I really enjoyed the Immortal Technique and Lowkey gig in London last night. First time I’ve seen Tech live. He’s a great performer and an inspiring guy, and he had the audience properly pumped up and feeling like they were part of a movement for revolutionary change. That’s cool. A lot better than feeling inspired to get ‘Rich Off Cocaine’.
The problem is when you wake up the next morning and you’re *not* part of a movement for revolutionary change, because that movement doesn’t exist, and hardly anyone has even considered why that is the case, and hardly anyone has given any serious thought to what the idea of revolution means in the 21st century in the heartlands of imperialism. There’s no leadership, no critical reflection, very little analysis of the failures of the past, very little strategic innovation, very little ideological clarity, an almost outright hostility to political/economic/social/cultural theory, very little willingness to challenge (or even recognise) the colonialist/racist/sexist prejudices we inherit, no willingness to *unite* with one another in any meaningful way, and so on. In summary, we have too much division, confusion, prejudice, ignorance, inertia, dogma and cowardice. Yes, there are a few small groups that consider themselves revolutionary, but they have no connection with the oppressed people they want to lead, and they show no real willingness to address their shortcomings. They’re waiting for external conditions to arise that will make the masses flock to them. Meanwhile, the ruling class continues full speed ahead with its programme of demobilising and diverting (and destroying) oppressed people.
So some inspiring radical culture is nice. It made me feel good; I’m sure it made others feel good. But unless it encourages us to face up to the difficult issues of creating a movement for change, then we shouldn’t kid ourselves that going to a gig is some sort of revolutionary act.
This week we’ve heard that not only have the Olympics disrupted our transport system more than snow blizzards on top of autumn leaves, but that they also meant that our city is to be militarised, quite literally, out of the money this whole country, not just London, pays in tax. The Royal Navy have deployed their largest assault vessel, HMS Ocean, in Greenwich, Marines encircle our coast, in the city centre itself there will be 12,500 “Olympic Police, 13,500 armed services (2,000 of which fully armed), 5,000 specialist police, 1,000 in logistical support, not to mention the 7,500 private security forces roaming the street. A combined force of 23,700 security forces will restrict liberty for the “safety” of us all. Security on such a vast scale will be overseen by that beacon of democracy G4S, the private security company that has recently made inroads into schools, prisons and roads– big societing it up.
As if that wasn’t enough, Typhoon fighter jets and military helicopters will be in our skies, just to deter those terrorists that have no aerial power in their own countries, but of course have full capabilities to breach British aerospace. Add the cherry on top of the cake is of course the surface to air missiles that will be placed on top of residential blocks. While this may make that xenophobic, patriotic, Falkland war loving Brit feel safer at night, those with a little more sense and self-consciousness will move beyond inherited jingoism to feelings of caution, worry and dismay at the need to deploy such capacities for destruction to fight an enemy that at his worst operates using over the counter chemicals cooked in basements with crude equipment. The notion that such enemies can be fought with full military might is not only erroneous, as the Afghani resistance proves daily, it also evokes the great satire of Team America, Trey Parker and Matt Stones scathing critique of over-militarised responses to terrorist threats.
The film starts with the destruction of Paris by American forces seeking to neutralise a jihadi with a suitcase. In response, missiles are fired and destruction is wrecked at comically disturbing levels. When I hear of the measures taken to keep London safe, all I can think of is that opening scene. Imagine a terrorist does make it through the net of GCHQ, Mi6, Mi5, Special Branch and the SO15’s intelligence. Does the aforementioned security infrastructure fortify London even slightly? I fail to see how. If I work on mainstream perceptions of this world, there’s some math that just doesn’t work.
Since 9/11, attacks upon Western power have come in numerous forms, but mainly suicide bombings. With the exception of car bombs, the only difference I can think of is the gunmen in Mumbai. Now, tell me how the jihadi at the gates can be taken out with a missile? I don’t think he can and I do not believe the measures of security that we will be subject to have been conceived with the quintessential “Islamist extremist” in mind. While some on the right will engage in fantasy and provide a long-list of conjecture over potential security threats that warrant such disturbing force, I think we must consider these measures as a message more than a response to need.
What we are witnessing is the normalisation of militarisation of our cities. We accept the surveillance infrastructure to keep us safe, we accept our actions being logged, so why not accept armaments on top of buildings? It’s not too far of a jump and has hardly been met with critical commentary. When such actions were taken in China, it was used as a stick to beat the central committee who were going mad with paranoia and continuing to “abuse human rights”. But instead of seeing this through the prism of state repression, we are made to feel that “our boys” provide us with comfort, their presence on our streets in the thousands embraced. And that’s the most troubling part – as we’ve seen countless times across this world, military deployments come quickly and are dismantled slowly. Imagine London is attacked – imagine the attackers breached security in a way that is sensationalised, imagine that the enemy at the gates was said to be upon us and knows more about the inner workings of our system than we thought. Imagine a world of suspicion. Imagine that as well as having your movements logged and your texts and emails read – you are also in the crosshairs of weaponry countless times a day. It is not the world we are living in, but it could be round the corner.
