Tuesday, January 27, 2009

This Was the Week that Was: Thoughts on Hip-Hop scholarship

Hip-Hop scholarship sucks. Thought over.

Ok, there is more to it than that, last week I went to a 'presentation' on Hip-Hop during MLK week... Also known as Obama week (yay 20th of January). The linkage between the Civil Rights icon (who is constantly appropriated by non-historians), Obama (ditto, except he is appropriated by everyone), and Hip-Hop (ditto, except this is appropriated by non-practitioners) was trite and stupid. It was pushing for the whole 'lets throw in as many things that we consider black as possible!' and the various black organizations on campus were only too happy to oblige. I heard about this presentation from AAS, after all. I really did not want to go, but my friends invited me, so I thought it would be bearable with them around. They could not make it in, but I did, and boy was it terrible. Which brings me to the original point: Hip-Hop scholarship (or should I say studies? For the purposes of this post I mean anyone that writes about Hip-Hop seriously) sucks, except now I feel like explaining why, using the presentation given as the benchmark for the field (Some should say I should not, but I can debate the point further by pointing you to most of the books that make up the field, or how it is taught).

The presentation was given by an AAS/sociologist professor, John Rogers III, which is the first strike against it: because the presentation is going to make Hip-Hop the sole purview of the black experience framed as resistance to a racist American superstructure while at the same time using AAS literary theory to look at black representation in the media. One might protest "But Mr. Anonymous Blogger!" they would begin "Isn't Hip-Hop explicitly what you just stated!" This reply is sufficient if you have already been brainwashed. The other response could be "well, isn't Hip-Hop a black thing anyway?" The answer to the latter point is: sort-of. This ultimately refers to what one's conceptions of Hip-Hop is : if Hip-Hop is basically another word for 'rap', then sure, the presentation got it right, and both rejoinders are in the right. However, if Hip-Hop is a broader cultural experience of self-expression, which is what people that actually live it know it to be, then the presentation was a massive circle-jerk and waste of university resources. I will now demonstrate why the latter point is true:

First off, Hip-Hop developed out of the South Bronx in the early 1970s (1972-1973 are cited as the usual dates) as a confluence West Indian toasting traditions and the development and acquisition of complex sound systems that could loop records over and over. Every first-generation emcee had West Indian roots (DK Kool Herc was Jamaican, Grandmaster Flash was Bajan etc), and that is ignoring the later generation emcees, which are innumerable. The looping records, focusing on the instrumental breaks so people could rap over them and also dance (bboying, although to many bboying is not dancing on the break but actually HITTING THE FLOOR on the break, which is a significant difference) were ways to make money on the weekend. When DJ Kool Herc was pulling in 300 a night from spinning and toasting, he was thinking about money. Not 'the cause'. Not resistance. Money. DJing, emceeing, and bboying all developed from this period, and most of this was brought in from West Indian culture (the development of bboying is another story altogether, and I might tackle that in a later post). Now, this is 'black' culture insofar as the practitioners had black skin and lived in the United States. DJ Kool Herc worked hard to lose his Jamaican accent and fit in with the black kids after all. Yet this belief of a monolithic 'black experience', while perhaps useful in theory, is a shallow and facile understanding of the complexity of experiences facing different 'black' populations in the United States. Also, Hip-Hop almost immediately absorbed graffiti (which is hotly debated as to where it came from, and had elements of the predominantly white punk movement), and much of the dynamic bboy moves came from Puerto-Rican bboys, all of which get written off in the discussion of Hip-Hop. Rather people talk about how all black culture is the same, and Hip-Hop is only an expression black culture. When the speaker talked about how 1978's Rapper's Delight was the starting point of Hip-Hop (which was the definition of a pop/sellout album and the lyrics were totally bitten off from Grandmaster Caz), I knew he was an idiot who was going to commit the cardinal sin of analyzing Hip-Hop: confusing the whole damn thing with rap.

