By employing the lens of hip hop music, M. K. Asante seeks to raise critical cultural questions in It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip Hop Generation. Primarily, he points to hip hop as having failed to sustain its promise of being the singular and effective voice of black Americans, and he consistently criticizes how the music has been homogenized to conform to white, mainstream culture. Consequently, he insists on the need for a post-hip hop generation to resume the efforts and detach the black interests and ideologies from the dominant white. In his view, hip hop represents the process by which racial stereotyping serves to underscore legal and economic disparities preventing African American achievement and distinction as such. Asante’s arguments are strong and his evidence is virtually irrefutable; it is plain that the “dangerous,” marginalized identity of hip hop has indeed become a mass market phenomenon, and one ironically attractive to white. At the same time, his position suffers because of two important elements. Firstly, it is inexcusably naïve to expect that any artistic movement originating from repression can survive without being incorporated, and consequently diluted by, mainstream acceptance. This is as true of hip hop as it is of old blues, rock and roll, and the grunge movement of the 1990s. Secondly, Asante’s call for a post-hip hop generation suggests an agenda as unjust as that which he despises; namely, a black cultural identity that thrives and remains apart from the society as a whole. Ultimately, Asante is after a form of racial and cultural inequality as offensive as that which has so long oppressed blacks in America.
There can be no understanding of Asante’s stance without the awareness that, in American culture, economic, cultural, and legal processes are inextricably intertwined. The racist stereotype becomes, in one form or another, a means of marketing, which then impacts on the varied opportunities for the race to succeed or be denied. This in turn goes to legal policies, which are inevitably shaped by the public perceptions themselves influenced by the forces of economics and societal attitudes. This being the case, it is worthwhile to begin with Asante’s views that black identity is inherently eroded by the mainstream popularity of hip hop. He does not overstate this but the reality is clear. Kurtis Blow promotes Sprite in commercials (96), and Asante’s disgust is evident. Hip hop, the voice of a true black identity, is hopelessly diffused and commercialized in Asante’s eyes, and this translates to him as a degradation of that identity. The reality is corroborated by how the mere fact of the American presence internationally has spread hip hop into other cultures; it is common, for example, for Scandinavian adolescents in Oslo to use only “hip hop” language (Terkourafi 239). It is difficult to conceive of a more striking contrast in terms of cultural backgrounds, yet the force of hip hop has, through immense commercialization, blurred the boundaries globally.
This element of black identity as “lost” through the popular dissemination of hip hop, however, ignores a fundamental reality regarding virtually all indigenous art forms originally created by marginalized populations. Namely, they are adapted by the wider culture both taking them in and ensuring their longevity. In the early 20th century, for example, ragtime became the most popular genre of music in America while black men and women were facing inestimable forms of racial violence and blatant discrimination (Perry 27). Similarly, the rise of rock and roll in the mid-20th century owes its existence to the black rhythm and blues that inspired the white artists appropriating the sounds and, subsequently, something of the cultural identification. In plain terms, no unique cultural musical expression gains a greater audience without sacrifices of intensity and original meaning. For Asante to declare, then, that a post-hip hop generation is needed to fulfill the role of the first is not unlike insisting upon a new mode of rebellion which will inevitably change shape and impact as it evolves. Put another way, it is specious to pursue a course so consistently counter-productive, for there is no rational reason to anticipate that any new black movement would be somehow immune from being diffused. It is ironic but the same force that generates the wider cultural appropriation is eliminated by the impact of the force itself.
Nonetheless, Asante feels, in a word, violated. The music of his people has been commercialized and essentially taken over by white, corporate America: “Although hip hop is the cultural expression of young Black America…Viacom, Clear Channel, and Vivendi….control how most people see and hear hip hop” (Asante 6). Here, then, is there more an emphasis on his issues with economic development, in that a minority of black artists are elevated to great wealth while the bulk of the population is maintained in poverty and denied opportunity. To an extent, Asante is correct in his outrage. It is reasonable to argue that hip hop, translated into white ideologies, enhances the stereotypes that lead to pragmatic, economic discrimination. The music, modified or otherwise, typically presents disaffected black youth as angry and aggressive, and this likely plays into traditional stereotypes of blacks as inherently dangerous. The hip hop “gangster” is simultaneously idolized by the mainstream culture and an object of fear or satire, because the core meaning of the expression is destroyed in the acceptance and all that remains are, in effect, variations on stereotypes. In such a case, economic discrimination, clearly linked to social perceptions, is to be expected. There is then all the more reason, in Asante’s thinking, for a new hip hop form to emerge.