I do not believe this is the final stage in the building of the dystopia – it is merely a lunge towards it. The greatest threat London faces is embarrassment. With movement restricted around this city, an increased cost of living and a depletion of resources, the disenfranchised youth who were so combustible last summer will have powder kegs beneath them. The Olympics have long been a tool of dispossession and neo-liberalism and London’s 2012 is no exception. Public money has been pilfered into private hands and for generations the urban poor will be paying for their own displacement. Military deployments are about scaring the radical elements to make the elites feel safe. The Olympics is accelerating the processes by which London becomes a sanitised investors paradise, civil disruption would hurt the magnetising effect the Olympics would have on business with the Big Smoke. With the coalition’s austerity measures failing, they are reliant upon a lucrative Olympics to pull in the private businesses that their economic plan hinges upon. With recession being the consequence of their foray so far, there is very little room for complacency. London 2012 must generate money.
So, like the abusive father inviting friends over for dinner, certain punitive measures are put in place to ensure that once guests are in the house, everyone will act civilised – or will have hell to pay. That’s the message I take from the militarisation of my city – and like the petulant kid grown use to abuse from power – my response is this: go fuck yourselves.
Since today is the 70th anniversary of Huey P Newton’s birth, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on his autobiography, ‘Revolutionary Suicide’. In my opinion, Revolutionary Suicide is a crucial contribution to the field of revolutionary strategy and tactics, particularly for those working in the ‘belly of the beast’ – the imperialist countries of Europe and North America.
What made the Black Panther Party and affiliated black/brown power organisations so special? What made them stand out from the myriad of other radical/progressive/socialist organisations? I think the main thing is the fact that they were able to mobilise the *masses* – they were able to move beyond the usual middle-class left dogmas and outdated methodology (“fanning our flames to the hurricane”, to use George Jackson’s vivid expression) and really engage oppressed people in the struggle for their own freedom. Yes, they were smashed by the state; yes, many mistakes were made; but nevertheless they made unprecedented gains which we should actively learn from.
If you haven’t read it yet, I’d strongly recommend you to read ‘Revolutionary Suicide’, along with Huey’s ‘To Die For The People’, Bobby Seale’s book ‘Sieze the Time’, Assata Shakur’s autobiography and Mumia Abu Jamal’s ‘We Want Freedom’. That’s a minimum Panther reading list. Trust me, it’s worth it!
In terms of learning from Huey’s ideas about building a revolutionary movement, I think the following points from ‘Revolutionary Suicide’ are some of the key things for us to consider:
BUILD UNITY THROUGH REAL STRUGGLE. Learning to fight the oppressor is the way to stop fighting each other. Huey communicates this idea by relating the story of how, at his high school, the black students created unity in response to the dominance of white racist gangs.
BUILD UNITY THROUGH SHARED GOALS. Nobody agrees on everything, and yet left organisations insist on defining themselves on the basis of petty differences with each other. Work out a basic platform and move on it.
BUILD A SENSE OF COMMUNITY. Modern capitalism takes away our sense of community, of togetherness, or shared purpose. It promotes individualism and fear. Any revolutionary organisation or movement must seek to build unity and cooperation in the communities it works within. Socialism is built from the ground up.
BUILD ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION. The education system fails oppressed people. It teaches self-hate and subservience. The revolutionary must be an educator. Raising consciousness is a long-term, arduous, essential project and needs constant attention.
MOBILISE AMONG THE MOST OPPRESSED. Although the traditional US left was focusing its attentions on the industrial working class, the Panthers realised that this was not the most revolutionary class in society, as it had largely been bought off and was enjoying the fruits of imperialism and racism. Huey points out that a revolution must be built on the basis of those elements in society that have nothing to lose; that are ready to go against the system.
REVOLUTION STARTS NOW. Meet the survival needs of the people, in the here and now. Build power in the communities. Take responsibility. Political power doesn’t drop from the skies; it is built in real life, and that process begins now with the fight for survival. “Revolution is not an action; it is a process.”
ACTION SPEAKS LOUDER THAN WORDS. You can’t engage people with a load of talk and dogmatism. Find ways to get the attention of those people you want to revolutionise. Be relevant, be visible, get people moving in the struggle for real goals. No left-wing organisation that I know of in Britain gets anywhere near to this, as they have no roots in oppressed communities and therefore are not on the right wavelength.
BE RELEVANT. You don’t have to dumb down your ideas to be acceptable to the masses; you don’t have to take ‘popular’ positions; but you *do* have to be relevant. Many groups fail because they are completely divorced from the masses, and because they adopt an alienating, doctrinaire, superior attitude in relation to oppressed people.