That brings us to the second major weakness of Hip-Hop scholarship; it is emcee-centric. Whether Hip-Hop is elemental (bboying, graff, djing, emceeing, etc) or not, it is not just an emcee spitting to a beat. The general rule of thumb in discussing Hip-Hop with a moron or a down dude is ask him or her the difference between Hip-Hop and rap. If Hip-Hop is described as a purer form of conscious, political, or non-material rap, opposed to vulgar commercial rap, you are talking to a moron. Hip-Hop is the culture, rap is the physical act of rapping over a beat. Do not confuse the two. The fact that you can get a PhD basically reading lyrics (which what most people in Hip-Hop studies know how to do) and occasionally looking at graff but have no knowledge of how to interpret DJing or bboying means that those people are dumbasses. When they talk about Hip-Hop, they are really talking about Black American Mainstream Rap (BAMR? Help me make a juicer acronym please) and leave out everything else. This also has to do with the way Hip-Hop is raced: as anyone that has been to a bboy jam, graff expo, emcee battle, or DJ battle know; the brothas do not quite dominate the field. Actually in a lot of stuff their presence is not all that felt, and if one believes that Hip-Hop IS solely black culture, the asian Bboy, latino DJ, or white tagger (to use the most common stereotypes of supposed 'cultural theft') are not actually representing Hip-Hop, because real Hip-Hop can only BE about black culture. A broader look at the class component of Hip-Hop would show its attraction to marginalized populations, but that would mean that Ukranians, Koreans, and Venezuelans have legitimate non-racial Hip-Hop, which is unacceptable. That is not to say that BAMR is NOT Hip-Hop, (it completely is, although this might get us into the hilarious 'what is Hip-Hop' question) but rather this hagiography must stop. Considering that a ton of Hip-Hop scholars talk about a rigid culture as if they were living in 19th century Germany, whereby pure forms can be stolen or miscegenated by inferior populations is something that NEVER gets talked about (White people ALWAYS steal OUR culture, etc). Ce la vie. And yes, the speaker was constantly making reference to 'Our Culture' and that 'we have to take it back'.

The final point I wanted to emphasize is that a lot of people do not quite realize that much of the BAMR they worship (specifically conscious Hip-Hop such as Public Enemy) only were heard because massive record companies were throwing money at various acts in the 1980s and early 1990s in the hopes of making money from this 'rap stuff'. There is a reason that Public Enemy put out their stuff with Def Jam AND Columbia Records, after all. Prior to the slow mainstreaming of rap in the 1980s, getting music (and I am only talking about the music) was usually limited to your cousin in NYC giving you a mixtape when he came by on Thanksgiving. There were radio stations to be sure, but it was highly dependent on the city (and I am DYING to read a history of Hip-Hop that looks outside of New York, specifically Philly, DC, Detroit, and Miami, two of which had their own local black music that competed with rap for popularity... a cookie if you can tell me which cities and which styles) and even the neighborhood. All the BAMR golden-age stuff was commercial. Even when it was militant, it was commercial. That is not a stunning revelation, but to Hip-Hop studies it is blasphemy. Although then again they conveniently forget that all early generation heads were constantly talking about (not necessarily rapping) how to get more swag. Buying fresh pumas was always in the back of your mind, no matter which element you repped. Getting paid money and having your stuff put out there on the radio and on albums was not a sin, no matter who was paying for it.

The speaker talked about how Golden Age Hip-Hop was subversive and that money had corrupted it. Yes, some of it was, but only to a point, and money was always important to Hip-Hop. When he talked about Biggie as being an amazing emcee, I wanted to strangle him: Biggie is madd overrated, with just two albums and a far better career as a battle rapper. The speaker never mentioned a DJ, bboy, or anyone involved with graf (unless, of course, they were doing that to begin with, and a bunch of heads were multi-talented who could rep two to four of the elements, but I digress). The worse thing was that the audience was EATING IT UP, with the standard 'mmhmms' of affirmation. When the speaker tried to portray the difficulties facing inner-city black youth as tied to Gangsta rap (the nihilistic enemy of everything apparently), I was floored. This line of thinking sounds well and good for a reactionary, or Helen Lovejoy (Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children), but a supposedly liberal AAS sociologist who is familiar with social-formation theory? Oh wait, I forgot, theory screws everything up, AAS and sociology are just as guilty of retarded use of theory as anyone else. Still, if he thinks that conscious rap getting more radio play is the 'answer' to the problems facing inner-city black youth, that rap should get back to its mythic roots, and the way he cloaked his heteronormative, sexist, ethnocentric, and nationalist narrative in liberation ideology was applauded by the audience, well everyone is at fault. Hip-Hop studies and the people that eat it up are stupid, what can I say.

