Surely hip-hop is enthralled with telling its story. No surprise there; the transition from writing lyrics to writing books was destined to happen in hip-hop, as it has for rock, jazz and blues, because at some juncture each of these musical genres became preoccupied with historicizing its contributions to popular culture.
Which leads me to a question posed recently by a colleague: In years to come, who will be referenced as the primary players in the overall hip-hop canon? Or, in other words, what will be hip-hop's legacy?
An obvious contribution to culture and society as a whole, hip-hop accurately diagnosed an era of lopsided leadership and shortsighted public policies. See the Furious Five's "The Message" in 1982, Tupac Shakur's "Changes" in 1992 and Nas' "Black Zombie" in 2002. Similar to the memoirs, each one of these songs schooled its audience on issues of a community paralyzed by joblessness, underfunded public schools, lack of health care, lack of community vision, gang violence and drug infestations. From this perspective, the legacy of hip-hop rests on enlightening listeners and teaching the values of life through complex storytelling.
Unfortunately, hip-hop's educational legacy is at odds with what I call the "hip-hop paradox of gluttony," an ethical dilemma steeped in the widespread public perception that hip-hop is nothing more than a celebration of violence, misogyny and excessive materialism for the über-individualist. Unfortunately, these destructive elements are the residue from hip-hop culture's transition to hip-hop commerce.
The Hip-Hop Paradox of Gluttony
At the root of this moral dichotomy is the heavily policed ideal of "keeping it real." To keep it real, in principle, means to provide an authentic accuracy that is just in analysis and balanced in presentation. In other words, to tell the truth. In practice, its significance rests on its ability to mitigate a social paranoia brought on by institutionalized poverty, racism and sexism. This is where the water gets murky because this is where a lot of money has been made.
In his new book, The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy, Steve Stoute tells of what he calls an "atomic reaction," a "catalytic force majeure that went beyond musical boundaries and into the psyche of young America." Stoute gives a firsthand account of the bridge-building that has taken place between hip-hop, major corporations and consumers.
Surely the cultural expressions in a hip-hop lifestyle created a way for many people across a variety of backgrounds to grow wealth, extend the boundaries of their artistic talents and establish a foothold in areas of political and civic engagement. Stoute, music-industry guru turned advertising guru, dubs this process "tanning." Tanning, he explains, "laid the foundation for a transformation" that levels "the playing field like no other movement of pop culture, allowing for a cultural exchange between all comers, groups of kids who were black, white, Hispanic, Asian … across racial and socioeconomic lines." Tanning provided "a cultural connection based on common experiences and values," he writes, "and in turn it revealed a generationally shared mental complexion."
Stoute's assessment is spot-on. In more ways than one, this post-civil rights generation has carried out visions held by leaders like Dr. King, Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer. There is a wealth of educational value in this very fact, which Stoute highlights.
From stepping over cracked sidewalks or through hallways reeking of urine, from watching women prostitute for drugs and men die at the hands of other men, many have risen to millionaire or even billionaire status off hip-hop. But many have also compromised their integrity, fallen from grace or died trying to turn their hip-hop hustle into hip-hop cash.
For example, both the physical and social violence at the heart of so much hip-hop storytelling is tragic, in part because many of the stories are based on true events. Could it be, however, that the stories of violence serve two contrary purposes? On the one hand, they are therapeutic, reflecting what Tricia Rose calls in The Hip-Hop Wars "a process of emotional and social management … by which these young people manage the lived reality of violence by telling their story."
I buy that. But on the other hand, the overabundance of raps about killing someone's mother and family or torturing someone's sister, and lyrics like these from Lil Wayne — "Aim the shotgun at ya frame and bust boy/Brain and guts leak in the drain and such pour" — fuel the claim that hip-hop causes violence. And if you think the claim is unwarranted, that surely violent images, songs and videos can't influence someone to pull the trigger, you are wrong.
If the hip-hop generation wants to ensure a legacy of "keeping it real" 100 years from now, we must deal with the intersections of hip-hop culture, hip-hop commerce and violence. Rose asks, "At what point do stories that emanate from an overly violent day-to-day life begin to encourage and support that aspect of everyday life and undercut the communities' antiviolent efforts?" The nature and tone of hip-hop's legacy will greatly depend on the answer.
Take Jay-Z, for example. I am probably Hov's biggest fan, but pre-Beyoncé, Jay-Z was pretty hard on the ladies. See "Ain't No Nigga," featuring Foxy Brown. See "Big Pimpin'," featuring UGK. See "I Know What Girls Like," featuring Lil' Kim.
Women must also take some responsibility for how they practice what historian and author Darlene Clark Hine calls "dissemblance." In her article "Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West," Hine writes about how black women in particular strategically conceal their true selves while "remaining an enigma" as a way to galvanize the "psychic space" and "resources needed to hold their own in the often one-sided and mismatched resistance struggle." Many women of hip-hop enter through the doors of strip clubs and videos with dreams of being a singer, actor or model, but for the overwhelming majority, body politics do not lead to the professional transitions they seek.
What conclusions can be drawn from the excess of bootylicious images of women in advertising, magazines, videos and books like Karrine Steffans' Vixen series and Culo — the new coffee-table book by Sean "Diddy" Combs, Jimmy Iovine and Raphael Mazzucco — which praises the female derriere? Women participate in these stereotypical images, which on the surface seem celebratory but simply objectify and virtually cancel out the many contributions made to hip-hop by female rappers, directors, choreographers, record executives and intellectuals.
The Mis-Education of Hip-Hop
How tragic will it be if the legacy of hip-hop culture — its music, lyrics, videos, films books and other archival holdings — is predominated not by the constructive elements that school us in new ways of doing business, new ways of expression or perhaps new ways for teachers to deliver classroom instruction, but rather the paradox of gluttony?
The true legacy of hip-hop, which I believe will ultimately prevail, is in the fact that it changed the urban landscape, as Stoute explains. In fact, many colleges, universities, intellectuals, teachers, counselors, health practitioners and even parents are in support of the instructional value of several hip-hop books, lyrics, music, videos and films. That support signals a move toward determining what material is worth archiving for the benefit of generations to come.
Dr. Joycelyn Wilson is the Hiphop Archive Fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University.