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“The American Dream wasn’t meant for me
Cause Lady Liberty is a hypocrite- she lied to me
Promised me freedom, education and equality
Never gave me nothing but slavery.” – Tupac Shakur
There are a number of glaring differences between “entertainment” marketed to African America and entertainment marketed to White folks. Perhaps biggest among them is the fact that contemporary Black entertainment is almost always maladaptive for personal and community health. Hip Hop, for example, has been the focus of criticism and analysis from inside and outside the Black community for problematic representations of Black masculinity and femininity, violence and misogyny, psychoactive drug use, and materialism. Regardless of your take on Hip Hop, it can’t be argued that there exists no comparable artform in the White community. In other words, whatever the blame rappers deserve, there exists nothing close to an industry which perpetuates and celebrates blatant attacks (physical, spiritual, psychological) on White folks. I was reminded of this the other day at a party with my brother. Most of the people at the party were White; most of the music at the party was Black. I’ve never been to a party where most of people there were Black and most of the music was White. Except for church.
In contrast, most entertainment in the White community is psychologically healthy and embraced in conjunction with educational objectives. Band and orchestra programs, for example, are staples in the extra-curricular agenda of high schools coast-to-coast. Cultural forms of entertainment such as ballet, opera, and European theatre are universally viewed as enlightening not only for White folks but for Black folks as well.
A critical distinction, then, should be made between entertainment and enlightenment in African America. Unfortunately this rarely happens. As a result, Black folks are left largely unable to decipher the harmful, intentionally destructive messages of entertainment pumped into their homes and minds on a near-constant basis. In their attempts to assimilate into the pluralistic White world of make-believe they mistakenly apply the synonymy witnessed between entertainment and enlightenment in the White community to African America. In other words, they assume that since White entertainment is good for White folks, Black entertainment must be good for Black folks, as well. They then crave, buy, and celebrate as authentically “Black” all manner of ‘hood degradation and debasement.
The good news is that the above applies only to the segment of Black art that has been co-opted by White capitalistic industrial systems. A fundamental dilemma, then, is parceling out those authentic representations of Black thought from the co-opted ones. Sociologically, this dilemma has plagued African America ever since the first descendants of slaves were allowed property designation and the illusion of ownership. It was at that point that what Amiri Baraka has referred to as the “twin character” of the African American struggle began: a struggle for democratic rights and a struggle for national liberation (Nuruddin, 2002; Baraka, 2002). Nowhere was that struggle evidenced more clearly than in the pendulum-swing from the integrationist thrust of the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s to the Black Nationalist thrust commonly referred as the Black Power movement (Nuruddin, 2002). These two opposing ideologies (nationalism and assimilation) continue to compete for dominance within Hip Hop.
Black Nationalism & Assimilation
At its core, Black nationalism consists of separatism ideology; the notion of complete or partial division from White institutions as critical to the maintenance of self-determination for African people. Historically, Black nationalism has had many different practical manifestations, including the territorial nationalists (e.g. CORE), the revolutionary nationalists (e.g. the Black Panther Party), and the cultural nationalists (e.g. Karenga’s US organization). In contrast, assimilationist ideology involves attempts to psychologically or physically fit-in with mainstream society. Black folks routinely subjected to the physical and psychological brutality of White supremacy have historically groped for vestiges of Whiteness in attempts to allay their suffering and cease the mental anguish associated with their systematically denied humanity. Check out E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie, a critical examination of the Black community’s pathological obsession with so-called “Middle-Class” White values and mores and its resulting self-identification as culturally, intellectually, and spiritually deficient in comparison.
Throughout the history of Rap music, both nationalism (think X-Clan, dead prez, Afrika Bambaata, Tupac Shakur, Wu-Tang Clan) and assimilation (think Will Smith, Jay-Z, LL Cool J, 50 Cent and the rest of #TeamGetMoney). Until very recently, artists could be conveniently classified as one or the other.
Che Guevara With Bling On?
However, recently we’ve seen the industry manufacture a new type of rapper, one which paradoxically embraces both nationalism and assimilation. This new rapper-image both reflects and reinforces a hybrid ideology in which the African individual psychologically distances himself from “Blackness.” This is done in an attempt to achieve a super-ordinate ‘American’ status while simultaneously valuing Blackness for its “special” or “unique” characteristics.
This hybrid ideology is epitomized by Meek Mill’s “Tupac Back” . For those of us old enough to actually remember Tupac Shakur (not merely learn about him in college), this harebrained track (production aside) is insulting. Nowhere in the verses or hook can any direct reference to Shakurian philosophy be found. *Cue Obama voice* Let me be clear: Tupac never said anything about stealing rims. Tupac said: “I didn’t choose the thug life, the thug life chose me.” Tupac never said anything close to having his “wrist on froze.” Tupac said: “All I’m trying to do is survive and make good out of the dirty, nasty, unbelievable lifestyle that they gave me.” What this track represents is a bastardizing conflation of Tupac’s nationalist flair and a classic assimilationist “American Dream” stance. Tupac critiqued the system; Meek Mill celebrates it.
The same is generally true of a whole slew of new rappers who simultaneously kick nationalist and assimilationist rhetoric. It is now common for rappers to invoke names Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton and Marcus Garvey as they narrate their own successes and triumphs in successfully negotiating the system that took these men’s lives. Am I the only one who cringes when I hear a rapper with a record deal rhyming about how fucked-up the recording industry is? I throw-up in my mouth a little bit every time someone says that so-and-so is actually dope because they espouse this contradictory hybrid ideology.