Except Jeff Chang, he is cool, though he likes to couch some his stuff in resistance against the US government which makes some of his writings hard to digest. Real heads should tell Hip-Hop scholars to go to hell and quite worshiping the emcees. Peace.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What a glorious day!

... and the inauguration ain't half bad either. I live in the DC area (technically Northern Virginia, but I refused to consider myself a Virginian until it became a blue state... now its acceptable) so one might wonder why I did not join the throngs, the masses, the legion, etc of Obama's adoring public. It is the same reason I opted not to go the Beijing Olympics: people are insufferable in large numbers who believe the same thing. I would not mind dancing from four in the morning until noon in frigid late-January Washington, but to share my time and space with fanatics (and to be fair, I too am an Obama fanatic) did not strike me as a profitable use of time. But it was absolutely awe-inspiring to see DC so filled up. Good for Obama.

Of course, what really inspired this post was the knowledge that I am going to write a dynamite thesis. I had pangs of self-doubt, but after meeting with my professor on Monday that I can DO this, that I can create something scholarly that will enhance the current historiagraphy (however small) on China and Africa, and flip that around to have Nigeria initiate much of the contact between the two countries in the past fifty years. I am, in short, a pimp.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The State of the 'Field'

Bum bum bummm! Right now the wifewoman is somewhat angry at me so I am writing this post in the hopes that by the time I finish she will cool down somewhat and realize that I am only a moron 80% of the time rather than 100%, which is the percentage she is currently convinced of. I am not even sure the grammar of the last sentence is correct, but meh, I will let it slide.

Although you, dear reader, might not be aware of my area of study, it is not actually what I listed in the 'About Me' portion of the blog. I am a West African Historian... well, budding Historian (I still have my training wheels on, so to speak). One might raise eyebrows at the nomenclature of my field of study: why not "African historian", or why not a more general "I do African studies"? For me, the gravest danger in most any area of history is the quest for an essentialist/substantialist narrative. Whatever ethnic, national, or continental characteristics you THINK a group of people have (History being, almost exclusively, the study of human beings in complex and city-based societies), I find such conceptualizations quite troubling and I can disprove them, if given enough time and a library. Thus I categorically reject any such formulations out of hand, even if they are "strategic" (with apologies to Spivak as well as Critical Theorists). I do not think there is such a thing as "authenticity" and because Africa is so large and diverse, I do not think it is a good idea to think of it as a discrete unit of analysis. This, of course, gets me into trouble with Pan-Africanists of a particular stripe, but whatever. East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Russia all have their own respective branches of scholarly inquiry, so why not Africa? I acknowledge the historical process of 'constructing' Africa (Indeed I often know more about it than the person giving me crap for 'once again, diving Africans amongst themselves'), but then why the hell should I not be allowed to dismantle such a construction? Sorry for the rambling introduction, I just wanted to give some background on where I am coming from.

