Time to Elevate: Hip-Hop Resists Terror and War
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The biggest news in hip-hop this past summer had to do with beefs, all kinds of them, with feuding artists prepared to serve each other's heads up via freestyle war. Of course, this verbal sparring, this dozens-playing, this oral one-upsmanship is at the core of rap. Yet, after the mid-'90s deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls -- a rhyme rivalry turned fatally violent -- every new feud seems to have promised new danger.
After Sept. 11, all of this seemed kind of silly.
As long-time hip-hop journalist Oliver Wang fumed, "In the wake of the deaths of thousands you realize that, in the big scheme of things, hip-hop doesn't mean shit. Do we really care about Jay Z and Nas' war of words?"
Wang went on to ask how relevant hip-hop artists could be. And for many in the Hip-Hop Generation, it seemed their culture might be unable to take them forward through a time of crisis.
"Now is the time that music and all art should matter, should seek to make a statement, create an effect," Wang wrote. "And if it doesn't, it's a waste of everyone's time."
As he was writing these words, though, hip-hop activists across the country were in motion, organizing teach-ins, speak-outs, solidarity marches and peace demonstrations. The day after the attacks, Bay Area hip-hop activist group STORM and a number of other organizations issued a four-point manifesto. Their call was simple:
1) Oppose terrorism and build people's power.
2) Oppose the narrowing or elimination of the people's democratic rights.
3) Rely on global justice to deter future attacks.
4) Oppose racist bigotry.
They argued, "Increasingly, safety at home will require justice abroad." Their call, disseminated throughout the world via the internet, inspired many other young activists to begin their own organizing.
Hip-hop activism came into its own in 2000, at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, where youth-led protests attracted both warm intergenerational support and severe police crackdowns. Thousands of young people took courageous stands against the massive profiling and imprisoning of their generation; against the death penalty; for better education; and for stopping gang violence. They linked these issues to global struggles for economic and racial justice.
The promise of the Hip-Hop Generation lies perfectly positioned to bring the politics of the world to the street corner and the politics of the street corner to the world. As a multiracial, polycultural cohort raised in the era of globalization, the Hip-Hop Generation can play a central moral role in the call for peace -- linking peace on the streets where we live to a global peace free from terror.
The history of the Hip-Hop Generation describes why. At one time, elders dissed us by saying that we were privileged, that we had never been tested by war. (This, of course, was before Bush's father's Persian Gulf War.) But the fact is that hip-hop culture was born under the conditions of war. It grew and spread as a global alternative to war.
Before hip-hop, during the early 1970s, Jamaica's bloody political wars fostered a music and culture of defiance in roots, dancehall and dub reggae. This music and culture -- a safe space from the bloody gang runnings on the street -- emigrated to the Bronx -- a space so devastated by deindustrialization and governmental neglect that when Ronald Reagan visited in 1980, he declared it looked like London after World War II. In the Bronx, the Universal Zulu Nation, hip-hop's first institution and organization, literally emerged from a peace forged between racially divided, warring gangs.
As Reagan took office, immigration was rapidly browning the face of America. A "culture war" was declared -- which, among other things, was a way to contain the nation's growing diversity. Culture warriors went after youth in their schools; they fought multiculturalism, ethnic studies and affirmative action. In Congress, they sought to censor movie and music content.
Hip-hop turned out to be everything they detested -- it was real, truth-telling, unapologetic and, worst of all, kids loved it. Imagine how they felt when Chuck D enlistened millions into the opposition by rhyming, "They'll never care for the brothers and sisters cause the country has us up for a war."
In one sense, hip-hop won the culture war. By the end of the '80s, Public Enemy and Spike Lee, John Singleton and N.W.A. and other brothers and sisters had crashed the lily-white pop culture mainstream. Hip-hop became the single most potent global youth force in a generation.
But the culture war had serious political consequences, too. Right-wingers manufactured the conditions, moving drugs and guns into the ghetto via the wars in Central America, causing a resurgence of gang warfare. And they succeeded in stigmatizing inner-city gangs, whose ranks, of course, were swollen with young, poor people of color, as mindlessly, irredeemably violent and evil.
Hip-hop reveled in the young generation's diversity. The culture warriors taught other generations to be afraid of it.
