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How Hip-Hop Failed Black America
April 23, 2014 9:31 PM   Subscribe

The Root's ?uestlove on the invisibilizing of Black culture... "...you can point to this as proof of hip-hop’s success. The concept travels. But where has it traveled? The danger is that it has drifted into oblivion. The music originally evolved to paint portraits of real people and handle real problems at close range — social contract, anyone? — but these days, hip-hop mainly rearranges symbolic freight on the black starliner. Containers on the container ship are taken from here to there — and never mind the fact that they may be empty containers. Keep on pushin’ and all that, but what are you pushing against?"

For those who don't know: Questlove; The Roots.
posted by artof.mulata (32 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
"There’s no folk-music food or New Wave fashion [...] There’s no junkanoo architecture. The closest thing to a musical style that does double-duty as an overarching aesthetic is punk, and that doesn't have the same strict racial coding."

Love this sentiment. I've always been against the idea that hip-hop and rap seem to be divided into "mainstream" vs "underground", while rock can be the genre which envelopes Bob Dylan and Slayer. You have "emo" "folk" "punk" etc... but for rap? Not yet.

Hope that changes. Young Thug and Future are still "hip-hop" in name, but definitely not in the same vein as Public Enemy or Nas... and the point isn't to make a division or schism, but to underline that both camps here can be part of a larger whole.
posted by raihan_ at 10:03 PM on April 23


Dylan isn't rock, he's folk. Slayer is thrash metal.

It's just how you look at music and whether you're a lumper or a splitter.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:57 PM on April 23 [4 favorites]


' “Things go in cycles.” But do they? If you really track the ways that music has changed over the past 200 years, the only thing that goes in cycles is old men talking about how things go in cycles. '

That's frickin' brilliant. And there's going to be five more of these! I hope somebody posts them or something so I remember to read 'em, because this is really good.
posted by hap_hazard at 11:03 PM on April 23


His main contention here seems to be that hip-hop has taken over black music, pushing out or infiltrating all other black music which seems obvious on one level, but I think I would go further in that hip-hop has become the dominant music of our times in the way rock was from the sixties to the eighties.

Whether that's a good or a bad thing for black culture I couldn't say.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:15 PM on April 23


Metal has many sub-genres and international multitudinous layers of "underground" and Slayer is not in any of them. The same goes for ska, punk, dark wave, indie rock, hardcore, etc. I do like the comparison though; there are "metal heads" and "punks" and such that embody a culture but they can be of any race, even if white is the predominant one seen in most "scenes." It's not thought of as "white music," and those who wrap themselves up in the clothing and body modification and such are distinctively seen as a subculture in-group and not any sort of indication of the "white race's obsessions" with X/Y/Z as hip-hop is often framed with respect to black culture.
posted by aydeejones at 11:16 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


And perhaps more importantly it reflects the dilemma in assuming that white people who are into hip-hop are "acting black" (requiring an interrogation of upbringing, social class, etc to determine if they are posing) which indirectly reinforces the notion that not wearing hip-hop attire (it definitely is a thing and can be done tastefully or ostentatiously like any men's fashion) or being a metal head means that a black person is "acting white."
posted by aydeejones at 11:23 PM on April 23


Hip-hop failed Black America is one way to frame this; I found this a solid read but that premise thoroughly disagreeable.

My clarion call for "what is hip-hop" was cemented by Mos Def in his intro here. "People talk about Hip-Hop like it's some giant livin in the hillside...."

Hold onto those lyrics from Mos Def, and follow the failure narrative. The clear implication here is that Black America failed hip-hop, as opposed to the converse.

Who failed who? I'd venture to say that the notion of 'failure' is a red herring, here. There's a progression, from hip-hop-as-new-and-distinct to its current, more ubiquitous post in popular music. Failure... that's a bold, unwarranted overlay, by my judge. There are square points in the article, but overall, I'll focus on Mos Def's notion of "Hip-Hop is goin where we goin".
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 11:30 PM on April 23 [4 favorites]


I think his analogy to punk music is really apt. It's the only other musical genre that to my mind has the same (bullshit) dichotomy between "real" and "false" -- whether that's underground vs mainstream or backpacker or poser or biter or whatever you want to call it. It's getting to the age where it can play with those tropes, too, which at least keeps that dimension fresh.
posted by axiom at 12:37 AM on April 24


"The winners, the top dogs, make art mostly about their own victories and the victory of their genre, but that triumphalist pose leaves little room for anything else. Meaninglessness takes hold because meaninglessness is addictive."

