"The ethnography of poverty that we coat
in metaphors and similes to help cope
in beloved communities that are deficient of hope
that’s why the young and the music elope,
there no way you can denote,
The syncopation that gave voice to the streets
or blackball us from the poet elite
we’re owed a canonized seat
right next to Solomon and Sinclair Belize
the Beat Writers who wrote poems to beats.
Lyrical vandals that graffitied the streets
The Beat Writers who wrote poems to beats." — Steven Willis
Art in the capitalist world exists in a frightening position: the people who have the money to support it either congregate into exceedingly narrow cliques of approval, or its subcultures and practices are eventually co-opted, homogenized, and exploited to make the form as welcoming as possible for the widest audience. The ultimate endgame of these sorts of arrogant integrations is commodification. As things become commodities — items that are sold in the name of profit — control over these items (or practices, or aesthetics…) tends to leave the masses of people and instead become aggregated into the hands of a relative few who can profit from it. Those who lose control are usually the very people who helped birth the form.
There is a third and even more frightening scenario. If you are creating art that exists in opposition to the dominant ideas, you might even find, as in the case of hip-hop, your art — your most essential means of expressing your humanity — criminalized. It is no coincidence that Broken Windows policing targets the graffiti, street performance, and PDMs (Public Displays of Musicality) that are so central to the culture. To wipe graffiti from the trains was considered a “quality of life” measure, one that simultaneously turned over one culture’s canvas to the highest bidder and failed to acknowledge that poor people would also like some “quality of life” assistance.
The demolition of art and music education in schools is part of a larger attack on working people and largely people of color. While school districts “can’t afford” music and arts education (Atlanta public schools recently did away with music education entirely) despite the constant stream of research that shows benefits in everything from critical thinking to conflict resolution, they can usually afford cops. The conductor’s baton has been exchanged for the officer’s.
The truth is that hip-hop has had a racket run on it for decades, its worst qualities used as marketing tools in a cycle of degradation and its best qualities stripped for component parts devoid of context. Ultimately, some of our finest poets have rapped over samples and some of our finest artists have written on alley walls. But, a real genuine dialogue between the canon of poetry or the halls of “high art” and hip-hop has failed to take place. As a result, hip-hop has been the victim of a three-fifths compromise: acceptable to sell, but not to count as fully human.
Two new works — one a massive and soon-to-be-legendary poetry anthology, the other a documentary chronicling breakdancing in unlikely places — seek to obliterate hip-hop’s status as a commercially powerful but culturally barren art form. While they are not fully equivalent in quality, each work offers its own refutation of each side of that conundrum. Each explores a freedom from commercial space and in doing so asserts a power that speaks to the genesis and, hopefully future of hip-hop culture.
* * *
During a recent panel at the Left Forum in New York City, Alexander Billet and Adam Turl (editors of this magazine) gave an introduction the the brutal effects of neoliberal economic policy on the arts. From Reagan’s assault on the National Endowment for the Arts, up to today’s privatizing of public space, one theme emerged: creation is something that affirms our very humanity and “having our need to create coerced, regimented, and co-opted is psychologically damaging”. They pointed to David McNally, who wrote that in this climate, we become “dispossessed of cultural space”.
If there is a light at the end of the capitalist tunnel, it can surely be found in the knowledge that the quote leading into this article comes from a poem called “Beat Writers” by Steven Wills. He is 23. I’ll give you a moment...
This poem can be found in a new anthology from Haymarket Books called The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. In fact, the book presents the poets in order of their birth, a brilliant move that not only shows the evolution of the culture, but also reinforces what has and has not changed around the culture. The same police harassment of the 60’s and 70’s is still in effect, but female and queer voices are becoming amplified. This approach also brings with it some exciting math: 34 of the 80 poets showcased were born after 1984.
