Aug 29 2007
The topic of hip hop as a means of social and political expression is something we have covered often on Uprising. Ever since it’s inception in the 1970s in New York’s West Bronx, Hip Hop has been an artistic force that has spread rapidly throughout the country and is now unequivocally a global phenomenon, from Palestine to Cuba and everywhere in between. Hip Hop has many faces from commercial to underground, hedonistic to conscious. Hip Hop has always been controversial and a subject of contention between genders and generations. To tackle these controversies head-on is Michael Eric Dyson.
Michael Eric Dyson is a Professor of Theology, English, and African American Studies at Georgetown University. He has written over ten books including Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur; Why I Love Black Women; I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr; Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X; Is Bill Cosby Right?, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster; and Debating Race.
His latest book is “Know What I mean? Reflections on Hip Hop.” The book has an introduction by Jay Z and an Afterward by Nas.
Michael Eric Dyson’s website is www.michaelericdyson.com
Sonali Kolhatkar: Michael Eric Dyson joins me in studio – welcome to Uprising.
Michael Eric Dyson: It’s always great to be here, one of my favorite programs in America.
Sonali: Thank you very much. Well, you’re always a popular guest here on Uprising and at KPFK. You are very prolific in your book writing and this latest book is definitely something that caught our eye as soon as we saw it. I want to start with posing a question to you about yourself. As someone who is a member of an in-between generation regarding Hip Hop, you’re in between the elders, who remember the civil rights era, and the youth who are into Hip Hop. How do you use that role and where do you see yourself and other members of this generation playing a role within Hip Hop?
Michael Eric: Yes, well, that’s a curious generation, this ‘tweener generation. This particular “betweenness” stretches from the Civil Rights Movement, of which I’m too young to belong, born in 1958, so I didn’t have the opportunity to march in civil rights marches or participate in mass protests against social injustice during that era. I have subsequently. And too, obviously owed to be part of the Hip Hop generation, though I think Chuck D. is pretty close to my age. So, I see my tongue as a bridge between those generations, and my literary craft and artistic ambitions, as well as intellectual desire and imagination, as a vehicle of transmission from one to the other and back again. So that, I think that writing books about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and Marvin Gaye, on the one hand, is expressive of my interest in probing the dimensions of social thought and activism during the 60’s and 70’s that shaped profoundly my life and the life of this nation. And on the other hand, writing the books, like this last book on Hip Hop and my book on Tupac Shakur, and my book, Between God and Gangster Rap, is an attempt to try to come to grips with the expression of Hip Hop culture and what it has meant and its significance to a younger generation of African American and Latino and white and Asian youth and many others in this nation, that has to be dealt with in a very serious and sustained fashion. So, I wanted to both probe, transmit and then engage each generation.
Sonali: How successful has that role been, I mean, how many folks from that elder generation do you feel have come to appreciate Hip Hop and vice-versa from the younger generation understand or remember, not remember certainly, but, at least, appreciate the victories that were won, hard-fought victories won by members of the Civil Rights era?
Michael Eric: Yeah, that’s a great point and it’s difficult on either side. Older people, of course, tend to romanticize and wax nostalgic about their particular youth and their younger days and the generation that produced them and, of which they are a member. So, they have extraordinary appreciation for the penalties endured, the pains suffered and the prospects explored as a result of their generational membership, though, to be honest, many members of that generation did not immediately and directly participate in the Civil Rights Movement. They were part of the Civil Rights Movement in the same way perhaps that younger people are part of the Hip Hop generation. They don’t necessarily cut albums and certainly engage in spoken word, but they are part and parcel of an outlook. And so, Civil Rights was an outlook, not only an activity. It was a perspective shaper, not only a march or a resistance that was directly expressed. So, when you think about that – a lot of the older people still haven’t caught up with an appreciation for Hip Hop – oh, it’s just some music, it’s loud, it’s nefarious, problematic, I don’t understand why it’s out there, they’re rejecting the values that were transmitted to us that we tried to transmit to them and they’ve broken the chain. Younger people feel that they’ve been abandoned. They’re not lost, they’ve been, you know, marginalized and made to join the periphery of a culture that they don’t understand and haven’t been inspired to learn a great deal about. Many of that generation do because they appreciate the struggles and the gains, some of them who are most conscious, of the Civil Rights generation and movement. But either side, I think, is blocked by fear, by hurt, by pain, by legitimate disgust and what I’m attempting to do is to illumine for each generation what indeed is the significant contribution of the other and find out if we can’t bridge that gap.
