Blogger and cultural commentator “Minista Paul Scott” made an interesting observation about racial identity in his blistering attack on Hip Hop on Juneteenth. The holiday known as “Juneteenth” occurs every June 19th in commemoration of the late arrival of the news of emancipation to African American slaves living in Texas in 1865.
Scott argues that Hip Hop “has done what 400 years of slavery could not.” To many readers this will be a familiar refrain. Back in the 60s and 70s many civil rights activists argued that drugs had done what 400 years of slavery could not. Later, conservatives made the same claim for the system of welfare. While there may be some truth to each of these claims, the message behind these statements is that the type of slavery that shackles the mind and the spirit is far more debilitating than slavery that shackles the body.
Scott criticizes Hip Hop for offering a negative message. Scott says, comparing Hip Hop in the Internet age — when one no longer has to dance to the tune of music industry promoters in order to get one’s work noticed — with the arrival of the message of emancipation to the slaves in Texas, it’s as if Hip Hop artists got a memo that they no longer had to play the role of “coons and buffoons on the corporate rap music plantation and make mindless murda music to mislead the masses. They were now free to make music to actually uplift the Black community. Their reaction? ‘Naw dawg, we good.'”
There is nothing new about criticism of Hip Hop for its negativity; the thing that is new is Scott’s assertion that Hip Hop culture and identity have replaced African American culture and identity for many young people today, and that it has become a vehicle for them to enter the social mainstream.
Scott says while “Some of our lighter skinned grandparents had to ‘pass for white’ to get over on society, many artists today ‘pass for Hip Hop’….” His assertion is twofold: as he argued in a previous post titled “The Gentrification of Rap” Hip Hop is no longer an “authentic” expression of African American culture — it has been commodified into a commercial culture of its own — and, more significantly, traditional African American culture is as marginalized as it ever was, even as Hip Hop has become mainstream.
An African American who affects a Hip Hop identity has become fashionable and cool; for many this is a way out of the cultural, social, and especially economic “ghetto.” Scott suggests that Hip Hop entertainers have rejected “Blackness” in order to become Hip Hop.
Scott’s observations may be useful in trying to understand the paradox of the adaptation of Hip Hop in American popular culture, while distressed African American neighborhoods remain marginalized and neglected by public policy and private investment. It might also help to explain how it is that many people associated with the entertainment industry have gotten rich off of Hip Hop, but have played a negligible role in effecting social change.
To be sure, there are parts of Scott’s critique that I find problematic. It is not just the commercialization of Hip Hop that seems to annoy him; it is the notion that it is no longer exclusively and definitively, culturally “Black.” In “The Gentrification of Rap” he says, “Crossover kills” and bemoans the effect that the commercialization of rap has had on “Afrocentric conscious Hip Hop.”
Rather than seeing Hip Hop as a flexible and multi-dimensional mode of expression, signifying many variations of blackness, Scott tosses De La Soul and Native Tongues into the same garbage pail with gansta rap and MC Hammer, saying that these performers caused the demise of “pro-Black Hip Hop.” For Scott, Hip Hop’s authenticity is tied to a specific social and political message.
In the course of his critique of the commercialization of Hip Hop, however, Scott may have stumbled upon something that is significant: the mainstreaming of Hip Hop culture does not mean that the experiences of African Americans have been mainstreamed, or even that these experiences are widely understood. It is a potentially potent rebuttal to those who use the widespread popularity of Hip Hop to argue that we are now a “post-racial” society.
C. Matthew Hawkins
Related Book of Interest: Black Racial Identity and Schooling
What are your thoughts on the relationship between Hip Hop and African American culture? What do you think about the commercialization of Hip Hop? What do you think about Hip Hop entering the mainstream of pop culture in America (and around the world)?