One of the knocks on hip-hop perpetuated by mainstream music publications is that it is either some distillation of the ghetto’s decay (as though it had anything to decay from) or that it resorts to Golden Era karaoke, rehashing the same “conscious rap” or “backpack rap” or “boom-bap” from the 80’s and 90’s. If you’re keeping score at home, that means you can’t be materialistic, conscious of issues, overly verbose, or inspire furious head-nodding. Does rock have all these rules?
This anthology — urgent, vast, rumbling, and expertly chosen — counters those ideas with a simple jab: we don’t need to counter them. It often seems to reach and grab the reader by the collar to say, “Our artistic expression is ours, and any attempt to undermine it reflects more on the critic than the creator.” To uphold an entire culture’s right to artistic respect is no easy task, but it seems the editors and poets featured (as young 15 and stretching north of 50, almost exactly half female) have no qualms about taking that on.
The collection was edited by Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall, three veterans of the Chicago poetry and rap scenes. Each contributes both poems and an essay, and each points to hip-hop as a landmark discovery, a point of demarcation between their present lives and a former life that held little in the way of creative control. In his foreword, Coval explains the conundrum that many kids experience: “Poetry, perhaps more so than any other art, is not taught as a practice but only as a site of pseudo-criticism and reading comprehension. It seemed dead white dudes who got lost in the forest were the only ones to pick up a pen, and what they wrote had to be about horses or beechwood. I also thought all the poetry had already been written. All the books closed, all the poets dead (and white).” I can vouch for this: a product of majority-black Baltimore City Public Schools, I read my first black author when I was 15.
What hip-hop represents, through the pages of the book, phrase after chill-inducing phrase, is a site of agency and control for people who otherwise have little. As Coval says in the intro, “Hip-hop and BreakBeat poetics is the desire to see and be seen, to paraphrase Denizen Kane, as is a tag on a street sign or the inclusion of a familiar horn stab sample, a robotic tic or Rerun uprock. Hip-hop and BreakBeat Poetics use the familiar — food, family, and neighborhood — to connect to a vastly disparate audience in order to bring awareness to the sanctity and humanity of the people and places at the center of the poem.”
A similar thread runs through Shake the Dust, a new documentary that spotlights breakdancers in Cambodia, Colombia, Yemen, and Uganda. While it takes a less overtly political approach than many of the poems in BreakBeat (the political conflicts of those countries are almost entirely ignored) it still maintains an air of rebellion, as streets, abandoned buildings, and mountaintops are claimed as sites artistic expression. One of the most fascinating scenes occurs when the Yemeni breakers head to an old-school, conservative marketplace. Nervous about the reaction they will get, the breakers bravely lay down plastic and receive general politeness from the adults. But, the looks in the children’s eyes show the discovery of something new and vital for them.
The breakers around the world listen to the same songs b-boys and girls have moved to for decades (The Blackbyrds’ “Rock Creek Park” shows up in Colombia), but the culture in new hands seems to explode: a reclamation of humanity through a culture that unites and galvanizes the dispossessed. In Yemen, the crew consists of not just Yemeni breakers, but also Iraqi, Palestinian, and Syrian ones. In Colombia, there is a father and daughter.
The emotional heart of the film however beats in Uganda. Here they speak of the ghetto “eating a person’s heart” and building “something that they own that nobody can take from them”. Here they call each other brothers and best friends. Here they breakdance to grieve at a mother’s funeral. Here they cipher, 7000 miles from where that word found its meaning.
Likewise, the breakers in the movie find their meaning. It becomes clear that hip-hop doesn’t just encourage change but in its spread helps create agents of that change. Far from preaching to the choir as some genres do, it perpetually provides context for a world that offers little other than blame and exclusion for disenfranchised communities.
* * *
One of the questions I find myself fascinated with is, “Why hip-hop?” Why, with so many genres of music and art and dance, why that? Every culture in the world has their own representative art forms, and yet hip-hop more than any crosses every conceivable border to express the grief, anger, and hope of the oppressed. (I will argue this; you don’t want it….) In Shake the Dust we hear from Don Popo, a trailblazer of Colombian hip-hop. He says, “It’s a culture that gives you hope…. It gives you hope that things can get better, that things can be different, and the conviction that you have control over that change.”