Sonali: You know, it’s interesting because the earlier forms of music enjoyed by elders in our society were often similarly looked at as being irrelevant or, you know, just really being, in some way, out of the ordinary and something to be condemned. You know, is this part of that generational amnesia?
Michael Eric: Yes, it is. It’s part of that generational amnesia, it’s part of the unavoidable cycle of nostalgia that waxes and wanes and it’s part of, you know, the attempt somehow to join the transcendent generations of the ages by dissing the next generation coming after you. And, you’re absolutely right. If we look back in 1917, 1918, the Good Housekeeping Magazine article, Who Put the Sin in Syncopation? Right? That was about jazz music. Jazz music was roundly dissed by Chandler, you know, Owens, by A. Philip Randolph, two prominent Socialists. A. Philip Randolph, of course, subsequently became the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a great labor leader and civil rights leader in America, was there to introduce Martin Luther King, Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington. That march fulfilled his ambition, that is Mr. Randolph’s, to march on Washington. W.E.B. DuBois dissed it, Jazz music was roundly dismissed. Even the Harlem Renaissance looked to European waters to bathe in the aesthetic pool of a foreign culture that was white and not black while dissing, dismissing, distancing themselves from the indigenous form of aesthetic expression that would soon draw European onlookers and fans to an art form called jazz. So, they were dissing the very art form because it was identified with, for the most part at that time, poor black people. Because it’s not only a generational conflict, it’s also a class conflict. And, so that older generation forgets that it, not only with jazz music, but with R&B and Soul music, each one of those successively was demonized by the broader mainstream culture. We must not forget that every form of black music for the last century has been roundly critiqued, seem to be the same pathological expression of hyper-sexed and unimaginative and artistically crude Black people. So, as Black people make those arguments, it behooves us to be a bit cautious about replicating them. We’re worried about Hip Hop reproducing the pathology of stereotypes but we’re not so cautious about reproducing the pathology of demonization, to which all Black music has been subjected.
Sonali: Now Hip Hop is a very complex art form. There are many forms of Hip Hop. But, focusing, at least, on the music, even that is extremely complex and, in your book, you point out that a lot of its critics tend to view it narrowly and tend to critique it without studying it in its fullest. And, you know, certainly here on Pacifica Radio, we often will make a distinction between commercial Hip Hop and underground or conscious Hip Hop. In your opinion, is that dichotomy really relevant or necessary?
Michael Eric: Yeah, that’s a great point. On the one hand, you obviously understand that commercial versus so-called conscious Hip Hop, of course, is relevant, of course is resonant and makes sense to a certain degree because the distinction between what Mos Def does and Common does and Taleb Kwali and Lauren Hill is huge in comparison to Young Jack, Young GZ or the YinYang Twins so there’s no denying that. However, even the conscious, so-called rappers are quite loath to identify themselves together, to lump themselves together, only by their political affiliation and their desire to raise consciousness because, after all, don’t conscious people want to make love as well? Don’t political people want to go to picnics, I mean, and have fun and party sometimes?
So, that rigid distinction between conscious and commercial is problematic because some of the most insightful music that is politically motivated and conscientious has taken place within the realms of so-called commercial Hip Hop. If you think about a guy like Nas, who straddles the fence, I’m sure, but is commercially very significant and relevant and powerful and been able to sell, you know, more than, you know, half a million copies of each of his albums, often a million in terms of platinum, the reality is that here’s a guy: “It’s only right that I was born to use mikes, and the stuff that I write is even tougher than Dice, I’m takin’ rappin’ to a new plateau, through rap, so, my rhymin’ is a vitamin help without a capsule.” Or think about a guy like Jay-Z, who’s seen as the over, uber-commercial rapper who set a standard of, you know, living and celebrating the consumptive lifestyle. But you hear a guy like that on the hits that are, you know, songs on the album that are not the big hits, so to speak: God, forgive me for my brash delivery, but I remember vividly what these streets did to me, or, Now all my teachers couldn’t reach me and my mama couldn’t beat me hard enough to match the pain of my pops not seein’ me, so, with that disdain in my membrane, got on my pimp game, blank the world my defense game – as clear and lucid an explanation of why fatherlessness in a black domestic space might make one vulnerable to and attracted to the illicit underground economy. So, even in the commercial Hip Hop there is so much powerful insight. Jay-Z made, to my mind, the greatest song in response to Hurricane Katrina on his last album. You hardly hear about it. You only hear about, you know, the bling, the broad, the booze, which is the Holy Trinity of so much contemporary commercial rap and they deserve to be critiqued for that. But, I wouldn’t make such a rigid distinction because there’s so much power in each form and conscious rappers want to be more commercially marketable, to be sure. They don’t make records to not sell. So, that commercialism can’t be the only litmus test between what’s uplifting and powerful and that which is degrading and uninspiring.
