approach to Hip-Hop. Black Noise challenged the academy, but it didn’t challenge Hip-Hop scholarship because there was so little on the subject. There was no Hip-Hop Studies. Hip-Hop Wars is asking everyone to pay attention to the revised corporate context for Black creativity. That is to say, you now have Black culture within the commercial mainstream at a volume unprecedented until this time.
With that, you have to ask a different set of questions around what constitutes alternative consciousness, where it can take place and what constitutes a challenge to dominant society. We have this assumption that Black people, because of their oppressed history are naturally positioned to challenge dominant society – this is clearly not a reasonable assumption any longer. It’s a new moment, and Hip-Hop Wars is trying to ask questions about that moment. It’s asking us to pay much more critical attention to what goes on in mass media and industry as it directly shapes the scope and vision of black creativity.
Hip Hop Wars has gotten solid critical reception and it inspires many readers, but it also makes some people feel uncomfortable, because it doesn’t accept the kind of what I call depoliticised aestheticisation of the music which is becoming quite popular. And which nicely supports the commercialised trajectory of the form. Hip Hop Wars challenges – dare I say: refuses – the idea that it is responsible critical engagement to dissect and validate the aesthetics of a highly creative string of brutally sexist rhymes as if unteathered from social forces. If we throw ourselves into the lyrics of a given artist and spend hours on it, the big picture disappears, and this is very dangerous to me. I mean, black studies has been deeply critical of this move as it has been used to justify racism and elevate racist creative artists for centuries.
You are well known for utilising a nuanced analysis of Hip-Hop culture. Can you talk a bit about the significance of criticising the corporate interests and white supremacist patriarchy which shapes much of mainstream Hip-Hop, with an understanding that artists themselves also need to be challenged about the content of their work?
I think it’s important to be nuanced, and it’s hard to thread that needle. As you saw in the debate in London, there is a drive to polarise things in quite simplistic ways. Polarising doesn’t really help us, which is why I really appreciate that assessment of my work.
There is no question, for me, about the crucial importance of getting on with the business of challenging profound corporate influence on all forms of culture, over the past 40 years. It’s unprecedented, and there is very little public analysis. I mean, Ceasefire Magazine does it, and Truthout and Mother Jones do it, and there are other radical journals, bloggers and magazines as well. But the relentless takeover of the creative space, or as I have called it the emergence of the cultural arm of predatory capitalism, is extremely important to address. It’s enabling a cross- race, cross-class complicitness with a culture and ideology of self over all others, of domination as success. It cultivates us to support a ‘dog-eat-dog’ or ‘get-mine-against-all’ philosophy. Capitalism at its worst.
We have to ask questions, and hold ourselves accountable when we support this. There is too much excuse-making going on to justify investments. Of course there are profound sacrifices to making hard choices. But this, “Well I can’t challenge anything because I just have to make do in the system” can’t itself go unchallenged; it needs powerful alternatives. We have to make some compromises in order to survive, yes. But, is there never a line to be crossed? I’m not suggesting that all can be purists, but artists who have made hundreds of millions of dollars are no longer in a position to act like they’re at risk and unable to make better choices, acting as if they still selling drugs on the corner.
Let’s actually ‘keep it real.” Many of today’s biggest artists (not all, of course) are selling grotesque, entertaining portrayals of black street culture without narrative critique of the system that has chewed up and discarded a whole generation of poor black and brown young men and women. To challenge and fight publicly against this system would reduce their marketability; limit their profits. It just wouldn’t be as fun for people to consume the images once they are tethered to such suffering. The days of “I have to feed my kids” justification are over for the high profile rappers who pander to these images and narratives. Those who still make this excuse all the way to the bank for decades are lying.
It’s important to reveal that some commercial artists (not all) in Hip-Hop have a fundamental investment in the capitalist system without progressive values. (This goes back to my earlier point about the assumption that black culture is resistant either in form or in content, almost by definition). So this means we need to have a nuanced analysis – not everyone’s radical, not everyone’s speaking from the margins, as I called it twenty years ago. They’re trying to participate at the highest level of the industry through whatever means are open to them. And we need other visible artists to point out to young people that the system is rigged. Everyday people are disempowered and the material and psychic resources that they do have are constantly being pulled from them. But this doesn’t mean that participating in the system fully without critique is our only choice; it in fact heightens the importance of resisting and producing robust alternatives.
