“How can I go on living? I’m trading bullets with the opposition
Definitely destined for prison or the grave
I need to get my life together
A new age slave, man I can’t live like this forever
And yeah it’s a shame because I know I can do better
Than holdin’ loaded Berettas ready for whatever to get the cheddar.” – Freddie Gibbs
New York City recently announced that the Bronx Defenders, a city-funded organization of lawyers who assist low-income defendants, would be delayed in receiving $1.7 million from the city until they “improve their standing”. Calls were made to defund them completely. Two attorneys for the organization resigned. Desperate clients will go undefended, people in need will not be helped, and politicians will score brownie points based on fear and loathing in our ever-gentrifying city. All because of a rap video.
In December, New York rappers Maino and Uncle Murda released a video called “Hands Up”. Despite Maino typically being more comfortable with braggadocious hustling, and Uncle Murda being a classic NYC shit-talker, the song is a stirringly evocative account of life under police violence, and both rappers reveal pain that even their more personal rhymes only danced around. When Maino says, “You know this shit just ain’t right/My son asked me this morning, ‘Daddy, we safe right?’/How the fuck I’ma tell him we ain’t got the same rights?” the desperation is visceral.
The controversy, however, is to be found in Uncle Murda’s verse. He says — among other quotables — “I spit that shit the streets gotta feel/For Mike Brown and Sean Bell a cop gotta get killed,” and “Time to start killin’ these coppers/If Malcolm X was alive he’d be next to me with them choppers”. With questionable knowledge of the song and its content, two attorneys from the Bronx Defenders appear in the video, consoling anguished parents after the video’s fictionalized police brutality.
The demands were virtually immediate: resignations, defunding, shakeups in the organization. The video was anti-police. The video was inciting violence. Politicians scrambled urgently to toss their name into a pro-cop chorus, each one using the severity of his or her demands to prove that they were in fact the ones who loved police the most. These politicians, through some balance of ignorance and will, failed to reconcile a number of issues. First, far from any rugged incitement to murder police, the song is actually a delicate, piano-based production that makes one want to hang one’s head in sadness more than riot. The anguished chorus is, in part, “Officer please don’t shoot ‘cause my hands up.”
The second issue politicians conveniently left from public discourse was one around which we should not expect otherwise. While mothers and fathers weep for dead children who will never receive justice in a racist court system, JetBlue and Modell’s and hotel chains can’t wait to do whatever they can for police and their families. Hundreds of legal lynchings a year don’t necessarily require a reform to the police system, but two cops murdered require the dissipation of dissent. In a five-minute video, the first ninety seconds – thirty percent of the whole video - is devoted to dozens of recorded incidents of police violence on those prone, unable to defend themselves, and surrendering. Not one politician, not one company, not one concerned “progressive” Councilmember or representative, spoke up for those people.
A couple years ago I attended some of the hearings around 5 Pointz, a now-sadly-demolished mecca in Long Island City, Queens devoted to some of the most spectacular street art one ever created. Overseen by the legendary MeresOne, the walls there offered an opportunity for aerosol artists to publicly showcase their work, simultaneously hosting both novices and the top street artists in the world. They held public tours and workshops about hip hop culture, teaching people the roots of street art, breakdance, and rap. It was a canvas, it was a school. I am pained personally to write about it in the past tense.
The owners kept rents reasonable for artists for many years, but as it has for so many landlords, the time came when the riches offered by luxury condos outweighed the cultural and ethical value of affordable art space. 5 Pointz fought, taking the owners to court and making the justifiable case that their art was protected. He couldn’t tear down the building, they argued, because while the building was his property, the art on it was the artists’ property.
Their case was a solid one, and they gave it everything they had. The approach they had to take in the case, however, was infuriating. With an elderly white judge who confessed knowing little to nothing about hip-hop and even less about “graffiti”, the 5 Pointz family and lawyers were forced to argue, first and foremost, that what they made was art.
I found myself tied up into knots of contradictions. When I chart my course from depressed Democrat to empowered revolutionary, I see this case as a moment where the clash became all too clear. Street art books were presented, gallery shows were recounted, exorbitant sales prices were added up, and international renown was bragged about as though a list of what constitutes “art” had to be ticked off for approval. Here I was in a courtroom, watching artists who made art that was a response to miserable conditions brought on by racism and oppression have to defend their creations under the standards set by the oppressors, in order to receive their validation and legal protection. I was floored.