Sonali: You have a chapter in your book, Know What I Mean?: Reflections on Hip Hop, called It’s Trendy to be a Conscious MC. Now, Common was criticized by folks from the underground for his Gap commercial. I want to play that and then get your comments on it: (audio) Peace, love and Gap. Now, do you believe that this criticism of Common was fair game in retaliation to this commercial we just heard?
Michael Eric: No, you know, he’s talking about The Gap Band. Don’t you all get it? He’s trying to signify… (Laughs) Yeah, that would be a charitable interpretation. Look, are you kidding? I mean, oh, so you’re a conscious rapper – you put your voice to a tape. Are you distributing it out of the back of your trunk on tapes you made? And, if you’re not, you’re in the commercial game. And, if you’re in the commercial game, yes, it is a matter of degrees between what you do – huge, perhaps – and what Def Jam does and what Jay-Z does when he’s making commercials without his head appearing – that’s how famous he is in those, is it Apple commercials, selling computers? How ridiculous it is to divide the world in such neat categories. I wish it were so. I wish it were that, excuse the pun, black and white. I wish it were, we were capable of easily distinguishing between that which unnecessarily harms and seduces us and that which so obviously benefits us and for a conscious rapper like Common, a politically motivated guy who has paid his dues, to finally get paid on a Gap commercial and he’s not talking about nonsense, although he is, obviously, commercializing Hip Hop, and reinforcing a political and, in this case and especially, corporate value. People are free to argue with that but not with the fact that he did it. With the fact of the specific manifestation of his commercial interest, it certainly opens a critique, but not the fact that it is a commercial interest. Because when he makes albums, he makes them to sell them. He’s in the same game as Gap is by releasing a record on a corporate-sponsored record label and it’s with good music with Kanye West, which is part of what, Sony BMG and so on. So, what I’m saying, they’re all in the commercial game. We’re all in the commercial game. I’m releasing a book. I didn’t self-produce that book. That book is produced by a major corporation when you look up the food chain. So, all of us have our hands dirty. This is why we can never make purist distinctions and those who do so, I think, just don’t live in the real world of commerce, marketing and the necessity for the Left and the Progressives to get our ideas out there as equally powerfully and interestingly and cogently as those on the right. Maybe we could use some more lessons on how to market our own ideas to get them out there. So, I say Common, right on, and I hope you get a latte commercial next year and do some other stuff after that.
Sonali: You know, it seems as though Hip Hop has become very popular in the commercial realm in the U.S., much more so perhaps than internationally. Globally, you know, Hip Hop has become a vehicle for so many youth in oppressed communities to express themselves – Palestinian rappers and, you know, as I mentioned, Cuba also, we’ve done a lot of coverage of Hip Hop in Cuba and, in those arenas, Hip Hop has manifested itself somewhat differently, sometimes with the active participation of the state and support of the state, sometimes without, but rarely in such an open commercial space or, at least, that’s my impression. Why do you think Hip Hop has developed in that way in those countries? Maybe we’re just looking at it prematurely?
Michael Eric: No, I think that that’s an excellent observation. The reality is when Hip Hop goes global, it’s deeper, it’s more political. It taps into the indigenous stream of resistance to the invective being hurled at minorities or the repression being directed toward the vulnerable. When you look around the world, Hip Hop has inspired people of every color, race, ethnicity, hue and gender to stand up and to articulate their viewpoints and to announce their perspectives and to reinforce their values. As such, ironically enough, not only is it not as culturally, excuse me, as commercially successful in foreign lands as it is here, it’s almost in direct, adverse proportion appealing politically in ways that it has ceased to be and failed to catch on at least recently here in America. So, even though it’s commercially viable here, this is where we can draw, I think, a rather sharp distinction in terms of the commercial appeal of Hip Hop in American and therefore arguably indigenous forms though Hip Hop begins with a global foot in the marketplace, so to speak, because DJ Kool Hurt comes from the West Indian culture and the Caribbean is already influencing the sounds and the styles of Hip Hop from the get-go, along with Latino interests that have been recently obscured but that have been nonetheless very powerfully articulated at its beginning. But, when you think about the diasporic expression of Hip Hop growing now out from it’s so called indigenous origins here in America to global spots whether in Africa or Israel and Palestine or in Poland, Hip Hop has played a significant role in facilitating the expression of resistance to profound forms of commercialization, mass-marketing that is only in the interest of the state. So, there’s a rather interesting and, some would say edifying, paradox: when Hip Hop goes global, it gets political, when it stays local, it gets deeply mired in some of the contradictions of mass-marketing and consumer culture. So, I think there’s no doubt that Hip Hop has provided a platform that is often unacknowledged and not often spoken about when people criticize Hip Hop.
