(and the black lumpenproletariat)
by Phil Lewis
(originally published by Blue Lake Review, June 2012)
Back in 1987, Just-Ice (an early thug rapper) made an unexpected appearance on the cover of the first edition of Washington Post magazine. Just-Ice’s feature had him boasting of his street exploits, the time he spent in jail, and various sexual escapades that seemed calculated to offend Washington’s sizable black community. That such an obnoxious character (and not anyone else in black Washington) had been chosen for the cover sparked howls of outrage. Noisy protests were staged and, if I remember correctly, copies of the magazine were publicly burned.
Today magazine write-ups about thug rappers are legion; indeed an entire industry, in the form of websites, TV shows, movies, clothing lines, beverages, etc., etc., has appeared for their own sake. “Thug rap,” which Just-Ice helped to pioneer, is now among the world’s most popular forms of music, with a longevity and influence that has surpassed virtually all other forms of African American music. (Disco music’s popularity, by contrast, lasted less than 10 years, and peaked for about three.) And with the exception of Stanley Crouch, black Middle America has become conspicuously silent.
Just-Ice himself seems to have done an about-face, if Wikipedia is to be trusted; he has since embraced the Nation of Gods and Earths, better known as the Five Percenters, a radical Black Nationalist organization that teaches that the African is not merely the Original Man, but God. Yet he will be remembered otherwise for the more negative fantasy rather than the positive one: that of a “black buck,” a muscle-bound, tattooed, gold-toothed, aggressive, oversexed ape. This clichéd fantasy has served as a template for two entire generations of rappers.
Yet in a very real sense Just-Ice was simply a reincarnated, updated Bigger Thomas—a Black lumpen with a microphone. That he stood on the cusp of the late 80s resurrection of Black militancy—and later embraced it so thoroughly—should come as no surprise to anyone who has closely examined the thought and actions of some 1960s Black militants. The Black Panthers, for instance, made Richard Wright’s books required reading for its members; to be sure, they were embracing what they imagined to be Bigger Thomas’s “clenched militancy” rather than Richard Wright’s more sensitive Black Boy. Bigger Thomas was a lumpenproletariat Negro of Depression-era Chicago, a “raging, uncool black boy” banging his head against the walls of white society, as Cecil Brown rather crudely put it. This characterization of Wright’s character was not entirely wrong. According to James Baldwin, Bigger Thomas, in reacting “like a nigger” against the assumptions of a racist white America, merely reinforces white America’s assumptions. He has “accepted a theology that denies him life”; he is two-dimensional. In Wright’s fiction there is “a large space where sex ought to be” writes Baldwin, “and what usually fills this space is violence.”
Of course, it seems a bit far-fetched to assume that the thug-rappers and their literary equivalent, hawking their trashy books along Lenox Avenue, are the heirs of Richard Wright. However, there are parallels, at least where Native Son is concerned. The Hip Hop aesthetic, in and of itself, dictates a rejection of the status quo. The manner in which the hip-hopper rejects the status quo is another question; it appears to be much in keeping with that of Eldridge Cleaver, the Minister of Information of the Black Panthers. In Cleaver’s mind Bigger Thomas was the quintessential revolutionary Black man and Baldwin’s Rufus Thomas a confused negro “who let a white bisexual fuck him in the ass.” Baldwin of course was just a “faggot” who “hated” his blackness, who committed the unpardonable sin of suggesting that black life was more nuanced and multi-layered than the cartoony vision of it held by black militants and white supremacists alike. A street thug and convicted rapist, Cleaver perverted the legacy of Richard Wright by articulating a black consciousness drawn on a false reading of Native Son and—perhaps unconsciously—white racist fantasies of black men. (Later in life he made a very telling move towards the political Right.)
When black militancy regained popularity in the late 1980s, Hip Hop was the vehicle that facilitated it. Unfortunately, Hip Hop also facilitated the re-resurrection of Bigger Thomas, in dimensions that even the tawdriest Blaxploitation never achieved. Many puzzled observers overlook that the “clenched militancy” of Public Enemy, KRS-1 and X-Clan and the brutishness of Niggers With Attitude, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac were really the flip sides of the same coin: a puerile masculinity wedded to a reactionary super-blackness. Paris and KRS-1 were Bigger Thomas with a brain, Tupac just plain Bigger Thomas. Hip Hop’s popularity moved the sociopathic and parasitic mindset of the lumpen classes from the fringes of African American culture to the forefront.
