Book Review: MK Asante Jr “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop – The Rise Of The Post-Hip-Hop Generation”
With that song, I think M1 and stic.man are trying to tell us that the struggle for freedom is alive, is real, and that participating in it is about more than listening to – or making – great music. The movement for progress is “bigger than hip-hop”, and would exist if hip-hop wasn’t there. “It’s bigger than all these fake-ass records.” Indeed, there are plenty of forces within hip-hop that are working *against* the struggle for freedom. “I’m sick of that fake thug, R&B-rap scenario, all day on the radio.” stic.man demands of the listener: “Would you rather have a Lexus or justice, a dream or some substance?”
With his remarkable book, “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop”, MK Asante Jr takes the sentiment of the song and turns it into a manifesto; a discussion document for a new generation (the ‘post-hip-hop’ generation) to help define and develop its role in the struggle for a better future.
Asante starts by examining the current state of hip-hop – the music that is generally considered as being representative of young Black people in the US. He points out that hip-hop, especially the kind that gets major TV and radio coverage, has largely moved on from being a voice for the Black community. The likes of Public Enemy and KRS-1 are sidelined in a scene that has “been lulled into being a conservative instrument, promoting nothing new or remotely challenging to mainstream cultural ideology.” Asante is scathing in his criticism: “Even in the midst of an illegitimate war in Iraq, rap music remains a stationary vehicle blaring redundant, glossy messages of violence without consequence, misogyny, and conspicuous consumption. As a result, it has betrayed the very people it is supposed to represent; it has betrayed itself.”
Asante remarks that hip-hop has effectively been colonised. It has become a key part of a music industry that is entirely controlled by rich white men (while Jay-Z gets to be considered the ‘CEO of hip-hop’, the sad fact is that not a single Black person sits on the board of directors of any of the main parent companies that own labels such as Def Jam). That music industry has been busily trying to turn hip-hop into its opposite – from a tool of freedom into a tool of oppression, projecting an image of Black people that the white supremacist ruling structures are entirely happy with (that is, an image of simple, primitive, hypersexualised people only too willing to kill themselves with drugs and guns).
“Under the banner of ‘keeping it real,’ the hip-hop generation has been conditioned to act out a way of life that is not real at all. The hip-hop *industry* (as opposed to the hip-hop *community*) has been successful in framing an authentic Black identity that is not intellectual, complex, educated, or diverse, but a monolith of violence and sexism.”
MK Asante Jr opines that the current generation of politically/culturally/socially active youth does not identify with hip-hop in the same way that young people identified with it 20 years ago. Therefore, Asante argues, the post- hip-hop generation has to move beyond the limited discourse of current hip-hop, using it as a voice where possible, but not being constrained by it.
Asante goes on to analyse in depth the wider social, economic and cultural problems facing this generation – the issues that hip-hop *should* be engaging with, starting with the changing role of mass media and the part it plays in shaping the thoughts and activities of our generation.
“Any 21st century discussion of our world, across race, gender and class lines, must acknowledge and take seriously the notion, the reality, that young people of today derive the bulk of their ideas not from traditional institutions, but from the growing number and more intrusive forms of mass media.”
Regarding the way media affects specifically the Black community, Asante writes: “Where the Black church, community centers, and family were once the primary transmitters of values and culture, today it’s a potent mass media concoction of pop music, film, television, and digital content – all of which are produced and disseminated through a small handful of multinational corporations.”
This is a critical point that few radical writers have engaged with – the ability of the ruling classes to control people’s minds is *increasing*, not decreasing; the ability of the older generation of oppressed peoples to transmit their values to the younger generation is *decreasing*, not increasing, for the same reason. This is a disastrous situation for all oppressed people, but particularly for Black people, who have practically zero representation at the ownership level in the mass media.
Asante writes: “Images of people of African descent remain virtually unchanged from the racist stereotypes promoted before and during slavery.” And these images are not just consumed by people whose interests are served by perpetuating racism; they are also consumed by the victims of that racism. “Images produced by and for whites to justify Blacks’ oppression, images of savages, of laziness, of pimpism and gangsterism, have been embraced by Blacks. It means that the images that taught white people to hate Blacks, to oppress them, have ultimately resulted in Blacks hating Blacks.”
MK Asante Jr moves on to the closely-related problem of the generation gap, which is more prominent than ever before, and which stands in the way of unity for progress. The media has been a major force in creating this problem, on the one hand reducing the power of the traditional community institutions where different generations would interact, and on the other hand presenting the older generation with a crass, warped view of the younger generation (via MTV, BET, cop shows, etc).
As Michael Dyson often argues, the generation gap between the Hip Hop generation and the Civil Rights generation has created a shameful disunity over the last 30 years. The media, the fear culture, the social paranoia arising from the crack explosion, the breakdown of communities, the changing nature of racism and exploitation, the rise of unemployment, the defeat of the Black Power movement, the changing values of the youth – all of these have fed into the problem. Asante points out that this gap must be analysed and overcome if the major problems of our society are to be fixed.
The only thing worse than fighting with your allies is fighting without them” (saying)
Arguing for a broad unity of all oppressed people, and all those struggling for a better future, Asante points out that all struggles against oppression and exploitation are connected, and that all attempts to disrupt the unity of the oppressed must be defeated.
