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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.
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. …