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Alton B. Pollard III: From civil rights to hip hop

Hip hop is this era’s sacred hope, says the dean of the Howard University School of Divinity.

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Kanye West performs at the SWU Music & Arts Festival, 2011.

July 31, 2012

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a chapter in “The Black Church and Hip Hop Culture: Toward Bridging the Generational Divide,” which was originally presented as a lecture at Spelman College in 2006.

I, for one, cannot rap, scratch, graffiti, deejay, emcee, or flow. Those who know me would probably say that I don’t dance all that well either. However, I see the same divine presence that was at work during the era of civil rights and Black consciousness pervasive in Hip Hop music and Hip Hop culture today. I see it in the growth, innovativeness, and empowerment of my own young adult children, and I see it everywhere. I see it in the oral, musical, and cultural traditions as old as African drumbeats now turned into new art forms. I see it in our largely uncelebrated, ever resourceful and resilient, intergenerational strength. I am the affirmation of our past. I bear witness to our future. I am the transmission of ancestral memory. I am the premonition of Hip Hop.

I am in full agreement with Patricia Hill Collins, who sees the end of civil rights and Black Power and the ascendancy of Hip Hop as being marked by a shift from a color-conscious racism that relied on a system of racial segregation to an apparently color-blind racism that promised equal opportunities yet provided no lasting avenues for African American advancement. …

Just beyond the mass media’s pornographic obsession with and magnification of the excesses of contemporary urban Black life -- sex, violence, drugs, antiauthoritarian and materialistic life (a real and contradictory consciousness that we ignore to our own peril) -- there exists a larger Hip Hop lifestyle, a deeper and oppositional mode of expression that struggles to live within society’s tension and seeks to give voice to young people long denied their say. It is the creative power of this generation, the perennial prerogative of the young, the right to be culturally subversive, to potentially transform themselves and the world around them. It is historically represented in the rhymes of KRS-One, Chuck D, Tupac Shakur, and Biggie Smalls. It is manifested in the antisexist message of MC Lyte, Sister Souljah, and Salt-N-Pepa. It is embedded in the metonyms of the Million Man March anthem “Where Ya at Y’All.” It flows from the Hip Hop feminism of Queen Latifah, Eve, Missy Elliott, and Lauryn Hill. It is the higher knowledge characterized by Common, the members of De La Soul, the Roots, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, Nas, and A Tribe Called Quest. It is the spoken-word tapestries woven by Jessica Care Moore and Sarah Jones. It is the power, passion, and poetry of Kanye West, Maxwell, John Legend, Kardinal Offishall, and Anthony Hamilton. It is the sultry, sophisticated, and expressive soul of Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and Destiny’s Child. It is the uncommon compositions and lyric declarations of Alicia Keys, Me’Shell NdegéOcello, and India.Arie.

Regrettably, not everyone agrees with this assessment. There are powerful discussions for us to have about whether cultural potential still exists for organizing young people to transform themselves and their community. In simple terms, do we prefer serious Black Panthers or serious drug dealers and addicts? Do we prefer to establish serious agendas for Black communities or become Black clones of White mainstream America? Are there perhaps other choices? Lest we forget, no generation is perfect, and none of us are exempt from critique. But for complex reasons, now more than ever, the great divides of race, gender, sexuality, and class are falling along the fault line of intergenerational misgivings and distrust.

This is certainly the case where African America is concerned. All too often, the civil rights generation is ready to decry the amnesia and irresponsibility of the Hip Hop generation. With equal eloquence and even greater defiance, the Hip Hop generation trumpets the death of all civil rights sensibilities. (However, I am always amazed to meet young Black women and men who distance themselves from Hip Hop and rap.) Somewhere between these oppositional views and antithetical stances lies the much-needed cross-generational recognition that we as a people are only as strong as our weakest link. Simply stated, we need the lessons of civil rights and Hip Hop. Civil rights is African America’s sacred legacy. Hip Hop is this era’s sacred hope.