The question then arises, however: precisely what model of authentic black expression does Asante envision that may both reflect black concerns over injustice, past and present, and be instrumental in generating change within the white mainstream society that must accept it? He holds to an ideal in which the new hip hop ethos will arise as free to explore black issues with none of the “minstrel toxins” that have polluted hip hop and all other modes of black expression (12). There remains, however, a crucial element Asante overlooks, in that American culture may not reasonably be seen as ever being free from such “toxins.” More exactly, as racial views evolve, the reality of racial injustice as ingrained in the American experience is too implacable to not influence in some way any reflection of black culture. Just as oppression essentially fueled hip hop, so too must the same presence, lessened or otherwise, influence response. Put another way, the type of new hip hop Asante is seeking must express the particular issues of black culture with no turning to how that culture evolved in America. At the same time, the “minstrel” component is a vast part of black American history, as it is arguable that black identity is significantly forged in America by how it has been determined by the mainstream, white society.
Ironically, Asante’s vision then depends on inequality, even as he demands that post-hip hop be distanced from such restraints.
Regarding Asante’s general views that cultural identity, and socio-political and economic development, are blocked by stereotyping and the policies it generates, there is as well the argument that his own “metaphor,” or hip hop, is more beneficial than he believes, and due to the same commercialization he condemns. There is a growing body of opinion that holds that hip hop today, as diffused, offers important cultural benefits to all races. The original forms developed in the 1970s were necessarily specific to urban, black issues, and thus relied on a kind of isolated presence. Messages of oppression were strong but were primarily conveyed only between “black and black”; with hip hop as expanded into the mainstream, educators have begun to use it as a tool in promoting cross-cultural understanding (Hall 31). Seen another way, hip hop may well enable what Asante’s idea of post-hip hop cannot, which is a greater coming together of cultures, and one wherein black identity need not be defined as existing through resistance to injustice.
Moreover, Asante must attach some responsibility to hip hop itself for creating legal issues for blacks within the culture. He laments its loss of power, but that power often had a strongly negative effect for the black community. For example, the N.W.A. song, “Fuck tha Police,” generated law enforcement responses which shut down concerts. The police interpreted the song as a literal insistence on criminality and an endorsement of violence against themselves, when the song was in fact intended more as a parody of the hip hop archetype (Schur 60). Nonetheless, what this reveals is how the sheer militancy of hip hop, which Asante would like to see arise again in a new form, inevitably alienates. Here as elsewhere, it becomes evident that, in using hip hop as his lens for viewing the black experience in America, Asante is willing to go so far, but no farther. He wants the specific expression of the black identity, but he also wants it as a force in the wider culture that remains unaffected or undiluted. He wants a new expression that has nothing to do with traditional racial bias, when racial bias is an inescapable element in how black identity has emerged at all.
M.K. Asante essentially sounds a battle cry for a new hip hop generation, one that will be true to the ideals lost by the original. His motives are understandable, but his basic thinking is seriously flawed, and this is evident through the hip hop metaphor he chooses to employ. As hip hop music became commercialized and mainstream, in keeping with other movements of the past, so too is black culture continually undergoing processes of assimilation which, as with other cultures, must go to a diluting of the core identity. Asante believes that negative stereotypes continue to promote injustice, yet he fails to recognize that establishing a distinctly black presence, as his post-hip hop generation will, must only encourage cultural distance and thus generate further stereotyping. In plain terms, he wants too much, in that he seeks a unique black presence true to its core, yet somehow unaffected by the society that dramatically shaped the reactionary aspect of it Asante so values. This may only occur through, ironically, a racial elitism not unlike traditional white dominance, and Asante then seeks a form of racial and cultural inequality as offensive as that which has so long oppressed blacks in America.
Asante, M. K. It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip Hop Generation. New York: Macmillan, 2006. Print.
Hall, M. R. “Education in a Hip-Hop Nation: Our Identity, Politics & Pedagogy.” 2011. Web. <http://scholarworks.umass.edu/open_access_dissertations/391/>
Perry, I. Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. Print.
Schur, R. L. Parodies of Ownership: Hip-hop Aesthetics and Intellectual Property Law. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. Print.
Terkourafi, M. The Languages of Global Hip Hop. New York: Continuuum Publishing, 2010. Print.