Starting a conversation on anarchism and hip hop
In this essay, I’m trying to get the ball rolling on a longer-term discussion on the political nature of hip hop from a revolutionary anarchist perspective. I’m hoping for a broad range of responses from artists and militants, which will allow us to swap notes and build up our respective movements.
At the ninth annual Trinity International Hip Hop Festival (http://trinityhiphop.com) I ran a workshop with a central figure in my city’s grassroots hip hop scene, Self-Suffice the RaPoet (http://rapoets.com). Our talk drew from our respective backgrounds: his parents, veterans of the black freedom struggle and himself carrying on that tradition through cultural work; and me, an anarchist participant in a variety of social movements of the past decade and someone on the margins of the local hip hop scene.
The festival has been an important date on the calendar for some time now, drawing not only an impressive number of artists from around the globe, but many of the big names that come to mind when we think of ‘conscious hip hop;’ KRS-ONE, Rebel Diaz, Dead Prez, and this year, Talib Kweli. With my background, and a growing love of the culture, naturally this was something I wanted to play a role in besides setting up a literature table, in popular leftist fashion.
So why is a white anarchist, raised on rock, all hyped-up about hip hop? Hip hop is a genre born of struggle. The lack of money for instruments, and a desire for variety, gave birth to the DJ and the human beat box. The pent-up energy of ghetto youth broke out with break dancing, and promoted as a grassroots alternative to anti-social violence. Spoken word poetry and rap stemmed from the need to communicate common experiences and ideas in a way people could easily relate to, after the black freedom struggle (and the broader New Left) and its underground press was smashed by the forces of the state. Naturally, radical schools of thought quickly found themselves a new home there, breathing new life into black nationalism especially (and relatedly, inter-communalism), and giving birth to solidly working class movements like the Universal Zulu Nation. But just as important, hip hop also arose out of the irrepressible, life-giving, and replenishing act of artistic expression. Without that, the communities in which hip hop is rooted might have long ago died-out completely from the disease of capitalism. Hip hop is the immune response to that oppression. Little wonder then that the Palestinian rap group DAM was so readily influenced by Public Enemy, despite major cultural, language and international barriers.
I’m not interested in dedicating space here to listing off the problems with hip hop culture. The mainstream press has been doing that every day for the last thirty years, with an attentiveness not granted to its peers in other, whiter genres. What I will say is that everything wrong with hip hop is in plain sight for everyone to get a good, long look at. It is blatant and it talks about whatever is on its mind. Rather than giving into the demands of polite society and glossing-over the unpleasantness in our lives, hip hop artists push back against the micro-aggressions, passive-aggressiveness, and full-on assaults they’re bombarded with when dealing with authority, from the bosses who mess with our schedules, to the teachers who police our clothes, to the politicians who question our work ethic (while they make a killing making rules for everybody but themselves). The blunt, straight forward, real medium is the message. If you wanna critique hip hop, then do so from a place of solidarity and participation.
We anarchists do not want to emancipate the people. We want the people to emancipate themselves. — Errico Malatesta
Anarchists are supposed to support what we call the “self-activity” of the working classes as the thing that will break us out of passivity and build us up into something powerful enough to overthrow the class system, and create a free socialist society. Like jazz, hip hop is enriched through improvisation and greater participation from more and more new voices. Like the workers’ theaters of the classical labor movement, and the oral folk tradition exemplified by Utah Philips, hip hop is fueled not only by lofty ideals, but also the first-person voices and lived experiences of the oppressed. One young poet in our workshop asked if hip hop is democratic (with a small-’d’ of course). As if to answer that question, on stage at the end of the festival Talib Kweli told us that if you don’t like what hip hop is becoming, that’s on you, because real and conscious hip hop is being made every day, and there’s nothing stopping you from going online or out to your local scene, and supporting it. His partner Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) recorded a monologue some years ago on his album Black on Both Sides, saying
People talk about Hip-Hop like it’s some giant livin in the hillside comin down to visit the townspeople. We are Hip-Hop. Me, you, everybody, we are Hip-Hop. So Hip-Hop is goin where we goin. So the next time you ask yourself where Hip-Hop is goin, ask yourself.. where am I goin? How am I doin? Til you get a clear idea. So.. if Hip-Hop is about the people and the.. Hip-Hop won’t get better until the people get better then how do people get better? (Hmmmm…) Well, from my understanding people get better when they start to understand that, they are valuable. And they not valuable because they got a whole lot of money or cause somebody, think they sexy but they valuable cause they been created by God. And God, makes you valuable. And whether or not you recognize that value is one thing. You got a lot of societies and governments tryin to be God, wishin that they were God. They wanna create satellites and cameras everywhere and make you think they got the all-seein eye. Eh.. I guess The Last Poets wasn’t too far off when they said that certain people got a God Complex.
