HIP HOP ROAD, A PATHWAY TO WHO, WHAT WHERE?
by Afaa Michael Weaver
This spring marks the twentieth anniversary of my graduation from graduate school. I completed my master's in creative writing at Brown University in 1987, and several of my friends were undergraduates, men and women who were about 21 or 22 years old. We had a fabulous ceremony. Stevie Wonder sang and played for us. Connie Chung was there, and so was Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss, whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel, wrote the famous children's books THE CAT IN THE HAT and GREEN EGGS AND HAM, among others. I knew those books because I had bought them for my son, who was six years younger than my undergraduate friends. At that time my relationship to folks in their twenties was closer, as now I am thirty-four years older than 21 year olds who will take their degrees this spring. I hope to see them grow into a world of gigantic challenges and become the giants they have to be. I mentioned this in my last posting regarding the controversy around Hiphop. Twenty years ago it was called rap, if I remember correctly. Salt-N-Pepa released PUSH IT in 1987, and two years later Public Enemy would have a hit with FIGHT THE POWER, which appeared in DO THE RIGHT THING, a Spike lee film featuring Rosie Perez, a twenty-something actress at the time.
Rosie Perez and my undergraduate friends are now in or approaching their forties, the generation to which I addressed my previous posting as I cited what I see as their dangerous emphasis on making it as opposed to thinking more about "how" to make it and the consequences of making it without a fuller preparation for being in the space called success. I still think the current generation of twenty-somethings and those about to enter their twenties are different because they have to be. For one thing, the folks who graduated twenty years ago are--in some instances--their parents.
Toni Morrison received the Pulitzer prize for BELOVED in 1987, which was a major moment in American literary history, but even so, the world of what we now know as gangsta rap seems to have learned little from what Ms. Morrison had to teach them about the effects of history. In the cities the enterprise of choice was quickly becoming drugs and the idea of "fighting the power" began to be associated with fighting to maintain a culture created by the sale of illegal drugs. In the early 1900's the idea of being a "soldier" for the lives of black people was more the idea of being a "race man" or "race woman," someone committed to finding opportunities for black people to have better jobs and careers, to move toward a more just share of the American pie, so to speak.
What happened? Well, to make a long story short, some very negative things began to be seen as positive or as the only alternatives, and with this came some of the aspects of what we know was criminal life. The baggy pants of Hiphop clothing is a mimicking of the baggy clothing worn by people in prison.
This all happened at the same time as THE COSBY SHOW, the television hit of the mid to late 1980's, where the Huxtable family showed us successful black people keeping it real in manner and speech that was not an imitation of prison life. If you have ever visited a prison and wanted to stay, then you should talk to a professional about why you wanted to stay. A person who has become institutionalized, who has fallen in love with "three hots and a cot" has lost hope, in my opinion. They have lost hope and have forgotten how to "fight the power." They may never have known what power to fight. Here lies the core confusion around Gangsta rap's ability to lead us anywhere, and I make the distinction as I do not believe anyone can justifiably say that the Gangsta rap part of Hiphop is going to take us anywhere except to prison.
Now to get back to what history has to teach us, I want to look at this idea of how the broader world of Hiphop is suppsoed to lead to the bettering of the lives of black people. For bettering we can use the word amelioration. It is interesting to me to look at the development of the blues as compared to Hiphop as there are some interesting parallels. In the first place, the blues emerged among the first generation or two of black people born after the Emancipation, which is to say they were born in freedom. However, this period of American history, the twenty-odd years after the Civil War, was the period of Reconstruction. Many promises were made to black people and many were broken. By the 1890's the lynching of black people, their public murders, were so frequent that they will forever be a national disgrace. (In 2005 the U.S. Senate issued an apology for never having passed a law against lynching, but they did not pass any anti-lynching legislation. We have only the apology.) In the latter part of the nineteenth century, black music went from ensembles to--in the case of the blues--solo performances. The blues embodied the spirit of black resistance in a hostile native land as a strategy for maintaining hope.
One hundred years after the Civil War we had the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and 60's, and the barren urban landscapes of manufacturing cities like Baltimore and Detroit were the visible signs of black people being deserted, left to fend for themselves in the unfolding of the globalization of American economics. From these ruins and ashes (many things were literally burned in the 60's riots and never rebuilt or replaced) arose the bass line and peculiar iambic of what we call Hiphop. But will it lead to the bettering of black lives? How can Hiphop dialogue with the complex world in which we now live? I think someone who has at least an awareness of the significance of a book like BELOVED will have the sophistication to deal effectively in a world already in the midst of more fundamental changes, namely the revolt of the earth against our misuse of natural resources. We have altered the place in which we live, and the place in which we live is not just the hood. It is the planet. If we are to dance any kind of celebratory dance, it will have to take place on Earth, at least for now. Stephen Hawking seems to think we have to leave the planet if we are to survive, but we don't have the technology to build enough space craft for five billion people. You don't have to be a Nobel physicist to figure out who will be the first to leave. It won't be the poor.
Hiphop has to maneuver in a world where living organisms that make decisions based on their knowledge of the better interests of all who live in their environments are quickly disappearing and being replaced by the advancing hordes of organisms who make decisions only out of self-interest and self-absorption. In botanical terms these organisms are the weeds, and human beings are the biggest group of weeds. If you want to know more about this go read THE END OF THE WILD by Stephen M. Meyer, the MIT political scientist. We are the biggest group of weeds, and we are dancing without a care in the world on our only world, this planet that seems to have had enough already. Is Hiphop on a level of sophistication needed to move in this crisis?
Oh Hiphop, are you up to the task? Even if you are as majestic as the blues, the blues was a musical moment not an intellectual set of actions. W.E.B. DuBois and others set forth a set of actions on the behalf of black people, They went to college. They studied the world. They knew negative from positive. GETTING RICH QUICK OR DYING is not positive, and the entire world is in trouble if this comes to be some real creed for living life.
We probably will not leave the planet, but we will have to achieve victories over our challenges that amount to building castles in the air. This is the world the folks in their twenties are facing today, and they must take Hiphop to task if it suggests it knows a way through a world dominated by weed behavior.
Who is the dancer? What is the dance? In the lingo of the East Baltimore I know (now part of the subject of the HBO series THE WIRE) dancers are people who avoid honest confrontations with other people, but I offer the word here as one last grinding of my axe against the confusion around positive and negative. Dance is a lovely word, but in East Baltimore lingo it was all about machismo and being willing to fight or "throw down" against someone, as in mortal combat. We have to rescue the words "dance" and "dancer" and restore them to their beauty, just as we have to fight for the beauty of our lives. That is the positive reading of what I think Public Enemy was trying to say. The power we have to fight is the one that seeks to take the beauty from our lives.
Oh Hiphop, can you fight "that" power. Oh Hiphop, the twenty-somethings of today--of all races and ethnicities-- need you to have your head together. When they graduate this spring, I hardly think they will need or want a song celebrating confusion in the air above them as they walk across the stage into their future, into our future. Know what is positive. Know what is negative. The best of Hiphop can at least aspire to art. The worst of it will take us to death and heartache.