Hip-hop’s original intent, naturally, was radically different from what it has since become. According to esem i, “Hip Hop started with four main elements; DJing, Emceeing, Graffiti, and Break Dancing. Graffiti is almost the estranged little brother, finding its own niche. DJs started the parties. Emcees learned how to hype the crowd and the DJ, creating much louder buzz about the quality of parties, gaining instant fame for the DJs and Emcees. Breaking started at home and on the street, mostly for underage kids, but was also celebrated at these Hip Hop parties. Graffiti was born, lived, and breathed in the streets. Some say it wasn’t even an evolution of hip hop because it started in the streets, not connected to any other culture. Hip Hop claims it because so many hip hoppers took it on as a visual language to represent their culture. Hip Hop is a culture rising from ashes of neglect and invisibility screaming look at me, I am important, these are my colors, and this is our culture.”
Hip-hop was an attempt to put faces and personalities on those people that New York (and by logical extension, every other major American city) wanted to kill, or lock up, or pretend never existed. They were reclaiming their humanity from the jaws of a racist oblivion. Hip Hop made them visible. Denied access to major distribution channels by a music industry that saw their creations as trash, they sold their music on cheap cassettes out of the trunks of their cars.
“Rap” itself predates Hip Hop and largely developed along the fringes of African-American culture—in the jails, back-alleys and shooting galleries of inner-city America; among whores, pickpockets, pimps, numbers-runners, junkies, and gangsters of various levels. Rap’s aesthetic genesis—outside the griots of West Africa—can be found in the infamous “toasts” (i.e., the Signifying Monkey, Shine and the Titanic, the Ball of the Freaks, etc.). Hilarious as so many of these “toasts” are, they also stink of an intolerable degree of cynicism, social reactionism, political apathy, and self-abnegation: the very stink of the most despised and—ironically—the most imitated social class in contemporary American history.
And like nearly all lumpens, the Black American lumpen is generally a big supporter of the American social system. This is not to say that he likes the system. Usually he loathes it, but he knows damn well he can’t do without it. He leeches off the society any way he can. Actually is in the nature of a lumpenproletariat to be parasitic and to side with, in times of political crisis, the host/society which it feels will best benefit it economically. (They generally embrace the dominant society’s values, contrary to popular opinion.) Western lumpen classes historically have been the staunchest defenders of the status quo, of politically reactionary movements and dictatorships. The Italian lumpen-class, for instance, were some of the biggest supporters of the Italian monarchy in the 19th century and of Mussolini in the 20th; today’s “Ossis” in East Germany are the main driving force behind the neo-Nazi NPD, as they are behind the violent skinhead attacks throughout Europe. (They still know better than to call for the overthrow of Angela Merkel’s government, however.) The white American lumpen class (of course) fills the ranks of the KKK and other white supremacist and survivalist groups. The black American lumpen class, which misguided black 60s militants (esp. the Black Panthers) hoped would be the most revolutionary class, naturally turned out to be just the opposite: it was they who were always most effective in destroying Black Nationalist movements, whether by assassinating Malcolm X or by doing the FBI’s (or, in previous centuries, ole Massa’s) dirty work in infiltrating, ratting out and subsequently undermining Black radical groups.
Unluckily the lumpenproletariat/jailhouse mentality is one of the many flaws inherent in Hip Hop, aside from its grotesque materialism; it was picked up almost directly from many of its founders, who had done time or had been in gangs. The overwhelming cultural influence that Hip-hop wielded among black and Latino youth became troubling when the lumpen “thug” mentality, exemplified by Just-Ice, Ice-T and N.W.A, muscled aside the original subversive “underground” spirit. It wasn’t long before rap was reduced to a twisted combination of street pimping and corporate parasitism—Holloway House meets Seagram’s, incorporated. Hip Hop now personified everything that it originally opposed. Instead of affirming the humanity of inner city youth, instead of making them visible in the eyes of the world, it wound up doing exactly the opposite. Contemporary hip-hop achieved what neither the most depraved minstrel performers (nor the Ku Klux Klan) ever really managed to achieve: the absolute dehumanization of the African American image.
