HipHop’s Origins as Organic Decolonization
by Damon Sajnani
Scholars routinely recognize HipHop’s political potential but this relation is commonly construed as incidental rather than definitive. Others have gestured to the colonization of HipHop in reference to the way minstrel stereotypes have replaced Afrocentric consciousness as the dominant theme in major label U.S. rap recordings post-1992. However, this leaves the antecedent relation of HipHop to colonization merely implied. This brief article outlines the more fundamental connection between HipHop culture and politics, specifically the politics of decolonization. HipHop culture, at its origins, is an organic decolonization of local urban space by internally colonized people in post-industrial 1970s New York.
To properly understand the relationship between HipHop and decolonization, we need to first specify the relationship between race and colonialism. Races are not what racial discourse presents them to be: discreet human populations identified by internal characteristics—either biological or cultural. Rather: races are colonial subjectivities naturalized as inherent identities. In other words, existing racial categories are legacies of the European slave trade and colonialism. Those relations of subordination were established and are maintained by coercive force and are reified by racial discourse. From this, it follows that anti-racism is not about reducing mutual antagonism between races, but rather working to destroy the colonial situation: to eliminate the relations of domination that exist between white and non-white populations. It is always and only a question of power; that is to say, of politics.
Recognizing race as inherently political and colonial entails a redefinition of Blackness relative to colonial power. Politics is the dynamics of power in human relations. Black liberation theorists have always understood the necessity of rejecting white definitions of Blackness and redefining it in accordance with the liberation imperative of Black people. Despite bourgeois protest, Black liberationists inevitably and correctly define Blackness to entail a commitment to anti-racism. Further, understanding race through the lens of colonial subjectivities brings into relief the reality of Blacks in America as internally colonized people, as in the analyses of Kwame Ture and others (Ture 2007, see also Ball 2011).
The South Bronx, which remains the poorest district in the United States today, is the birthplace of HipHop culture. In post-industrial America, the landscape of 1970s New York offered one of the world’s most dramatic illustrations of destitute poverty existing side-by-side with obscene luxury. New York City—home of the statue of liberty, the country’s most emblematic embodiment of the American dream—broadcasted to the world the notion that it was a place of equal opportunity, where “anyone can make it.” Above all else, American culture sells the notion that happiness comes with success, and success is measured in material acquisition. The mantra of meritocracy naturalizes the notion that the ‘haves’ deserve what they have, and the ‘have-nots’ are those who have not worked hard enough. They are the undeserving. The American dream is often articulated in relatively humble terms, as when Obama said, in a 2012 campaign ad, “To me the idea of America is that no matter who you are, where you come from or what you look like, you can make it if you try, Jay-Z did.” Well, humble except for the individual used as an example. Undoubtedly, the dominant cultural industries of film, television, and music glorify exorbitant wealth as the marker of success and the arbiter of happiness.
In essence, the “American dream” is the denial of the reality of socioeconomic stratification in the United States. It is the denial that social identities such as gender, race, and class play a role in the allocation of rights, opportunities, and resources. The American dream serves as the ideological obfuscation of America’s leading role in the perpetuation of local and global inequality through capitalism and neocolonialism. It is a cornerstone of American culture, the culture which justifies the existing American social structure. It is amidst and against this culture that HipHop is created. Understanding race through the lens of colonialism, and enduring neocolonial relations, allows for a much more concrete understanding of both the politics of HipHop and its role in decolonization.
Proper consideration of the colonial constitution of race foregrounds the anti-colonial imperative of Blackness and the applicability of Fanon’s analysis in Wretched of the Earth to the struggle for Black liberation in the United States. Fanon understood that colonialism is established and maintained through a complex mixture of coercive force and ideological domination. National culture within the colonial context is the construction of a local culture suited to the specific needs of the colonized people that subverts and destroys the culture of the colonizer. It is important to note that Black nationalism, or third world nationalism is, at its best, qualitatively distinct from European nationalism. As opposed to the latter’s tendency towards fascism and parochialism, Black nationalism is inherently diasporic: it is an internationalist nationalism (Prashad 2008; Fanon 2005, p. xxvi). Bakari Kitwana popularized the term “the HipHop Generation” partly as an alternative to “the HipHop nation,” which was popular in the mid-90s but which was conceptually ungrounded (Kitwana 2002, xiii). This article aims to provide such a grounding. As I argue here, the origins of HipHop in the U.S. constitute the organic development of national culture in the Fanonian sense. In other words, it constitutes the evolution of a diasporic Black nationalism in opposition to the inherent anti-Black racism of American culture.
HipHop culture is born out of the concurrent and convergent evolution of the arts of graffiti, break dancing, Dj-ing and emceeing. While HipHop is often identified in terms of these “elements,” the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; the culture is more than the sum of its arts. In other words, the arts are expressions of the culture, but the culture is to be understood in terms of the values that the arts seek to express. While all practitioners are theorists at some level, Afrika Bambaataa is the first to have extrapolated and explained these values. His famous and succinct formulation, immortalized in his duet with James Brown, is that HipHop represents “peace, unity, love, and having fun.” However, understanding the politics of this formulation requires attention to its contextual specificity. Without this attention, the simplicity of the formulation that aids its resonance can cause it to be taken for a generic inspirational mantra as opposed to the counterhegemonic politics that it actually represents.