Back to the topic at hand: West African history is in passable shape. Having attended the African Studies Association conference in Chicago last November (though not very well, I spent a lot of time touring around Chicago and I did not present a paper), there is a lot of very interesting research being carried out that will eventually fall under the aegis of West African history, a lot of it being done by Anthropologists (as usual, those dudes and chicks are badass) and Gender Studies… practitioners (what do I call someone that ‘does’ Gender Studies?). When one invokes African history people automatically assume that you are interested in the pre-colonial past (usually seen as purer and unsullied by outsiders), and a lot of people do not realize just how little we (21st century humans) know about what happened in West Africa from 1800-1000. This is not a question of slavery (one of the most popular loci of causation when dealing with Africa, though often not quite true the true cause) or Islam, but rather the nature of evidence that historians and other Africanists have on their hands: oral history. Oral history is great, but one of the things many people do not realize is that it usually lasts only six generations (180 years give or take, and if you do not believe me read up on it, especially Jan Vansina), and anything before that is massive conjecture. Thus Archaeologists (which are housed in Anthropology Departments) are the ones that must lead scholars to the light of wisdom (or other such poetics), but West Africa is tremendously under-researched in that capacity for a variety of reasons. There is a lot more to it than that, but at this point ANY serious research in West Africa is valuable, even if it is not particularly novel (Slavery and Colonialism being the usual retreads). There are two ways we might be able to redress the pre-1800 lack of knowledge: a massive investment into Archeology (extremely unlikely short of another great Indiana Jones movie seeing the light of day, and I wish I were kidding) or a redirection of Arabic linguists. The latter point is something that is quite interesting in terms of how the academy operates; certain topics pressure students into certain fields, having much to do with the race, class, and gender of the student. A white, male, middle-class student is free to pursue any field of inquiry, but a black student is expected to have some sort of relationship with African-American studies, or an American Born Chinese (ABC for short) must have some background in Asian-American studies. If a black woman is interested in history, but she is not involved in a topic that does not cover race and gender, such as Swedish economic history, that woman is suspect. Likewise, any student with a background in Arabic (which is an insanely difficult language to learn because every country has a nearly indecipherable dialect, so the classical Arabic you learn in the classroom is not what people in Egypt speak, or Morocco, or Lebanon, or the Lebanese Arabic you learn is not used by anyone outside of Lebanon) is pressured to have some sort of relationship with Middle-Eastern studies. This is all well and good, except that so many departments poach students who could make contributions elsewhere, and students with a decent knowledge of Arabic and English would do wonders for Africanists if they headed towards the Sahel instead of north of the Sahara, because there are lots of texts that need translation, transcription, and analysis, and these texts are crucial. I am, of course, something of a hypocrite because I do not know or intend to learn Arabic, nor am I concerned with pre-colonial African history, but I guarantee that any breakthrough in West African history will come from scholars who learn Arabic and effectively give the Middle East the Middle Finger (or perhaps their academic advisers).

That’s about it, I have to go as I think my wifewoman may have forgiven me in the meantime.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Heading Back to School...

In a rented car no less. My Christmas Break is officially over. Wish me luck on this grueling adventure...

Monday, January 5, 2009

My Faith in Humanity is Restored!

January 4th was the greatest day in in Washington for the rest of 2009. Forget Obama. The Washington Wizards BEAT the Cleveland Cavaliers and Lebron James was exposed for the travelling fraud that he is. Words cannot express my joy, but perhaps numbers can:

1232183y62837t4876q1371403y6218468716823461238947982798347891747014 MOTHERFUCKER!!!!!!

I have to collect my thoughts, but this event will forever live in the annals of DC history. God bless you D-Steazy and your wicked suit, please continue to speak truth to power in your uphill struggle against oppression!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The State of the (Gamer) Union

I write this post with a heavy heart, crushed by the knowledge that with every passing week I lose some the maddd skillz that made me a gaming ninja back when I was a younger man (although my many, MANY losses in Madden and FIFA never seemed to indicate to me that I was never all that good to begin with, but sports games are for Philistines... and rappers). I used to be able to dole out headshots and counter-rushes like Santa Claus gives presents to a Jewish family; efficiently and ultimately without welcome. Now, because of a variety of factors (well, two really: Grad skool and marriage) I simply do not have the time to throw down and spread some pwnage (A phrase that does not actually exist in my lexicon but I felt I had to burnish my gamer credentials). On top of that, now that I am legally emancipated (!!!) my parents are no longer required to furnish my lodgings with video or computer games, and lord knows I will not spend MY hard-earned money on them without months of consideration. That has left me in the unfortunate situation where I have not been able to buy any of the current-gen consoles or upgrade my rig (although I question that my slow-ass 4-year old computer could be called a 'rig' anymore), so I have yet to play Bioshock, or the new Smash Brothers, and look wistfully at the undergrads who have enough time and resources to really game. I still fancy myself something of an expert on gaming and gamer culture, so I will drop some pearls of wisdom:

-The gaming industry is showing that it is not quite as detached from the world economy as some of its boosters thought it was. Game sales and profits were once again ungodly, but companies suffered (and good ones too, not useless ones like Ion Storm). Gaming is a business, to be sure, but the tempering of expectations and the quest for recovery will only hasten the inexorable march of The Industry towards corporate professionalization (AKA complete bullcrap, the absence of reason and sanity, and cookie-cutter products). I will wax nostalgically for an idealized gamer past sometime in a future post.

