Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Richard Osborne ‘Up the British’ – tweet summary and quotes

Up the British

Up the British


Right, well summarising Tim Wise’s White Like Me in 15 tweets went reasonably well, so I figured I’d try something similar for another very useful book: ‘Up the British’, by Richard Osborne. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the concept of ‘Britishness’ and British identity. Here is the summary I tweeted earlier. That’s followed by some of the best quotes from the book.

  1. The ideological defence of the British Empire was always based on the idea of the racial, cultural and moral superiority of the British.
  2. The empire fostered the British psyche in ways that still shape our reactions, thoughts, myths and means of thinking about ourselves.
  3. The idea of Britishness is a deliberately constructed brand devised to fool workers into identifying/uniting with their class enemies.
  4. The national culture allowed the British to unite across class lines and shoulder the “White Man’s Burden.”
  5. Trying to understand Britain without understanding the empire is like trying to understand the US without understanding slavery.
  6. Britishness has been a highly conflicted identity since the colonies proved they were much better off without British rule.
  7. The sense of superiority instilled in the white working class during times of empire is manifested now in terms of rising fascism.
  8. British are addicted to nostalgia – looking to a perfect time when our superiority was beyond question. Meanwhile we ignore the real history.
  9. The aristocratic arrogance and bizarre traditions of the Royal family help reaffirm Britishness, and therefore the Royals are very popular.
  10. Expansion of British Empire was based on naval strength, thus the pomp and glory of the Navy features highly in British tradition.
  11. We have myths (like Francis Drake being a great guy) that, through endless repetition, become collective memories.
  12. The fantasy of the idyllic British village grows stronger, even as new hypermarkets are constructed at an alarming pace.
  13. Thatcher appealed to Britishness whilst selling off the state’s assets to multinational corporations.
  14. ‘Tolerance’ is part of the British identity, but strangely it doesn’t extend to immigrants, Muslims or radicals.
  15. Britishness includes a profound distrust of immigrants, yet immigrants have been essential to Britain’s cultural and intellectual development.
  16. Immigrants are feared, as they threaten the fantasy of ‘Little England’, and of course because of the ingrained belief that they are inferior.
  17. Britain is one of the most unequal societies in the western world but its self-image is one of fairness and contentment.
  18. Britain is a repressive society, increasingly reliant on hi-tech surveillance & armed police, and yet its self-image is freedom & democracy.
  19. Churchill fulfils the national need for a strong hero figure. Nobody seems to care that he was a rabid Tory, racist and hater of the working class.
  20. Underneath the national identity, there is an underlying subdued class war that’s brought to light only occasionally – eg Chartists, General Strike, Miner’s Strike.
  21. A new culture needs to be built by digging into the past, confronting the demons, giving up racism/supremacy, and finding a place in the world.

Quotes from the book:

“The rise of political correctness as a term of catch-all political abuse is a symptom of a profound fear of contemporary change and of nostalgia for the past, when everything was sensible and sorted, and women knew their place (along with the ‘coloured brethren’)”

“Immigration and refugees can quite conceivably be seen as the motor of cultural and intellectual energy in the British experience over the centuries, so the supposed failure to deal with immigration is rather an odd idea.”

“We have been invading Afghanistan for at least 150 years, on and off, and the net result has generally been rather a lot of dead people on both sides and not very much political correctness or cultural advance.”

“The fantasy of a rural Britain, of cute little villages where everyone knows everyone, is so strong it seems to obliterate even the vaguest sense of reality in those who should know better.”

“The history of the politics of Britishness, and of its mythic thinking, is rooted in our history, as everyone agrees, and that history is one of Empire, of domination, and of, if one dare use the word, exploitation.”

“Tolerance was nowhere to be seen in the relations between the classes in Britain, except when the lower orders were needed to go off to war and die in their thousands, in which case much was made of their chummy and cheerful Britishness.”

“When the British aren’t being rude about foreigners they like to moan about their neighbours; indeed moaning is probably one of the key attributes of the British.”

“The difference between stories and history is that the former begin ‘Once upon a time’ and the latter begin ‘In the time of’”.

“From children’s comics to television repeats and endless film epics, the repetition of these stories builds collective memories, things that have psychic depth without any necessary factual basis. As Orwell observed, the endless repetition of stories turns fantasy into fact, and, like other addicts, people find it very hard to wean themselves off the stuff”

“That the royal family are basically German, aristocratic and in-bred never seems to bother anyone, nor the fact that the idea of royalty is patently absurd, nineteenth-century and inimical to democracy.”

“It is interesting to note how often poetry was the medium in which ideas of Britishness were expressed, a medium best suited to mythological and abstract ideas, and a medium not bound by fact or history.”

“You can take the colonies out of the Empire but you can’t take the Empire out of the colonisers.”