Black American intellectuals, of course, understand little of the implications of what has occurred this past quarter century. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.* misjudged gangsta rap and saw it merely as a bunch of cheeky young black entertainers appropriating the old racist stereotypes and turning them upside down. Dr. Gates was writing in the 1990s; clearly, from the vantage point of 2012, it was more than just a game. This has all coincided very comfortably with the increasing neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism in the Reagan, Bush and Clinton years. Hollywood, which had always been uncomfortable with black humanity, naturally chimed in. The rappers could be as angry and vicious as they pleased—indeed, the more angry and vicious, the better: Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted did more to reinforce the black ape fantasy it did to challenge it, along with a bit of inter-ethnic divide-and-rule with “Black Korea” thrown in for good measure.
Grandmaster Melle Mel, one of the founders of Hip Hop, was dismissed as hyperbolic when he compared Tupac Shakur to Adolf Hitler. According to him, the false images of black manhood he presented to the world precipitated the downfall of African American culture. The remark might strike one as humorous unless we remember that the original German Nazis were, in fact, largely comprised of street people, the lumpenproletariat of Berlin, Munich and other German cities. Melle Mel’s comparison would have been more apt had he compared Tupac with Horst Wessel, a German pimp and gangster who was also an ardent Nazi. Wessel died in a street battle between Communists and Nazis three years before the Nazis finally seized power in Germany, and was subsequently canonized by the Nazi movement with the Horst Wessel Song. Tupac Shakur was not a Nazi, of course. He did not invent the image of the oversexed, violent, thoughtless black buck. Yet his immense popularity did much to reinforce this obnoxious fantasy in the minds of hundreds of millions of people across the globe; still worse, to many young blacks, Tupac had become a cultural icon on a par with Dr. King and Malcolm X. Millions of black men embraced the image that Tupac heralded, to the point where a white Nazi cartoon of black masculinity was actually—if somewhat mistakenly—realized.
There have been speculations among some of U.S. Government involvement in keeping thug rap alive. Was Tupac Shakur a CIA agent? Or Biggie Smalls? Indeed, it begs the question: was the whole Hip-Hop movement itself nothing more than a continuation of the American government’s Counter-Intelligence Program, a hugely elaborate ruse designed to keep black minds addled? The writer thinks not. Such an explanation would have one believe that rap music was forced upon Black America virtually at gunpoint. It was not. Though thug rap is routinely disparaged on message boards and blogs, the thug-rappers continue to win Image Awards from the NAACP; they continue to have their gruesome mugs splashed across the covers of EBONY and other “respectable” African American magazines.
The rappers, in response to increasingly severe criticism, consistently claim they “only talk about what they know.” Well, one can argue convincingly that they don’t know very much, and any cursory glance at much of their music bears this out. However, the basic problem with rappers—even the most honest ones—is not the reality they speak of; after all, this reality does exist, and mind you, confronting this sordid reality is not the same as accepting it. No: their basic problem is that they are incapable of articulating that reality—let alone the reality of the African American people, or any other people, for that matter—with any degree of maturity or nuance, and certainly not in such a way that reveals the essential humanity of the African American.
They are incapable, because the fatal flaw lay with Rap music. Rap lost whatever innovative flair it may have once had and rests largely on its undeserved laurels, masking its essential banality with flash and glitter and gaudiness. It substitutes cheap populism for political erudition. It eschews the complex and exploratory for easy answers; it arrogantly presumes that everything can be summed up in a sound-byte. Nowhere in Rap does one come close to grasping the true complexity of life, African American or otherwise. And in virtually no piece of “music” done by anyone in Rap do we have anything that approaches the achievements of earlier performers, such as James Brown, or Nina Simone—let alone Duke Ellington, William Grant Still, Mary Lou Williams, or Charles Mingus.
