Just When I Thought I Was Out...

John has a bone to pick with Hua, Alyssa and Gauthum, in regards to  political hip-hop:

For example, the participants look back fondly on the days when more of the music was "political,"  with Alyssa Rosenberg opining that it's unrealistic to decree that musicians follow our bidding and be "constructive." But this whole wing of the discussion presupposes a hypothetical possibility that hiphop could serve some kind of purpose beyond being just entertainment, that it is at least worth discussion whether rappers have some kind of "responsibility." Gautham Nagesh even thinks that way back, rap actually did play a crucial part in making people aware of ghetto life ("rap has played a key role in raising awareness of issues such as urban poverty").

The question here is: what is the purpose of this supposedly politically important rap supposed to be? Let's even say consciousness is raised: now that Scarsdale Chad knows what it's like growing up in the 'hood, then what? What does Chad do besides walk down the street lurching and mouthing along to Tupac or whoever it was he learned this from in the early nineties? The consciousness was raised - and what legislation did it create? In a history book 100 years from now, we will see it written that "Because of hiphop raising consciousness of ghetto poverty starting in the late 1980s, _______." Fill in the blank. Note the difficulty.

I think that the point about "legislation" is important, because it underlines the problem with McWhorter's critique. A commenter said this earlier, but this notion that rappers should be responsible for inspiring legislation is rooted in some kind of weird communist/utilitarian view of art, that holds that any "political art" which can't be directly tied to a political act is entertainment. Fair enough--as long as we acknowledge that "Change Is Gonna Come" is also entertainment. I don't think Sam Cooke signed any civil rights legislation. I don't think Bob Dylan ended the Vietnam War.

To take John's argument to its logical conclusion, one could fairly ask "Because of Robert Hayden raising consciousness about the slave trade "____"" Note the difficulty. What legislation did "Middle Passage" inspire? No political art can live up to that standard, and let's hope it doesn't. When art starts to resemble position papers, it tends to be didactic and fail at, both, influencing and the basic mission of art.

I think political art--like all art--isn't judged by what it makes you go out and do, as much as by how it makes you feel. I love John Coltrane's "Alabama," not because I think it chills the hearts of racists, but because it allows me to feel a particular time and place. I wouldn't confuse Billie Holiday's rendition of "Strange Fruit" with L.C. Dyer's anti-lynching bill. But one reason I don't play that song, to this day, is because it fills me with a deep and particular sadness emanating from half a century ago. I love "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free," not because it facilitated the March On Washington, but because it expresses the optimism of the period.

These songs, as Gautham pointed out, make you more aware. They allow me to feel some sliver of a world that is impossible for me to inhabit. Likewise, if you want some "awareness" of how it might feel to be a black male, in the inner city, in the early 90s, Illmatic is a good start. Death Certificate, with all its unfortunate racism, is a good start. It Takes A Nation, is a good start. They allow you to feel a place that is not your own, and yet in the end, is ultimately human. That's what art is supposed to do.

Now, you may well disagree that with the notion that any of these albums succeed--just like you may think "Alabama" is kind of boring, or Nina Simone is overly sentimental. I think that's fair. But asking for hip-hop to do the work of Congress seems a bit much.