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Meditations on Hip-Hop: Of Disposability, Death, and Destiny (Pt. III of III)

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DESTINY

A learning

process might appear … for the crushed, the forbidden-to-be, the rejected, that

would teach them that, through serious, just, determined, untiring struggle, it

is possible to remake the world.

—Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the

Oppressed (New York: The Continuum Publishing Co., 1994), p. 198.

Must survive any how you have to/ Despair, desperation/

But I have no fear/ When I hold this spear/

—Nas and Damian

Marley, “DiSpear,” Distant Relatives

(2010).

“[H]ow do you tell people they are

dying, the culture is dying?” a very astute Black scholar asked me last week,

upon reading the second part of this series, which dealt principally with

cultural death. “The very things they engage with—are killing them. But they

seem oblivious and willing to go to their deaths without a fight.”

Canadian poet Truth Is… suggests no less on

“How Do You Choose to Fight?” (off her self-titled debut), demanding, “How do

you take actions against a reaction to actions not being acted upon?”

For good time now, the grounds have been

shifting, the clouds have been darkening, hearts have been hardening. And the

graveness of this moment upon which we are currently poised might be eluding

the everyday-realities of most public Rap artists, who find greater joy

carrying off as though life today reeks of nothing extraordinary—as though all

the injustices and infractions on humanity being swiftly dealt are mere

transient, inevitable elements of the ongoing human quest for survival.

The brutal conditions under which many

are forced to live daily don’t seem to tarnish their calm one bit. Long as the

ropes, cars, and disposable females keep within arm’s reach, they stay prepared

to forever hold peace. Only when the public gets private—when the political

invades the personal—can society expect address. And, even then, whatever comes

forth is bound to rub tepidly, pack no punches, and scream of civic illiteracy,

rather than genuine, heart-thumping repudiation of a society slipping off the

edges of sanity and humanity.

Most mainstream fans are just as devoted

to lapping up whatever crumbs come darted their direction. They’ll take the

scraps of occasional, emotivity-engineered political stances they can get: à la

Obama ’08. They know the closest to any radical expression might be, as with

one well-known rapper recently, posing

as Malcolm X to throw solidarity behind drug dealers.

This culture, like or not, is slowly

sapping life from its members, producers, and supporters; and that those dying

this very slow death have thus far preferred to go down hands folded, legs

crossed, reveals further the precariousness of the moment—

And we are alive

in amazing times:

Delicate hearts,

diabolical minds

The times call for some serious

reflection, but judging by the batch of Rap songs topping the charts, public

life is as accident-free, fun-filled, innocent

as a Disney theme park.

From the vantage points of the singers

of these songs, children in public schools today have all the opportunities an

affluent society can afford; and their experiences—far from the militarized and

privatized environments hundreds of reports have documented for decades—fall no

short of pleasant and rewarding. From their vantage points, children growing up

today have no worries for their future: hovering above their todays are tomorrows of promising possibilities, of enriching opportunities, just

waiting to be harnessed. From their vantage points, no such reports of gross

financial inequality contains credibility, for most people fall a nail-length

away from peaceful prosperity: most families can afford vacations any time of

the year; most can send their kids to college, without the six-figure debts

many young people complain of post-graduation. From their vantage points,

homelessness is a terrible blight only indigenous to countries thousands of

miles southward and eastward—in places where the Browns and Blacks of this world

are yet to catch up in the Great Race-of-Civilization. From their vantage

points, health insurance is a privilege enjoyed by all under the canopy of

citizenship: a private privilege affordable to all, without the need of a

government agency to rein in avaricious insurance firms and supply universal

coverage for those uncovered. From their vantage points, poverty is another pandemic

native only to nations where coups are common and riots rational. From their

vantage points, Capitalism has done the world no shortage of perfection, in all

aspects—from the ability to cash in quick on the latest, pyrrhic fad (à la

slavery and prisons), to leveling all financial playing fields, to keeping the

bridge otherwise segregating rich-from-poor unbroken. From their vantage

points, homes aren’t being foreclosed, and families aren’t being forced into

cold, hopeless shelters: everyone has a house. From their vantage points,

commodities weigh the same as Soul on the scale of humanity; and if the world

would only learn this, happiness can be at once placed in eye-sight of anyone

with the courage to consume. From their vantage points, no present dangers of

social anarchy threatens the world surrounding us, for the vast majority are

satisfied to their stomachs, gouging on the surplus sprawling into the streets

from the admirable, praise-worthy performance of government officials sworn to

service of the public. From their vantage points, only downers insist this current mode of neoliberalism and biopolitics

threatens to wipe out all that is sane and humane about our society and

universe, and is poised to wreak immitigable havoc on generations to come,

thrusting their futures into bottomless infernos, consuming their hopes and

dreams without remorse.

