Tricia Rose on The Hip-Hop Wars, Race, and Culture – Part 2

by Latoya Peterson

(Continued from Part 1)

LP: [We should] think some more about this formula, because it seems to me that with every year that passes, the formula gets whittled down into the need to find the next hit. Catchy hooks, lyrics, whatever – they just want a hit. And it appears that some of these [truths about life and culture] are becoming diluted. So before, the hits came because in some ways, we can relate to this pain, and relate to this anguish. But the people who are in charge of these [networks] are making decisions about what gets played but they don’t hear those things. Instead, the only hear violence, they only hear anger, they only hear rage and they decide to promote that. Is that a pattern you saw in your research?

TR: Yes. It shares the history of transition into the “mainstream” market. Just as the dances and dance steps and styles of singing that minstrelsy was based on was something quite different than what minstrelsy turned into, right? So there were origins of minstrelsy [rooted] in black cultural expression, but minstrelsy became a grotesque exaggeration that was basically seen through dominant eyes. So black women, in hip-hop, become, you know, big booty bitches and hos, gold diggers, divas, sex kittens, whatever else you want them to be because dominate society perceives black women that way. They’re baby mammas, they’re basically male appendages who are also hypersexual and sexually irresponsible. These are all part of dominant stereotypes! Now does that mean that sexually explicit material is bad? No! But it means that sexually explicit material that is destructive and self destroying is problematic! So this is directly related to the process underway. And also our normalization, our comfort with it. The fact that their isn’t much public critique inside the community for this kind of problem.

If you study the blues, or if you study any other black music, this is one of the things that happens. These forces are at play every single time. So this idea that music should be a revenue stream is fundamentally destructive.

Until we change the racial structures and gendered structures of society, then the larger dominant fantasies are going to rule the dominant marketplace. And that’s going to be problematic. It will be profitable, but it will be really problematic.

I recently attended an exhibit put on by the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington D.C. called “Recognize,” and you know, it’s kind of a history of hip-hop through portraiture and other forms of artistic expression. One of the things they mentioned in the introduction to the exhibit is that hip-hop has become part of the dominant youth culture around the globe. In almost every other country in the world, their youth scene involves a heavy element of hip-hop culture, and each country has put their own unique spin on the genre.

So I know, a lot of times in the United States – and in particular in your book – you focus on how things are seen through a black and white lens. That’s how our country started and it has been the defining conflict for us here. But did you think about hip-hop as a global culture when writing? How did it spread so much and why does it resonate with so many different types of people around the globe?

TR: Yeah. Whoo, that’s a big question!

Yeah, I know.

TR: First of all, the reason I reestablished the black/white binary, which I’m not happy about having to do, but I feel that for the purposes of what I’m trying to deal with in this book I had to. For all the incredible range, uses, and creative participation that people all over the world of every possible background have contributed to hip-hop, the genre in the US, as a commercial formation, relies on incredible, homogenous, fictional models of black masculinity and femininity. It relies on precisely the binary of blackness and whiteness, or blackness and something else, that has really dominated racialized representation in the US.

For example, while we have many Chicano rappers, while we have Asian-American rappers, while we have hordes and hordes of white rappers, we almost never see them on TV. You might catch Eminem and Bubba Sparxx, but you wouldn’t know there’s a whole underground scene full of white rappers. Let alone all the other people of color there as well! So the question is, why are they written out of the conversation?

That’s one piece of it.

Another is the motherload of market value is the perpetuation of ignorance and stereotypes. Now, around the world, young people have used hip-hop for the last fifteen years in ways that go completely against what is happening in commercial hip-hop now. They’ve used it to speak to incredibly fascinating and poignant and complex lives in Brazil, in Nigeria, in Ghana, in Haiti, in Puerto Rico, in Japan. Country after country. And they’ve used it in France, the North African population, Moroccans in France, and their frustration with their own ghettoization in France, and in the suburbs of Paris have produced a number of rappers who talk about these things.

Those artists are often challenging the banal, commerical direction that we have, but sometimes they do reflect some of the braggadocio and the misogyny because that has been understood as authenticity. So even though they reflect the roots of what makes hip-hop powerful and dynamic, they sometimes fall prey to hip-hop’s Achilles’ heel. And the reason that they do has everything to do with the power of corporate marketing.

It is not random that hip-hop is a lingua franca for the world.

It’s partly a lingua franca for the world because America’s primary export for in the world is culture. We don’t export damn near anything. Everybody else makes the stuff we consume. What we do export is culture. We export culture in the form of political takeovers –

[Both laugh]

TR: The freedom imperative!

True! Truuuuue!

TR: But we also export culture in terms of products! The music industry, Hollywood, athletics, these are global industries. I mean, the NBA just built something like hundreds of basketball courts all over China. Well, wonder why they chose to do that!

