The Hip Hop Revolution That Never Happened?
Very cool quickies, and a very long, but necessary, clapback
🎧 A new episode of Hip-Hop Can Save America! highlights use of Hip Hop music and culture to uplift the lives of students in the J.C. Montgomery School inside the Kings County Juvenile Center in California… 🎉 Hiero Day 2022 is September 5… 📷 Also in the Bay Area, Hip Hop photos on display… 🎓 How Professors are Making a Case For Hip-Hop in Academia [Okayplayer]… 💰 I wonder if non Hip Hop-related auctions see such a difference between expected bids and actual final bids… 📈 Black Thought new album, yeah yeah, but also Black Thought new venture capitalist… 📚 Emile YX? and Heal the Hood Project are creating and publishing 400 books to assist African youth with their sense of self worth. It’s also celebrating 40 years of Hip Hop in South Africa… 🕊 In case you missed Nipsey Hussle’s Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony…
Later in this newsletter, a response to John McWhorter, who wrote about “The Hip-Hop Revolution That Never Happened”
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FROM THE E-DESK OF MANNY FACES
Peace and love. This section will be brief because I’ve used all the words I know to clap back at the aforementioned John McWhorter, who used his platform and reach to misrepresent what Hip Hop music and culture are truly about and if you know me, you know I don’t like that sort of thing.
🗣 I’ve just come back from representing “Hip Hop’s Influence on Podcasting,” having appeared on a panel at the nation’s largest podcasting conference. Shouts to the folks at Double Elvis (who make well-known pods like Disgraceland), and my incredible friends and colleagues Fay aka LiKWUiD and Corey Cambridge from Double Elvis, and TK Dutes from Spoke Media and Bondfire Radio, which some of you will remember was my online home when I spun the Sunday R&B Brunch for almost two years during the pandemonium.
🎉 Speaking of podcasting, I’ve recently been named one of the Top 40 over Forty in Podcasting by Podcast Magazine, a true honor.
📅 Next up for me is a trip back to my New York City stomping grounds for a special event — to be announced soon — and then an appearance at the Chattanooga Hip-Hop Week and Summit. Follow my calendar and contact me to book me to speak at your event, school, or organization about a variety of topics that all circulate around Hip Hop’s unique ability to improve and uplift nearly every aspect of society.
🙏 As always, this newsletter and the Hip-Hop Can Save America! podcast are rare, but super important outlets dedicated to advocating for the unique abilities of Hip Hop music and culture to help uplift humanity. No one quite does that like us, but we need your help to keep it going. If you are able, please help support these efforts here.
Now, let’s get into it.
The Hip-Hop Revolution That Never Happened?
A Manny Faces
In an essay titled “The Hip-Hop Revolution That never Happened: Why It’s Foolish To Expect Any Form Of Art To Change The World,” John McWhorter, an associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and a contributing writer to the New York Times, insisted that “even a form of poetry as viscerally compelling as hip-hop cannot, it would seem, change the world.”
In his piece, McWhorter attempts to validate this supposition by joining “hip-hop” to a larger, pre-existing theory that not only poetry, but art as a whole, is incapable of inspiring actual, meaningful change in the world. That “art that aims to be politically correct” is less worthy than “art in its imaginative essence.” He cites an article by Jed Perl who argues essentially that art is best left to be used as a form of escapism, and when created with ulterior motives, i.e., social, religious, or political messaging, it becomes tarnished, opining that when art is labeled “as radical, conservative, imperialist, colonialist, liberal, gay, straight, feminist, Black, or white, we may describe a part of what they are, but we’ve failed to account for their freestanding value.”
It’s an interesting argument for sure, and within the art world, I am certain it sparks great debate.
