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how hip-hop failed america

Questlove: Does Black Culture Need to Care About What Happens to Hip-Hop?

This is the sixth in a weekly series of six essays looking at hip-hop's recent past, thinking about its distant past, and wondering about the possibility of a future. Read the first one here, the second one here, the third one here, the fourth one here, and the fifth one here.

It's time for the showdown. Get ready for the lowdown. We've come to the end of the road.

When I started this series of columns six weeks ago, I wanted to think through a series of issues: why the bulk of contemporary African-American culture has defaulted into hip-hop, why materialistic narratives seem to dominate the genre, what has happened to the concept of black cool, what increasingly anemic sales mean for both big stars and independent artists, and where all of this leaves us.

It leaves us here, in the sixth and final column, thinking about all these things. Sometimes when you think, you come up empty. But when I go back through this series in my mind, I come up so full that I’m not sure what to do next. Three decades plus into this exciting and vibrant genre, there are some serious structural problems that seem almost insoluble. There are times that I feel that the whole thing is perched on the edge of a cliff and time is about to push it off.

When I think that, I always find my thoughts returning to music. Not to music as an aesthetic category, but to music in the social sense. Music can be created by an individual or a group, but it is meant to be heard by others. It operated that way as ritual (in weddings and funerals, in wars and parades) long before it was ever preserved as a physical product, or sold as a commercial one. Music is something that happens between people. This is true for classical music or instrumental jazz, but it's true with one added dimension for a music like hip-hop, because it's narrative by nature. As a result, it's music between people that is also explicitly about people. 

These are the basics. Let's color outside the lines a little bit. Sun Ra said that space is the place, but there's race in the space also. Hip-hop is inseparable from black America and black Americans, who are either creators or consumers or subject matter, or sometimes all three. Like it or not, it exerts a pull on the black community. It can pull us up or it can pull us down or it can pull us apart.

Does black culture need to care about what happens to hip-hop? Does it need a cultural force like hip-hop at all? I can't predict the future. If I could, I'd have put a bundle on California Chrome. But I can say that black culture has needed that historically. The famous black academic Charles S. Johnson, who was instrumental in the Harlem Renaissance, published a magazine for black Americans called Opportunity; its title sent a different message than W.E.B. DuBois's Crisis, but they were two sides of the same coin. Johnson thought (knew?) that the arts were important because black Americans were denied equal treatment in many other respects. The arts, he figured, could be a site of resistance.

Resistance here doesn't mean revolution. It doesn't mean storming the barricades. Resistance means using art for the things that it does best, which is to create human portraits and communicate ideas and forge a climate where people of different races or classes are known to you because they make themselves known. In the simplest terms, art humanizes. It opens the circuit of empathy. And once that process happens, it's that much harder to think of people as part of a policy or a statistic. Art reverses the alienation that can creep into society. After Johnson, after DuBois, the Harlem Renaissance itself stalled, largely as a result of the Great Depression, and many of the economic gains made by African-Americans were lost, but cultural influence persisted. You could make an argument that it was as important as anything for speeding along the very real political and social gains of the '50s and '60s.

That's what music has been good for, historically, in the black community. Jazz did that. It forced the mainstream to see black musicians as virtuosos with complex ideas and powerful (and recognizable) emotions. How are you going to treat someone as less than human, in any way, once they've been so deeply human in full view? Soul music did that, because it addressed universal romantic problems. Who has trouble identifying with a Smokey Robinson lyric? No one human, that's for sure. Hip-hop started from that premise. It was rooted there. It didn't shy away from the fact that America, built the way it was, made certain economic and social advances difficult for African-Americans, but it also made an entire community visible, impossible to ignore, impossible to dehumanize. Hip-hop, because of the way that it was made, because of what it was at its heart, blazed new trails and also recontextualized the past. Where other musics, like disco, were plastic to the point where they started to feel like factory product, early hip-hop was the perfect music for an era of flexible accumulation: fast on its feet, fleet with its thoughts. It could range and roam and shine a light into any corner of the culture.

Six weeks ago, at the beginning of this series, I opened with quotes from John Bradford, Albert Einstein, and Ice Cube. Between them, they sketched out their own version of this idea. Bradford talked about luck and providence (“There but for the grace of God go I”); Einstein talked about community (“spooky action at a distance”); and Ice Cube talked about appetite (“Life ain’t nothing but bitches and money”). Those three ideas outline a triangle, and inside that triangle are people reflecting on their own good fortune, recognizing that they’re connected to others, grappling with their own aspirations. Hip-hop has a responsibility to these ideas, and because of that, a responsibility not to fall victim to other ideas that actively obstruct them. This responsibility doesn’t fall to individual artists in a narrow way. There will always be artists who want to be shallowly materialistic or who permit themselves to be reduced to caricature. But the broader genre needs to balance them off with other kinds of artists, other perspectives, and there’s been a steady move away from that kind of balance for the last decade at least. Culture needs to struggle against meaninglessness and flattening. That's why it's vital that one of those sites of meaningless shouldn't be the culture itself.