STUDY THE ART OF REVOLUTION. Learn how others have developed movements and won freedom, and let their strategies inform yours.
BUILD YOUR OWN PLAN. While learning from others, remember that your struggle has its own unique characteristics, and therefore you must develop your own unique strategy based on a deep analysis of concrete conditions, rather than relying on blueprints or dogmas.
FIGHT THE POWER. Develop the skills to deal with the system on a daily level. Know your rights – with police, in school, with bailiffs etc. This is key for building pride, confidence and solidarity.
THE OPPRESSED MUST LEAD. Organisations have a definite need for people with what Huey calls “bourgeois skills” – middle class radicals with good writing, computer, administration skills etc. In many organisations unfortunately these skills bring leadership status to those that have them. This should be avoided!
Here are some quotes I thought were worth typing out:
On being a revolutionary
“I will fight until I die, however that may come. But whether I’m around or not to see it happen, I know that the transformation of society inevitably will manifest the true meaning of ‘all power to the people.’”
“By surrendering my life to the revolution, I found eternal life”
“The first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man. Unless he understands this, he does not grasp the essential meaning of his life.”
“The oppressor cannot understand the simple fact that people want to be free. So, when a man resists oppression, they pass it off by calling him ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’”
“You can only die once, so do not die a thousand times worrying about it.”
On building a movement
“We discussed Mao’s program, Cuba’s program, and all the others, but concluded that we could not follow any of them. Our unique situation required a unique program. Although the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed is universal, forms of oppression vary. The ideas that mobilised the people of Cuba and China sprang from their own history and political structures. The practical parts of those programs could be carried out only under a certain kind of oppression. Our program had to deal with America.”
“Che and Mao were veterans of people’s wars, and they had worked out successful strategies for liberating their people. We read these men’s works because we saw them as kinsmen; the oppressor who had controlled them was controlling us, both directly and indirectly. We believed it was necessary to know how they gained their freedom in order to go about getting ours. However, we did not want merely to import ideas and strategies; we had to transform what we learned into principles and methods acceptable to the brothers on the block.”
“To recruit any sizeable number of street brothers, we would obviously have to do more than talk. We needed to give practical applications of our theory, show them that we were not afraid of weapons and not afraid of death. The way we finally won the brothers over was by patrolling the police with arms.”
“Mao and Fanon and Guevara all saw clearly that the people had been stripped of their birthright and their dignity, not by any philosophy or mere words, but at gunpoint. They had suffered a holdup by gangsters, and rape; for them, the only way to win freedom was to meet force with force. At bottom, this is a form of self-defence.”
“We came to an important realisation: books could only point in a general direction; the rest was up to us.”
“Interested primarily in educating and revolutionising the community, we needed to get their attention and give them something to identify with.”
“It was my studying and reading in college that led me to become a socialist. The transformation from a nationalist to a socialist was a slow one, although i was around a lot of Marxists. I even attended a few meetings of the Progressive Labour Party, but nothing was happening there, just a lot of talk and dogmatism, unrelated to the world I knew. It was my life plus independent reading that made me a socialist – nothing else.”
“The street brothers were important to me, and I could not turn away from the life I shared with them. There was in them an intransigent hostility toward all sources of authority that had such a dehumanising effect on the community. In school the ‘system’ was the teacher, but on the block the system was everything that was not a positive part of the community.”
“[When we started patrolling the police] many community people could not believe at first that we had only their interest at heart. Nobody had ever given them any support or assistance when the police harassed them, but here we were, proud Black men, armed with guns and a knowledge of the law. Many citizens came right out of jail and into the party, and the statistics of murder and brutality by policemen in our communities fell sharply.”
“If we developed strong and meaningful alliances with white youth, they would support our goals and work against the establishment”
“Too many so-called leaders of the movement have been made into celebrities and their revolutionary fervour destroyed by mass media. The task is to transform society; only the people can do that – not heroes, not celebrities, not stars. A star’s place is in Hollywood; the revolutionary’s place is in the community with the people.”
“Revolution is not an action; it is a process.”
“The survival programs are a necessary part of the revolutionary process, a means of bringing the people close to the transformation of society.”
“The Breakfast for Children program was set up first. Other programs – clothing distribution centres, liberations schools, housing, prison projects, and medical centres – soon followed. We called them ‘survival programs pending revolution’, since we needed long-term programs and a disciplined organisation to carry them out. They were designed to help the people survive until their consciousness is raised, which is only the first step in the revolution to produce a new America. I frequently use the metaphor of the fact to describe the survival programs. A raft put into service during a disaster is not meant to change conditions but to help one get through a difficult time. During a flood the raft is a life-saving device, but it is only a means of getting to higher and safer ground.”