(audio of Hip Hop music)
Sonali: Welcome back to Uprising. We are discussing Hip Hop, reflecting on it with Michael Eric Dyson. He has a new book out, Know What I Mean?, and he joins me live in studio this morning. So, that was Visionaries, by the way, “If You Can’t Say Love”, and that was, of course, an example of “conscious” Hip Hop, they might not necessarily call themselves that.
I want to turn to a topic that you cover quite a lot in this book and that is the issue of misogyny in Hip Hop. And one of the things that you often cite when you hear the critiques from folks about how Hip Hop, particularly commercial Hip Hop, is so misogynistic, you often cite, well, you know, what about the Church? People don’t critique the Church enough. And, you teach theology. You know, why is it? And, how do you make that comparison? I mean, on the one hand, to use extremely derogatory images and words against women in Hip Hop, is that comparable to, for example, women not being allowed to be ordained in the Church?
Michael Eric: Right. No, it is. It’s an intense struggle to try to make those distinctions and to support valuable differences between Hip Hop culture and cultures of religious affiliation including the Black Church. Yes, I think that it is important to draw parallels at the same time however between forms of misogyny in Hip Hop and forms of misogyny in, for instance, the Black Church. To be sure, the radical assault upon the images, bodies, identities, preferences, positions, moods and dispositions of women in Hip Hop is akin to the Ku Klux Klan of racism, right? It’s the Ku Klux Klan of gender. Oppression and misogyny – you see it, it’s visible, it’s vicious, it’s fundamental, it’s crude and cruel and it’s unmistakable. Whereas, the misogyny of the Black Church is a bit more complex, finessed, even God gets involved in the matter. For instance, ministers, bishops, imams and other religious noteworthies and divines tell women and men that God wants it that way, that women should be subordinate to men, that it’s the natural theological order of the universe for women to be subservient to men, for them to occupy certain roles and niches within the context of, in this case, Black theological discourse, but they should never traverse or transgress against those particular roles. So that now, it’s much more subtle. This is where Antonio Gramshi would be very helpful here because we see operating here a form of hegemony. Not that it’s merely Marxist domination of a particularly vulnerable population, it’s the seductive deployment of powerful rituals that secure the consent of the governed to bow down at the altar of their own degradation. And that, to me, is rather more dangerous within Black Church circles because, first of all, it’s much more pervasive, that is, Black religious belief in identity, than Hip Hop. Two, even on the commercial level, the billion-dollar Hip Hop industry-made payola in comparison to the constant momentum financially within the Black Church of the enormous resources that Black people collect on every Sunday morning when they come to church and, overwhelmingly, that money is provided by Black women, women who are working-class, women who are poor, women who are richer than that, women who are wealthy. Those tithes that they supply support a patriarchal institution which denies them access to the legitimate symbol of their authority as pastors. I’ve even been in churches where women were denied the access to the pulpit because they were, somehow, theological scourges and God was so offended by their very presence. So, I invite Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Michael Eric Dyson, that when we’re talking about criticizing Hip Hop, as we should, when they are speaking about boycotting corporations and companies that support Hip Hop, as they certainly have the right to do so, that they must also include, that we must also include boycotts of Bishops or of churches which support a patriarchal structure, that in its subtlety and subversive reinforcement of the subordination of Black women to Black men is, therefore, arguably much more dangerous because it’s not that obvious and it’s invisible. And, I’m not suggesting that the narratives and stories and myths and preaching and (unintelligible) wizardry and imagination theologically in the churches don’t provide spaces and places where Black women can access their own upward mobility, their own agency and act against the very even sermons that they hear. There’s enough wiggle room there to make that argument. But, and in Hip Hop, there’s less space. The liberation of Black men comes directly at the expense of Black women, so I would never deny those differences and try to excuse them but it is interesting that older Black people refuse to countenance any self-critique when it comes to their participation in the Church and I think that’s problematic and, by the way, hypocritical.
Sonali: Speaking of Rev. Al Sharpton, he has just announced that his National Action Network is going to now target the entertainment industry for what he calls denigrating lyrics and, in particular, targeting New York state’s taxpayer money being invested, the pension fund at least, being invested, about 3 billion of it being invested in the entertainment industry. He says that broadcast industry should consistently ban three racial and sexist epithets from all so-called clean versions of rap songs and airwaves. So, you know, what would you say to Rev. Sharpton?
