Crossing Borders

Hip-Hop: Pro-Logo or Pro-Liberation?

July 14, 2006

The scholar Tricia Rose, whose groundbreaking book Black Noise was the first great intellectual work on hip-hop, has opined that at this point in its history, hip-hop culture has completely adopted the logic of late capitalism. But it's important to note that, even in hip-hop's first breakthrough product, the 1979 multiplatinum-selling single by the Sugar Hill Gang called "Rapper's Delight", there were lyrics like this:

Hear me talkin' bout checkbooks, credit cards more money than a sucker could ever spend But I wouldnt give a sucker or a bum from the Rucker (Park) not a dime 'til I made it again

In fact, part of the lore around these very lyrics is that they were stolen from one of the most popular rappers of the time — Grandmaster Caz — by his self-proclaimed manager, "Big Bank" Hank, to use in the song, another story in this culture of stories that only seems to boost the "capitalism-is-theft" school of thought.

The hope of many people of color in the 80s, as Reggie Hudlin and John Jay tell us, was that they might see more representative images of themselves in the media, and that the American dream might be large enough to accommodate them.

Media representations have changed, indeed the pendulum seems to have swung hard in the other direction, with hip-hop as its force of change. As we have seen over the last month, hip-hop has become a billion-dollar generating aspirational lifestyle, not just in the U.S. but all around the world.

Hence its apparent convergence with branding — from "Hotel, motel, Holiday Inn" to McDonald's (unbelievably belated) attempt to rebrand itself from white, suburban and populist to colored, urban and cool to uber-brander Jay-Z's current boycott of Cristal champagne.

Rappers now market themselves as brands. Perhaps 50 Cent — with his "Get Rich or Die Trying" logo and a videogame in which you, too, can get shot nine times — is the Colt's or Avtomat Kalashnikova (makers of the AK-47 submachine gun) of hip-hop, and Kanye West — with his blend of frothy self-aggrandizement and media ubiquitousness — the Starbucks.

So is hip-hop, to flip Naomi Klein's neat anti-corporate globalization construction, Pro Logo? Or is it Pro-Liberation?

In a sense, branding is another metaphor for the transformation of a nothing into a something, a nobody into a somebody — an abandoned young boy from the ghettos of Queens or Brooklyn or New Orleans, or the barrio of San Juan, even the suburbs of Chicago or Kingston, into a 50 Cent, a Jay-Z, a Juvenile, a Tego Calderon, a Kanye West, a Sean Paul.

The same commercialization of hip-hop has made it a vehicle for a new generation around the world to transform representations of race and identity, and to represent voices that have seldom been heard in the din of pop culture.

So hip-hop is not only a form of what some call "cultural imperialism", as Cristina Verán reminds us, it's a liquid process that allows the renewal and transformation of many cultures.

But cultural change is not the same as political or social change. The social indicators, especially for people of color, have gone backward over the past two decades. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was a disturbing reminder that race remains the central dividing line in American life.

So thousands of hip-hop activists are using hip-hop to try to figure out how to convert cultural power into political power. And judging by recent events as I speak about here, millions of young people are responding.

The answer to both the questions above — perhaps frustratingly — is a resounding YES. Hip-hop is complicated in the same way that American identity is fraught with contradictions, internal conflicts, instabilities.

OK, so maybe this conclusion wasn't meant to be satisfying.

But for those who look to culture as prophecy, my advice is to do what the first hip-hoppers like DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa did. Open your ears. The new world is already making its early sounds. We'll be able to hear it coming if we listen.

Thanks for dropping by...

Older: From Cultural Power to Political Power

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Dolores Garay wrote on July 19, 2006 11:56 AM:

It's been great to read one of our foremost cultural critics discuss the most groundbreaking cultural event
of our time - the ascendance of hip-hop. Hope to see
more content of this sort from PBS in the future.

hannah wrote on July 20, 2006 11:13 AM:

Thanks very much for a very interesting read. I'm fascinated by hiphop culture and you have helped to increase my understanding of hiphop as a cultural movement.

Chris Lee wrote on August 11, 2006 4:17 PM:

Your passage here has ignited a train of thought. I hope it keeps rollin. Thanks.

Matthew Poon wrote on August 12, 2006 1:10 AM:

Hip-hop is indeed a powerful tool in representing the voices that have been seldom heard in the din of pop culture. However, present day hip-hop revolves solely around money, sex, and drugs. In order for this "new world" to be born, we need unconforming artists to rise up and produce lyrics that pertains to the problems of our society.

Diana Lu wrote on August 12, 2006 7:45 AM:

I agree that race is still important and dividing line in America. After reading this, i have a new thought about the meaning to hip-hop. I always thought of it as a type of music that was good from time to time. but now when i hear hiphop another meaning comes into play. Thanks for spreading this knowledge.

bambi wrote on November 26, 2007 7:48 PM:

this article has opened up my eyes into the real world of hip-hop thanks

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