“We had the base now on which to construct a potent social force in the country. But some of our leading comrades lacked the comprehensive ideology needed to analyse events and phenomena in a creative, dynamic way. We [formed the] Ideological Institute, which has succeeded in providing the comrades with an understanding of dialectical materialism. About three hundred brothers and sisters attend classes to study in depth the works of great Marxist thinkers and philosophers.”
“I dissuade party members from putting down people who do not understand. Even people who are unenlightened and seemingly bourgeois should be answered in a polite way. Things should be explained to them as fully as possible. I was turned off by a person who did not want to talk to me because I was not important enough. After the Black Panther Party was formed, I nearly fell into this error. I could not understand why people were blind to what I saw so clearly. Then I realised that their understanding had to be developed.”
“My experiences in China reinforced my understanding of the revolutionary process and my belief in the necessity of making a concrete analysis of concrete conditions. The Chinese speak with great pride about their history and their revolution and mention often the invincible thoughts of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. But they also tell you, ‘This was *our* revolution based upon a cornet analysis of concrete conditions, and we cannot direct you, only give you the principles. It is up to you to make the correct creative application.’ It was a strange yet exhilarating experience to have traveled thousands of miles, across continents, to hear their words. For this is what Bobby Seale and I had included in our own discussions five years earlier in Oakland, as we explored ways to survive the abuses of the capitalist system in the Black communities of America. Theory was not enough, we had said. We knew we had to act to bring about change. Without fully realising it then, we were following Mao’s belief that ‘if you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution. All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience.’”
“We must never take a stand just because it is popular. We must analyse the situation objectively and take the logically correct position, even though it may be unpopular. If we are right in the dialectics of the situation, our position will prevail.”
“During those long years in Oakland public schools, I did not have one teacher who taught me anything relevant to my own life or experience.”
“Throughout my life all real learning has taken place outside school. I was educated by my family, my friends, and the street. Later, I learned to love books and I read a lot, but that had nothing to do with school. Long before, I was getting educated in unorthodox ways.”
“The clash of cultures in the classroom is essentially a class war, a socio-economic and racial warfare being waged on the battleground of our schools, with middle-class aspirating teachers provided with a powerful arsenal of half-truths, prejudices and rationalisations, arrayed against hopelessly outclassed working-class youngsters. This is an uneven balance, particularly since, like most battles, it comes under the guise of righteousness.” (quote from Kenneth Clark, ‘Dark Ghetto’)
“Strong and positive influences in my life helped me escape the hopelessness that afflicts so many of my contemporaries. My father gave me a strong sense of pride and self-respect. By brother Melvin awakened in me the desire to learn, and because of him I began to read. What I discovered in books led me to think, to question, to explore and finally to redirect my life.”
“I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. My homemade education gave me, with every additional book I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness and blindness that was affecting the black race in America.” (quote from the Autobiography of Malcolm X)
“When people in the congregation prayed for each other, a feeling of community took over; they were involved in each other’s problems and trying to help solve them. Here was a microcosm of what ought to have been going on outside in the community. I had the first glimmer of what it means to have a unified goal that involves the whole community and calls forth the strengths of the people to make things better.”
“Among the poor, social conditions and economic hardship frequently change marriage into a troubled and fragile relationship. A strong love between husband and wife can survive outside pressures, but that is rare. Marriage usually becomes one more imprisoning experience within the general prison of society.”
“Those in the community who defy authority and ‘break the law’ seem to enjoy the good life and have everything in the way of material possessions. On the other hand, people who work hard and struggle and suffer much are the victims of greed and indifference, losers. This insane reversal of values presses heavily on the Black community. The causes originate from outside and are imposed by a system that ruthlessly seeks its own rewards, no matter what the cost in wrecked human lives.”
“The state believes in the power of euphemism, that by putting pleasant name on a concentration camp they can change its objective characteristics. Prisons are referred to as ‘correctional facilities’ or ‘men’s colonies’, and so forth; to the name givers, prisoners become ‘clients’, as if the state of California were some vast advertising agency. But we who are prisoners know the truth; we call them penitentiaries and jails and refer to ourselves as convicts and inmates.”
“I have often pondered the similarity between prison experience and the slave experience of Black people. Both systems involve exploitation: the slave received no compensation for the wealth he produced, and the prisoner is expected to produce marketable goods for what amounts to no compensation. Slavery and prison life share a compete lack of freedom of movement. The power of those in authority is total, and they expect deference from those under their domination. Just as in the days of slavery, constant surveillance and observation are part of the prison experience, and if inmates develop meaningful and revolutionary friendships among themselves, these ties are broken by institutional transfers, just as the slavemaster broke up families.”
“Many white inmates are not outright racists when they get to prison, but the staff soon turns them in that direction. While the guards do not want racial hostility to erupt into violence between inmates, they do want hostility high enough to prevent any unity. This is something like the strategy used by southern politicians to pit poor whites against poor blacks.”
“The whites are not only duped and used by the prison staff, but come to love their oppressors. Their dehumanisation is so thorough that they admire and identify with those who deprive them of their humanity.”