“This is precisely the ideology of imperialism, based in a notion of British identity as racially, culturally and morally superior. The combination of piety, pomp and the accepted necessary use of violence in order to further the aims of the British Empire gives a clear definition of Britishness that is, ultimately, racist and self-reflexive, as well as self-delusional.”

“Ireland was ruled by the British with a rod of iron for at least 800 years and was the epitome of poverty, disease, forced emigration and backwardness … The Irish eventually forced independence through armed struggle, and within sixty years became the Celtic Tiger, one of the fastest growing economies in the West with extremely high levels of education. Likewise India was ruled and civilised by the British for nearly 300 years and was backward, poverty stricken and disunited. After forcing out the British, who blithely divided up the area into unviable entities, India has turned itself within fifty years into one of the fast growing economies in the world and a potential superpower.”

“What on earth children gain from ploughing through arcane and verbose Shakespeare verse, only to discover that what is being said is that all women are mad, dangerous or feeble, or beautiful but dangerous, escapes even cursory examination.”

“When Churchill wrote, or re-wrote, the history of the British he did it in such a way that all the complexity of regional, ethnic and class war was ignored and, most importantly, the vital history of scientific, technological and industrial development was hidden behind the pomp of warfare and coronations. What a bunch of upper-class lunatics did in a cavalry charge really does not compete with the transformations of society that were brought about by scientific analysis, technological insight and organised industrial production.”

Lenin: “The Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers.”

“Historically the construction of the idea of Britishness rests on the way in which, as an identity, it overrides all other loyalties or realities of social existence thereby generating a cohesion of all peoples, united in values and outlook.”

“The contemporary Royal Family are clearly rather dim, rather racist and completely unreconstructed in their attitudes to the world and to the lower orders; yet they are staggeringly popular.”

“Imperialism infests the soul and is a difficult drug to give up, as the Americans are currently discovering; giving up the historical memory is proving even harder for the British.”

“Hero worshipping, like celebrity gazing, is a common activity in popular culture, but as the basis for a civilised society it leaves quite a lot to be desired and is really arrested development in psychological terms.”

“The British addictions to heritage, nostalgia, distrust of foreigners and Europe, combined with anti-intellectualism, petty class snobbery and love of humouring themselves at their whimsical ways can only really be described as a mild form of psychosis.”

“With their ‘there is nowhere to hide’ slogan the TLA scours the country looking for evil criminals who watch television without having paid the licence fee. In hi-tech vans with massive databases at their fingertips these custodians of the BBC are ceaseless in their vigil to protect the rights of the government to produce drivel on television and force people to pay for it.”

“TV is full of the double-think that pervades contemporary Britishness. Indeed, reality television allows the middle class entrepreneurs who run it to do their two favourite things; to make lashings of money and to take the mickey out of the ill-educated working classes while doing it.”

“It is Thatcher’s unrestrained neoliberalism that quite arguably led to the decline of most things that could be seen as British.”

If you want to read the whole book (it’s pretty short – only about 140 pages), here it is on Amazon UK.

Book Review: MK Asante Jr “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop – The Rise Of The Post-Hip-Hop Generation”

Bigger than Hip Hop

Bigger than Hip Hop

Did you ever give any thought to that chorus: “It’s bigger than hip-hop”? The line is so catchy, the flows so striking, the bass so overwhelming, that I wonder how many people have taken the time to consider what the classic Dead Prez track is really saying.

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


‘Bigger than Hip-Hop’ at Amazon UK
‘Bigger than Hip-Hop’ at Amazon US
MK Asante Jr’s Facebook page
MK Asante Jr on Twitter

Book review: Jeff Chang “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop – A History of the Hip-hop Generation”

Can't Stop Won't StopIn under 500 pages, Jeff Chang has managed to give a detailed, fascinating and relevant history of hip-hop culture, covering almost every important aspect: the social conditions that gave rise to it, the stories of the people and communities that pioneered it and moved it forward, its transformation from a primarily party-oriented movement to a culture of resistance, its re-transformation to a culture of individualism and consumerism, and a peek into its future.

While many (probably hundreds) of books have been written about the history and sociology of hip-hop and the people who listen to it, I can’t think of any that cover quite as much material as “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop”, and there are very few written in an accessible style. Jeff Chang combines the detailed knowledge and big picture understanding of the academic world with the passion and politics of the street (fittingly, he describes his location as “Brooklyn and Berkeley” (Berkeley is a university in California with a reputation for student activism)).

Chang devotes the first few chapters to exploring the social conditions prevailing in New York, particularly the South Bronx, in the years leading up to the birth of hip-hop. In many ways, although it is not directly about hip-hop, this is the most important section of the book, as this history gives some important clues as to what makes hip-hop so special, so important.