“Peace, unity, love, and having fun” must be understood in the immediate context of its formulation: as a rejection of the contemporary reality of its antithesis, the reigning conditions of violence, disunity, hatred, and misery generated by (internal) colonialism. Most immediately, HipHop is created by and for urban Black and Brown folks in the U.S., but Bambaataa and HipHop were diasporic from the beginning in myriad ways. These include the African diasporic character of Bambaataa’s persona and organization, as well as the Caribbean and Asian influences in the formation of the culture. Bambaataa’s founding Afrocentrism is grounded in his initial trip to Africa and was perpetuated through his advocacy and development of the Zulu Nation as a worldwide HipHop organization. HipHop’s Caribbean influence is well documented in terms of sound system culture, but less so in terms of how certain patterns of lyrical delivery pioneered in reggae influenced the development of rap (a subject of my future research). Significantly, the Asiatic influence, as articulated by KRS-One, is directly related to anti-colonial Afro-Asian solidarity.
B-boy pioneers developed breakdance moves through the study of Bruce Lee’s martial arts films. According to KRS-One, at the point of HipHop’s origins in 1973, Bruce Lee was HipHop’s archetype: “His attitude, his character, is what HipHop was trying to mimic.” He explains, “In that time we’re all dressing like Bruce Lee… Everybody in early HipHop in the Bronx was Bruce Lee. Everybody… He was not just a Kung Fu martial artist to the hood, to the Bronx ghetto, he was a mythical hero… He had [Jim] Kelly with him. Young black kids in the hood we never seen no black dude with an afro doing Karate beating up the police” (KRS-One’s emphasis, see also Kelley, p. 124 in That’s the Joint). Bruce Lee’s persona was modeled after his teacher, Yip Man, an icon of Chinese national pride amidst and against British and Japanese occupation. The shared anti-colonial ethic evident in HipHop’s Asiatic influences are most immediately rooted in the anti-colonial struggles of the 1960s but are more fundamentally founded in the origins of global white supremacy: Europe’s self-constitution in contradistinction to Africa and the Orient (Said 1978, Mudimbe 1988).
HipHop’s proclamations of peace and unity, far from generic genuflections to pacifism, constitute the cultivation of community among the colonially conquered and divided. In his preface to Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre discusses how the injustice of colonization breeds a “repressed rage” that “wreaks havoc on the oppressed themselves,” and reactionarily manifests through the oppressed turning on each other, as “tribes …battle one against the other since they cannot confront the real enemy—and you can count on colonial policy to fuel rivalries” (Fanon 2005, p. lii). In 1970s New York, this self-destructive “Black nihilism,” to use Cornel West’s term, manifested as gang violence. According to Fanon, revolutionaries create national culture to develop the communal unity required to confront their oppression. Bambaataa parlayed his social capital as the leader of the Black Spades into such a culture, as violent confrontations were sublimated to artistic competitions, which in turn developed cultural identification and solidarity. From an anticolonial lens, we see that the politics of peace and unity among the colonized empowers them to direct their righteous rage at the colonizer, whose front line is the police.
Anti-police sentiment does not need to be taught to those who live under occupation—they live it. As has been highlighted by recent instances of police brutality and murder across the country, Malcolm X’s precise analysis in 1964 rings as true today as it did fifty years ago, when he paralleled the African revolution that Fanon had joined with the one Malcolm was waging against America. Just substitute “Ferguson” for “Harlem” in the following speech: “Algeria was a police state. Any occupied territory is a police state; and this is what Harlem is. Harlem is a police state; the police in Harlem [are] like an occupying army. They’re not in Harlem to protect us… they’re in Harlem to protect the interests of the businessmen who don’t even live there” (May 29, 1964, Malcolm X Speaks 1965, p. 66).
Homi Bhabha’s introduction to Wretched of the Earth (2005) treats Fanon’s opening meditations on violence as unfortunate relics of a by-gone era, and wonders if Fanon can be recuperated in spite of these. Yet, if Fanon’s theory found expression in the U.S. with the Black Panther refrain “Off the Pigs!” and Malcolm X’s aborted plans to assassinate murderous LAPD officers (Marable 2011, p. 207), it continues to resonate through HipHop with the innumerable variations of “Fuck the Police” from N.W.A. (1988) to Jasiri X’s inspiring new “Don’t Let Them Get Away with Murder” (See, for more examples, X-Clan “F.T.P.,” Public Enemy “Anti-Nigger Machine,” Ice-T “Cop Killer,” Paris, “Coffee, Donuts and Death,” Main Source “Friendly game of Baseball,” dead prez “”I Have A Dream, Too,” J-Dilla “Fuck the Police,” among others).