This partly explains why it was so easy for hip-hop and the mass media to strike such an unholy alliance. Their ways of assessing and processing worldly reality are virtually identical. And hip-hop has long proven itself willing to march to the beat of the mass media’s drum-machine. Recently hip-hop has entered even uglier territory by blindly seeking black “reality” in the rhetoric and symbols of the most virulent anti-black racism. Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent—to cite just one horrific example—seems to embody Charles Carroll’s (or David Duke’s) idea of what a black man really is. (Charles Carroll was the deranged proto-Nazi who wrote “The Negro a Beast” in 1900.) Most hip-hop fiction, abysmally written and shoddily executed, reads like sexed-up versions of Thomas Nelson Page; according to Terry McMillan, many blacks are actually not reading them—instead, many white males are drawn to the sexy cheesecake covers. (This probably explains why the paper for these books is usually just cheap newsprint.) Presumably, they are also drawn to the writing as well—for their crappy content merely corroborates every bad thing they have ever thought about their fellow black citizens. Urban lit—like urban “music”—does not seek (like Darius James and Kara Walker) to appropriate racist symbols and images to subvert their meaning. On the contrary, urban “culture” arbiters actively wish to become these images—if only because, on the one hand, they are filled with self-loathing and really believe that they are what white racists say they are—or, on the other, completely clueless as to how much offense and psychic damage these racist images have caused. (The latter probably explains the existence of idiots like “T-Pain” or “Yung Coon” or “Soulja Boy,” who likes to parade around with his boxer shorts exposed.)
Whether this is because they are illiterate, which so often seems the case, or because their agents or record executives at Seagram’s or Sony won’t stand for it, is unimportant: any group of people anywhere in the world bears the responsibility of articulating its reality; it is one of the main things that makes a people a people. Unfortunately, contemporary Black America avoids examining itself in a mirror. It prefers the rapper’s “reality” of guns, drugs and whores to articulating the very real reality it finds too painful to face. The efforts on the part of “respectable” upper-class and upper-middle-class blacks (as exemplified by C. Delores Tucker) to get rap music banned, along with the so-called “N-word” (Nigger), was motivated less out of a hatred for the spuriousness of hip-hop imagery and more out of an unreconstructed prudery and distaste for these rappers reminding them of the same very real reality they were helping to perpetuate. (Some time before her death, the late Ms. Tucker was revealed to have been a slumlord.)
White middle-class Western society also prefers this black “reality” because it confirms their racial prejudices. “Draft Me,” by Canibus, who repeatedly screams “jump in a Humvee and murder those monkeys” and calls himself an “ape nigga”; T-Pain’s blatantly obvious revamping of the Zip-Coon iconography of the 1830s, or just recently buffoons like Mistah Fab, T.I., Young Jeezy, L’il Wayne, L’il Kim, Plies, DMX and their barely articulate babbling about guns, fancy cars, champagne, hookers, cocaine, etc., etc.—all of this chimes in perfectly with the old “black buck” fantasies, with one sole exception: they are no threat to white middle America. According to Johnny Juice of Public Enemy, “The one thing that makes anything Hip Hop is the need to lash out at the status quo. To rebel against popular art. To drive against mindless group think. Unfortunately, Hip Hop is currently the popular, mindless group-think, status quo. So what does that make the followers of the original Hip Hop aesthetic? The aesthetic would dictate a rebellion against the current crop of cookie cutter drivel. Instead we get excuses and cop outs. ‘Hip Hop is different for everybody.’ ‘It’s evolving.’ ‘It’s a new era.’”
Indeed. There is nothing conceivably “underground” or “street” about the bulk of today’s rappers—providing, of course, that “street” connotes the everyday black or Latino lives of inner-city America. Hip Hop is the “Establishment.” It is no accident that T-Pain, 50 Cent and even Easy-E many years before, were and are in fact card-carrying Republicans.
In fact the “thug rapper” knows that the horribly demeaning image he projects to the American mass media (and subsequently to the world) is now taken as representative of his people. Not only does he not mind it, he positively revels in it. He exists solely on the terms defined by white racists and is happy about it. One can only imagine if the shoe were on someone else’s foot. One can only the imagine the reaction of, say, the Jewish community, if they had seen large numbers of Jewish entertainers (for that’s all these “rappers” are: entertainers, not leaders or intellectuals of any sort) playing out the most grotesquely anti-Semitic caricatures of the Third Reich and calling themselves “kikes” or “yids” while posturing in striped uniforms and yellow stars. (Perhaps it is not entirely unthinkable, considering people like Mel Brooks.) But since we are merely dealing with a group of “niggers”—people we continue to see as inferior—no such outrage is forthcoming, not even from African Americans.
*in the original I mistakenly cited Houston Baker, Jr. as writing this comment.