5.21.2007

tricia rose on hip hop

apologies for not posting - i've been busy dissertating. one day, i'm going to get a schedule running and i'll just force myself to blog at least once a week. anyways, last wednesday i went to see tricia rose give a talk entitled "is hip-hop dead?" it was an interesting talk and i thought that i'd share the highlights and some of my own thoughts. for those of you who don't know, tricia rose is a fairly well known scholar in the field of black studies. her book, black noise, is one of the first real academic studies on hip hop, and seems to be one of the standard texts that people engage in whenever they need to talk about hip-hop from an academic point of view. currently, she's a professor at brown university.

as shown by the don imus incident, people still seem to view hip hop and the hip hop culture as one that is morally bankrupt and one of the causes of the deterioration of the moral fiber of society. i know, i know, it sounds like an outlandish statement to most people, but when someone like don imus blames his racists statements on hip hop and then oprah feels compelled to have a town hall meeting on the subject, it can't be a good thing in most people's eyes. anyways, for rose, the problem is not the genre itself, which she acknowledges has lots of problems. rather, the problem is with the conversation on hip-hop. because of the assumptions and omissions of the conversation on hip-hop, we can't get to a place where we can really figure out what is going on.

basically, she said that you can't talk about hip-hop without being either labeled a hater or a defender of the thug lifestyle. if you criticize hip hop for being misogynist or destructive, then you are a hater. if you accuse critics of hip-hop of being racist, then you are blind to the effects of culture on people. in some ways, it is a straw man argument, that opposing sides are situated on extremes of a continuum and the right place to be is somewhere in the middle. but i think that in this case, it's not that far off. on the one hand, i do understand the problems with the types of hip-hop that are most prevalent in today's popular culture. on the other hand, i loves me some snoop-dizzle. and my experience of how most people view the hip-hop issue is in terms of black and white, no pun intended.

anyways, rose says the the one of the biggest problems in this conversation is the failure of either side of the debate to acknowledge capitalism's role in determining the development of hip-hop. that is, hip-hop, at least popular hip-hop, has developed the way it has because of the role of these media multi-national corporations, who are run by mostly white people, have had in determining what people will hear.

in other words, a lot of the stuff out there is very problematic. but there's a lot of stuff that isn't so problematic but never gets played. she used the example of lupe fiasco. here's an artist that the critics love, has the backing of major players in the hip-hop game (kanye west and jay-z), and is able to rap about relevant topics about the african american experience without resorting to the usual tired tropes of thug or gangsta. yet, we never ever hear him on mainstream radio.

i suppose that none of this is really new, that capitalism screws up everything, especially art. and as a sociologists, it is almost impossible for me to not consider the effects of capitalism on anything. however, at the same time, it does strike me that the discussion of capitalism are absent in most work done on hip-hop, because as rose says, it makes that discussion seem "inauthentic". while i'm not sure if that is true of the academic community, it is most certainly true of most cultural critics. when it comes to this particular cultural form, for most people it seems that most of the issues are not rooted in the economic machinations if the medium, but rather the racial machinations. hip-hop is seen as a "black" thing, therefore, the problems that it causes, are caused by blacks. now i doubt you would find someone who would say this outright, but if you read carefully how hip-hop is usually talked by cultural critics, that is most definitely the implication.

she also spoke about masculinity and the fact that the only kind of hip-hop that those who are in charge of producing and disseminating popular music is one that is marked by hyper-masculinity. as you can imagine, this struck a chord with me, as it seems that sports works in much the same way. with all of this in mind, it should not surprise anyone that sports, particularly basketball and hip-hop are intimately intertwined. the NBA culture is often described as a hip-hop culture, which means it is a hyper-masculine culture which conforms to the current hierarchy, both in terms of race and gender. and in my opinion, this is generally not a good thing.

what does this all mean? as usual, i have no real good answers. but what i do think that this demonstrates is that people still aren't comfortable talking about race in a meaningful way.
any comments on the topic are welcome.

2 comments:

Ian said...

"anyways, rose says the the one of the biggest problems in this conversation is the failure of either side of the debate to acknowledge capitalism's role in determining the development of hip-hop. that is, hip-hop, at least popular hip-hop, has developed the way it has because of the role of these media multi-national corporations, who are run by mostly white people, have had in determining what people will hear.

in other words, a lot of the stuff out there is very problematic. but there's a lot of stuff that isn't so problematic but never gets played. she used the example of lupe fiasco. here's an artist that the critics love, has the backing of major players in the hip-hop game (kanye west and jay-z), and is able to rap about relevant topics about the african american experience without resorting to the usual tired tropes of thug or gangsta. yet, we never ever hear him on mainstream radio."

Of course, exhibits A and B in countering a portion of this argument will be NWA and Too $hort. Too $hort was the original "rapper who couldn't rap," who achieved his success because he came up with 600 different ways to work "bitch" into his songs, and he's had 6+ platinum albums with almost no radio play.

NWA went double platinum with no radio play, and did so by selling the majority of their albums to middle-class white kids. None of NWA's members had a major radio hit until they broke up and went solo. However, they're credited with starting the gangsta rap experience that has plagued music for two decades.

The point is that it was the popularity of the "thug, gangsta (and pimp) tropes" sans radio play that ultimately led to stations incorporating the music into their formats.

Bob said...

good point ian. it's what we here in pretensious academia land call a co-constitutive in that the success of NWA and too $hort contributed to the decision to play more of this kind of music on the radio, but at the same time, the lack of exposure also has doomed many a promising hip hop artist. the process has eviscerated a more diverse meaning of hip-hop and then distilled it into its worst elements. NWA also rapped about police corruption, and the struggles of living in the ghetto. i'm not so sure that is what l'il wayne does. not to say that there aren't some mainstream rappers out there who pay attention to this stuff, but a quick look at Billboard's top rap singles will reveal that those kinds of songs don't seem to be popular.

the point i think that she was trying to make (which i probably didn't such a good job of communicating) is that these particular traits are what the capitalism machine has keyed on, and more importantly, have been able to repackage as "authentic" rap music. like i said, this is not a new story, but the idea of capitalism packaging black authenticity is always an interesting one. good to hear from you ian. sorry i haven't been posting much, but hopefully i'll get that train turned around.