But I am not deep within the art world, so I don’t know enough to decide one way or the other (I don’t know that McWhorter is deep enough within the art world to decide one way or the other, but that doesn’t seem to stop him from trying.). For myself, I can only come up with some related questions based on my knowledge and experience to try and join the discussion. For instance, does political “protest music” CREATE new political protest by drawing in and influencing others to become involved in said protests? If so, then musically poetic art indeed DID something, no? However, if political protest music is merely a byproduct of political protest, then while the music might be a helpful tool, it’s the actual act of protesting that inspires others – the art itself did “nothing.” Therefore, is art that allows people an escape from all the political turmoil swirling about in the world – i.e., art for art’s sake – the real MVP?
Who knows?! Not me, that’s for sure. While I have some knowledge of contemporary intersections between art and activism, and can certainly come up with a multitude of other examples from throughout history that would seem like art made something happen, I’ll assume that since smart art people are discussing it, that it’s a valid discussion, and even a fun thing to debate. Whatever.
But while Perl’s take on this idea was focused largely on the past, McWhorter saw an opportunity to bring it current, taking Perl’s argument, garnishing it with an infamous W.H. Auden quote that ‘poetry makes nothing happen,’ and wide-brushing it all over rap music, creating what he sees as further validation of art’s inability to change the world.
To try and connect these dots, McWhorter invokes the popularity of ‘conscious rap’ in the 1990s and 2000s, and notes how hopeful some were that this surge of socially charged content “could arouse a political uprising from below.”
Later, he will state that “today, hip-hop lives on without most fans taking seriously the fantasy that it will trigger a revolution or even increase political activism,” just before penning the comment about Hip-Hop’s inability to change the world, despite it being such “viscerally compelling” poetry.
Interestingly, McWhorter bridges those two eras by suggesting that the “Hip-Hop Revolution idea dropped from view” with the election of President Barack Obama, implying that proponents of socially conscious Hip Hop must have shrugged their collective shoulders, looked around and decided, “Mission accomplished!” and that any semblance of such a movement subsequently dissolved into the mumble rap ether.
All of this, McWhorter suggests, demonstrates that art has limits, and that those limits “ought to temper the now fashionable idea that meaningful art must promote what is called ‘social justice.”
After all, he says, “if music as powerfully entrenched in the national soul as hip-hop has proven, by itself, unable to change the world, we must question just what kind of art ever could.”
OK. So if I understand McWhorter’s train of thought here:
Auden says, “poetry makes nothing happen.”
Perl says, art is ineffective if created solely as activism.
Hip Hop is poetic art.
Conscious Hip Hop was created largely as activism.
Conscious Hip Hop died (Thanks, Obama?).
Hip Hop fans nowadays couldn’t care less about Hip Hop as activism.
Therefore, Hip Hop poetry made nothing happen.
Therefore, Hip Hop is unable to change the world.
“See?! We told you!”
Let’s start with McWhorter’s most egregious assertion that created this train wreck of logic.
“Hip Hop” is not just “poetry.” In fact, while it shares its name with a genre of music, Hip Hop is a culture. Not according to me, but according to Webster’s Dictionary, Encyclopedia Britannica, Harvard University, Cornell University, the United States’ State Department, the city of Paris, France, National Geographic, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, countless other revered institutions, and, most importantly, the people who ascribe to said culture.
So let’s not even debate that one.
Now, within that culture lives a network of creative enterprises, spanning multiple artistic disciplines. While rap music and its brand of poetry is Hip Hop’s most front-facing artistic commodity, even casual observers recognize that Hip Hop has its own brand of dance arts, visual arts, DJ and music production, acoustic art (beatboxing for example), and more. It has injected itself into other art forms to form hybrids, and otherwise adapted pre-existing art forms including spoken word, theater, and literature, and has appeared in nearly every artistic aspect of humanity.
McWhorter’s supposition that a “Hip Hop Revolution” never happened – that rap poetry made nothing happen – first, wrongly centers on the idea that Hip Hop equals rap poetry.