Michael Eric: Yeah, Rev. Sharpton, I appreciate your historic legacy of fighting for the rights of the vulnerable but I think it’s a misled and misplaced energy at this particular point in history, similar to the NAACP burying the “n” word. Rev. Sharpton’s attempt, of course, is much more commercially-oriented and materially-based so that it has a kind of logic that makes sense to those who want to resist a marketplace that they feel perpetuates the denigration of Black women. But, again, it’s a rather easier object of scorn and derision than the much more complicated fact or feature of our existence which is, how do you shape and re-shape a culture that produces misogyny as a marketable phenomenon to begin with? Because the marketability of misogyny is not exclusively piqued, if you will, within the environs of Hip Hop. I mean the marketability of misogyny undergirds American capitalism and corporate life. The marketability of misogyny is part and parcel of churches and religious institutions and sanctuaries. The marketability of misogyny is as American, to borrow the word from a Black revolutionary of the 60’s, H. Rap Brown, as cherry pie. So, the pretense that we are somehow abhorred by the prospect of women’s misogynistic treatment at the hands of patriarchal men being marketed, is rather ludicrous because even the Civil Rights Movement which did undeniable good for our people rested upon the labor of Black women who were often unacknowledged. And, in fact, Ella Baker, one of the great strategists of social protest and resistance in the 60’s had to leave the SCLC, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s group, because he was too sexist and they were incapable of acknowledging her particular role and genius. So, again, though one might find legitimate what Rev. Sharpton is attempting to do, I think that it’s problematic because the same art that you want to undermine and subvert is the same art that allowed young Black men, in particular, to express themselves against bourgeois Negro captivity and white supremacist discourse and white corporate capitalism. The same art form that contains undeniable expressions of misogyny and sexism and homophobia, which never counts because Black bourgeois culture as well as Hip Hop agree that fags just don’t matter. And gays and lesbians and transgenders and bisexual people just don’t count. They don’t want to get rid of that epithet because it doesn’t even count. It doesn’t even register on the radar. So, already the implicit hypocrisy of making moral distinctions upon varieties of suffering blow up in our face. I think Rev. Sharpton should also pay attention to not only the Black Church experience but also, I think, come to grips with the fact that these symbolic gestures, while important, don’t really relieve us of the responsibility of doing something more profound and more pervasive and ultimately, I think, more noteworthy and significant and uplifting and that is, how do we re-educate ourselves about how all of us participate in the bloody prospect of subordinating women, of constantly and consistently and continually but subtly deferring their interests and lives. The Black Clergy of which Mr. Sharpton is a part, as well as I, certainly has been extraordinarily problematic in this regard. Black civil rights leadership, of which Mr. Sharpton is a part, has been extraordinarily problematic in this regard so there’s enough homework to do within Black institutions even before leaping onto these major corporations. I’m no fan of defending American corporate capitalism, I want to undermine it as much as possible by using its own tentacles to suck its own blood. I ain’t mad at that. I believe that’s why the hustling ethic is critical that has been generated within certain context of African American culture. So I’m saying at the end of the day, burying the “n” word or trying to do what Rev. Sharpton’s doing is misled. I mean you bury the “n” word, what happens? Like Jesus, it rises back on the third day and then people are going around saying, “Oh, I thought we buried you, but there you are. The spirit of nigger, it’s right there. Yes, lo, I am with you always even to the end of the earth. I shall go to prepare a place for you that where I am, other niggers shall come as well.” All right, I know that may offend you but the problem is, the bottom line is, you cannot deny the integrity of linguistic creativity, how Black people have appropriated the term of derision and use it as a term of endearment. Whether or not other Black people agree with that, that’s the historical fact. The question is, what do we do with that? How do we make distinctions between white supremacists deployment of nig-ger and African American deployment of nig-ga? And I think Hip Hop has been ingenious about with that and we’d lose too much by losing the support of Hip Hop right now even though we need to vigorously criticize it from within. Sorry to go on but I just wanted to get that point in.
Sonali: Oh, I don’t mind you going on. I very much agree with you, particularly on the marketability of misogyny that we see in all aspects of American society. But, nonetheless, I want to play for you an excerpt of a rare interview that Tupac Shakur did when he called into a radio station. You’ve written a book about him, Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur. Here, he responds to a question by a woman about the role of women in his music videos:
Woman: Tupac, I’m so glad you called in and I appreciate you giving me that advice as a man on how I should act with men. As a revered entertainer in the music industry, I’d like to hear your comments on the videos where women are degraded and exploited and what happens to the young women that view these videos and for artists such as you that hire the women to dance on the videos and actually propagate the kind of behavior that young people are imitating today? I’d like you to talk about that and the influence that the music industry has on the degradation of women.