Hip-hop has always existed — intentionally or not — as a reclamation: of abandoned buildings as sites of art, of old records as new instruments, of speech both realistic and imaginative as democratic. But it is also a declaration. These two projects, released separately but fortuitously close to each other, further the argument that hip-hop is a site of cultural conflict both within and without. This idea, though not new, is decidedly forceful when directed at a mainstream culture that sees hip-hop’s worst qualities as its most saleable and its participants as one-dimensional reflections of centuries-old racist stereotypes.
“Hip-Hop is a space built by and for poor people of color and built around two organizing principles,” said Nate Marshall via email. “The first principle is the block party and the second is the cipher. The block party is public and the cipher is democratic by design. I think those pieces make hip-hop a perfect place to have the conversation about justice. I think that's why you see so much political organizing that engages hip-hop iconography or even the artists in a way that maybe we've never seen in a music genre.”
From the Colombian B-girl (Camilla “Killer”) in Shake the Dust to the major presence of female, queer, and multi-racial voices in The BreakBeat Poets, this conversation is also becoming one of solidarity built around an artistic and cultural core. As the book moves through races, generations, and genders, it shows that hip-hop has united people who experience similar oppressions from similar systems.
One major point of the Red Wedge Left Forum panel was that art itself is not alone capable of building revolution. It can, as Angela Davis said, “creatively transform oppressive environments”. That requires not just a sense of history, but also a radical idea of what is possible beyond what is proscribed. From Cambodian breakdancers to radical feminist queer poets, there is a unity of expression that encompasses the history of hip-hop without stagnating and with full intent to wrestle with its darker side.
A recent event at New York’s Housing Works celebrating The BreakBeat Poets was a glorious victory lap, where poets accustomed to isolated work were allowed to cheer each other, and be cheered by a crowd nearing two hundred. The night was punctuated with cheers, snaps, and “Ooooohhh”s, a cipher and celebration all in one.
The Breakbeat Poets and Shake the Dust also both seem to make the argument that not only is the canonization process rigged, but that another one has been and is taking place independent of capitalism and mainstream media. Ultimately, The BreakBeat Poets makes this argument much more vibrantly than Shake the Dust. While BreakBeat fights for acknowledgement of not just humanity but autonomy and power, Shake the Dust ultimately succumbs to a more fragile and capitulated narrative of personal uplift. While the dance and fight of the individuals in the film are intensely powerful, the politics fall apart. These crews in the movie reach out to their communities and help improve them by giving people outlets for their natural creativity. Their impact is undeniable, but the movie sees this as the end in itself, while BreakBeat seeks to deconstruct the systems that ghettoize people both literally and psychologically.
It should be noted that at the New York City event, the two hundred people in attendance encompassed a diversity that is getting harder to find in New York City. Within this was the idea that the art presented, the voices presented, could transcend the borders of things like race and gender by speaking to those very borders. The dance of bristling against borders while exploiting them as a source of power conjured James Baldwin, Basquiat, and Amiri Baraka, voices that loom large over the collection.
That evening, Joshua Bennet read a poem (a different performance of which can be found here) he wrote after Trayvon Martin’s murder. In it he says, “I am not target practice/I am not a bullseye with rhythm/This breath is no illegal substance”. It was a lightning bolt of a moment, a collision of humanity with racism, violence, and the very essence of exploitation. Misty eyes, previously unintroduced, suddenly locked.
“We love some of the old masters of the poetic canon,” said Marshall, “but we have to talk about the conditions that made a space where very few women or queer folk or people of color or poor people got put on forever. Maybe we need to think about the splitting of our literature into genre or the splitting of our schooling into subjects and the market forces that got us there and resist those.” It’s enough to make you want to dance.
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Allen Arthur is a writer and socialist activist living in Queens, New York.