-There were some sweet books that came out over the past few years about games: Dungeons and Desktops, Quests, Power-Up, etc. Most of my recommendations are basically from this guy, but I trust him because he is a down-ass dude and all of the books he is reading now (allegedly, at least) basically mirror my own interests and have not been written by any Cultural Studies professors (outside of Michael Berube they are ALL useless). Kohler in particular is someone I would keep track of, the dude basically did everything I thought about doing when I was 12 years old (and I mean that in a good way). Why are these texts important? Well, they treat video games seriously, they are well-researched, and they hopefully expand the level of discourse about the subject. While gaming has emerged as chic (something that caught me COMPLETELY by surprise, because admitting that you played Video Games in the 1980s and 1990s was tantamount to committing popularity suicide), it is still by and large treated as a faddish hobby/the root of all our youth's corruption, and many gamers have been conditioned to defend their passion with rather facile (dare I say retarded?) tactics, notably blasting any and all comers on teh internetamatron! KEWL! While these people are technically 'my people', most of them are morons who I will not defend. Rather, it is with the publication of these serious texts (ok, Quests is not ALL that good, but the topic is just so JUICY) that our way of living and seeing the world will slowly get respected, rather than attacked or commodified and ignored (christ I sound like a Critical Theorist).

-Games have been getting qualitatively better, but as some rather astute observers have predicted (oh Videogames Magazine writing staff, you guys were prophets), most of our gamer fare has been moving to photo-realistic acts of brutal violence. The games that do not move towards this direction but still try to utilize serious horsepower make flawed PoMo artistic stuff (different for the sake of being different, using a bastardized definition of PostModernism from the Simpsons that I know does not capture the essence of the ideas behind it, but whatever)... oh we are different, just look at our art style! Look at our controls! The majority of games seem like the equivalent of summer blockbusters or art-house pieces. Indeed the gaming industry mirrors the movie industry more and more every year, and I find that an appalling proposition. We need more No More Heroes!

-Video game journalism has improved, but the big-name guys are overrated. I am talking specifically about the members of Slate's Gaming Club, Croal, Schiesel, Suellentrop, and Totilo. Newsweek and the New York Times are suspect publications who employ suspect people. MTV even more so. Slate, like the New Yorker, is hit and miss, usually the latter. All of them are decent writers, but outside of Croal's work on 1-Up, their stuff is not all that hot but people think it is mostly because of their credentials. I do not mean to use guilt by association, but that is EXACTLY what I am going to do. If you put stuff out on Newsweek, New York Times, Slate, or MTV, you are wack. Period.
-I have to go to dinner, I will resume my reasonable post/lunatic tirade at a later time.


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Happy New Year!

I wonder what the grace period is on saying 'Happy New Year', but I imagine five days after the fact is allowed. I personally do not put that much stock in the New Year, because it just seemed like a massive let-down after Christmas. On the heels of a holiday with presents, gluttonous feasting, and no school to boot, a mere week after you have another holiday that in comparison seems so... underpowered. Drinking, dancing, funny hats, and fireworks are nice, and it is an official holiday so there is no work (even in China, where January 1st is a sort of bitch-ass New Year while the real New Year occurs whenever the Lunar Calender tells us, sometime in late January or February), I think that the powers that be should try to space out the holidays a little more. J-dawg was not born on the 25th of December, so maybe we should use his real birthday (and apologies to my non-goyim friends who could not care less about his crucified arse, but that is still the big day that the regelates the other holidays to the second-tier, themed Hallmark cards notwithstanding), or maybe we should adopt the Lunar Calender for the New Year (allying us with a whole bunch of the outside world). All in all, I just want less school and work for everyone, so let me know what you think.

My first post!

So this is it... after months of writing on other people's blogs and posting on forums, my wife has finally convinced that I should create my OWN blog so as to let the whole world know how brilliant I am. Or something along those lines. I am currently writing this down in my family home near D.C. (which once had the glorious title of Murda Capital of the USA but has since rescinded the title to other, more worthy cities) as my wife and I get ready to head to the mall. I hope tons of people read my blog and I become super popular, so welcome aboard the good ship Monkey Steals the Peach!