Tupac: I don’t think that the industry has influence on degradation of women. I think that’s false. I think that like what you just said about us hiring these women, putting them in our videos, degrading them – what you’re doing is making these women small like they have no hearts, like they have no brain. All the women in my video came to me to be in the video. I don’t even really hire these women, they come and say can I dance in your video? And you know what else, it’s wrong for you to downplay their jobs. Just like you do whatever you do, these women dance or perform or whatever they do for a living in these videos and that’s their jobs and that’s what they do and women should be allowed to work doing whatever they want to do of their choice.
Man: So, in other words, the images that we see, we can’t necessarily put it on the artist? Who should interpret those images for the young minds that are easily influenced?
Tupac: No, no, no – you got it twisted. Wait a minute. When I just did California Love, I told the girls like what I wanted them to do in the video, (unintelligible) they dressed in the clothes that they wanted to dress in. I didn’t dress them. I said, come to the video. Everybody was dressed. If there was something that somebody didn’t want to do they say, “Pac, I don’t want to do that.” And my job would be (unintelligible) and just to give them their (unintelligible). When she didn’t want to do something, okay, you don’t have to do that, but how about doing this? Yeah, okay. That’s her choice. That’s not us making them dress like that or dance like that. That’s them making a choice to do those things (unintelligible).
Woman: And you as an entertainer have no moral responsibility for how the video is produced or anything? It’s totally all on the women and they just want to be like this?
Tupac: As an entertainer, do I have a moral responsibility, no. As a human being, I have a moral responsibility. And I think I satisfy that moral responsibility. As a person I can do whatever, as an entertainer I can do whatever I want on my video.
Sonali: And that is Tupac Shakur calling into a radio interview, a rare moment speaking, addressing the issue of women dancing in his videos and, in a way, defending it. Michael Eric Dyson, how do you respond to that? You’re very familiar with Tupac Shakur.
Michael Eric: I am and I love his raw intelligence, his deep and profound reflection on issues that would, at the ready, be able to provide, at the very least, interesting, illuminating conversation, whether you agree with him or not. I don’t agree with him totally on this case at all. Although, it is interesting to note that he’s trying here to speak about what we in philosophical circles and so-called intellectual and academic circles would call agency. To what degree do women exercise agency? – the ability to make distinctions that are morally lucid that we can ascribe to them and their behavior and responsibility for their own behavior. And, Tupac is saying, look, you know, we’re not forcing young women to do this. The larger question, though, that he doesn’t address that has to be put forth, as the interviewer attempted to do, is that not only what is the moral responsibility of the entertainer, though he was brilliant in that, right? He said as a human being I have a responsibility to act and behave in a certain way but as an entertainer, I think he was saying that, no, not as an entertainer or a mathematician or a biologist but we do so as human beings regardless of our vocations and I think that’s absolutely right, though, the human necessity to be culpable and responsible certainly should inform every vocation that we pursue and every career track that we follow. Having said that, I think what Mr. Shakur didn’t deal with and didn’t address is the broader question of structure. That is to say, you know, do women only have the choice to make a video in a certain way? And, had they come dressed fully, would they actually be viable as potential candidates to be in your video? I don’t think so. Right? If they came dressed as, you know, nuns, they’re not going to be dressed. They know the codes. The codes are there so everybody’s participating and the exemption that Mr. Shakur grants himself and other entertainers by saying that the women made the choice denies the legitimate structural reality that women already get the codes before they come. So, they’ve been shaped in their consciousness about what is attractive and not attractive, what is desirable and not desirable and what will work and won’t work. So, that’s patriarchy at the remote control level as opposed to getting up and changing the television yourself. And, because women do it themselves, I’m not trying to reduce them to automatons or cogs in the machinery of Black patriarchy at this level, but they certainly have limited choices. It’s like, you know when people say, “Well, those women didn’t have to choose to be in the video, nobody put a gun to their head.” But the choices they have to choose from are so limited that if they’re going to work at all, and Pac talked about women’s work and women should be allowed to work and I agree with him, but they should be allowed to work across the board, not simply taking the crumbs from a patriarchal table or appearing in a video. Why can’t they direct it? Why can’t they do other things besides appear shaking their belligerent behinds or their bouncing bosoms? And, finally, here’s the reality: that those structures make a difference in terms of the choices people have available to them. That’s like attacking the black actors and actresses who used to play only stereotypical roles. Why would you play a stereotypical role? We would blame the whole thing on them, not the Hollywood film industry that reduced the complexity of black identity to a maid or a butler and then therefore restricted the roles black people were able to play. It’s an interaction between personal agency and structure but the structure has a lot more to do with the agency that people are able to exercise and I don’t think Mr. Shakur gave adequate recognition to that relationship.
