Postcolonialism and Hip Hop Revised
Neo-Colonialism and Hip-Hop Culture
In 1965, former president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah proposed his vision of the modern colonialism. This neocolonialism as he called it refers to a change of the new tactics as a way to maintain the imperial power and interests in the regions regardless of the perceived autonomy these regions had. He said that
“ … Giving’ independence to its former subjects … followed by ‘aid’ for their development … devises innumerable ways to accomplish objectives formerly achieved by naked colonialism. It is this total of these modern attempts to perpetuate colonialism while at the same time talking about ‘freedom’, which has come to be known as neo-colonialism.” (Nkrumah 239)
Hence, neocolonialism can be defined as a state that is in theory independent but its independence is granted by a third party that “aids” from the outside. Consequently, although African-Americans do not live in a separate state, thanks to slavery and cultural colonization, they have lived lives isolated from the mainstream American culture, generating unique manifestations such as hip-hop. Also, the modern rhetorics of an African-American culture that does not come from the country as it used to, but from the cities, introduces a new variable to the study of their culture concerning their cultural colonists. Moreover, African-American culture has also influenced American culture, adding slang expressions from the African-American Vernacular English and Hip-Hop subculture (Campbell 3) Therefore, a way to properly understand and assess how cultural constructs such as capitalism and neocolonialism have facilitated the spread of Hip-Hop, as well as bolstered the criminalization of youth involved in said culture is finding how the concepts behind Hip-Hop have challenged the colonial model imposed by the American Society.
Consequently, Hip-Hop can be seen as music of the resistance. A music intended to resist and mark a distance from a set of cultural values that although not foreign, do not completely reflect the lives of the majority of the African-American population in the country. Then, Hip-Hop worked as a catalyst to the desires of the African-American youth living in urban settings and government-built housing projects. To scholars such as Lamotte,
“the Hip-Hop movement is rooted in a struggle for public space and a claim for street presence … it served as a counter-protest movement, a creative form of communication that used everyday life experience as a base upon which to build a new social critique in the wake of the civil rights movement.” (Lamotte 687)
Therefore, early hip-hop was not all about music. It was composed of non-musical elements such as graffiti and B-Boying that used different approaches to address the central issues of agency and resistance against a culture they perceived belligerent. Also, this non-violent approach contrasted heavily with the White Americans perception of African-Americans movements as violent. Conversely, early Hip-Hop movements relied on the underground to thrive and increase their fan base, as well as showing the message of the struggles of the Black community.
As a result of this underground antics, the culture adopted a series of stylistic devices meant to separate them from the mainstream African-American musical manifestations of the time such as the Funk music. Instead of focusing on the individual, early Hip-Hop movement emphasized the collective nature of living. Afrika Bambaataa, one of the precursors of the Hip-Hop movement in the 70s said, referring to his nascent movement that it was about “knowledge, wisdom, and understanding as well as peace, unity, and having fun” (Johnson 1). However, with the violence most of its adherents experienced throughout their day, it is not a surprise that the movement was considerably violent in their rhetoric.
Still, this violence was more lyrical, verbal and figurative. Hence, Hip-Hop was born charged with a myriad of symbols and language that stemmed from the language and behaviors of the young, urban African-Americans. These manifestations, instead of promoting senseless violence emphasized racial unity and an Afrocentric consciousness as the way to gain recognition.
Also, the Hip-Hop subculture managed to escape from their original contributors, turning into a worldwide phenomenon that helped youth around the world to channel their voices through a set of stylistic and rhetorical choices that emphasized action and resistance to the mainstream culture, regardless their background. Therefore, early Hip-Hop can be regarded as an anti-colonial movement that elicited unity for the margined sectors of the society. Again, these counter-cultural phenomena do not develop isolated from the reality. On the contrary, they are a manifestation of a series of social conditions and human agency. Consequently, it seems likely to say that without the 1970s New York environment, Hip-Hop would not have existed as it does today. These transformations that intended to give freedom of choice and thought to the oppressed black ghettoes of the South Bronx are a modern echo of the African-American tradition of resilience and struggle that has characterized Black Civil Rights movements since the abolition of slavery in 1865. That way, the Bronx served as the flashpoint from which a new cultural paradigm would emerge, a standard that would encompass a plethora of marginalized youth searching for their identity. Hip-Hop served as the catalyst of the creative energies of countless individuals in America, individuals that focused on often forgotten issues and aimed to find if not a solution, at least an explanation. Therefore, instead of resorting to factual violence, early manifestations of the subculture sought to offer a more in-your-face attitude that showed the problems African-Americans faced instead of hiding them.
However, with every growing cultural expression comes the capitalism and its willing to monetize everything that appeals to a large crowd. Accordingly, given the fact that “ninety percent of what Americans read, watch and listed is controlled only by six media companies owned and ran by 232 media executives … responsible for the intake of 277 million Americans” (Sandman 4), these executives could incite any trend they want with the results they need in no time.
Subsequently, when Hip-Hop culture became a product of capitalist interests, it ceased to be a power of the decolonization movement to turn into a representative of the White corporate oppression they said Hip-Hop fought. Hence, instead of upholding the ideals of unity and a cohesive Black identity, it bolstered an indiscriminate violence that only served an alienating purpose. Also, independent analysis conducted by independent scholars such as Homeboy Sandman found that there is an overlapping of interests between mass media companies such as Viacom and Time Warner and the Corrections Corporation of America (Sandman 5). This study itself should set a few alarms in the issue of the amounts of violence found in contemporary Hip-Hop compared to the non-violent rhetoric of the 1980s. Consequently, despite the crime rates going down since the 80s, thanks to the privatization of prisons in the same decade, incarceration rates have also increased exponentially among African-American and Latino youth. Another instance of Sandman’s report points to the fact that it is possible that such behaviors among youth that glorify drug use and gangster attitudes might come from the disparity between drug and prison related hip-hop, vs. the other types of Hip-Hop as the first, receives much more financial and media exposure while the rest do not have the same mainstream distribution methods. Hence, the Hip-Hop contemporary ethics praise success as a form of talent, instead of maintaining the idea of talented performers that speak of inequality and racism (Sandman 7).