“The spirit of revolution will continue to grow within the prisons. I look forward to the time when all inmates will offer greater resistance by refusing to work as I did. Such a simple move would bring the machinery of the penal system to a halt.”
“James Baldwin has pointed out that the United States does not know what to do with its Black population now that they ‘are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle.’ This country especially does not know what to do with its young Black men. ‘It is not at all accidental,’ he says, ‘that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many.’”
“The great mass of arrested or accused black folk have no defence. There is desperate need of nationwide organisations to oppose this national racket of railroading to jails and chain gangs the poor, friendless and black.” (Quote from WEB DuBois)
“The masses must be taught to understand the true function of prisons. Why do they exist in such numbers? What is the real underlying economic motive of crime? The people must learn that when one ‘offends’ the totalitarian state, it is patently not an offence against the people of that state, but an assault upon the privilege of the few.” (George Jackson, ‘Blood in my Eye’)
“Giving a prisoner a number is another way of undermining his identity, one more step in the dehumanisation process. Of course, it has historical roots: the SS assigned numbers to prisoners in Nazi concentration camps during World War II”
On Malcolm X and black consciousness
“White America has seen to it that Black history has been suppressed in schools and in American history books. The bravery of hundreds of our ancestors who took part in slave rebellions has been lost in the mists of time, since plantation owners did their best to prevent any written accounts of uprisings.”
“Malcolm X’s life and accomplishments galvanised a generation of young Black people; he helped us take a great stride forward with a new sense of ourselves and our destiny. But meaningful as his life was, his death had great significance, too. A new militant spirit was born when Malcolm died. It was born of outrage and a unified Black consciousness, out of the sense of a task left undone.”
“IQ tests are routinely used as weapons against Black people in particular and minority groups and poor people generally. The tests are based on white middle-class standards, and when we score low on them, the results are used to justify the prejudice that we are inferior and unintelligent. Since we are taught to believe that the tests are infallible, they have become a self-fulfilling prophecy that cuts off our initiative and brainwashes us.”
“As far as I am concerned, the party is a living testament to Malcolm’s life work. I do not claim that the party has done what Malcolm would have done. Many others say that their programs are Malcolm’s program. We do not say this, but Malcolm’s spirit is in us
“Malcolm X impressed me with his logic and with his disciplined and dedicated mind. Here was a man who combined the world of the streets and the world of the scholar, a man so widely read he could give better lectures and cite more evidence than many college professors. He was also practical. Dressed in the loose-fitting style of a strong prison man, he knew what the street brothers were like, and he knew what had to be done to reach them.”
On black nationalism
“All these programs were aimed at one goal: complete control of the institutions in the community. Every ethnic group has particular needs that they know and understand better than anybody else; each group is the best judge of how its institutions ought to affect the lives of its members. Throughout American history ethnic groups like the Irish and Italians have established organisations and institutions within their own communities. When they achieved this political control, they had the power to deal with their problems.”
“The most important element in controlling our own institutions would be to organise them into cooperatives, which would end all forms of exploitation. Then the profits, or surplus, from the co-operates would be returned to the community, expanding opportunities on all levels, and enriching life. Beyond this, our ultimate aim is to have various ethnic communities cooperating in a spirit of mutual aid, rather than competing. In this way, all communities would be allied in a common purpose through the major social, economy and political institutions in the country.”
“Blacks are a colonised people used only for the benefit and profit of the power structure whenever it suits their purposes. After the Civil War, Blacks were kicked off plantations and had nowhere to go. For nearly one hundred years they were either unemployed or used for the most menial tasks, because industry preferred to use the labour of more acceptable immigrants – the Irish, the Italians and the Jews. However, when World War II started, Blacks were again employed – in factories and by industry – because, with the white male population off fighting, there was a labour shortage. But when that war ended, Blacks were once again kicked off ‘the plantation’ and left stranded with no place to go in an industrial society.”
“What I experienced in China was the sensation of freedom – as if a great weight had been lifted from my soul and I was able to be myself, without defence or pretence or the need for explanation. I felt absolutely free for the first time in my life – completely free among my fellow men. This experience of freedom had a profound effect on me, because it confirmed my belief that an oppressed people can be liberated if their leaders persevere in raising their consciousness and in struggling relentlessly against the oppressor.”
“The behaviour of the police in China was a revelation to me. They are there to protect and help the people, not to oppress them. Their courtesy was genuine; no division or suspicion exists between them and the citizens.”
“The Chinese truly live by the slogan ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,’ and their behaviour constantly reminds you of that. For the first time I did not feel threatened by a uniformed person with a weapon; the soldiers were there to protect the citizenry.”