If they build the courts, they can make some basketball players, they can put them in the NBA, create a Chinese NBA, and expand the market of athletic culture. So that’s what we’re in the business of. It is not a two way street. Nigerian rappers don’t make it to the market economy here, right? They get our product.

I was in Mexico, right? And this taxi cab driver was driving me somewhere and I had to ask him a question because he was playing Snoop Dogg! As a CD in his customized car! And I asked him why he liked Snoop Dogg…first of all, he didn’t speak any English, so I didn’t even know he could like Snoop Dogg, like what was it he was listening to?

But he phonetically memorized the words, and you know, he liked the swagger. That’s my translation of what he said. He liked the swagger and he liked the style of it, the machismo of it, and the beat! Well, the reverse doesn’t happen. Mexican rappers aren’t on the radios of white American or non-Mexican taxi cab drivers in New York, you see what I’m saying. A large part of this is about the exportation of markets [rather than what is being built.]

[Latoya’s Note – Here is where I asked Tricia a lot of questions about sexism and black women’s sexuality. This was the section that made it to Bitch Magazine.]

LP: I noticed that in your book, you do try to put emphasis on rappers who have more of a message, who didn’t give into this kind of corporate distilling of their image into a stereotype. But then, the question becomes how do we define progressive? There are rappers that you name check like Immortal Technique, Jean Grae, people that I enjoy and listen to, but who also seem to have a lot of similar challenges surrounding things like homophobia and use of terms like “faggot” to negatively describe other artists. Immortal Technique also has a lot of issues with sexism and how he views women. so it’s a similar challenge as to what we face with more commercial artists. So, is there really that large of a distinction between what’s put out on the underground and what’s being promoted commercially? How do we stay away from these messages, even from people who are supposed to be more progressive, or who are progressive on some issues –

TR: – and not necessarily in others.

LP: Right. How do we reconcile that?

TR: The first thing we have to do is to reveal this to people. I mean most fans who are not heavily invested in really serious critical reflection hip-hop, they’re not really drawing those distinctions. There are people who do that, but they’re not the bulk of the sales.

So the first thing is to help people see what the sam heck is going on, right? Like, let’s look at the territory. The second thing is to hold artists to the kind of standards we hold people around us. Now the problem is that some of us aren’t terribly progressive! You’ve got homophobic youth, sexist youth, because we’re trained to be homophobic and sexist. This isn’t like, “you’re personally responsible.” This is how America raises its youth for the most part. So what we have to do is develop a political consciousness…then we hold Immortal Technique to that standard!

You know, I’ve thought about sending this book to a group of progressive artists, many of the ones I’ve mentioned! And say, you know, look – there are some places I think you fall down here, and instead of getting all excited about what you’re good at, you might want to think about places you need to fix.

I mention some of those flaws in one of the chapters [in the book], but I think [the key] is the idea that what we consume should broadly line up with our overall principles. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Sure, there’s violence. Sure, there’s exploitation. Sure, there’s manipulative characters we could draw – they’re fascinating. But if the overall scope of what we’re doing doesn’t line up with our principles, then we need to start asking some fundamental questions. We should ask them of the underground, we should ask them of the commercial mainstream, we should ask them of everything.

So, [an artist like] Lupe Fiasco may get big in a commercial way. Well, he still wouldn’t fit commercial rap if he did that! And people like Andre 3000 from Outkast, and what not – he avoids a lot of stupidity. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been successful. So when I say commercial rap, I don’t just mean what’s sold, what is commercially viable, because it’s all commercial. But it’s about what has dominated mainstream iconography. So people can move around, people can change, people can be challenged into greater growth.

LP: Last question. So after all your research and writing, we see at the very end of the book that we are looking toward reframing the conversation. What’s the key to reframing the hip-hop wars into a productive and beneficial conversation?

TR: The daunting task that I hopefully, vaguely achieved was to get people to recognize that we’re trapped. Because, to be quite honest, a lot of people don’t think we’re trapped. They think this is just a fun entertaining thing, and there’s nothing at stake, and as long as you get paid it’s cool. So the first thing is to really lay out the problem. The second thing…the idea of the six guiding principles is to say look, I’m not going to tell you what you should believe, which artists to like, because these things can shift. Somebody could put out a record tomorrow that breaks with their entire tradition and history of record producing. This is not about [individuals.]

This is about, you know, progressive ideas and community sustaining culture and music…that tries to enable, not disable. That is the general goal. Within that goal, a lot of incredible genius, creativity, funk, sexuality, and even violence can be articulated. So the struggle is to keep those fundamental ideas alive. One, we know that yes, you’re going to need to make music for sale because we’re in a market economy.

But don’t let the value of that market economy govern who you are as an artist, or as a fan. Once you start separatingthat out, you can make some better decisions about why and what you’re doing. And it’s not just about what’s going to make me the most money, because then you’re really no different than a drug dealer.

LP: True.

TR: It doesn’t really matter what you’re selling, right? It’s just about how much money you make.


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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

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