Black American Music as a Global Expression of Suffering
Hip hop, rap, and all the black forms of musical styles which followed Africans into America have become part of the instrument of oppression in the black communities of America, even while it sees a few of its members become successful for a time. This music resonates not only throughout black America, but also throughout the diverse world. The music and the fashion and values that go with rap and hip hop have had a major influence on the musical styles in the faraway countries of Asia, Africa, Europe, and even South America. This paper seeks to understand the sociocultural and economic factors, and the dynamics of black music, black artists, society, and the impacts that this music has on society at large as a manifestation of global oppression, suffering and nihilism.
The primary economic aspect of rap, hip hop, and previous genres of the black community are that the benefit accrues not the people, but to those who own the means of production- music producers, merchandisers and others (Malveux, 200-201). There are layers of irony and paradox in deconstruction the economic aspects of hip hop, rap and music which arises from the black American community. The music arises from the need to invent new ways of recreating music that is not under control of the dominant culture, and this continued process creates what is referred to as black music- jazz, soul, R&B, rap, hip hop, it all has the same source in necessity as the mother of invention (Williams 164). The music expresses the nihilism and hopelessness of being excluded and of struggle for survival. This message of exclusion and struggle resonates with the masses, becomes popular, and may even make the black artists and producers well off, but not as well off as the external mainstream music producers who take away the music and make it their own. The mainstream music industry is driven by potential profits, and they know that black music will find a vast audience outside of the community.
Malveux discusses the economics of alienation generally, but the specific mechanism is that black music has a market, and it is hijacked for its potential by external agents and removed from its natural black urban setting (Malveux 201). Dynamics of black urban music in global perspective In order to understand the dynamics of the social, political and economic factors in the realities of black urban music it is helpful to take a broad model of society borrowed from counselling psychology. There is the idea in family therapy that while just one member may manifest the symptoms, it is the entire group that is in fact sick or dysfunctional. Healing one member, without resolving the issue, will cause the problem to manifest elsewhere in the group. On a very grand scale this can be seen as a model for the expression of black communities in relation to their reality, and the subsequent adoption of this music by Americans across the color and ethnic spectrums. The suffering and oppression of people around the world who are struggling to achieve a meaningful life and to support their family is one that is expressed in the music of black urban America. Baker (133) seems to take a similar position when he describes how it has been the burden of black people in America to break ground, to serve as scouts, and to generally bear the burdens of other ethnicities and communities, implying that it is because of the low status position. “”Now, historically, as far as I was concerned, it was an interesting load, burden, positionality to carry transnationally”” (Baker 133).
West describes the reality of black Americans as nihilism, and that nihilism is real, and resonates with Americans throughout the nation and people throughout the globe. Victims of capitalism The lack of apparent ownership of the means of production in relation to the development of techniques and music production in black urban America is that the products are taken and sold without reference to the source except as a marketing tool, where stereotypes of exclusion and differentness are reinforced. To some extent, this can be seen as being reflected in Baker’s understanding of the hype of controversy in relation to 2 Live Crew, where the warning about explicit lyrics only drove sales higher (xxx). The music, and its messages, create further barriers to inclusion both socially and culturally by reinforcing the exclusion. The end result is that the efforts of black people are once again hijacked and harvested by external dominant groups. The black community remains excluded, in fact more excluded than ever because of the reinforced nature of the exclusion messages. Even more ironically, black music is then seen as the key to riches by members of the black community, as a desirable profession which is culturally appropriate. The cycle then begins again. A cycle of appropriation The thing is, black voices and ways of making music were not only the source of popular music for at least the past fifty years, in addition to the actual music products were regular contributions of new means of music production and style. As one was removed from the community to the mainstream, another would take its place.
As the new genres of music became popularized and taken by the mainstream, they were repeatedly reinvented. Williams (164) described how rap ultimately had its root in disco, and disco too had its roots in, and was being developed and produced, from within the black community. In relation to disco, Williams states that “”black vocal music was so thoroughly integrated into disco that one could talk about the black domination of disco”” (Williams 164). Williams then discusses the techniques that were used by mostly black DJs in order to produce the disco environment, and how these techniques were then sourced by rap musicians. As Williams described with notable awe, early rap and hip hop artists used turntables and manual dexterity in order to invent and develop the genre (Williams 165). What is amazing is that it shows the perseverance of a community that had no access to the expensive technology, and for want of that technology overturned the entire market for musical genres in their favor. “”They created an industry where there was none”” (Williams 172). Unfortunately, another repeated theme is the taking over of black music and its production, and subsequent use of the form as a means of continued oppression.