“Institutions work this way. A son is murdered by the police, and nothing is done. The institutions send the victim’s family on a merry-go-round, going from one agency to another, until they wear out and give up. this is a very effective way to beat down poor and oppressed people, who do not have the time to prosecute their cases. Time is money to poor people. To go to Sacramento means loss of a day’s pay – often a loss of job. If this is a democracy, obviously it is a bourgeois democracy limited to the middle and upper classes. Only they can afford to participate in it.”
Must-watch. Jaja Soze explains the transformation of PDC from a street gang to a community-focused business, and explores the importance of economic empowerment. He also discusses the problems in the UK rap scene, where there is a lack of balance – everybody talking negativity and very few talking sense.
Really great to hear UK rapper Ghetts reflecting critically on his career and on the narrative of senseless violence that we find in all corners of underground music these days. Watch especially from 3:30. Big up Urbanworld & SK Vibemaker for the in-depth interview.
There’s some great material on Ghetts’ recent mixtape ‘Momentum’ (especially ‘Story of a Pauper’ and ‘Red Pill’). No doubt the forthcoming album with Rapid (‘Paint the Town Red’) will be heavy.
Legendary hip-hop, garage and grime producer/mentor Fusion makes some great points about the music industry in this interview
“Music is a good vehicle for social change… In the times we’re living in right now, i feel that we need to say more things than ever before about what’s going on.”
“We have some of the finest lyricists in the English language – Skinnyman, Ghetts, Wretch32, Lowkey, Mic Righteous, Devlin… Many artists are talking about major issues and are trying to be heard, but we also have to eat. A lot of lyrical artists are facing pressure to dumb down their content to get paid. That’s coming from the corporations. We need to encourage those artists, support them, and challenge the status quo.”
Talking about the time when people like Fallacy, Rodney P and Skinnyman dominated UK rap, he says: “There was less money in the industry, and the artists stood for more. Now that there’s more money in the industry, it doesn’t mean you should stand for less. You need to educate your followers and yourself. Artists come and go, but the messages they put out there stay forever if they’re potent and powerful messages.”
“While you get a chance to use certain platforms (social networking etc), be sure to say something that actually matters. All these platforms are in a way exploiting you. You don’t really own those platforms.”
At the end he also makes a very deep point about the history of black music as freedom music.
Twitterland seems to be full of people talking about Wiley and Jay Sean’s little online exchange, and a lot of people are accusing Wiley of racism.
I’ve no idea how the beef started, but the “racial banter” (as Wiley called it) started when some Asian Jay Sean fans sent Wiley abusive tweets. “Asian people tried it with me I’m allowed to talk back”.
Wiley’s retort to the Jay Sean fans unfortunately included some pretty silly playground taunts (which, as a half-Asian, I am all too familiar with).
- “i will throw Bombay potatoes on you”
- “your mum makes a dodgy korma”
- “Stop chewing beetle nut on the bus it smells”
Not exactly the kind of brilliant inventiveness that Wiley used to create the grime scene, but there you go. For the record, my house *does* smell of curry right now, cos I just made a very tasty aloo gobi.
In response to accusations that he was racist, Wiley explained that he had love for Asians and was just engaging in a bit of “racial banter”, which, he correctly pointed out, is not uncommon in London.
- “come on you know me i wouldnt wait 32 years to be racist”
- “lol at you idiots getting over excited instead of understanding the meaning of ethnic banter”
- “I love the Asian community minus Jay Sean trust me bug up Preeya she is so special”
Wiley finally pulled the plug on his 24-hour rant this evening, phoning into the Bobby Friction show, and later tweeting: “hold tight the jay sean fans you love me really lets get some unity going on im ready to chill out now its all love and banter racial banter”
It’s important not to blow Wiley’s rant out of proportion. People labelling him as a racist and likening him to the far right is unhelpful and only feeds into the lack of unity in our communities.
Wiley reveals the root of his grudge pretty clearly when he says: “im sorry but your race do act like they are above black people no lie”.
Frankly, he’s right about this. Many Asians *do* act like they are above people of African origin. I know from personal experience that there is deep-seated prejudice against black people in the Asian community, and this is a very real problem in terms of creating the unity that we need to move forward against oppression.
Wiley brings up another touchy subject when he says: “you all are starting to act blAck talk black fuck off tho cos I am black so I see who tries to be like us and ur haircuts are so swag and they way you wear ya hats deadout”
That is: not only do you look down on us, but you do it at the same time as biting our music and culture (and, in Jay Sean’s case, getting rich in the process).
Without necessarily meaning to do so, Wiley has brought out some very deep issues that need to be addressed. The fact is that the Asian community does pride itself on its economic success and the fact that Asian children tend to thrive in the education system. Many Asians see that African Caribbeans have not had the same economic and educational successes, and put this down to some kind of racial inferiority, without seeing the systematic racism, victimisation, criminalisation and prejudice that is designed to keep the descendants of slaves at the bottom of the heap.