Artists like Big K.R.I.T., and Kendrick Lamar are merely industry upgrades of such earlier models of conceptual inconsistency as Rick Ross, DMX, and T.I. Jay-Z and Nas deserve some of the credit (blame) here as well. If not for Jay’s insistence that he “do[es] it for [his] culture” or Nas’ quips about how he and J-Lo were “like Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe…” maybe assimilationist jibberish wouldn’t be so easy for us to swallow.
Hip Hop Intellectuals
This perplexing nationalist/assimilationist hybrid ideology in today’s rap music is buttressed by a very active intellectual arm which substantiates, justifies, and validates it. In fact, such hybrid ideology is evidenced on a grand scale though the illusion of upward mobility offered to Africans by education itself. Witness for example, the meteoric rise of what Norman Kelley (2004) refers to as the “market intellectual”, a new pseudo-elite class of profit-driven Hip Hop intellectuals who use African cultural tenets to molest African community. Hip Hop intellectualism has become a micro-industry of sorts; a circus of entertainers vying for attention, accolades, and monetary compensation from the dominant power structure (i.e. media, college and university speaking audiences, lucrative book deals etc). The majority of this enterprise functions at the expense of the Black folk majority, largely because such pandering “progressives” only serve to reinforce the psychological colonization of Blacks while substantiating, rationalizing and apologizing for a European worldview that is diametrically opposed to Afrikan-centered paradigms of mental, physical, and spiritual health. A new generation of Black scholar-puppets has emerged to pick-up where Cornell West, Michael Eric Dyson and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. left off. Like their celebrity predecessors, these brothers are educated (read: trained) by the system to facilitate its deadly impact in places where the system would not otherwise be welcome; their rhetoric (as Kelley points-out) is actually regurgitated imperialist ideology. They too, are trained by White minds, and then fed Black thought. When they are unleashed (i.e. given a voice) they start reflexively producing what they believe to be their own ideas. These are, of course, the direct products of the very system that made them scholars in the first-place. The reality is that an entire slew of third-string, Gates-in-training sideshows are busily reversioning our world to make it seem like Black folks are the problem.
This is why there will always be a market for black folks talking about helping/ healing/ saving/ fixing/ improving the Black community. Preachers do it; politicians do it; CEOs do it; intellectuals do it too. The Hip Hop intellectual is in the business of convincing Black people to hate, question, and distrust themselves in order to sell them the latest illusory, poisonous version of the American Dream as medicine.
Tupac is not back. If he was, he’d have us trying to figure out how the “greatest nation in the world” has money for war, but can’t feed the poor (see “Keep Ya Head Up”). Shamelessly claiming to represent what Tupac represented may seem ignorant and reckless; but in fact it is strategic. When people like Tupac Shakur die, the system that they fought always swallows-up that fight, and then, over time, convinces those of us who weren’t there to see it first-hand that there was no fight in the first place. The resistance value of authentic Black thought is thus ultimately sanitized and reduced to a mere spoke in the American wheel of imperialism. It has happened with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the form of a day off from work. More recently, it has happened with historian, author and scholar John Hope Franklin. For example, when Franklin died in 2009, newly “elected” president Baraka Obama issued the following statement:
“Because of the life John Hope Franklin lived, the public service he rendered, and the scholarship that was the mark of his distinguished career, we all have a richer understanding of who we are as Americans and our journey as a people. Dr. Franklin will be deeply missed, but his legacy is one that will surely endure. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to his loved ones, as our nation mourns his loss.”
This statement provides the classic reversioning of authentic Black thought to fit the dominant narrative. Note how in his summation of Franklin’s life and legacy, Obama does not mention the fact that he was Black, nor does he even hint at the resistance value in much of Hope’s defining scholarship (e.g. From Slavery to Freedom). Like a sitcom laugh-track, the statement not only cues the reader into the important points of consideration (his “scholarship,” “distinguished career,” and “public service”), it also provides the appropriate response (mourning). It does however, refer to the country (twice), and even goes as far as to suggest that Franklin’s work is valuable precisely because of its ability to help us understand “who we are as Americans” and “our journey as a people.” Even in death, Franklin’s life served to reinforce White institutional dominance, as he was memorialized as Professor Emeritus at Duke University. Like the Atlanta Braves, the Washington Redskins, the Florida State Seminoles (the Red and Black Seminole nation in Florida was a collaborative effort between Native Americans and Africans that resisted white incursion for 120 years), and countless other bastardized representations of cultural integrity and focused resistance to White capitalist terrorism; future generations will appreciate and critically engage Dr. John Hope Franklin not as a stolen yet brilliant son of African blood and bondage but as an American hero. This tragedy is overshadowed only by the certain exclusion of those whose lives were more clearly devoted to resistance and struggle from the historical record.
There is a reason why record executives want to parade these new hybrid rappers in front of us. There is a reason why these wack-ass Hip Hop professor types want to educate us about our own shit. As the great Chicago philosopher once said, it’s “Cause they make us hate ourself and love they wealth.” Simple and plain. There is no such thing as Che Guevara with bling on. But there are plenty of un-confused artists, scholars, and activists out here who are telling it like it is, minus the can’t-knock-the-hustle gimmick. Tupac himself once said, “No matter what these people say about me, my music doesn’t glorify any image.” Get Your Mind Right: Tupac ain’t back. Nevermind what all these bitches screamin.
Brian Carey Sims, Ph. D is a North Carolina-based author, journalist, lecturer and assistant professor at North Carolina A&T University. He is also executive director of the Hip Hop Journalists Association (HHJA). He has contributed to The Journal of Pan African Studies, Journal of Black Psychology and HipHopDX.com. Visit his website here. Twitter: @bsimsphd