Debating the Hip-Hop Revolution
Does it even exist?
When I think of hip-hop and revolution, the first song that comes to mind is Arrested Development’s “Raining Revolution” on its debut album 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of . . . (1994).
Arrested Development represents the best of conscious hip-hop, but gangsta hip-hop also addresses social issues, especially racial injustice. The idea of hip-hop — and of music in general — as a means of social change is one that many fans, musicians, and scholars take seriously, but can popular music really start a revolution?
Ta-Nehisi Coates and John McWhorter have discussed that question on Bloggingheads.tv. Coates is known to many as the author of books such as Between the World and Me (2015), which presents the evils of American racism. But as the writer of the Black Panther comic from 2016–2018, he’s also one of a handful of people responsible for making Black Panther a household name in recent years.
McWhorter is a linguist and professor at Columbia University known for his resistance to many dominant narratives about race in America. Last month, he released a book called Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.
The two have very different takes on the possibility of a hip-hop revolution.
Coates believes in the power of hip-hop. While denying the idea that hip-hop, or any genre, can singlehandedly defeat racism, he describes Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) as a “revolutionary moment,” and says hip-hop taught him to question authority and think critically. For Coates, it isn’t the letter of the music that counts so much as the spirit of the music, which breeds social consciousness; the kind of consciousness that can lead to principled individuals living principled lives through their actions. That should make a difference in society.
I have to believe there’s something to this, because it’s my reality. As a kid, I absorbed the political issues in everything from the oldies my dad played on road trips to the alternative rock I got into in high school, a range spanning from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” to Sonic Youth’s “Youth Against Fascism.” That has never determined where I fall left or right (which has changed), but it has been one element informing my views, especially when it comes to awareness of social issues and the importance of conscience in addressing them. I assume many music fans have had similar experiences.
I think of Lollapalooza ’93. I attended in a largely rural, conservative and white area of the country, yet there we were high on Arrested Development, Rage Against the Machine, and Fishbone.
Go online and you can find videos of similar performances where thousands of white fans are shouting “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses!” No doubt many who were at Lollapalooza that day are now the polar opposite politically, but the consciousnesses of others must have continued to expand. I know, because Arrested Development put a little bit of Africa inside me, by which I mean it implanted a wonder for the continent and a respect for its peoples, its cultures, and its values. Art must speak across categories of identity — and if it can do that, isn’t that revolutionary?
McWhorter is skeptical. In his conversation with Coates as well as his book All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can’t Save Black America (2008), he takes the position that hip-hop may be aesthetically enjoyable — he especially likes OutKast — but it doesn’t accomplish real change. And that goes for both gangsta and conscious hip-hop. This failure is evidenced by the fact that fans, activists and scholars have been talking about hip-hop’s transformative potential for decades, but what has it ever accomplished?
What’s needed, in McWhorter’s view, is concrete action along the lines of community service, get-out-the-vote campaigns, philanthropy, education, and committee work toward policy change — most of which is decidedly unsexy.
He has a point. In recent years, we’ve witnessed a constant flow of bold statements by musicians against racism. Fans, activists, and the media ecstatically greet each one as devastating to white supremacy, before going back to insisting nothing has changed, before more excitement over the next statement, and so on.
If these statements are so significant, they should at some point obviate the need for themselves. Perhaps the fervor around political music is at best good intentions on the part of artists and wishful thinking on the part of fans, and at worst empty emoting on the part of fans, an example of Juvenal’s panem et circenses, and a co-opting of social movements by the very entities those movements arose to combat.
In his essay “On Afro-American Music: From Bebop to Rap” (1982) philosopher and activist Cornel West summarizes the inner conflict in rap as follows:
“Black rap music is the last form of transcendence available to young black ghetto dwellers, yet it, tellingly, is often employed to subvert, undermine and parody transcendence itself. Such artistic strategies — play, silence, and performance — are typical postmodern ones in which petit bourgeois artists, philosophers and critics wallow.”
West regularly praises jazz musicians and has appeared on hip-hop albums from time to time — BMWMB’s Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations (2007) and Brother Ali’s “Letter to My Countrymen” (2012) are in my collection — meaning even a true believer admits the genre often fails its listeners.
The argument can get pretty abstract. Some critical theorists, notably in the Frankfurt School, have claimed that all mass culture is inherently fascist — Theodor Adorno didn’t even like jazz— because of its tendency toward hegemony and conformity rather than liberty and diversity.
These philosophers were often critical of capitalism, so they would have seen Kerrang’s “13 Albums to Kickstart the Revolution,” pushed hard by the website during the unrest following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, as a cynical ploy for clicks and revenue through advertising rather than a statement of solidarity with protesters.
If they’re right, then popular music — from The Andrews Sisters to Arrested Development — is barred in its essence from starting a revolution.
I would like to believe the situation isn’t so dire. In Five Lessons on Wagner (2010), philosopher Alain Badiou, with reference to heavy metal as well as opera, has expressed hope that music as high art free of totalizing influences lies on the horizon. But what does it mean for Mariah Carey to be fascist? Or for Kendrick Lamar to be non-totalizing? Or vice versa? The idea is that, somewhere deep inside, the music is more than it seems and strikes to the heart of the body politic, but does it?
I’m not convinced either way. The conversation between Nehisi-Coates and McWhorter happened before Black Lives Matter, before the 45th president of the United States of America, before the predominance of streaming. These three events social, political and technological are representative of broader trends that I believe indicate we live in a significantly different world than we did even a few years ago.
Whether they mean we live in a better or worse world, they’re relevant to the debate surrounding music’s revolutionary efficacy and must hang in the background whenever we take music seriously.
Back in 1992, Arrested Development contributed a track to the soundtrack for director Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X starring Denzel Washington. That track was “Revolution,” and it opens with a striking statement by Speech:
“Before you put on this record, understand this is for all of my ancestors who were raped, who were killed and hung, because of their plight for freedom and for dignity. They died for me and they died for you. This is for them to know that yes, even today, in 1992, we are still fired up and we are still talking about revolution.”
Well, it’s almost 30 years later, Arrested Development’s discography is now much longer — I heartily recommend its latest — and we’re still talking about revolution.
To me, that suggests hip-hop’s efficacy in addressing social issues is unclear, but maybe someday we’ll look back with the benefit of hindsight and say with certainty that it made a real difference or that it didn’t but at least it was good listening.