Sonali: I’m speaking with Michael Eric Dyson. We’re talking about his new book, Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop. We’re going to break now for our weekly commentary, the Black Agenda Report, and when we come back we will continue our interview with Professor Dyson.
Glenn Ford is a writer and radio commentator and the executive editor of the Black Agenda Report. This week’s commentary is about Barack Obama:
Barack Obama attempts to position himself as the biblical Joshua. But, he is, in fact, the anti-Joshua. The Old Testament says Joshua fought the Battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down. Barack Obama has fought no battles as a U.S. Senator except for his own political advancement. He has been rewarded by the modern-day pharaohs with the largest war chest in the democratic presidential primary race. Proof, that he has convinced the corporate rulers of the nation that he is safe and will never assault the walls of power. Instead, he wants to be an administrator of corporate power, a protector of the status quo. Obama tells us that black folks are already 90% of the way to equality when all the objective data say differently. In this way, he most resembles the snake oil salesman, Bill Clinton, who threw more black people in jail than any previous president, destroyed the very concept of governmental obligation to the poor and laid the institutional foundations for the de-industrialization of America, all the while visiting black churches and giving feel-good, gospel-laden speeches. Clinton effectively opened the door for George Bush just as President Jimmy Carter’s corporate anti-progressive politics opened the door for Ronald Reagan. Now, we have Barack Obama, opening wide the door for corporate politics in black America while posing as a modern day Joshua. He interposes himself, his own acceptance within the ruling class, as a group victory. Supposedly, the missing 10% of black progress that he says is required to achieve equality, will be provided by his own ascension to the presidency. Then, all will be right with the African American world despite the fact that a million black men and women are in prison, unemployment is at multiples of the national average, dropout rates that sometimes exceed high school graduation rates and the whole panoply of racial oppression. Barack Obama’s mission is not to crumble the walls of a U.S. Jericho, but to ascend to the pinnacles of power for its own sake. His campaign is fueled by mega-million dollars and exceeds even his political twin, Hillary Clinton. The enthusiasm for Obama, among the rich, is rooted in the desire, to once and for all, dismiss the “black problem”, which requires a black figurehead to accomplish. Obama is that man. He is a loyal and trusted vassal. That’s why, during his entire term in the U.S. Senate, he has never stood up, has never confronted power but has always sent the right signals to the rulers and assuaged general white anxiety about ongoing raging racism. Barack Obama is a skilled professional. He knows his job. It is to rationalize racial and class inequality, to put us all to sleep. But, as Shakespeare said, “in that sleep of death, what dreams may come.”
For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Glenn Ford.
Visit www.blackagendareport.com for more information.
Sonali: Welcome back to Uprising. Still with us in studio is Michael Eric Dyson, whose latest book is Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop. Michael, you just heard Glenn Ford’s incisive commentary. First, let me get your opinion on his opinion of Barack Obama and then another question on Obama.
Michael Eric: Yeah, well, obviously Mr. Ford is a brilliant social commentator and political analyst and what he’s saying is true, not only about Obama, but it’s true about all of the candidates at that level. So, similar to the conscious first commercial Hip Hop, we have to ask the question that brilliant, sublimely intelligent and compelling critique can be applied across the board. So, what do we do in the absence of any Joshua-figure emerging within the context of the struggle through the wilderness for these last 40 years in the aftermath of King’s death, him being the Moses? What do we do? How do we adequately respond and what is the appropriate political vehicle that we must ride in order to pursue the ideals of total freedom and equality? That’s the real question. And, in the absence of that, we end up choosing one of these figures to ally ourselves with, not because we support absolutely their particular politics or beliefs, but because we know that’s the game in town to be played. Now, the question could be, well, if you forced another game into existence then the rules could shift and change. True enough. But, in the meantime, what this next election and the ones immediately following – questions of who will get on the Supreme Court prevail – the difference is it makes to choose somebody who’s not pure but relatively closer to the interests and ideas that we express, even if a long ideological distance exists, is far better than choosing not to play the game at this point because of the very reasons that Mr. Ford articulated. Hence, the conundrum we constantly face, so we have to throw our hat into the ring and we have to ally ourselves with somebody because the decisions made about Black America and about poor people and the material consequences that we have to endure in the face of such choices to be made behoove all of us to get involved at some level. That, I think, is extremely important.
Sonali: Now, Barack Obama has not strongly associated himself with the Hip Hop generation. Does he do that at his own peril?
Michael Eric: Well, he did take a big check from LudaCris.