Here, only the negative-types subscribe to concerns about constant erosion of

civil liberties, constant privatization of public space, constant deregulation

of  oligarchic financial firms, constant

militarization of schools, constant incarceration of kids and non-violent

offenders, constant destruction of the planet, constant cheapening of human

life. One set-full of video vixens, one garage-full of vehicles, one tray-full

of bling, one table-full of latest liquor line, one closet-full of sweatshop

clothing, one head-full of fantasy-fueled conceptions of reality—and we’re on

course to create the next Rap star.

“Yes!” Willy Wonka cried, “the danger

must be growing/ For the rowers keep on rowing/ And they’re certainly not

showing/ Any signs that they are slowing.”

Once upon a time Public Enemy could have

legislators and pollsters rushing off to bathrooms every five seconds, scared

to death a young, uncounted, undesired population was rising to consciousness,

was starting to take sharper look at the society that saw no wrong in making

its life hell-on-earth. Today the rulers can snore soundly, aware the corporate

serfs who call themselves artists have assured their much too uninformed fanbase

the world is one big music video set, stocked with enough green screens to make

fantasies real—however morally decadent, however ethically derelict. And hooked

on the pipedream of one day strutting down sets like those upon which their favorite

stars twinkle, many young fans, of shades as elaborate as George W. Bush’s war

cabinet, can claim no understanding of how critical these fleeting moments are

for serious-political activism to protect their future from the claws of

ravenous corporations bent on cleaning out the world until the casino manager

is forced to make a personal visit and announce the game is up.

They could cull up countless rhymes on

demand, a skill I find no fault in, but couldn’t explain what is demanded of

them to transform their world—and the larger one. They know the world is

terrible enough, but they have no political experience and no civic literacy

and no social language to talk back,

as the timeless bell hooks once ordered, against the evil forces feasting on

their future. They’ll just as soon tear your skin apart rhetorically—I’ve been

in such circles—in defense of their favorite (drink-soaked, smoke-filled) Rap

artist, but would fall flat immediately issues of Ideology and Resistance are

invoked. They’ll listen but remain silent. These topics, they’ve come to concede,

are better suited for others of higher intellectual callings.

“Dear God 2.0.,” leaked last week, has

Black Thought of The Roots venting—

Everybody

checking for the new award nominees

Wars and

atrocities,

Look at all the

poverty

Ignoring the

prophecies…

… Corporate monopoly

Weak world

economy, stock market toppling

Mad marijuana, OxyContin

and Klonopin

Everybody out of

it!

The days when public Rap artists steered

the hearts of young people toward opposition to a tyrannical society have blown

past. Now, indifference to youth, long-normalized in government halls and

school boards, has trailed to music studios, where men and women with kids see

no irony in advising the teenage fans who patronize their music to dump any

notion of Struggle for a carefree, careless, nonchalant outlook—accepting of

the blows life’s emissaries deal, and subservient to authority figures in whose

palms rest the fate of millions worldwide: from food to war to water to life.

With bitter sarcasm Damian Marley urges

on “Patience,” off the recently released Distant

Relatives—

Pay no mind to

the Youths

‘Cause it’s not

like the future depends on it

But save the

animals in the zoo

‘Cause the

Chimpanzee dem a make big money

Young people, kids especially, form a

base without which many rappers’ wallets would contract completely. The smart

record executive understands whichever way they decide—whether consciously or

otherwise—Hip-Hop sound should veer in would mark the next turn for this

directionless wheel. But if they ever suddenly, as a mass, grew into political

awareness of the soulless realities to which their society has assigned them,

realities which their elders have remained reluctant to battle with all the

determination demanded of the culpable,

many rappers would be out of jobs, and many record companies would turn

bankrupt fast. No radical shift of the sort can occur within such short period—and

satisfy an astute generation.    