The whole situation is strongly reminiscent of the media storm that happened in the US when legendary rapper Ice Cube (formerly of NWA) made the track ‘Black Korea’, in response to the brutalisation of black customers in Korean groceries.
Every time I want to go get a fucking brew
I gotta go down to the store with the two
Oriental one-penny-counting motherfuckers;
They make a nigger mad enough to cause a little ruckus.
Thinking every brother in the world’s out to take,
So they watch every damn move that I make.
They hope I don’t pull out a Gat, try to rob
Their funky little store but, bitch, I got a job.
So don’t follow me up and down your market
Or your little chop suey ass will be a target
Of a nationwide boycott.
Juice with the people, that’s what the boy got.
So pay respect to the black fist
Or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp.
And then we’ll see ya
‘Cause you can’t turn the ghetto into black Korea.
The lyrics were obviously problematic and divisive; but nonetheless they brought out an issue that actually existed and needed talking about. Meanwhile, the reaction of mainstream US was to label Ice Cube as a murderous racist and to push for a ban of his music (thus conveniently avoiding the issue of racial disunity and how it can be overcome).
The best response to Wiley’s rant is not to chastise or alienate Wiley, or to label him as equivalent to the far right; it is to reflect seriously on the issues that have been raised and to move forward in the spirit of unity. While we fight amongst ourselves, the power structure of this country (which is overwhelmingly rich, white and male) laughs itself silly and enjoys the thought that nobody is going to seriously challenge it any time soon.
In this article, I put forward the view that hip-hop is, by definition, radical. In its essence, it stands for positive social change, for progress, against oppression and against racism. That is perhaps a controversial view in these days when the rap charts are full of ‘crack music’ and we see a little bit too much of Young Jeezy, 50 Cent, Snoop, Petey Pablo, Li’l Wayne and Ludacris.
Although arguably gangsta rap does have a legitimate place within hip-hop (reflecting as it does the conditions and mindset of many young people living in the ‘fourth world’ ghettoes of the west), I contend that the dominance of gangsta rappers within hip-hop represents an anomaly. Ultimately, a lot of what people think of as hip-hop is really just manufactured urban pop. It’s an MTV/BET-conducted circus; a 21st century minstrel show, portraying a ridiculous caricature of people of African descent that is designed to perpetuate racist prejudices.
We mustn’t let the major record labels define hip-hop for us. Hip-hop, as a major social and cultural movement, represents something very different to the Rick Ross’s lies about getting ‘rich off cocaine’.
As MK Asante Jr points out in his phenomenal book, ‘It’s Bigger Than Hip-hop’, the name ‘hip-hop’ itself gives some interesting clues as to hip-hop’s radical essence.
The word ‘hip’ comes out of the Wolof language, spoken by the Wolof people in Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania. In Wolof, there’s a verb, ‘hipi’, which means “to open one’s eyes and see.” So, hipi is a term of enlightenment.
So the ‘hip’ is all about knowledge and understanding. What about ‘hop’?
‘Hop’ is an Old English word that means “to spring into action.” So what [hip-hop is] about is enlightenment, then action.
Asante goes on to quote the classic KRS-1 lyric from ‘Hip-Hop Lives’:
Hip and hop is more than music
Hip is the knowledge / Hop is the movement
Hip and hop is intelligent movement
When hip-hop started in the 1970s, it was a party movement. Rappers didn’t talk about politics as such, but nonetheless the culture was *implicitly* political because it represented the unity and voice of oppressed people who weren’t supposed to be uniting, who weren’t supposed to be partying, who weren’t supposed to have a voice. As the Palestinians say: existence is resistance.
It was the South Bronx. There were no jobs; the housing was terrible; there were race wars; there were turf wars; there were gang wars. Hip-hop arose out of the different gangs and communities and ethnic groups putting their differences aside. These people were supposed to be fighting amongst each other for scraps; they were supposed to be barely surviving, whilst mainstream America forgot about them. Yet all of a sudden they get together and create the most creative, dynamic, innovative, powerful culture that anyone has seen for decades. Drawing on the rich legacy of African, Latino/a and Caribbean culture in the US, this new culture combined rapping with mutated disco beats, and added the innovations of scratching, breakdancing and graffiti. It was an amazing explosion of creativity.
The people in the forefront of this movement didn’t have newspapers or TV channels, but they created a loud, powerful voice. Soon they were putting that voice to very good effect, letting the world know about what was going on in the US ghetto – probably the most oppressed community in the ‘first world’. People like Public Enemy, Melle Mel, Rakim, KRS-1, Poor Righteous Teachers, Paris, Sister Souljah and the Jungle Brothers did a great job bringing this message.
Nowadays the voice still exists and is louder than ever, in the sense that hip-hop as an art form reaches hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. However, the sad fact is that this voice is increasingly not controlled by, or used in the interests of, working class and oppressed people.
