Saturday, February 9, 2013
Hip Hop and Black Art
While reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ Criteria of Negro Artist, several questions popped into my head about Black art today. Is it fair to categorize today’s Hip-Hop Artists as Black artists? Assuming the answer is yes, how would Du Bois, Langston Hughes and other Black intellectual leaders of the 20th century receive the ideas being promoted by mainstream Hip-Hop artists, particularly in regards to luxury consumption. Are these artists creating Beauty? I should also note that this post is not meant to be critical, but rather exploratory. This is also obviously not a finished thesis, and something that I would like to do more research on. As someone who has loved Hip-Hop for a long time, but has also found the themes of unification, empowerment and upliftment of not just Black, but all politically and socioeconomically oppressed people, to be one of the beautifying and broadening aspects of Hip-Hop, the current trends of Luxury and extravagance within the art form are somewhat troubling.
In Criteria of Negro Artist Du Bois asks Blacks “If you tonight suddenly should become full-fledged Americans; if your color faded, or the color line here in Chicago was miraculously forgotten; suppose, too, you became at the same time rich and powerful; -- what is it that you would want? What would you immediately seek? Would you buy the most powerful of motor cars and outrace Cook County? Would you buy the most elaborate estate on the North Shore? Would you be a Rotarian or a Lion or a What-not of the very last degree? Would you wear the most striking clothes, give the richest dinners, and buy the longest press notices?” Du Bois goes on to assume that the answer is no and goes on to say “Even as you visualize such ideals you know in your hearts that these are not the things you really want. You realize this sooner than the average white American because, pushed aside as we have been in America, there has come to us not only a certain distaste for the tawdry and flamboyant but a vision of what the world could be if it were really a beautiful world…” While reading this I immediately thought of the state of Hip-Hop, and the shift that has taken place from socially conscious Hip-Hop of the 80’s and 90’s to today’s obsession with private jets and designer goods promoted by icons like Kanye West and A$ap Rocky. In the beginning of his career as an Artist, Kanye was classified as a “Conscious rapper”, and while he still shows traces of the same ideologies he promoted on his first two or three albums, he is now most closely associated with fashion and extravagance. A$ap Rocky on the other hand, emerged from the start as a shallow rapper content with only rapping about consumption of drugs and clothing labels like Raf Simmons and Alexander Wang. This trend can be seen throughout basically all of mainstream rap music, but these two artists are good examples to begin with.
There is nothing wrong with seeking a unique style, but this style is not unique. These luxury labels are worn exclusively by the wealthiest people in the world, and the fact of the matter is that at least 99 % of Rocky and Kanye’s listeners cannot afford these labels (A cotton Raf Simmons T shirt will run you about $350, and feel like a Hanes undershirt after a wash). Through promoting the tastes of the wealthiest and “highest-class” Americans, these artists are embracing the bourgeoisie and in many ways abandoning their roots. While Black artists, and all artists should seek to create beauty, they must go far beyond fashionable outfits.
Now, if a White or Asian comes from low or middle class and suddenly gains great wealth, should they be “allowed” to acquire this bourgeoisie taste? Yes of course, as are Blacks, and all human beings for that matter. But tying back to Du Bois and the idea of double consciousness, are Blacks today still Black and American? And which one comes first? Du Bois notes that when a Black person does something good then the rest of America will say “He did it because he was American.” Kanye has already distanced himself from this dual-nationalism when he stated on national TV after Hurricane Katrina that “George Bush does not care about Black people”. If Kanye does identify first as a Black person he owes his Black community more than a ‘Look at me, I’m proof Blacks can be rich and successful.’
Again, this is not meant to be critical of Kanye West, he is an artist and human being that I have tremendous respect for. I do not blame him for his lack of radicalism but rather the corporations and executives behind the distribution and marketing of Hip-Hop. However, as I have watched his artistic career progress, I feel I have also watched his commitment to social justice deteriorate. This is unfortunate because in the internet age individual artists do have more power and independence and in Kanye’s present role he holds a tremendous amount of power and could possible serve as a leader for the Black community and empower his people.
Dubois says in Criteria of Negro Art that “We can play all the sordid parts that America likes to assign negroes.” In this sense Kanye West and other rappers are fighting against this assignment and showing that economic success is possible, but if they are going to be both Black and American, they must pledge some allegiance to their race. The reality is that most Black people will not be rappers and sell a million records, and one of the implications of racial inequality is that wealth distribution amongst Blacks is more cutthroat than amongst Whites. The irony of the situation is that many young Blacks who listen to Hip-Hop idolize their artists, who mostly brag and boast about their riches and put down others for being broke. This is certainly a recent shift in Hip-Hop and one that I find very problematic.
Shifting away from Kanye West, an artist who I am obviously disappointed with because I feel he could potentially do more, the problem goes much deeper. Atlanta artist Young Jeezy is supposedly the first non-white American to buy a Lamborghini, at the age of sixteen. There is little if any documentation of this, and it might very well be an urban myth, but most people I know in the hip-hop circle believe this. Given Young Jeezy’s hustler persona this clearly implicates that he purchased the vehicle with illicit funds. In the song “My president” Jeezy celebrates the fact that Obama has been elected as the first black president, but Jeezy also celebrates (and ends the song with) the fact that he was the first to ride through his hood in a Lamborghini.
While examining one line in particular, “Stuntin on Martin Luther, feelin just like a King/ Guess this is what he meant when he said ‘He had a dream’” I just cannot picture any possibility that MLK would approve of Jeezy’s message throughout the song. However, the song is redeemed by featuring one of the most intelligent, and politically aware artists in the game, Nas. Nas’ introspective and thought-provoking final verse reminds the listener that while he is excited to see a Black president, he also recognizes that Obama’s election is a small step towards justice, something that Jeezy seemingly cares little about as long as he stays paid. Du Bois did not think Blacks would immediately seek powerful cars and fashionable clothes when they found wealth, but Hip-Hop artists today are showing this was a wrong assumption.