In firm resolve to ensure this renaissance

never succeeds, artists are implored to ratchet up the guns-drugs-hoes anthems.

Flood the masses with cesspool and they couldn’t find good time to get baptized

and cleansed. More specific, bombard kids with nihilism and materialism, and

their reading of the world would no doubt linger between rejection of Struggle

and acceptance of Fate, before ultimately seeking out whatever commodity the

omniscient artist has laid down as requisite for a bliss-filled life. But just

in case one or two fans decide to get wise and concern themselves with a world

where women aren’t objects to be trampled for pleasure, an occasional political

stunt, nursed in superficiality, always works in silencing dissenters.

Two years ago, the Obama presidency bid

afforded perfect catalyst for the throng of rappers who were dying to register

political engagement on their résumé. Most cast their lot with swiftness upon

hearing a Black Man was in the run to head the nation with the most costly war

apparatus. Most would have needed paramedic attention if questioned on specific

policies espoused by the man they cried was on verge of restoring Hope and

inspiring Change. But the chants kept undisturbed. Obama was the first “Hip-Hop

President,” they declared. Concerts were thrown in his honor, artists and

executives produced mixtapes of support, rappers were dispatched to colleges as

unofficial surrogates, dedication-songs blew up on major radio stations which

in years hadn’t considered any song with a slight bent from rancid materialism

worth the play. Hip-Hop, it was said, had found its new leader. Rappers felt

good. They had once more helped lure fans into the clutches of the Democratic

Party.    

Two years later, as the Hip-Hop

President sets impressive records for drone-use

(/fatalities) in Pakistan and immigration deportation at home, records

superseding his very unpopular predecessor (one which the same artists, in firm

tradition with tokenism, had jabbed a couple of times through those eventful eight

years); as he genuflects to Wall Street barons and cowers before the great

overlords at the Pentagon, as he looks the other way while black sites blow up

around the world, while torture proceeds under a different name, while

Afghanistan children are kidnapped and assassinated in nighttime raids based on

false pretexts, the astute political theorists who two years ago had their

hearts beating with pride have held their peace, even while millions of

families hang on the tight rope holding homelessness beneath, even while

millions of children go hungry daily from belly-bloating poverty, even while

cynicism comes back with a vengeance, claiming the spirits of youth nationwide

who hearkened to the rappers’ calls, but now weigh heavily the pain of betrayal

and broken promises—

You feel it in

the streets: the people breathe without hope

They going

through the motion, they dimming down the focus

The focus get

cleared, then the light turn sharp

And the eyes go

teary, the mind grow weary

It made sense that these rappers, these

corporate clowns, would carry kegs for the Establishment—do for the Democratic

Party what for years they had done for other corporations. Thoughts of

subversion and insurgency were farthest in such minds as sanity to Sarah Palin.

And refusal to lift their allotted share could be costly—could revoke certain

privileges corporate rappers have grown well accustomed to.

“Once outside the stultifying yet secure

shelter of the native organization, out in the windy, noisy and crowded

expanses of the agora,” wrote Zygmunt Bauman on a topic of equal relevance, “the

specific intellectuals (if they step beyond the strictly circumscribed expert

role, acting as themselves, not as the spokesmen delegated by the organization)

find themselves on their own.” [Zygmunt Bauman, Mortality, Immortality, and Other Life Strategies (Stanford,

California: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 82.]

Loneliness is tough for most people—and

most lonely are the red zones where dissidents in any society and of any

organization have been banished to. The few dissident artists in the Hip-Hop

community have little to show since being flung outside the golden gates. And

“public humiliation,” which Canibus, one such dissident, has written

courageously about (calling it “the worst pain”), does enough good in ensuring

less dissidence in a society where popularity counts more than conviction and

courage.

As defense, many rappers raise stories

of growing up poor, of squatting in shacks, of being forced to street life to

stack food on the table. While much truth is found here, childhood poverty

should never excuse a zombifying opulence that denies far more than this

travailing childhood they seek to run so fast away from. A few toys and meals

and apparel should never tally up the price of the soul of anyone—much less

adults traumatized as kids by a rancid capitalist culture arguing opposite. And

Art should never fall victim to the abuse of artists trying to win a financial

war with the past. Wallace Shawn, in his nonfiction collection Essays, explained:

Now, if you

write with the expectation that what you say will be heard and understood, then

you and your audience are actually involved in a common endeavor, and while

you’re writing, they’re sitting there beside you, helping you to know how best

to reach them. … If you’re writing to “make your living” as well, a further

valuable disciple asserts itself, because the more successful you are in

speaking to your audience directly and clearly, the nicer the life you’ll be

able to lead. [Wallace Shawn, Essays

(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009), p. 111.]