Conversely, contemporary rappers have become paragons of the gangster culture, adopting names that reference such lifestyle. Therefore, they have taken as their idols drug kingpin like Scarface’s Tony Montana. Besides, by turning the premise of “Live Fast Die Young” into reality, most of these performers do not care about going to prison or even die, as their images are constructed in a way that those outcomes saw inevitable. For instance
“Tony Montana’s kingpin status and his ultraviolent death, therefore, have provided rap artists with a ready-made model of gangster heroism. Moreover, indeed, the adoption of Scarface as an icon by self-consciously gangsta rappers is an easy connection to make. After all, how much more gangster can one get?” (Bogazianos 1)
Hence, by upholding such ideas of violence, rap musicians are only damaging themselves and the identity of Hip-Hop as a culture of unity. By enforcing individuality above all, these new “gangsta” artists are destroying the achievements of their antecessors who wanted to steer clear from the perception of African-Americans as violent and illiterate. However, these changes in the Hip-Hop paradigm did not come alone. Massive joblessness in the 80s contributed to an underground economy of new and cheaper drugs like crack and PCP, along with the growing of the gang and crime violence in New York City contributed to the “gangsterization” of the Hip-Hop discourse. These newer and easier methods to earn a living entered in the poor African-American’s psyche and contributed to the creation of a new vision of what urban music was like. Instead of focusing on improving their life conditions through literacy and awareness, it was all about surviving the “hood”. This will to survive in a harsh environment such as Los Angeles or New York, turned many young African-Americans into crack cocaine peddlers as a way to get money that they would not find otherwise (Kelley 45)
Here is when capitalism enters to profit from the spoils left in the ghettoes, making use of the gang-oriented affiliations to create differences that would allow violence to occur in the territory as if each gang were a nation. Therefore, making use of Hip-Hop’s identity of opposition and the reality of their defensive space, capitalism bolstered these differences for profit (Bell 22). These defensive areas can be defined a sort of internal colonies built in separate structure that accounts for the disproportionate distribution of resources in the ghetto. That way, instead of becoming an aid to the decolonization of the African-American identity in the country, gang violence, and gangster attitude has only made the matters worse for those involved.
Besides, since the 1990s, rap music has undergone a major transformation with the emergence of gangsta rap. However, along with the development of this style, come the globalization of Hip-Hop, establishing it as a form of expression of the urban youths. On the contrary, gangsta rap lacks the expressive qualities of the 80s rap and is used as a product of violence and profit rather than a method of social criticism.
Subsequently, thanks to the capitalist and post-colonial efforts, Hip-Hop has become a product, a material, natural resource that works Black people but does not work for them. Conversely, it profits from the antics and behaviors of a group to produce $40 billion revenues that do not return to the Black community (Bell 26). Therefore, colonialism profits from the intellectual property of the African-Americans, using their experiences to transmute them into a commodity, but not as a mechanism of improvement of their situations, but as a method of social control. As Bell states, the profit derived from all the Hip-Hop revenues are used to increase the producers’ wealth as a way to enhance their power among the rest, not as a way to improve the living conditions of the Black neighborhoods they say they represent (Bell 85).
For instance, communities such as the South Bronx in New York City, despite giving birth to a myriad of Hip-Hop artists, is still among the poorest communities in the country. This inequality shows the individualistic nature of contemporary hip-hop artists and the capitalist will of colonizing these spaces to their behalf, keeping the populations poor and dumb. It is awkward and uncomfortable how Hip-Hop artists live lives of pure luxury in front of the obscene poverty of the vast majorities of their African-American fans (Sajnani 2).Hence, capitalist rhetoric shows these artists as the embodiment of the American dream, as paragons of the notion of “everybody can get rich.” Nevertheless, the issue is not in the getting rich part. The issue is in the violent antics of these artists who decided to turn their backs to a Hip-Hop with actual content to become portraits of violence and misogyny.
While it is true that the country boasts their equality of opportunities, that is not necessarily true for Hip-Hop artists, as this notion of “everyone can make it” is laced with the concept of everyone can make it as long as they follow these steps. The steps seem simple, the artists have to look tough, act gangsta and have an incendiary rhetoric about how they came from a poverty-stricken neighborhood and they rose to fame thanks to the power of their rhymes. Sadly, what these artists do not know is that they are nothing but a product of their masters, the American mass media.
To sum up, early Hip-Hop became a force of unification that although did not erase the rampant socioeconomic differences among African-Americans. A counter-culture that aimed to find a way for all the African-Americans to coexist peacefully while having fun. These Afrocentric behaviors of the new rap music contrast heavily with the notions of individual gain found in the contemporary rap. It seems likely that once Hip-Hop became a dominant force in the urban context of most of the American youth, corporations and media acting like a fourth arm of the military turned their weapons to seize it and use its potential reach as ideological propaganda aimed to the African-Americans in an effort to maintain their status quo (Bell 25) Media, as they understood the postcolonial possibilities of these new paradigms, reshaped the public perceptions of Hip-Hop, turning it into a product of mass consumption . If that caused an unprecedented amount of violence, that is not the fault of the culture per se, it is on the corporations and mass media conglomerates where the answer must be found. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that Hip-Hop is going to revert to its old state, it appears that corporations stripped African-Americans of a cultural manifestation that was rightfully theirs and turned it into a product of consumption, a product whose only resemblance to the original lies in its name.
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