Sonali: They all take checks from anyone.
Michael Eric: He ain’t turnin’ down no Hip Hop money. Yeah, I think that, look, Mr. Obama, as Ms. Clinton, Senator Clinton, Senator Obama and the rest certainly, Kucinich, Gravel and the like, certainly do neglect this Hip Hop generation at great peril, to their own fortunes. Now, the fact that they don’t see it that way is part and parcel of the injury done to this generation when they are constantly subjected to a barrage of negative media. See, the irony is that the people who criticize them think that the Hip Hoppers have all the power – the black adults who are madder than hell and can’t take it anymore, to twist a phrase from network news, and want to throw Hip Hoppers out the window and want them to yell into a vacuum as opposed to their children, think that Hip Hoppers have all the power. But the negative, you know, media and the barrage of constant, if you will, sniping at these young artists by black communities has created the perception that maybe they’re not as important as otherwise would be the case. It’s like, for instance, Steven Spielberg making The Color Purple, but the overwhelmingly, at that time, negative response of many visible and viable and vocal quarters of black America that criticized that movie left it without even being nominated for many awards and left the real achievement of that film aside. I think the constant carping of the chattering black class against Hip Hop has made it less likely to seem a viable political quarter for these politicians. And I think that’s tragic because these young people have been, first of all, abandoned by many of their elders and now those elders have convinced other political elites to abandon these children, these young people, these young adults in the quest for political representation, because, let’s face it, aside from JZ and Nas and Fifty Cents and Russell Simmons and P. Diddy and a bunch of other, you know, well-off young people in Hip Hop, the vast majority of people in Hip Hop don’t have those riches or wealth. They are young people who are anonymous on street corners and striving to work every day in corporate America as well as in blue collar America and they deserve the political representation and to be seen as a viable political quarter that must be worked by these politicians. So, I think that, yeah, it’s both tragic and a loss of perspective on the part of many of these candidates.
Sonali: Now, let’s wrap up this interview talking about your direction in studying Hip Hop. There are not too many academics who, intellectually at least, dissect Hip Hop and examine it in the way that you have. One of the folks that comes to mind that we’ve had recently on Uprising is Dr. Cornell West. We had him on talking about his newest album and he has taken it even further in terms of incorporating Hip Hop music itself into his work for which he came under serious criticism for. This new book, Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop, this book of yours is done in the style of a Hip Hop album. You’ve got tracks instead of chapters. What is your trajectory within your intellectual study of Hip Hop? How far are you going to take this?
Michael Eric: Ha, Ha, well, we’ll see. We’ll see how the record sales are, to not be crassly commercial.
Sonali: And how legitimized is it within the academy?
Michael Eric: Yeah, well, you know, it’s a struggle. It’s a struggle. For instance, anybody in the academy who speaks to a broader public without apology or condescension is seen skeptically by his or her colleagues in the narrow sectarian academy. The academy is like a big old church with its different denominations, its tribal deities, its divisive loyalties, its fractious mentalities and its carping, conniving, conspiratorial, you know, circles, like any other religious organization. That’s why it just trips me out that some of my secular academic colleagues sneer at my association with the church and I’m saying like, bra, you belong to one of the biggest churches in the world called the academy and it’s just every bit as gossip-ridden and as vindictive as any other religious circle might potentially be. But, having said that, you know, I realize I didn’t get a PHD to please fellow colleagues. I was a teen father, lived on welfare for three years, hustled in the streets of Detroit and then went to college at 21 and then eventually got a PHD from Princeton. From the very beginning, I was imbued with a vocational aspiration that lurched far beyond the borders of the sectarian and often silly academy. I love the academy for the freedom it provides me to intellectually engage these issues. And so, yes, I’ve tried to storm the gates of the academy as one of the pioneering figures who opens up the possibility of intellectual and academic engagement with Hip Hop. Because, after all, if it’s a global phenomenon, as we say it is, it is worthy of and deserving of the intellectual scrutiny of those scholars who bring their rigor and their research to bear upon it and that’s what I’ve attempted to do. There is a tremendous backlash against any scholar who is a public figure and a public intellectual to begin with, even more so with those who dare take the demonized, marginalized, peripheralized, black and Latino folk who have created this globally compelling culture. We are taken to task in an especially pernicious manner, in some ways, but a small price to pay, however, in the overall scheme, of people who are poor and brown and black and of color who struggle against the odds with nobody to stand up and speak for them and I don’t presumptuously speak for all for them but for those who find in my words a resonant reflection of their beliefs and hopes, I accept that responsibility and charge the world with hearing them.
Very special thanks to Julie Svendsen for transcribing this interview