The politics of “having fun” are overlooked by those who imagine early HipHop to have been “apolitical.” While graffiti writing was always fun and only rarely contained explicitly political critiques, it was akin to guerilla warfare in many respects. Originally called “bombing” trains, graffiti writing consisted of the clandestine and “illegal” high-jacking of trains and other public spaces to generate visibility for the invisible. Similarly, the original Bronx block parties were powered by stolen electricity, which constitutes the repossession of public goods. The repositioning of public parties as the place to be against the backdrop of the hyper-exclusivity exemplified in that era by Studio 54 is counterhegemonic.
Similarly, early rap lyrics, which focused on partying and “having fun,” constitute political resistance by a people living in a nation whose credo included “the pursuit of happiness,” yet systematically denied it to them. While the smug celebration of capitalist excess by modern rap minstrels is defended by some as having been part of HipHop from the beginning, this reasoning is flawed. The political meanings of cultural productions are constituted relative to the obtaining relations of power. Thus, Grandmaster Caz’s lyrics that appear on “Rapper’s Delight” (1979), boasting about owning “two big cars” and “a color TV,” do not embody the same politics as Jay-Z’s lyrics thirty plus years later, when he brags about owning two “big face rollies” and a private jet (“Otis,” Watch the Throne 2011). Rhymes that playfully fantasize about material luxury by a rapper who lacks these things to an audience of this community that lacks them is a satirical commiseration and collective assertion of self-worth in spite of material depravity. It constitutes an affirmation of self-esteem amongst a community denied dignity. Conversely, when a pop star rhymes about his actual obscene wealth acquired through participation in the system that causes mass material destitution for most Blacks, he participates in that denial of dignity that HipHop evolved to solve.
On the politics of love, Richard Iton writes, “Love itself, the subversive gift, is an important public good, and loving is a significant political act, particularly among those stigmatized and marked as unworthy of love and incapable of deep commitment” (Iton 2008, p. 8). As HipHop grows out of Black power, the vindication and cultivation of Black love, according to Kwame Ture, is the foundation for a non-oppressive society. He said, “the society we seek to build among black people… is not a capitalist one. It is a society in which the spirit of community and humanistic love prevail. The word “love” is suspect; black expectations of what it might produce have been betrayed too often. But those were expectations of a response from the white community, which failed us. The love we seek to encourage is within the black community, the only American community where men call each other “brother” when they meet” (Ture 2007, p. 29).
Thus, long before HipHop found its overtly political voice through the likes of Melle Mel, Rakim, KRS-One, Chuck D, MC Lyte and others, it was engaged in political rebellion by fostering peace, unity, love, and fun amongst a people systematically denied these rights. When rap lyrics revived and revised Black power’s discourse and sociopolitical critiques, these artists were not so much “politicizing” HipHop as they were theorizing and articulating its purpose and meaning to its community. HipHop was fundamentally about self-definition, self-value, self-esteem, and unification in the face of adversity: all crucial prerequisites for decolonization according to Fanon.
Fanon did not stop at describing and celebrating the development of national culture; he also analyzed its potential pitfalls. He specified how neocolonialism arose from colonial powers granting formal independence, while installing a local bourgeoisie who are handsomely compensated to perpetuate the same relations of production and exploitation of the colonial situation. The principal leverage of these local leaders lies in the legitimacy they claim through the performance of national culture, i.e., a shallow anti-colonial posturing that celebrates themselves as symbols of independence even as they perpetuate the economic order keeping the conditions of the colonized unchanged.
Under internal colonialism in the U.S., select Black performers and entertainment moguls constitute part of this Black national bourgeoisie. They perpetuate the political economy of capitalist white supremacy by selling Americanism and its attendant anti-Black politics shrouded in Black cultural aesthetics. These include the rap mascots for capitalism (Sajnani 2014). They deploy the aesthetics of HipHop while promoting the oppressor’s cultural values that keep HipHop’s constituents impoverished en masse. This is not so much the colonization of HipHop as the co-optation of the tools of decolonization of the already colonized. For HipHoppers committed to Black, Brown, and Indigenous liberation, part of our work involves resisting the appropriation of HipHop and elaborating its original mission. This mission, I have argued, follows from the organic resistance inherent in the creation of a culture of peace, unity, love, and having fun by racially oppressed people in the context of post-industrial destitution.
Damon Sajnani aka ProfessorD.us is a HipHop artist, activist, and academic. He holds multiple degrees from the University of Toronto and Northwestern University. He is the Inaugural Nasir Jones Hip Hop Fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University and Assistant Professor of African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison beginning fall 2015. His research interests include Africana culture, politics, and philosophy, socio-political theory, race/racism, geopolitics, social justice, and global HipHop studies. As “ProfessorD.us” (pronounced Professor D dot US), the lead emcee of The Dope Poet Society, he has released four critically acclaimed CDs as well as his latest solo album THIRD WORLD WARriors Vol. 1 on Justus League Records.
Academic website: https://northwestern.academia.edu/ProfD
Artist website: www.ProfessorD.us
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