Stolen labor and apathy While the industry processes and practices which see black music become produced by outsiders and distributed into the mainstream are a form of oppression for the artists, the continued popularity of the music, its subject matter and its messages serve to reinforce oppression of the black community by promoting antisocial behaviors that prevent struggling households from getting ahead through the usual pathway of increased education and income. The activities depicted in rap and hip hop are typically self-aggrandizing, and derogatory towards non-black and non-male audiences. Education, work ethic and similar stapes of advancement outside of the black community are subjugated by an ideal of a gangster lifestyle, where the sale of drugs and illegal services provides for a grand lifestyle even within the black community, rather than having to go external to the community to find it. In this way, the black community and the broader community become disconnected, as an insular culture promoting gangsta lifestyle stands as a sharp contrast in social norms. They may not own their own cultural forms, but they own form of an ideal success, and success includes remaining in the black community, even despite this exclusion.
Alienation and hopelessness While Malveux discusses the matter of the alienation of the black community in terms of an economic model. West, on the other hand, provided a more philosophical approach. West (37) provides an interesting categorization of viewpoints on the issue of the status of the Black community in America, and its prospects for advancements. West presented both liberal and conservative arguments of non-black and successful black Americans as a counterpoint to the nihilism, hopelessness and resulting apathy of black America. The liberal argument promotes more social supports to the black community, while the conservative approach urges changed behavior. Today, the most successful and celebrated in the black community are the musical artists, and this presents a problem because the dream of a record contract replaced any dream of the skills and capacity to leave the urban ghetto. As Williams explained, “”What trickles down to the kids on my block is that what they are doing must be alright because it is celebrated”” (Williams 172). These are the nihilists that West speaks of.
The liberal voices that West speaks of include Malveux, who clearly sees the “”crumbling public institutions”” (including, however quaintly, the need for women to work) as a factor in the urban decay of black American (Malveux 206). She also notes that “”we have a lot of urban conflict- which is a function of everyone feeling that there is not a piece of the pie for them”” (Malveux 206). The music which arises from the black experience in America of being dominated by other ethnic groups therefore becomes an instrument of continued suppression of the success of members of the black community by using cultural methods to reduce the desirability of what are considered white or external methods of achieving the American dream. Multiple perspectives There is little disagreement about the cause, reality or effects despite very different viewpoints. The authors of the four pieces discussed here had different voices, and they were writing in a different time from our own. For example, it can be hard to understand the context of Soviet collapse in relation to capitalism, as Malveux (201) describes. First of all, the essays are more than a quarter century old, coming out of a previous generation. Second, it captured a diversity of academic viewpoints, including the cultural intersectionality, economic aspects and political economy of black production of culture.
The commonality is that black communities produce not just black culture, but American culture. This production of culture, fresh and innovative, is then sold and exported to the world. To put it more simply, the struggle of black America is a money maker and creator of cultural status for the United States, even while the very messages of the cultural forms underline the terrible treatment and experiences of being black in America. While there is consensus to varying extents among the authors, they share another commonality- deviance in the face of black social norms and context as it is described by urban black music. All of the authors are academics, with significantly more education and higher social position in terms of work and career in comparison to the average American. This is important to note, not because it in any way lessens the meaning of the messages from these authors, but rather because the messages regarding the social, cultural, political and economic domination of the black community does not go away with academic or career success. The meaning of black cultural products and constructs, and their removal from the black context to the mainstream are more important than perceived shortcomings of the language, messages or violent content. This surprised me. I rather expected a distancing from such cultural products, but in making their arguments each of the four authors makes clear that they are speaking from a position within the black community, even while they occupy space outside of it.
Concerns about the lyrics and attitude towards women seem suburban in comparison to the stark and oppressive realities that were brought to bear on the topic of alienation and black culture. Oppression and victimization What rap and hip hop reveal about the cultural, socio-economic and political conditions impacting African American communities is that when there is something of value within it, it is ripped away with only token payments. No wonder West sees apathetic nihilists in the black American communities. No wonder people within black communities do not seek to find success outside of it. It is not so much a lack of trust between the communities, but rather an ongoing economic and social bullying. Malveux defines capitalists and capitalism as being at fault, and it is hard to disagree despite the abstraction that presents (Malveux, 201-202). At some point, there is no longer any point, when the more powerful and dominant will take everything that is yours, including songs of oppression and struggle for survival, and become rich from it even while urban American continues its decay (Malveux 200-201).