This isn’t the first of his positions that depend on a narrow definition. For instance, what is meant by “revolution?” According to McWhorter, it would at the very least mean things like “political uprising,” and “increased political activism,” that it would “promote social justice,” and promote “resistance to power differentials,” particularly, as he further states, “those affected by systemic racism.”
This is why his thesis is so strange to me. Hip Hop does this all the time. It is strikingly curious how one could possibly declare a “Hip Hop revolution” nonexistent, if based on those criteria.
Ah, right. Narrow definitions, plus that annoyingly narrow interpretation of Hip Hop.
So let’s explore.
McWhorter suggests there was a burgeoning “conscious rap” movement that was supposed to “arouse a political uprising from below.” That rap, even more so than Freedom songs in the Civil Rights movement, “would be the pivotal inspiration, rather than a background factor.” Most interestingly, McWhorter suggests that this bona fide movement was rendered moot by the election of Barack Obama as president. After all, he implies, with a Black president, grassroots civil rights efforts were no longer needed.
Post-racial America and all that.
Of course, despite the fact that none of that was actually how most activists felt, and ignoring the multitude of powerful issues that worked against the use of music as a politically motivating force through the years (corporate media consolidation; government-led censorship efforts; mainstream media’s negatively slanted coverage of Hip Hop, etc.), McWhorter oddly misses or purposefully ignores one pretty distinct possibility:
That the influence of “rapping about current events and societal issues” did, in fact, “arouse a political uprising from below,” and did encourage “increased political activism,” as represented by the actual milestone he cited.
In essence, that Hip Hop’s influence helped elect Barack Obama in the first place.
As I myself posited days after the 2008 election:
According to CIRCLE, a non-partisan research group, voters aged 18 to 29 increased this election year by at least 2.2 million. Exit polls conducted by MSNBC show that as much as 65% of this group voted for Obama. Again, much of this can be attributed to the Obama campaign’s ridiculously effective use of the internet and Obama’s often criticized “rock star” likability, as well as the huge slant from African-American voters as a whole.
But there is more to consider.
In particular, these young voters, particularly the white ones, are the combined members of, and children of, the hip-hop generation. These are the members of society that were enthralled by the realism and guttural excitement portrayed on the big screen watching Boyz In Tha Hood, entranced by the ghetto chronicles of The Chronic, and engaged to the adoption of a hip-hop influenced lifestyle. These became the actual “swing voters,’ relatively young, white Americans, who were less likely to feel any prejudice toward a candidate based on his color, in part because their lives have been more integrated than any previous generation. Very few sociological forces have heightened a cross-cultural acceptance than the enormously popular influence of the hip-hop sub-culture, and the overwhelming tolerance that hip-hop helped usher into American life may have loosened the jar of racism just enough to edge the 2008 election toward Obama.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Hip Hop continues to affect increases in political involvement, as recently as the 2020 election of Joe Biden and the “flipping” of Georgia. From a December, 2020 article on CNN.com titled “How Atlanta rappers helped flip the White House (and they're hustling to flip the US Senate)”:
Anger, fear, new voters, PAC money, minority turnout -- these are often credited with shaping elections. What you don't tend to hear is that rappers in hip-hop's modern mecca educated voters and got them to the polls to help bounce an incumbent out of the White House.
That's what happened in November. Atlanta's hip-hop community hit the streets and beauty and barber shops, took to Instagram and YouTube, and helmed voter drives to help turn Georgia from red to blue -- and they're working to flip the US Senate in the state's runoffs next week.
This isn't to say Atlanta rappers alone secured President-elect Joe Biden's big W, but when one considers Biden's victory hinged on flipping a handful of states, and Georgia -- which hadn't voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since 1992 -- was decided by fewer than 13,000 of its 5 million ballots, the ATLiens' impact feels undeniable.
