What are the central issues, problems, I need to grapple with here?
1. How does hip-hop influence the political attitudes of youth?
We know that hip-hop is an information source. Chuck D. even called it “black America’s CNN” although it’d now probably be more appropriate to refer to it as black America’s “One Life to Live” or perhaps black America’s “Sopranos” with a bit of “Dynasty” thrown in for good measure. We know that hip-hop does influence people’s ideas–it influences their opinions about violence, it influences their opinions about education, and it influences the attitudes that young girls have about themselves.
Why not politics? There is already a sense that hip-hop is this political (or politicized) product. The bastard child of Reagan and the Bronx right? Hell, our generation is even called “the hip-hop generation” juxtaposing us against the “civil rights generation.” The content of those politics are up for question but even here there is a casual assumption that hip-hop is having a deleterious influence on the minds of today’s black youth. The real question to me is how does hip-hop influence the attitudes–not so much how this process works. In talking about his own findings James Johnson talks about various ideas about information acquisition and usage–whether it’s a matter of images tweaking something in the brain that in the short term becomes associated with certain types of ideas. I’m not as interested in this, but I am interested in knowing the direction of the effect. “Positive” or “negative” is one way to think about it.
2. How has hip-hop changed in wake of its growing popularity?
There is an idea that hip-hop USED to be political but then it somehow changed. The golden era dovetails neatly with the growth of black student protest in the mid to late-eighties. KRS-One, PE, X-Clan to a lesser extent, Rakim, even lesser knowns like King Sun and Paris, brought in a wave of “nation-conscious” rap. I grew up on hip-hop and came of age during that era. But I think folks have it twisted. To the degree that hip-hop did reflect this type of thematic content, it was not hip-hop that was broadly consumed. The college kids in the BSU ate it up…but I’m not thinking there were more than that. The best way to measure this is to examine thematic content over time.
3. How does hip-hop influence local politics?
Here the experiments come into play, but it is also possible that there are local hip-hop scenes that aren’t captured by larger processes. With hip-hop being devoured by the multinats, there is a strong possibility that the political stuff all went underground. If this is the case, then we should see much more political content in the underground stuff then we’d see in the above ground stuff. Again, content analysis of locally popular hiphop is helpful here, as well as perhaps local case studies? Maybe even analysis of local hip-hop radio stations–though here the political economy comes into play again.
4. Are Sean Combs and Russell Simmons on the right track?
I want to begin by talking about the 2004 Presidential campaign and hiphop. Both Simmons and Combs tried to play big time roles at the national and the local level. Hip-hop comes of age is one way to think about it. But the assumption that people who either break, MC, spin, or tag…or consume the work of artists that do some combination of the four….are going to have the same politics rests on shaky ground when you really think about it. And the form that their political involvement took represented more of the same, with different faces. To expect hip-hop to carry this large weight when what it really is, is a form of popular culture that gives kids (and now adults) more space to…verbalize…is unfair to the artform, and also represents an evasion of politics that is endemic of modern day black politics (and political science).
5. Where does the cultural politics of hip-hop end and the “real” politics of hip-hop begin?
When Ed Koch moves against graffiti artists in the seventies, hip-hop comes up against real politics. In fact, I’d argue that to the extent that graffiti requires taggers to tag buildings they have no real property rights for it is the most political of the four components. But for scholars it is crucial that we don’t make the move that says “everything is politics” and use the term “politics” cavalierly. Not just because it is imprecise, though it is. Because if we start to think “everything is political” we make it much harder for people involved in REAL political organizing to make a difference. While I sympathize with the efforts of someone like Robin Kelley in Freedom Dreams, I’m on a much different page.