This is a repetitive system of oppression at work, whereby black cultural products are removed from their context by external agents, and disseminated to the masses as popular culture. In so doing, the black culture does not gain status, riches or advancement of their communities. Perhaps this is not so different from slavery, when the labor of black ancestors in America was stolen in a similar fashion. The success of black urban music is in large part because the cultural messages in the music have reinforced a turning away from what is perceived as white approaches to success, or rather, it reimagines the success that too many Americans have tried but cannot achieve. Even while non-black music producers and shareholders earn revenues on black music, while the communities that they create them remain in poverty, there is the perception of individuals in the black community that the key to success is becoming a musical sensation. This perception of the way out of struggle and poverty is a dangerous one within black popular culture. These dangers are celebrated in the music which is produced within the black community today, which serves to reinforce perceptions that include gangsterism and music as the social ideals for the young people of the community.
This contributes to the continued social and economic decay, since first of all it displaces other productive efforts, and second of all the results of those productive efforts are likely to be stolen anyway. Twenty-six years later I can only imagine how these authors would feel about the situation of black culture and black communities today. I do not think that West would withdraw his proposal of mass nihilism in the black community, particularly as the situation of mass incarceration (1992 was, after all, just the beginning of the war on drugs that resulted in high volumes of imprisoned black men). Malveux would find that twenty-six years later, not only had the social institutions crumbled further, the economic situation of black households was no longer significantly supported by women working, with substantially more working poor across ethnicities and across the nation. While she would likely applaud reforms such as Obamacare, she would also point to the health disparities of black women in America as proof of a continued exclusion from value. Malveux would point to the Trump voters as a living example of the problem of feeling that other groups are the cause of economic suffering. Baker might become shocked at just how widespread rap and hip hop have become, or how much more developed black cultural media is today. Baker might explore if these new black focused channels and film production companies are still serving the role of being the ones bitten by police dogs (Baker 132).
Williams might expand her thesis of appropriation of cultural production from the black communities in America to that of reggae and dancehall in the Caribbean, and the differences and similarities in how that reality of music and cultural production reinforce continued mechanisms of oppression in a post-slavery narrative. I do not think they would be satisfied by the rate of change or impressed by the token milestones such as a black president. What would probably give each of them hope today would be the potential of technology, and disruption of cultural industries, production and dissemination. Today anyone can start a YouTube channel, become a social media sensation, or release singles and albums on iTunes or even Instagram. In this way there will finally be not only authorship, but also ownership and production. This provides the means to do, to summarize Malveux’s essay, simply be able to reap the rewards of working hard through recognition, position in the community and the safety and survival of one’s family in a good community. It overcomes the nihilism that West speaks of. It gives the capacity of hype that Baker speaks of to anyone who wants it, without discrimination. It could achieve justice going forward in relation to the repeated appropriation of black cultural products, techniques and genres.
The disruption to the cultural production industry posed by these new approaches are political and powerful, and this might provide the gateway to the just, safe and thriving black communities which these writers hoped for. Conclusion In conclusion, I would like to return to the driving question of this essay- the sociocultural and economic factors, and the dynamics of black music, black artists, and society, and the impacts that this has on society at large as a manifestation of global oppression, suffering and nihilism. The sociocultural factors have been alienation, and the result was economic alienation and powerlessness. This was despite ingenuity and creativity for which the community was never really compensated or recognized. The dynamics of black music, black artists and society are one in which an urban stereotype of antisocial values is expressed.
This appeals to the masses who are each struggling, but it unfortunately reinforces the alienation within the black community and contributes to a sense of hopelessness. The impacts of global oppression can be seen in the creation of new antisocial values as further alienation of new communities that have adopted the lifestyle. To some extent this can be seen in the Hispanic and Native American community, active fans and participants in the hip hop and rap culture. The suffering and nihilism is what resonates and creates these bonds, within and outside of the black community. Overcoming these threats and negative cycles will require capitalizing on the new resources of cultural production and dissemination, but also in negating the alienation that results from the ever-present reinforcement of negative social values which fail to build and develop communities.