So that hifalutin term we use to describe anarchist ideas of organization, ‘prefigurative politics,’ is on full display in hip hop. What that means is that the form our struggle takes will determine what we end up with. So when the form is participatory, and the participants are on the receiving end of systemic oppression, there’s no mystery as to why that artform has always given birth to confrontational, politically conscious content. Like those of us organizing in the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, http://iww.org) labor union, we do so in a democratic, participatory manner today in order to run the whole of society like that when we overthrow capitalism. IWW members who’ve taken part in a meeting with co-workers (formal or otherwise) should readily recognize the similarities between that process of sharing common experiences and coming up with a plan of action, and the free-style cipher that builds on the contributions of each rapper to come up with a dynamic new creation. A good organizer and a good rapper are both good at improvisation.
As anyone with some experience with radical politics or organizing will tell you, it’s one thing to talk a good game (as many ‘conscious’ artists do) but what really matters is how the struggle actually looks in practice. For example, Rebel Diaz from the South Bronx once said in an interview how they had to avoid becoming “studio revolutionaries,” akin to those “studio gangstas” who might record some really heavy, dope tracks, but are really just capitalizing on a life they’re not at all about. I’m sure we can name some artists who pay lip service to social justice when it suits them. To avoid that pitfall, they opened an Arts Collective in their hood as a center for building hip hop as a radical political force with mass participation. This is very much in line with the Greek social centers of the Antiauthoritarian Movement (AK) for whom Rebel Diaz has performed on multiple occasions, despite being a decidedly Marxist-Leninist band. Efforts at popular organizing like theirs may not be widespread in hip hop, but far from uncommon, or difficult to seek out.
There’s no such thing as a government / There’s only people rulin’ over people
— KRS-One, on The Sneak Attack
My relationship with grassroots hip hop began with offering to reserve my community college’s auditorium for a festival, and has continued for many years with a standing invitation to have literature tables at shows. Later, when I caught wind of a weekly open mic that would soon become pivotal for the local scene, I was inspired by a revolutionary spoken word artist named Zulynette Morales (https://www.youtube.com/user/zulynettemorales), and started writing and performing a little of my own. I also got in the habit of getting on the mic to announce protests and political events, which has always been well-received. These small contributions are valued as cultural currency to such an extent that, previously, I would have thought of the notion as idealistic. Hip hop is the natural habitat of the anarchist. But by that same token, hip hop heads should feel at home in anarchist spaces, if only we can be good comrades and get past our (white) habits of ignoring or discounting the voices of people of color. Political spaces like ours, that champion mass participation and confrontation with the powerful, seem like an all-too-obvious organizing vehicle for hip hoppers, in an age where the limits of reform and electioneering are becoming clear to everybody.
In closing, I wrote this as a conversation-starter, and I look forward to all sorts of responses. Lots of anarchists and other anti-capitalists listen to hip hop, do graffiti, appreciate the culture, and some are even regulars in their local scene; but in terms of our organizations and our cultural identity, our relationship to hip hop is ambiguous or nonexistent. Just to be clear, I’m not advocating for anarchists to go out and start rapping (though some have, and not all of it has been completely awful). What I am saying is that anarchists should devote some of our creative and organizational abilities to supporting their local hip hop scene. This is one of the many things we should be doing to break our organizations out of our subcultural ghettos and, more generally, undermine the working class segregation that’s been imposed on us. A longer-term project would be for anarchists who love hip hop, and those hip hoppers who are sympathetic to anarchism, to work together on producing all sorts of new media, aimed at both movements. Together I think we can achieve the conquest of white-bread.
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (2005) by Jeff Chang and D.J. Kool Herc
I Mix What I Like! A Mixtape Manifesto (2011) by Jared Ball
The Black Power Mixtape (2011) directed by Goran Olssan
Slingshot Hip Hop (2008) directed by Jacqueline Reem Salloum
by Bernardo Proletariat – Black Rose Anarchist Federation / Federacion Anarquista Rosa Negra