2 Chainz hosts a food drive in September in which volunteers handed out PPE and registered voters.
"Minus the hip-hop involvement, we might have had a different outcome," said Killer Mike, one half of Run the Jewels and a 20-year veteran of his hometown rap scene. "I don't know of one person in hip-hop who did not do something, from Migos to Lil Baby. I've seen everyone from our community take part in some way."
And let us not suffer from our typical U.S.-centric tunnel vision. This, from a February, 2009 ABC News article titled, “Where Hip-Hop Brought Down a Government,” reminds us how this influential American-born cultural movement has permeated every country on the planet:
"Senegal, for the past 10 or 15 years, is really one of the best examples of how hip-hop can be used not just to create jobs, but also for political action," said DJ Magee, a New York-based produced who with Nomadic Wax records put together a documentary called "Democracy in Senegal."
Many political observers agree that hip-hop artists influenced voters to oust President Abdou Diouf in 2000, who had been in power for almost 20 years, and elect President Abdulaye Wade.
"The election of 2000," said DJ Magee, "is the only known case in the world in which hip-hop has been seen as one of the main reasons behind the change of regime."
Politically charged public performances from megastars like Beyoncé, a protest anthem in “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar, several songs in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Hip Hop’s rebellious, stylistic and lifestyle-driven influence on young people across all demographics, amplified by social media, all are apparent in the DNA of the protests that erupted after the police murder of George Floyd, protests which included a staggering amount of those very same young people. It’s difficult to quantify the direct influence of Hip Hop culture, but it seems certainly more likely than not that, in fact, its poetry made things happen, and indeed played a prominent role in these and other political uprisings.
Then there was the need for “promoting social justice,” McWhorter said. “Promoting resistance to power differentials, especially those affected by systemic racism.” If Hip Hop was to be revolutionary, if its art could indeed change the world, it would have to be able to do these things.
It would seem as if aforementioned political examples tie in pretty nicely with McWhorter’s criteria by themselves. But wait. There’s more!
Across the nation (and, more and more, throughout the world) Hip Hop music and culture are being used as tools to help uplift lives, livelihoods and communities in innovative, inspiring and – probably to folks like John McWhorter – surprising ways.
Teaching artists are joining forces with educators to increase engagement and academic performances with acclaimed programs such as Science Genius, which has been proven to do so among High School students, many of which have been long underserved and traditionally been written off.
In New York City, social worker J.C. Hall opened a recording studio in his high school in an effort to use music and culture to help improve the mental health of his students. From the same New York Times that McWhorter is a contributing writer for:
Hip-hop therapy is being used increasingly with teenagers in the Bronx and in other parts of the country as part of an expanding education movement to harness the widespread appeal of hip-hop music and culture to promote academic and social goals.
While the use of hip-hop as therapy is not new, it has been gaining attention at a time of growing concern that the nation’s mental health systems do not effectively treat many young people, particularly in minority and ethnic communities. Tomas Alvarez III, a social worker in Oakland, Calif., said he started one of the first programs, called Beats Rhymes and Life, at Berkeley High School in 2004 to address the mental health needs of young black and Latino men, who tended to have higher rates of suspension and expulsion than other students.
“The same young men who refused to meet with me for traditional talk therapy — every single one of them — were writing rhymes at home on their own,” Mr. Alvarez said. “They were already using hip-hop to process their emotions.”
In the Bronx, Mott Haven Community High School started an after-school hip-hop therapy program in 2013 that now draws as many as 20 students. J. C. Hall, a social worker who runs the program, called it a “bottom-up” approach to therapy that taps into the interests and skills of teenagers, and works with them to develop coping strategies and other life skills. “It’s like a sugarcoated pill, something to make the medicine go down easier,” Mr. Hall said.
On my podcast, Hip-Hop Can Save America! I have interviewed educators from multiple educational institutions, mental health professionals across several disciplines, teaching artists, playwrights, dancers, nonprofit leaders, and directors of programs that teach financial literacy, encourage civic engagement, and advance public health through Hip Hop. I’ve spoken with religious scholars championing Hip Hop as a spiritual force, rappers engaged in an award-winning, social justice-oriented journalism project, and many others that have participated in or witnessed the revolutionary power of Hip Hop, the culture.
