By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Only because this convergence of ex-slaves and ch-ching finally happened in the '80s because hey, African Americans weren't allowed to function in the real economic and educational system of these United States like first-generation immigrants until the 1980sroughly four centuries after they first got here, 'case you forgot. Hiphoppers weren't the first generation who ever thought of just doing the damn thang entreprenurially speaking, they were the first ones with legal remedies on the books when it came to getting a cut of the action. And the first generation for whom acquiring those legal remedies so they could just do the damn thang wasn't a priority requiring the energies of the race's best and brightest.
If we woke up tomorrow and there was no hiphop on the radio or on television, if there was no money in hiphop, then we could see what kind of culture it was, because my bet is that hiphop as we know it would cease to exist, except as nostalgia. It might resurrect itself as a people's protest music if we were lucky, might actually once again reflect a disenchantment with, rather than a reinforcement of, the have and have-not status quo we cherish like breast milk here in the land of the status-fiending. But I won't be holding my breath waiting to see.
Because the moment hiphop disappeared from the air and marketplace might be the moment when we'd discover whether hiphop truly was a cultural force or a manufacturing plant, a way of being or a way of selling porn DVDs, Crunk juice, and S. Carter signature sneakers, blessed be the retired.
That might also be the moment at which poor Black communities began contesting the reality of their surroundings, their life opportunities. An interesting question arises: If enough folk from the 'hood get rich, does that suffice for all the rest who will die tryin'? And where does hiphop wealth leave the question of race politics? And racial identity?
Picking up where Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts Movement left off, George Clinton realized that anything Black folk do could be abstracted and repackaged for capital gain. This has of late led to one mediocre comedy after another about Negroes frolicking at hair shows, funerals, family reunions, and backyard barbecues, but it has also given us Biz Markie and OutKast.
Oh, the selling power of the Black Vernacular. Ralph Ellison only hoped we'd translate it in such a way as to gain entry into the hallowed house of art. How could he know that Ralph Lauren and the House of Polo would one day pray to broker that vernacular's cool marketing prowess into a worldwide licensing deal for bedsheets writ large with Jay-Z's John Hancock? Or that the vernacular's seductive powers would drive Estée Lauder to propose a union with the House of P. Diddy? Or send Hewlett-Packard to come knocking under record exec Steve Stoute's shingle in search of a hiphop-legit cool marketer?
Hiphop's effervescent and novel place in the global economy is further proof of that good old Marxian axiom that under the abstracting powers of capitalism, "All that is solid melts into air" (or the Ethernet, as the case might be). So that hiphop floats through the virtual marketplace of branded icons as another consumable ghost, parasitically feeding off the host of the real world's peopleurbanized and institutionalizedwhom it will claim till its dying day to "represent." And since those people just might need nothing more from hiphop in their geopolitically circumscribed lives than the escapism, glamour, and voyeurism of hiphop, why would they ever chasten hiphop for not steady ringing the alarm about the African American community's AIDS crisis, or for romanticizing incarceration more than attacking the prison-industrial complex, or for throwing a lyrical bone at issues of intimacy or literacy or, heaven forbid, debt relief in Africa and the evils perpetuated by the World Bank and the IMF on the motherland?
Lower East Side, 1984
photo: Jamel Shabazz
All of which is not to say "Vote or Die" wasn't a wonderful attempt to at least bring the phantasm of Black politics into the 24-hour nonstop booty, blunts, and bling frame that now has the hiphop industry on lock. Or to devalue by any degree Russell Simmons's valiant efforts to educate, agitate, and organize around the Rockefeller drug-sentencing laws. Because at heart, hiphop remains a radical, revolutionary enterprise for no other reason than its rendering people of African descent anything but invisible, forgettable, and dismissible in the consensual hallucination-simulacrum twilight zone of digitized mass distractions we call our lives in the matrixized, conservative-Christianized, Goebbelsized-by-Fox 21st century. And because, for the first time in our lives, race was nowhere to be found as a campaign issue in presidential politics and because hiphop is the only place we can see large numbers of Black people being anything other than sitcom window dressing, it maintains the potential to break out of the box at the flip of the next lyrical genius who can articulate her people's suffering with the right doses of rhythm and noise to reach the bourgeois and still rock the boulevard.