It’s also not simply a matter of what you do and say, it’s what you refuse to do, say and consume. There is profound power in refusing; creating a picture of what it looks like not to participate. Choosing not to degrade yourself or others for a quick pay out is just as important as speaking out.
And, this isn’t simply intended for artists, consumers and fans: it’s crucial to hold all layers accountable. You don’t hold everyone in the industry equally accountable, of course, it has to be proportional – a new artist is not the same as the head of Time Warner, so let’s not forget this. Those with the most power, leverage, privilege and influence should be held more responsible than those without. And yet there is so very much power in the local, everyday, individual, right? Where you are is what you have control over, and that should not be discounted or devalued as a profound place for change and creative re-direction.
Hip-Hop is a culture that emerged from Black communities, but has been influenced and adopted by a multitude of cultures over the past three decades. Do you see the impact of this as something wholly positive?
I think generally speaking it has been largely positive. That is to say people have been profoundly creative with Hip-Hop’s basic properties, especially musically and lyrically, but also in graffiti, dance, style and production techniques as well.
The power of the storytelling impulse in hip hop has made it especially useful and malleable in the hands of new storytellers the world over. But, the magnitude of the accessible nature of global circulation of culture, and the powers which are accessible and allow people to tell their own stories, to allow them to bring in the elements of their world, but to do it in a way that connects them to other communities around the world, is a very powerful thing.
It may the first time in human history that we can say that we have young people who share not one word of the same language but share a kind of cultural language, at least to some degree; that they communicate with a shared symbolic vocabulary. This is exciting and has the potential to be at the heart of an influential global (not globalised) community.
The big question is what kind of global community will that be? Is it the kind of global community that is driven by corporate interests that rely on the values of profit margins, ethnic, sexual, gendered and racial stereotype to build its community? Or will it be an alternative to this? Will it be a global community that challenges some of those values that corporate American mass disseminates? That is still an open question. Hip-Hop is quite diverse across the world, and you couldn’t possibly generalise about all of it. But as you saw on the panel you obviously have people in Egypt who use the music for a variety of things, not just in response to the uprising, they were rhyming long before that. They have a community from which they’re trying to speak in a global conversation from their specific social location.
But even this attempt is fraught. Egyptian rapper Deeb told me in conversation that most Egyptian MCs came to Hip-Hop through the music and lyrics of Biggie and Tupac. Why Bigge and Tupac? And, why did this narrow lens on US hip hop shape their own rhymes, models of masculinity and more? Furthermore, why did they have such access to Biggie and Tupac rather than say, Nas and Blackstar? Global circulation of the music favoured by/ peddled through corporations not the full pallet of musical cultures on a two way super highway.
Now at the same time, they didn’t reject Tupac and his genius, and they didn’t reject Biggie entirely. But they saw that they had to do something different, as well as embrace the culture. You have those same struggles in Germany, Nigeria – and then you have other places where you don’t, where there are more nuanced complicated responses, such as Brazil, where they are responding to the economic deprivation and criminalisation of Black Brazilians and poor Brazilians of all colours. So you have to recognise that it is a diverse environment, but you also have to pay attention to the way Hip-Hop can easily, and frankly has often, become a tool for a global market place through the dominant mass media interests. So the very thing that makes it visible to everybody – which is a good thing, so we can share it and potentially use it – is also the thing that has the potential to completely manipulate the way we see it, how we see each other, the way it’s valued and how we understand it. So, my two main pieces of advice for consumers, artists and people who participate in Hip-Hop around the world are:
1) Recognise that no matter who is doing Hip-Hop, it continues to reflect an embodied Black cultural style, the body language, and largely heteronormative, masculinist types of performances. Take it up but be aware of the stylistic repertoire with which you work. This means one should know something about the history of black musical style, slang, body language etc.
2) Remember that these global exchanges are not an equal two-way street. I know very little about Egyptian music, it’s very hard to get access to in the US. It’s very easy to get Tupac to Egypt, very hard to get Egyptian music back to Tupac. So it’s not a two-way street: it’s a hegemonic highway going out from the US, and an unpaved side road coming back. So even though it’s good that Hip-Hop can be this global voice, the way it became a voice is on a hegemonic highway.