Chang describes one of the most crucial events that shaped the early hip-hop generation: the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, between 1948 and 1972. This single road, designed to decrease travel times for rich suburban commuters, forced the relocation of some 60,000 working class Bronx residents. While many white residents “moved north to the wide-open spaces of Westchester County or the northeastern reaches of Bronx County”, the majority of African and Latino residents had little choice but to move to the South Bronx, where there was a boom in social housing but a near-total lack of jobs.

The South Bronx was a place of rapid economic deterioration, having lost 600,000 manufacturing jobs in the late 60s and early 70s. Youth unemployment was said to be around 80%. “If blues culture had developed under the conditions of oppressive, forced labor, hip-hop culture would arise from the conditions of no work.”

Chang gives vivid descriptions of the social degeneration that followed the economic degeneration, as the most prominent face of the South Bronx became the gangs, the slum landlords, the insurance scam fires, the race tensions, and the drugs. The social policy response from the government was, basically, to ignore the ghetto, to pretend it didn’t exist. With the black power movement of the late 60s and early 70s defeated for the time-being, the state shut down the social programmes and replaced them with the fiction of ‘trickle down’ economics.

Gang life had become a central feature of many young people’s lives in the Bronx. “When African-American, Afro-Caribbean and Latino families moved into formerly Jewish, Irish and Italian neighborhoods, white youth gangs preyed on the new arrivals in schoolyard beatdowns and running street battles. The Black and brown youths formed gangs, first in self-defense, then sometimes for power, sometimes for kicks.”

Back in those days at least, the gangs and the major movements for political change were not a million miles apart. The Black Panthers, for example, had taken some important steps towards turning gangs away from the path of self-destruction and towards the path of revolution.

Chang writes that, in Chicago, legendary Black Panther Fred Hampton (who was murdered in his sleep by police in an unprovoked raid on his home) was “forming alliances with the powerful Blackstone Rangers, Mau Maus, and the Black Disciples gangs. He believed that the gangs collected the fearful and the forgotten. If gangs gave up robbing he poor, terrorizing the weak, hurting the innocent, they might become a powerful force for the revolution.”

In New York, the Puerto Rican revolutionary group The Young Lords had started as a street gang and had transformed themselves into an organisation for helping the community. They also had a powerful effect on the South Bronx gangs, especially when the gangs and the revolutionary groups discovered a shared enemy: police.

As the gangs found common ground in their opposition to police, to heroin dealers and junkies, and to poor social provision in their neighbourhood, a new era of unity started to emerge. It became suddenly possible for kids from different blocks, different gangs and different races to mix. All were drawn to the emerging block party scene, where young DJs like Kool Herc – generally considered to be the creator of the hip-hop movement – were making their names, putting on big parties much influenced by Jamaica’s sound system culture (which Herc, a first generation Jamaican immigrant, had grown up with).

The mix of African-American, Puerto Rican and Caribbean youth cultures – strangely vitalised by poverty, awash with rebelliousness, heavily inspired by Black Power and Puerto Rican socialist movements, in this North American cultural capital that had given birth to swing, be-bop, disco, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X – was explosive. Impoverished young people, struggling to survive in a deprived area that the world had chosen to ignore, gave birth to a culture of music, dance (breakdancing) and art (graffiti) which the world couldn’t ignore, and which it eventually would have no choice but to adopt.

Saying something

Having written about the social origins of hip-hop, the early innovators such as Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, the emergence of graffiti, the emergence of breakdancing, and other important topics related to the ‘early years’, Chang turns his attention to the emergence of ‘political rap’.

Hip-hop had originally emerged as a party movement. It wasn’t overtly political, although it was implicitly political in that: 1) it brought young people from diverse impoverished communities together and gave them a way out of a culture of self-destruction; 2) it gave a powerful voice to oppressed people who weren’t supposed to have a voice.

However, by the time the mid-80s rolled around, there was no escaping politics. Reaganomics – the set of anti-poor economic policies associated with the Reagan government – was in full effect, and social welfare budgets were being cut left, right and centre. The gap between rich and poor, and between people of colour and whites, was growing at an incredible rate, as was the prison population. US foreign policy needs (principally their desire to give financial support to the fascistic Contra movement in Nicaragua) had created the conditions for the rapid and devastating spread of crack cocaine in the black ghettoes of Los Angeles and elsewhere (“Nearly half of America’s largest cities is one-quarter black; that’s why they gave Ricky Ross all the crack”, says Mos Def in his classic ‘Mathematics’).

Now that the poorest sections of the population in urban US had a voice, it was natural to use it to decry the corporate/government attack on their communities, especially when the older generation of black radical politics – the civil rights and black power movements – had gone quiet (or had been ‘quieted’). “In the new crisis time, as it had been for Jamaica’s embattled roots generation, rappers were increasingly being recognised as ‘the voices of their generation.’ The centre of the rap world swung decidedly in a radical direction. Hip-hop culture realigned itself and re-imagined its roots, representing itself now as a rap thing, a serious thing, a Black thing.”