This.
posted by Vibrissae at 1:21 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


Music resonates with us; I think we want it to repair a lot of faults in our lives, both personal and societal. But the music isn't what does that. If the music inspires people to direct action, it can help, but the power structure of modern industry--which includes the industry that is still used to get most music out to the world these days--is not very supportive of real change. That power structure is what has always failed black America, along with a lot of other people.
posted by Sequence at 2:08 AM on April 24


the only thing i can think of to say is that we need something new to happen in music - rock and hip hop are getting pretty played out

what that would be i couldn't say
posted by pyramid termite at 2:33 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


— social contract, anyone? —

If you overload a style of music (even as part of a package of associated arts and crafts) with hope for some greater social effect, you will be disappointed.

The game black America needs to play if it wants change in relation to white America is the same old power and money game: politics and business. Graduate high school, get the university degrees, put on the suits, get the jobs, get the promotions, give the promotions, work for the parties, win local elections, build and strengthen useful networks of people, and of course expect to work harder than the white guy because, though it's turtles all the way down, it's white guys all the way up, pres(id)ent company excepted.
posted by pracowity at 3:35 AM on April 24


> I think his analogy to punk music is really apt. It's the only other musical genre that to my mind has the same (bullshit) dichotomy between "real" and "false"

Blues and folk music both has been the subject of fussed-over debates of authenticity for at least since the Folk Revival of the late 1950s. The simple phrase "white boy blues" is a giveaway, and the mental image of any Ivy-educated twentysomething singing old-timey music from the hills will set the teeth on edge for many people. And then there's the term rockism.

It seems to me that any genre where an artist can be criticized for performing music of classes below his own is one that has had, or is open to having, arguments about authenticity. (How the classes are defined and who is positioned above and below whom... that can be as revealing of the author as of their subject...)

The interesting exception to that rule of thumb might be jazz. Although jazz, like rock, has become so broad and multifaceted that the debate might just have become isolated to particular styles. I don't think anybody's argued about jazz fusion authenticity since ever. Or maybe it's because jazz has been around for long enough, and superseded by multiple generations of new genres, that the arguments have been exhausted generally. I also suspect that the barrier to entry into jazz musicianship these days is primarily one of technical accomplishment and musical sensibility rather than social categorization*: showing sufficient commitment wins anybody an initial pass, and the argument is no longer whether it's jazz or not, but whether the jazz is good or not.

*(This doesn't go the other way: For example, one of the great jazz bassists, Ron Carter, is a classically trained musician but professional orchestras would not hire black musicians in the 1950s.)
posted by ardgedee at 4:34 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


If you a fighter, rider, biter, flame-igniter, crowd-exciter or you wanna just get high then just say it. But then if you a liar-liar, pants on fire, wolf-crier, agent with a wire, I'm gon' know it when I play it.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 5:28 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


"The winners, the top dogs, make art mostly about their own victories and the victory of their genre, but that triumphalist pose leaves little room for anything else. Meaninglessness takes hold because meaninglessness is addictive."


It is? I'm not sure I buy that statement.
posted by josher71 at 5:34 AM on April 24


There’s no folk-music food or New Wave fashion

Wait! That's not true! I was a new waver and --

once you get past food for thought and skinny ties.

Okay, that's fair.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 5:41 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


what that would be i couldn't say

Dubstep? *ducks*
posted by nzero at 6:01 AM on April 24


The clear implication here is that Black America failed hip-hop, as opposed to the converse.