When the '90s came, they warned of a coming wave of juvenile crime, one that would crest with the darkening demographic surge. Their apocalyptic predictions helped foster a dramatic shift in juvenile justice, away from rehabilitation towards incarceration. Forty-eight states made their juvenile crime statutes more punitive. Dozens of cities instituted curfews, anti-cruising laws and "sweep ordinances" (which were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court but have reappeared in many cities).
Especially after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, as an urgent gang truce forged peace across the country, the new laws were implemented at a feverish clip and enforced with a heavy hand. Juvenile arrests and detention populations skyrocketed, even as juvenile violent crime rates plummeted.
Local police, the FBI and private companies began compiling gang databases. Practically every young boy or girl of color who fit the profile -- sagging, baggy jeans, athletic shoes, hip-hop swagger -- became fodder for the gang databases. In Cook County, IL, the gang database was two-thirds black. In Orange County, CA, 92 percent of those listed were of color. Angry Black, Chicano and Latino parents in Denver, CO, learned that eight of every 10 young people of color in the entire city were listed.
Postmodern racial profiling was invented for the Hip-Hop Generation, the most watched and catalogued group in history. Along with the "war on drugs" -- the only result of which has been racist sentencing and the largest prison population in world history -- what hip-hop activists called the "war on youth" left a generation staring into a tense present and an insecure future. Hip-hop activism is this generation's way of fighting back.
In the meantime, hip-hop culture has become something else entirely. Because of the wide popularity of rap music, hip-hop has one foot firmly planted in the mainstream. But the bling-bling flaunting now looks less like the defiance of impoverished outcasts than the callous materialism of a dark-skinned nouveau riche. The truth? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.
And yet that has never been the whole of what hip-hop is about. The same peace and unity-seeking impulse that moved hip-hop forward with the Universal Zulu Nation and the post-riot gang truces is again at work across the country, as hip-hop artists and activists come together to figure out how to take a stand in a new world.
They are dealing with a world that has profoundly changed. Initial polling by both Gallup and Zogby suggest that Blacks now favor racial profiling of Arabs, Muslims and South Asians at rates much higher than whites.
Authorities that once profiled young Blacks and Latinos have now shifted their energies to Arabs, Muslims and South Asians. Many now report that hostilities have eased between cops and kids of color. But while crime has dropped in some inner cities, racial tensions have heightened.
Some stores have shuttered, and others have reportedly become targets of systematic gang looting. Hijab-wearing Arab girls and turban-headed Sikh boys have become easy targets for misguided pseudo-patriots. Escort services accompany women and children to supermarkets and schools. Meanwhile, under the flimsiest of legal arguments, thousands have been detained and many more have been deported. Civil liberties, especially for immigrants, are being decimated.
How can the Hip-Hop Generation react?
It must react, first, by refusing to be cowed. After Sept. 11, the record industry, like the rest of the entertainment industry, has sanctioned artists that have spoken out against the war. But just as hip-hop artists unmasked Clinton's benevolent neoliberalism and, during the 1992 elections, Quayle's culture-war hypocrisy, many are now exposing the war machine for what it is.
In Brooklyn, Lefty, an Palestinian American rapper from the group Arab Assassins, was placed under FBI investigation because he had written lyrics calling for peace in the Holy Land and criticizing stereotypes of "irrationally violent" Arabs. "You made us when you labelled us / The world will remember this / Go ahead, son, you labelled me a motherfuckin' terrorist", he rhymes. "I'm Arafat, Bin-laden and Saddam in one." Lefty has since been cleared and continues to record.
The Oakland rap crew The Coup also has come under fire because their album cover, concocted months before the 9/11 tragedy, displayed them detonating an explosion in the World Trade Center with a guitar tuner and drum sticks, a visual pun alluding to the way rap might overturn capitalism. The media flogged the group, and their label quickly changed the album cover.
But Coup rapper Boots Riley has since used his notoriety to criticize the war. He says, "When they're trying to stop you from doing things, when they're asking these big name artists to change their videos because there's something slightly anti-authoritarian in them, that's when it's time for artists that do have an analysis about changing the system to make sure that their message is clear and out there, and to not back down."
Hip-hop activists should continue their efforts to link their analysis of globalization with domestic militarization. Now, of course, it is clearer than ever just how insecure militarism leaves all of the youth of the world. It is also easier now to understand the Hip-Hop Generation as a global one, united not only by a common culture but by a politics that transcends borders.
This is what Dead Prez meant when they said, "It's bigger than hip-hop." We have been building the foundation for three decades, now is the time to elevate it.