In 1985 Melle Mel was rapping about the dangers of coke and crack:
My white lines go a long way
Either up your nose or through your vein
With nothin to gain except killin your brain
In the same song he makes an important point about comparative sentencing:
A street kid gets arrested, gonna do some time
He got out three years from now just to commit more crime
A businessman is caught with 24 kilos
He’s out on bail, and out of jail and that’s the way it goes
These days we’ve got Young Jeezy:
I’m knee-deep in the game
So when it’s time to re-up I’m knee-deep in the ‘caine.
Or Li’l Wayne, whose routine, apparently, is:
Wake up in the morning, take a sh**, shower, shave
Stand over the stove and whip it like a slave.
So in a single chorus he is both trivialising the history of slavery and the African holocaust, and at the same time glamourising the sale of crack cocaine, the spread of which has been another (state-engineered) disaster for Black and Latino communities. (Incidentally, given that Wayne is a platinum-selling artist, it is extremely unlikely that his daily routine has anything to do with cooking up crack; therefore instead of “keeping it real”, he’s making himself rich off a self-destructive ghetto discourse that promotes maximum personal wealth at the expense of the community’s wellbeing).
Dead Prez break down the current state of hip-hop very clearly:
Hip-hop today is programmed by the ruling class. It is not the voice of African or Latino or oppressed youth. It is a puppet voice for the ruling class that tells us to act like those people who are oppressing us. The schools, the media, capitalism and colonialism are totally responsible for what hip-hop is and what it has become.
How did we get to this point?
It’s simple really. Like with any powerful cultural movement, big corporations wanted to get their piece of the pie. They jumped on hip-hop, and made a whole load of money off acts like Melle Mel, Kurtis Blow, Public Enemy and Rakim. But the music industry became keenly aware of the fact that it was promoting music that pretty clearly wasn’t in the long-term interests of Big Money. So it came up with the perfect solution: carry on milking the cash cow, but put an end to the politics. The strategy: only bring out the monster marketing machine for rappers that talk nonsense and that promote negative, sexist, racist, exploitative images.
The record labels had the power to do that. ‘The Big Four’ – Universal Music Group, Sony BMG, EMI Group and Warner Music Group – account for over 80% of the US music market. Within a couple of years – 1990 to 1992 – it went from Public Enemy being the number one act in hip-hop to political rappers not being able to get the promotion or financial backing they needed to get serious sales.
In Byron Hurt’s excellent documentary ‘Hip Hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes’ there’s a great quote from the former Def Jam president Carmen Ashhurst-Watson:
At the time where we switched to gangster music was the same time the majors brought up all the labels and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. At the time we were able to get a place in the record store and a bigger presence because of this major marketing capacity, the music became less and less conscious. We went to Columbia, and the next thing I know we went from Public Enemy to pushing a group called Bitches With Problems.
Where do we go from here?
The fact of the matter is that we’re not going to win the battle against the MTV/BET-conducted circus any time soon. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can do to improve the situation and to get back to the real ethic of hip-hop.
The first thing is that, obviously, we’ve got to support the people that are making the type of music we want to hear. People like Akala, Lowkey, Immortal Technique, Jasiri X, Dead Prez, Skinnyman, Ms Dynamite, Black the Ripper, Logic, Shadia Mansour, Genesis Elijah, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Gazateam, Ty, Rodney P, Stormtrap and many others are doing an incredible job and we are extremely lucky to have them. We need to do our bit in terms of pushing them, encouraging them and promoting them, because they don’t have massive corporate machines behind them. Their support base is grassroots, and it relies on word of mouth (and of course the internet).
Also, there are quite a few artists out there who you could characterise as ‘semi-conscious’. They have progressive, anti-racist, anti-exploitation ideas, but they have been led to believe that they can only succeed if they keep those ideas as quiet as possible. Those artists need to be pushed in the right direction; they need to know that there’s a market for conscious, militant music.
In terms of ‘reclaiming the real’, the second thing to remember is that, very simply, we need to fight for our rights, regardless of music. Music by itself is not a movement. It can be part of a movement; it can massively help a movement, but some beautiful lyrics don’t mean a thing if we’re not in the streets demanding our human rights. When James Brown sang ‘Say it Loud, I’m black and I’m proud’, it really resonated because out on the streets there was a massive movement for black people’s rights in the US. By fighting for our rights, we make our music truly relevant.
There are real social, economic, political, cultural problems that the system is not doing anything useful about. Who’s doing anything about unemployment, the lack of good facilities, postcode wars, police harassment of youth, disappearing higher education places, irrelevant and bad quality education, high cost of living, rising prison numbers, the danger of walking from A to B, benefit cutbacks and so on? If we don’t do anything about these things ourselves, we can’t expect anyone else to!
We need to demand that our musicians say something about these issues, but it’s up to all of us to do something about them.
NB. The above article is based on a talk I gave at the excellent Hip-hop History event organised by the Octavia Foundation in August 2010.