M1 of Dead Prez has been linking up with a lot of Hip-Hop artists and activists in Greece, Palestine and the UK, bypassing the corporate avenues and interests.
He’s been doing this a long time and I respect him enormously for that, that’s where his heart is. He’s got very strong political commitments, so they drive a lot of his terrific and creative music. But we can’t expect our explicit political rappers to fix this problem by being exceptions. Their audiences are usually quite open to their political views. But the artists who are less explicitly political in content need to understand the implicit and contextual politics of their music and imagines. So many people love the sound and energy of hip hop and figuring out how to uncouple that fun, playful sound and energy from toxic ideas is the next big hurdle from my point of view.
There has been a lot of debate around the political role of Hip-Hop in what is often called the Hip-Hop generation. Do you see Hip-Hop as the defining contemporary Black political culture, in the same way that Black Power and the civil rights movement defined previous generations?
This idea is very commonly expressed in the US at least. I understand the impulse: Hip Hop is such a generational musical and cultural force. But the term tends to imply that it is the contemporary equal or parallel to the civil rights generation. And that implication leads to messy and not terribly compelling arguments about hip hop’s equally valuable political impact. I can imagine making the case for hip hop’s profound impact on this generation, but not political impact, per se. If the point of comparison were other musical generations, such as: the Jazz generation, or the R&B generation, or the Gospel generation, or the Reggaeton generation. Okay, but then what does this tell us?
Once you make the slippage from social movement to a cultural expression which has movement components but is not itself a movement then what do you make of the fact that most of the highly influential and powerful people in hip hop are silent or nearly silent on all the major issues facing the “Hip Hop generation”? That serious protest rarely includes radical comment from the likes of Kanye West, Jay-Z, P-Diddy, Russell Simmons etc. I talked about this a little bit in a piece I did for The Guardian recently. I’m not saying they can’t and don’t make positive contributions to social change. I am saying that it seems to come second to profits and corporate relationships and that most are silent about the big issues and the big forces at work.
Secondly, what are the goals of this Hip Hop movement? We know what the goals of Black Power were, they were abundantly clear, and if you weren’t clear, you could follow their ten-point plan – they wrote it out. What’s the Hip-Hop generation’s agenda? Who is being challenged directly and what are the consequences of ignoring their demands? They can say that young people who engage with Hip-Hop have also engaged in political action. But being an MC who is political is not the same thing as a social movement that is determined by Hip-Hop as a structure.
So I’m very sceptical of that label. Does it mean that I think Hip-Hop does nothing politically? Absolutely not! Well of course, we just talked about M1 [of Dead Prez], right? We could talk about a lot of people, like Rebel Diaz who was down in New York with the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was great. JasiriX does wonderful and important work on many things including the Trayvon Martin tragedy.
I think Hip Hop has the potential to be an agent of change, and there is a segment of Hip-Hop that does an enormous level of agitation. I think that music shouldn’t be understood as carrying the burdens of a social movement. I think it’s detrimental to the creative power of music and culture to make it serve a social movement. Creativity has to be freer than that while caring for the larger good. That freedom can’t be so free that it puts the interests of profit or power for self over people. So, creativity should be free, but no one gets a license to disregard or debase, demean or refuse to respect.
Hip-Hop can be a discursive ground or poetic force for a social movement; it’s incredibly well suited for that. But you’ve got to get on the ground, and if we’re going to see that social movement as having a long term impact, social movement leaders will have to be willing to challenge the kind of cynicism, misogyny and the brand of gangster philosophy that too much of influential Hip-Hop has accepted, peddled and embraced.
Gangsters don’t make models for social movements. At least not good ones.
There were some reformed gangsters in the Panthers.
Yes, there were, and that energy can be very generative especially early on. But you can’t maintain and espouse that gangsta philosophy and serve the common good, over the long haul. It’s corrosive to a love ethic-based vision.
Hip-Hop culture is something that appears heterogeneous and often malleable. What role do you see intellectuals playing in navigating the differing facets, and stimulating the liberatory aspects of Hip-Hop?