Black America doesn't own media distribution conglomerates, or put up investment capital in record labels. There are plenty of black bluesmen, rockers, ravers and torch singers on tour. Funny how invisible they are, when the media distribution conglomerates promote music they categorize as "black."
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:07 AM on April 24 [6 favorites]


I see the connection between fashion and music as directly proportional to the impact and longevity of the music style. Hip Hop isn't special in that regard, it's just bigger. Other than that, I don't see a really big difference between it and mods, goths or beatniks.

It's more commercial, but what isn't, nowadays?
posted by pseudocode at 6:58 AM on April 24


It's just how you look at music and whether you're a lumper or a splitter.

I'm a splitter and proud to be one. I totally agree with your folk and thrash metal categories. It's crazy how unwieldy the "rock" genre is.
posted by ChuckRamone at 8:00 AM on April 24


the only thing i can think of to say is that we need something new to happen in music - rock and hip hop are getting pretty played out

The only way for that to happen is for a whole new kind of musical instrument to be invented.
posted by Renoroc at 5:07 PM on April 24


The only way for that to happen is for a whole new kind of musical instrument to be invented.

Yeah, like that's not happening on the regular... software =and= hardware, electric =and= acoustic. Electric gamelons, acoustic drum machines, moogs and metafilters.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:14 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]


the only thing i can think of to say is that we need something new to happen in music

If you've run out of ideas, do as the rest of the world does -- unashamedly plunder someone else's music. The world is full of people playing their versions of Anglo-American pop, rock, jazz, and hip-hop. So go grab what you like from culture A, mix it with what you like from culture B, and play it as if you were a band from culture C that has somehow been talked into playing a wedding gig for a couple from culture D. Find an instrument that you've never heard before and teach yourself how to play it. Form a band with people who have done likewise.
posted by pracowity at 11:42 PM on April 24


Black America doesn't own media distribution conglomerates, or put up investment capital in record labels.

Hip Hop was to blame after all.
posted by cashman at 5:03 PM on April 25


Dude. One of the biggest hip-hop acts of ALL TIME are a pair of 40-something white guys who pretend to be murderous clowns (who can actually rap really, really well in tandem). I'm kind of unimpressed by steampunk rap, especially when it insists on being ragtime and melodic. The ukelele was a nice touch, tho.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:12 PM on April 25


The point of the song though, no comment on that?
posted by cashman at 9:23 PM on April 25


Couldn't get past the schtick. As an ICP and Deltron 3030 fan, that is fucking saying something.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:39 PM on April 25


Thanks for posting that. It was a gripping read. I agree with ?uestlove — I think hip hop has "won" in the same way that the Mongols conquered China — but I'm very curious to hear what, if anything, should be done about that.
posted by ignignokt at 12:02 AM on April 27


"I don't think anybody's argued about jazz fusion authenticity since ever."

God, if only.
posted by klangklangston at 11:02 AM on April 27


Part 2 is up: "Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America, Part II."

Gotta say I find this installment beter than the first. More coherent. If only his autobiography had this kind of authorial clarity.
posted by artof.mulata at 8:04 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]


I really hope there's a Hip Hop was to Blame after all at the end of this series. I did love how he works in hip hop references. The driving it off the lot thing (outkast reference), and there's another one in there I lost on reread. I also don't think the transition is there, as you could probably look back and take verses from 80's rappers and approach the same area. "I write my rhymes while I cool in my Mansion". But I'll give him that the juxtaposition of don't worry if I write rhymes, I write checks is too good to pass up.

I'd love to see Jay Smooth chime in on this (since he re-emerged with a donald sterling video). It's hard for me to follow along to the conversation that comes about in these situations, because many of the figures involved end up having to do a bunch of things that don't interest me, and only a small portion of their time gets to be devoted to this stuff. And then on top of that a good amount of it isn't in writings, it's in transcriptless podcasts or interviews that run hours long.

It's kind of interesting to try to pinpoint narratives in the entirety of hip hop, and as it continues to branch out, it will get harder and harder to do.
posted by cashman at 1:41 PM on May 1


And now part three: "What Happens When Black Loses Its Cool?"

I suspect I'll not get a chance to add part four...
posted by artof.mulata at 6:17 PM on May 6


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