It struck me that to be protected by the system, one must be approved by the system. This is nearly impossible for art in defiance of the system. For artists predominantly of color to have to appeal to an aged white judge for recognition that what they made constituted art under a legal system that had no interest in them (and every interest in landlords) was befuddling and enraging to me. Anyone could tell you it was art. That they had achieved their stated renown was not up for debate: the global art establishment has largely accepted street art for better or worse. But the fact that they had to prove it, that they had to say, “This is art” to a structure that has other interests at heart entirely would have sent Kafka running to his typewriter. It was not necessary to gain approval from the court shortly after the trial, when the building’s owners whitewashed it in the middle of the night with police protection.
If we fast-forward to the present, we come to Mr. Geraldo Rivera, a Fox News pundit, for what that’s worth, who just opined that, "Hip-hop has done more damage to black and brown people than racism in the last 10 years.” The words “hip hop” should have stung as they left his mouth. Putting aside the assessment (of which Chuck D has long been a proponent) that largely white executives sell degrading, nihilistic radio rap SPECIFICALLY because and in enforcement of racism, Mr. Rivera overlooks the feelings of personal and cultural desperation from which even the most reckless hip hop emerges.
As usual, Mr. Rivera and the capitalist system he represents focus on what the oppressed will buy as opposed to why and what the oppressor is selling. Watch Bobby Shmurda dance for well-dressed white record execs, and then ask who has his bail money. You will see who has whose back. Beyond reflecting an unequal exchange, Mr. Rivera’s comments — and the necessity of arguing for dissident rights in state courts, and the political reaction to rap from NWA through Maino and Murda — signal the refusal to acknowledge the structural issues that plague people of color at every step of interaction with the state. He strives to make every youth of color who loves rap a “Mike Brown” — a thug resisting who deserves what he gets.
From these structural issues come anger, desperation, and fear. From these emerge art: sometimes boastful to escape reality, other times embedded with the pain of it, sometimes both. This is part of what makes hip-hop so dangerous to people in power: regardless of what record companies attempt to sell, the music is fully rooted in deadly social and economic conditions that are worsening everyday. It reflects the brutality of poverty’s daily existence, from gang violence to police violence to the suspicious storeowner’s glance. That its most basic structure remains there through continuing assaults from record labels and politicians is a testament to its truth.
Mr. Rivera’s comments, the 5 Pointz decision, and the feigned political uproar over the “Hands Up” video all share the common thread of a simple declaration, one that has been repeated over and over again to keep groups of varying colors (but of a similar class) relentlessly held down: you have not followed the rules, and because of this, your lot is your responsibility. It is useful for those making these rules and enforcing these systems to ignore the ways these rules are jerry-rigged. It is useful for those who cling to faith in these systems to ignore the double standard, for example, that it is perfectly fine for two cops to run over a shantytown in their Hummers on film, but not to express any rage at said officers.
It is comfortable to keep hip-hop culture marginalized. By ignoring its revolutionary potential, by ignoring the cries for justice and liberation held within, we can remain comfortable in knowing that their language was too coarse, their imagery too violent, their demands too incongruent with reality to be heard. We can then remain calm in our realization that, hey, they had the chance. It isn’t OUR fault they failed.
The flaw in this logic is that rap and even hip-hop culture more generally were brought into a mainstream that has been unable to extinguish their fires. The poverty and unlivable conditions that inspired rap still exist, and the structural deck-stacking that ignited so much rage has only made itself more apparent. The success of the politicians condemning rap and black culture is a tenuous one, relying on black youth inflicting violence on each other for material gains, and not instead turning towards them for political ones.
The reality is that Immortal Technique’s political missives and the lamest dopeboy cliché are both inspired by the horrors of poverty everyday in our country and around the world. Corporate America attempts to separate the rhymes from the pain, glorify the living conditions, and blame the people living in pathetic conditions for failing to meet the qualifications necessary for justice. These are the same old tropes, in a proud lineage with slaveowners who posited that life was stable and natural for the slaves on their plantations.
Just as spirituals led the way to northern stars under the guise of sing-alongs, so hip-hop reflects sad truths about our streets while offering hope of a way out. While respect for the art is the backbone of hip-hop skill, “respectability politics” have never been part of the game. Rappers will curse, aerosol artists will bomb, and dancers will move all because it is their expression. Some songs will make you party and escape; others will make you think and rebel. They will make some people fearful and uncomfortable. That is what we want. There is no need to be polite about it.
Allen Arthur is an activist and socialist in New York City.