“It was Malcolm [X] who knew, toward the end of his life, that the fundamental problem is not between Blacks, whites, browns, yellows, reds, or any other racial category, but rather, between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing, the exploited and those who do the exploiting – regardless of skin colour. Malcolm realised that the only way to fight oppression is to unite with people who share the same spirit of resistance against inhumanity and injustice – and those spirits may, and in fact should, have different colours, genders, religions, etc”
Asante quotes Martin Luther King on the same issue of unity against exploitation:
“One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society…”
Another issue that is rarely touched upon in the mainstream political discourse is that of prisons. There are currently 1.5 million Black Americans in prison. There is no precedent for this level of imprisonment anywhere in the world, ever. WEB DuBois wrote over a hundred years ago that “the courts have become a universal device for re-enslaving blacks”. If this was a problem in 1903 (when The Souls of Black Folk was published), it is a much bigger problem now, where the so-called War on Drugs (in reality the War on Black and Latino Youth) has been going on for forty years.
Asante cites then-president Richard Nixon: “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. They key is to devise a system that recognises this while appearing not to.” Nixon defined a clear strategy for dealing with this ‘problem’: pump drugs into the Black community, create anxiety, create fear, create crime, create a context in which many people are actively calling for a greater state presence in the community, and then target that same community in a ‘war on drugs’.
The result of that ongoing war, forty years later, is that the US prison population has risen from around 300,000 to around 2.2 million, the vast majority of which is Black and Latino. The oppressed communities have been clearly targeted for imprisonment. Asante points out that, “according to Amnesty International’s definition, the vast majority of African-Americans imprisoned today are political prisoners.”
The prison industry is one of the biggest industries in the US. It is the main employer in hundreds of towns, and prisoners constitute a deregulated ‘Made in America’ work force, where there is no unionisation, no strikes and very little pay. As Robert King of the Angola 3 wrote: “Let’s call prisons exactly what they are: an extension of slavery.”
“Only a fool would let an enemy educate his children” (Malcolm X)
Asante, who is a tenured professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, also discusses the education system, which he points out is still deeply racist and which actively supports the prevailing system of exploitation and oppression. Asante calls on his readers not to leave their education purely in the hands of a state that doesn’t represent their interests. He calls on his readers to take an active role in defining their own education – studying relevant material, in a way that suits their culture and experience, and which directs them towards liberation, rejecting oppression, exploitation, racism, misogyny, eurocentrism and white supremacism.
Asante particularly focuses on the urgent need to use all means at our disposal to educate ourselves and others. He poses the question: how can we free ourselves without understanding society, without understanding history, without breaking our ideological reliance on the system that oppresses us?
Hip and hop is more than music
Hip is the knowledge / Hop is the movement
Hip and hop is the intelligent movement
(KRS-1 and Marley Marl – Hip Hop Lives)
So where does hip-hop fit into all of this?
Asante puts forward the idea that art is not an independent, isolated phenomenon; it is a part of the society it exists in. All art is to some extent political, because silence means implicit approval (to quote The Roots, “If you ain’t sayin’ nothin’, you a system’s accomplice”). Artists that wish to have a role in making society better therefore have a responsibility to be *artivists* – combining their talents with activism and using their voice in the interests of the masses. “The artivist must challenge, confront, and resist this otherwise inescapable fate of torture, injustice and inhumanity.”
Asante points out that the artivist has a particularly important job in a world where many people do not read books. For people with world-changing ideas, books have long been the chosen medium for conveying those ideas. Whilst it is positive to encourage people to read more, we also have to find other ways to get through to them. Discussing his own decision to become a film-maker, he says: “The artivist must not be afraid to learn a new language in order to inspire and empower new people – by any medium necessary.”
Asante calls for a combination of culture and activism in order to build a movement with the ability to seriously challenge the status quo and win freedom for all oppressed peoples. “No movement is about beats and rhymes. Beats and rhymes are tools – tools that if held the right way can help articulate the world, a new world, in which we want to live.”
Can hip-hop still be used? Of course. Hip-hop is a very powerful weapon. It’s a voice; it should be used widely, and people should remember that it is part of a continuous African-American (and, before that, African) tradition of using art as a means of changing society for the better, for guiding people, for inspiring people.
“It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop – The Rise Of The Post-Hip-Hop Generation” does a wonderful job of raising the issues that face young people today, and it lays the ground for a wide-ranging discussion about how we can address and solve those issues, using all the tools available to us.
Chuck D’s endorsement says it all: “MK Asante Jr combines drive, skill and a commitment that buoys us all. The hip-hop community should feel extremely blessed to have those qualities attached to its forward movement.”
“It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop” is a brilliant, well-written and thought-provoking book. Although its primary target audience is young people of African origin in the US, it has clear relevance for all those who want to participate in making the world a better place.
For those of you in London, please note that MK Asante Jr will be chairing a session at the British Library on Friday 26 November, entitled ‘Voices of rap and hip hop’. Speakers/performers include Saul Williams, Akala, Lowkey and Zena Edwards. More info here: http://www.bl.uk/whatson/events/event114077.html