All of this work specifically, intentionally and emphatically exists to fulfill the exact criteria McWhorter mentions: promoting social, and promoting resistance to power differentials, especially those affected by systemic racism.
So, by his own definitions, pretty revolutionary, no?
To try and make sure I was understanding McWhorter’s original point, I went down as deep a rabbit hole as my non-associate-professor-of-English, regular ol’ brain would let me, from Perl and Auden, down to Don Share, who was the editor of Poetry magazine from 2013-2020, and within those very pages, once noted:
You see the phrase, "poetry makes nothing happen" trotted out over and over again, attributed to W.H. Auden as some sort of evidence for the reductiveness and hermetic inutility of poetry. And yet...This ignores the fact that the phrase occurs in a POEM – one, moreover, that eulogizes a poet who made things happen (being a politician and activist, as well as a writer), W.B. Yeats. And in context - only part of that context, since I can't legally quote the entire poem, and that context is absolutely enormous - the poem actually says:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
I’m not practicing literary criticism here, by the way; I’m reading exactly what it says on the page: poetry survives: it is a way of happening, a mouth.
So to the original, narrow-minded premise McWhorter was conveying to whoever might be receiving his words, choosing the “poetry makes nothing happen” soundbite to hamfist rap music’s effect on society as the “nothing,” when the more poetic idea that rap poetry might indeed be “a way of happening, a mouth,” much more accurately reflects the nuanced existence of rap music and its associated culture, seems like a missed or purposefully ignored opportunity.
To my larger point, however. If you want to debate the philosophical place of poetry in society, as I have discovered while rabbit-holing, it is certainly an interesting discussion.
But to include Hip Hop as some sort of validation of the notion that art is unable to combat injustice, and that such an ongoing “impulse to harness art as agitprop” is “pernicious, like a recurring virus,” is woefully short-sighted, and harmfully disingenuous to the actual world-changing efforts that this art and its associated culture demonstrates every day, in ways that no other cultural, social, political, religious, or ideological movement has done before it.
Hip Hop culture, and its varied artistic characteristics, is in a league of its own compared to every traditional artform McWhorter or Perl or Auden ever encountered, studied, ruminated over, or deeply analyzed. It is surprisingly naïve to attempt to place traditional critical limits on something that literally, by its very nature, exists outside of any previously conceived box.
Hip Hop exists as poetry, as rap, yes. But also as Pulitzer Prize-winning musical literature. As dialect. As spoken word. As musicality. As oral history. As journalism. As fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, biography. As catharsis. As theater. As pedagogy. As philosophy. As lifestyle. As ethos.
In each instance, Hip Hop injects its unique attributes, and turns a thing into a new, often more evolved, thing.
In the words of Hip Hop pioneer Grandmaster Caz, “Hip Hop didn’t invent anything – But Hip Hop reinvented everything.”
Perhaps in the past, as Auden is purported to have believed, most poetry and art “made nothing happen.” I and many others would surely tend to disagree, but even if that was the case for all art in all times before now, Hip Hop is a different animal. in the same way that it has reinvented, remixed, influenced, disrupted, or upended nearly every facet of humanity that it has touched, often improving that facet of humanity in the process, perhaps Hip Hop has similarly rendered the notion that art can’t change the world for the better, as ancient and no longer accurate.
Perhaps Hip Hop represents the world-changing art that the world has indeed been waiting for.
John McWhorter, you’re right. The Hip Hop revolution didn’t happen. It is happening. For all of the reasons and in all of the examples I cited. And I expect Hip Hop will continue making innovative, inspiring and revolutionary things happen for a great many years to come.
Indeed, it might be “foolish” to think otherwise.
— Manny Faces
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✌ — Manny
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