Hip-Hop artists, if they would have any

worthy impact in the coming days, must drop this senseless mode of

sales-pitching, and restart the work of working up consciousness within the

generation they were called to serve. They must come to see their role as equal

to the critical educator, the emancipator educator—the public intellectual.

Unwavering, Unaccommodating, Unnerving.

It’s time for

rebirth

Burning up the

branch and the root

The empty

pursuits of every tree bearing the wrong fruit

Two decades back, renowned educator

Henry Giroux demanded teachers understand their roles as central to any

progress in society, as one of the only channels through which the young masses

could learn about their world and develop the political agency required to

engage and transform it. “Any educational theory that is to be critical and

emancipatory, that is to function in the interests of critical understanding

and self-determining action,” he instructed, “must generate a discourse that

moves beyond the established language of administration and conformity.” [Henry

A. Giroux, Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward

a Critical Pedagogy of Learning (Granby, CO: Bergin & Garvey

Publishers, Inc., 1988), p. 3.]

Hip-Hop artists must see themselves

under this light—as responsible for the perception of the world fostered by a

generation deprived critical thinking skills; a generation unloved and unwanted.

And as this generation unravels the mystery of iniquity suffocating their

society, it is set upon artists the task to help foster self-empowerment to “critically

appropriate those forms of knowledge that traditionally have been denied to

them.” (Giroux, Teachers as Intellectuals,

p. 106)

None of these would roll down the

sleeves seamlessly. None of these would rush through with the kind of

haphazard, emotionless, thought-pierced practice that produced stale,

predictable commercial Rap records through the last decade. And no shortcuts or

easy-way-outs can offer sufficient bail out. No more would “conscious artists”

feel superior to their commercial counterparts simply for stating the

obvious—that the world is a bad, bad, bad place; that Black history is Whitewashed;

that Egypt lies in Africa; that the original peoples featured dark skin; that

all human trails lead back to The Motherland. Enough of the decayed and dusty

scripts which rather than meet their own standards—of setting free colonized

minds—only identify the artists as well-read in Afrocentric texts.

“[W]e invent the opportunity of setting

ourselves free by perceiving, as well, that the sheer perception of inconclusion,

limitation, opportunity, is not enough,” declared Paulo Freire almost two

decades back. “To the perception must be joined the political struggle for the

transformation of the world. The liberation of individuals acquires profound

meaning only when the transformation of society is achieved.” (Freire, Pedagogy of Hope, p. 100)

Artists bold enough to claim their

function as intellectuals must rise up without fear of consequence, without

dread of loneliness, and stay committed through this long distance fight for

restoration of hope amongst a cynicism-seized community, for restoration of

dignity amongst a dehumanized society. They must understand their moral

responsibilities as firing up dreams of a better tomorrow and an unfinished today.

 

And whereas a money-cureth-all

philosophy might have sufficed in past years as worthy response to complex moral,

social, historical, and political crises, they must firm their grip around this

very loaded moment anchoring our existence, refusing to give into fatalism,

invoking non-market principles upon which livable societies depend, utilizing

all the blood and pain and sacrifice of the present “to unveil opportunities

for hope, no matter what the obstacles may be. After all, without hope there is

little we can do. It will be hard to struggle on, and when we fight as hopeless

or despairing persons, our struggle will be suicidal.” (Freire, Pedagogy of Hope, p. 9)

If not, if the sickness of despair

should entice stronger than this call, Thomas Gray’s “Elegy” would dictate our

fate:

The boast of

heraldry, the pomp of power,

And all that

beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike th’

inevitable hour:—

The paths of

glory lead but to the grave

Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic whose

work appears in various online journals. He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.

[Writer’s note: The above artwork,

“Meditations on Hip-Hop: Destiny,” appears thanks to the brilliance of Ade Awofadeju,

a reader and London-based visual artist who composed it for the conclusion of

this series. Contact him at: coldblack01@googlemail.com.]

Read

Part I

Read

Part II

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