In his final Vulture essay Questlove asks the question: Does black culture need to care what happens to hip-hop?–which in a way has been underlying the whole 6-part series (>>>Read parts 1-5 here). I am gratified if not exactly amped to note that code-name “Final Vulture” pretty much delivers the coup de grace on the spirited debate that sprung up almost instantly around Part 1. Prof. Questo may have lost some students along the way, among the “turn down for what?” clique but I think anybody who follows his thread through to the conclusion has to agree: black music–up to and including hip-hop–has played a certain role within American culture for more than century now; the space–sometimes the sole space–where the black artist was not simply a Caliban in somebody else’s play but storyteller of their own story. Make that ‘stories’, plural, in all their humanizing diversity. If rap is going to be reduced to a one-note character within the narrative of pop culture, we’ve lost that and it’s not enough to say “shit’s different now” to justify the loss. Nor is it enough to point out (as I have here and there) that hip-hop is capable of more, if more is not being actualized. And if it can’t deliver in that role within black culture, it definitely can’t perform what’s being asked of it now–which is to BE black culture in it’s entirety. Of course, when commerical success relies on acting out that role regardless, that leaves today’s artists in need of some serious soul-searching. In this, as in so many of life’s questions, Bobby Womack has the answer. Read on -ed.
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…