These may seem like uncontroversial ideas — that art should, at some level, be about humanity, and that culture should, in some way, be a tool for fighting adversity. But any support for those ideas have to have better practices attached to them than the ones that have taken over hip-hop. People pick up on the ideas that pop culture puts down, so if one of those ideas is that only so-called winners get a platform, which they then use to talk more about their winning, that will seep into the groundwater. Contemporary hip-hop worries too much about the bottom line, which is lower than it's ever been. If you dive for it, you may find yourself stuck down there. And being stuck down there means mean fewer options for future artists, more investment in stereotypical portraits of hip-hop acts (some encouraged by the acts themselves), and less empathy all around. It’s important not to let this whole thing eat itself. It's more than important. It is, in a sense, everything.

I’ll end with two examples from the early '70s, around the time I was born, when soul music seemed as if it was largely fulfilling these responsibilities. In fact, if there’s one era in the history of popular music where community awareness and social contract seem secure, it’s the soul music of the early '70s. And yet, and yet. In 1972, after the success of What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye started an album of explicitly political songs in the vein of “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler).” The first track from that set, and the projected title track, “You’re the Man,” went after political candidates. If you have a plan, Gaye sang, then I’ll give you my vote, but you have to handle real problems: busing in schools, urban economics. The most piercing part of the song is a repeated spoken-word couplet:

Don't you understand
There's misery in the land

Gaye had different politics than Berry Gordy, and Gordy didn’t throw much support behind the “You’re the Man” single, which stalled mid-chart, after which the album was shelved. Two decades later, after Gaye’s death, tracks started to appear on compilations. Some of these were open-ended laments for society’s short-sightedness (“Where Are We Going?”); others were more specific arguments about the dangers of controlling others (“Piece of Clay”) or the hypocrisy of objecting to sex in the face of so many other kinds of social pornography, from poverty to violence to pollution (“The World Is Rated X”). The details may have shifted, but the core of Gaye’s argument remains intact. When we resist cultural acts that directly address the complexity of the human condition, both intellectually and emotionally, we reduce ourselves.

The second example is an extended quote from Bobby Womack. Is there any other kind? This particular quote is the monologue that preceded his 1971 cover of the Carpenters’ “Close to You.” In his rap, Womack doesn't talk about the complications of black cool, or the history of social responsibility in the arts. He focuses only on one aspect, which is the pressure of the market, and how it can both insidiously and obviously strip all meaning out of artwork, draining and demoralizing its artists by insisting they need to satisfy some impersonal notion of product. The fact of the matter, of course, is that Womack had no problem covering pop songs — he did it all the time, from “Sweet Caroline” to “Fire and Rain” — but he frequently added material up top or improvised to make the material more personal, more empathetic. As he goes through his monologue, Womack does exactly what he worries he isn't being allowed to do — he paints a full picture of himself as a thinking, feeling, suffering, achieving human, capable of irony and insight, impossible to reduce to a caricature.

Sittin' here sippin' on a glass of wine and I'm trying my best not to lose my mind. You know, thinkin' about the word. Heh, "commercial": That's a funny, funny, funny word! Ya know what's funnier than that? When show people use it. You know what I'm talking about, record companies, presidents, vice-presidents, producers — and a little ol' engineer. But, you know what? I feel, down in my heart, I don't care what it is. If I can get into it, it's commercial enough for me. But anyway, I remember a little while back, I walked into a recording studio with just me and my guitar. Heh. And I remember starting out on a song … sort of went something like this … well, it had the same melody, anyway. The head man called in, the president, vice-president, and just one of his producers, and an engineer. You know they all sit around with their heads dropped down while I was trying to get over. You could hear a pin fall. I know y'all know what I'm talking about. And I'm steady trying to get over. But anyway, after I got through doing my thing — or should I say, doing the best that I could — I’ll never forget what they told me. One of the cats got up and say, “I like you, and I ain't saying that you can't sing.” But as they all began to leave the conference table, they kept saying “But you're not commercial. No, you’re not commercial!" So, I went on out or, should I say, I sold out. But like I've said before, music is music, that's how it is — and that's the way it is. Well, I didn’t change my style because I still had the same heart but just like the man said, he said, “Bobby, it’s got to be funky.” I came back and said, “I want to sing something. I want to sing.”

And then he does.