I think we need a lot of honesty. The academy has also been infiltrated by corporate interests, and in some quarters colleagues have caved into ‘professionalism’ over real critical open honest engagement. I am concerned that the retreat to a micro-astheticisation, where we just talk about Hip-Hop outside of these incredibly significant structural forces, is really harmful. I am upset about it and I think that some people have chosen a rather cowardly but professionally productive path, which makes them similarly complicit. I suspect many feel trapped by the terms of academic success (not unlike music industry success) and perform to get ahead. I understand, but I think that only so many times you can say that ‘oh yes, Hip-Hop is sexist’ and ‘oh, Hip-Hop in the commercial mainstream American form has grown to celebrate a kind of nihilistic gangsta philosophy’, but you can’t just keep checking that off and then tell me all about these amazing lyrics of this complete misogynist.
We need to set some limits. How about these off the top of my head: If you’re (a) over thirty and (b) make more than three quarters of a million dollars per year – then you need to be held fully accountable for the content of your music. It seems to me that at some point we have to hold artists and intellectuals to account for the political consequences of their choices and arguments. Everyday people are the most important, but intellectuals are important to society, too. Intellectuals provide context, data, research, historical analysis and reflection on contemporary affairs that would otherwise be obscured. And, we are mainly free to think critically and to work on the margins of mainstream corporate media interests (at least so far).
Using this privilege honestly and responsibly today, in the context of hip hop, in the context of the massive cultural takeover of creativity and the material crisis of poor black people means being more challenging than celebratory. And that doesn’t mean to get on the Hip-Hop-bashing bandwagon; I’m certainly not on that bandwagon. I spend a lot of time challenging those who bash the whole of Hip-Hop and explain why they are wrong. But we have to be challenging about what has gone wrong and why, and we have to try to build alternative visions. I offer my two cents on this in Hip Hop Wars also. Anyway, I think that to sidestep the tough questions, to be unwilling to challenge in love, is to let Black people down. Now I know that sounds grandiose, but this is what I think. Even more, we let everyone down if we don’t use our knowledge for the common good.
You often write both as someone who intellectualises and someone who is a fan of Hip-Hop. Are there any particular artists you’re looking forward to hearing new content from in the coming months?
Well, I’m not sure I’d quite call myself a fan today in the same way I was fifteen years ago. Some of that is because the music has changed a little, but also because there is so much of it, you can’t listen to all of it and be a general fan of Hip-Hop. Every day there seem to be fifty new artists I haven’t heard of. I haven’t even got time to listen to the ones I know, let alone keep up with the torrent of new artists.
I am always interested in seeing what young people are doing, because it’s not just about Hip-Hop, it’s about the future of a progressive visionary creative impulse. It’s about the human spirit, it’s about the love ethic; as Hansberry said, it’s the role of artists and musicians to help us understand why it’s not just about fighting, but loving in order to fight. We need to keep that spirit in the forefront of our minds when there is no reason to—that’s when we need it the most. We need progressive visions of community possibility especially when it seems like there’s no reason to hope for it. Without a love ethic, the fight for justice can easily turn into a brutal fight to the death experience; a winner take all war. And we know where that gets us. So finding the artists who love and fight with a love ethic, that’s what I’m really excited about. Sometimes that’s in Hip-Hop, sometimes that’s in neo-soul, sometimes it might be in pop music.
But in terms of Hip-Hop, the visible Hip-Hop, the people you can find easily in the US, I would say, I’m still most interested in following Lupe Fiasco. I’ve been impressed with his ability to raise really important political questions without sacrificing the artistic merit, lyrical and musical power and complexity. And he’s managed to have a large following. Then there is his use of the gift. That is what he refuses to do is as important as what he elects to speak on. And I not only respect it but I appreciate it and I enjoy listening to him.
I’m interested in the growth of legends like Nas and Talib Kweli. What are they going to do and say going forward? What choices are they going to make? I’m still fantasising about Rakim coming out and settling the score on the state and the future of Hip-Hop. [Smiles] But in terms of less visible up and coming artists, there are two women on the west coast of the US called THEESatisfaction. I like them a lot, and I’m really interested to see what they’re going to bring in the months and years ahead. And there’s an African American woman who lives in Germany who has an incredible record – her name is Akua Naru I want to see what she’s going to do next, as she is carrying the torch in a great way for global Black music and African-American progressive, critical consciousness. She’s got great rhymes, both playful and meaningful ones, funky beats, intellectual and political courage and a really good heart. Can’t really ask for more than that, can we?