A myriad of complex social realities define the world of the Hip Hop generation, from globalization and resegregation in the public sphere to deradicalization and commercialization in religious places. Despite what some critics have said, today’s young people are no less spiritual than their predecessors but live in a time when the loss of faith in social institutions -- no less religious ones -- is disturbing, understandable, and epidemic. Many Hip Hop heads speak truth to power saying, “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious.” Whatever else one may make of Mase, … his story mirrors the seldom-recognized but vast and aching spiritual void found in much of Hip Hop America. …

Christianity is hardly the only religion game in town. As Imani Perry notes in Prophets of the Hood, the submerged underground of rap is populated with the religiopolitical lyrics of groups such as Brand Nubian and the Poor Righteous Teachers, informed by Islam and other religious traditions. To the point, there is a passionate quest for something deeper and more authentic than what often passes for religion in the current generation. If the Black faith community would serve the present age, it requires a far greater commitment to social struggle and a deeper dedication to young people than what is currently the case. Questionable theology, dubious politics, hierarchical practices, misogynistic behavior, mythic untruths, excessive materialism, and an utter captivity to custom are the hallmark of many African American congregations in the twenty-first century. It could even be said that Hip Hop had to be born because, among other reasons, Black believers were no longer being faithful to their own calling.

If Hip Hop would claim its rightful place as the successor of the civil rights movement -- and I think it must -- there are at least four factors that have to be considered. We have already discussed the need to join Hip Hop and faith where coexistence is possible and where mutual integrity and respect can be maintained. In the second place, Hip Hop will have to establish a more intentional economic and political sensibility than what currently exists. …

… The Hip Hop nation must be careful to attend to root causes and never lose sight of its own organic and creative roots, for the great and final portent of capitalist production and commodification -- cultural displacement -- is co-optation and assimilation of the Hip Hop aesthetic itself. On both a theoretical and a political level, Hip Hop has the capacity to enjoin a movement again, to challenge and critique the social and economic devastation being wrought in Black communities everywhere. The pivotal question is whether Hip Hop culture yet knows the extent of its own potential to model local, national, and global change.

Third, the possibility of a progressive political philosophy has become more apparent. … [F]amously known are the televised comments of Kanye West (who was featured on a 2005 cover of Time magazine as “the smartest man in hip-hop”) after the natural and social destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Kanye got it right with his refreshingly candid and provocative statement: “President Bush does not care about Black people.” …

At the same time, West’s statement needs to be nuanced and complicated -- the permanent Black poor are but one of a number of communities who are devalued by America’s political process for lack of political capital. West did not set out to be a role model with his words, but like much of Black America, he was hurt and enraged that in 2005 it was still alright to denigrate and neglect poor people, the majority of whom looked like him. …

Finally, Hip Hop must engage in honest and critical self-interrogation for the promotion of sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic tendencies among too many of its creators, composers, and consumers. In this connection, one need only refer to Nelly’s now infamous “Tip Drill” video, in which he swipes a credit card through a woman’s backside, or Buju Banton’s equally repulsive and homophobic anthem “Boom Bye-Bye,” which decrees gays “haffi dead” (“have to die”). At the same time, too many non-Hip Hop heads are quick to overlook the very real and constructive dimensions of youth culture and rap and Hip Hop in their rush to disrespect the lifestyle and uncritically perpetuate bourgeois values. Racist and patriarchal society has helped to create a climate where young Black women are seen as promiscuous reproductive machines and where young Black men are viewed with animal and criminal contempt.

On one hand, Hip Hop as contested culture is highly marketable and salaciously satisfying to its consumer base. On the other, its purveyors are vilified daily as the primal and hypersexual antithesis of privileged White culture. … Much more could be said on this subject, but I offer this concluding observation: By companioning together young Black women and young Black men, as equals and comrades, as lovers and friends, Hip Hop can unsettle the present and enter the future self-determining, conscientized, creative, and whole. When joined as allies -- Latino/Latinas, indigenous peoples, poor people, same- and opposite-gender-loving people, racial-ethnic immigrant people, progressive people, cross-generational people, faith-filled people -- a just and inclusive world may finally become possible.

From civil rights to Hip Hop -- these are the two great cornerstones of the modern African American freedom movement: Civil rights laid the groundwork for the transformation of society. Hip Hop now has the opportunity to reinvent the future of the United States and the world and take us there.

“From Civil Rights to Hip Hop: A Meditation” by Alton B. Pollard III is excerpted from the new collection The Black Church and Hip Hop Culture: Toward Bridging the Generational Divide, edited by Emmett G. Price III (Scarecrow Press, 2012). Reprinted with permission.