Chang gives a detailed coverage of the emergence of Public Enemy – without a doubt the best-known and most important political rap crew in history (I’ll write more about them when I review Russell Myrie’s biography of PE, ‘Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin’). He also points out some of the major milestones in late 80s and early 90s political rap, such as Run DMC’s performance at the Columbia University campus protest against apartheid, and KRS One’s co-ordination of the Stop the Violence Movement.

For many long-time hip-hop fans, that period of a few years when political rap was thriving is considered the ‘golden era’. Here was a vibrant, rebellious youth culture that spoke to the needs of working class and oppressed people everywhere.

The backlash didn’t take long to arrive. Upset by the pro-poor, pro-black lyrics of Public Enemy (and particularly their pro-Palestinian stance), mainstream journalists whipped up a frenzy of opposition to Public Enemy and other Afrocentric and black nationalist artists, labelling them as racist and anti-semitic. When certain comments made by Public Enemy’s Professor Griff regarding the Palestinian intifada were deemed to be anti-semitic, a national storm was created and numerous calls were raised for a boycott of Public Enemy’s music (what Griff actually said is still disputed, and this issue will be covered in depth in a future post).

Artist interviews were misquoted, lyrics were taken out of context, and rappers were demonised. The threat of boycott became a major establishment weapon. The big players in the music industry (still very much controlled by the old, rich, exclusively white corporates) got the message loud and clear: hip-hop could be exploited for financial gain, but it was not to be a platform for radical politics. After all, the FBI didn’t pursue its elaborate, expensive and murderous COINTELPRO operation just so that black and working class power could re-emerge in the form of rap music.

Funding and support for radical music disappeared, and the big deals started going to those willing to promote misogyny and black-on-black violence. While quick to point out that ‘gangsta’ rap is not a simple phenomenon and that many artists are highly contradictory (Jay-Z, for example, although considered as a misogynistic and ultra-consumerist artist, has made tracks opposing police brutality), Chang points out the sea change that occurred in rap music. Even NWA’s lyrics, although problematic in many ways, had a critical seed of rebelliousness; but by the time Dr Dre’s landmark ‘Chronic’ album landed in late 1992, it seemed like the time for “guiltless, gentrified gangsta” had arrived. “No Peace Treaties, rebuilding demands, or calls for reparations, just the party and the bullshit. The video for ‘G Thang’ seemed to ask: didn’t all boys everywhere just want to bounce in hot cars to hotter beats, hang out with their crew, party all night, and spray conceited bitches with malt liquor?”

The content swing within hip-hop reached a point where, “by the turn of the century, to be labelled a ‘conscious’ or ‘political’ rapper by the music industry was to be condemned to preach to a very small choir.”

Where to go from here?

Having given a brilliant description of the hip-hop generation, charting its highs and lows, Chang resists the temptation to give a prescription as to what needs to happen for hip-hop to regain its radical essence. Instead, he concludes his book with several important examples of grassroots activists from the hip-hop generation using the music and cultural imagery of hip-hop to positive effect in their communities. This at least gives a hint as to how Chang sees hip-hop heads re-developing music as a weapon.

In his introduction to the book, Kool Herc is less humble about making demands of today’s hip-hop artists and fans. Noting that “hip-hop is the voice of this generation”, Herc also points out that this is a role that comes with responsibility, a responsibility that many leading hip-hop artists are not taking seriously. “The hip-hop generation is not making the best use of the recognition and power that it has… We have the power to [change things]. If Jay-Z comes out one day with his shirt hanging this way or LL Cool J comes out with one leg of his pants rolled up, the next day everyone is doing the same thing. If we decide one day to say that we’re not gonna kill somebody senselessly, everyone will follow…

“I don’t want to hear [rappers] saying that they don’t want to be role models. You might already have my son’s attention. Let’s get that clear. When I’m telling him, ‘Don’t walk that way, don’t talk that way,’ you’re walking that way and talking that way. Don’t just be like a drug dealer, like another pusher. Cut the crap. That’s escape. That’s the easy way out. You have the kid’s attention. I’m asking you to help me raise him up.”

For Herc, it’s all about people within hip-hop taking responsibility and working to address the issues faced by their communities. “East, west, north or south – we come from one coast and that coast was Africa. This culture was born in the ghetto. We were born here to die. We’re surviving now, but we’re not yet rising up. If we’ve got a problem, we’ve got to correct it. We can’t be hypocrites. That’s what I hope the hip-hop generation can do, to take us all to the next level by always reminding us: It ain’t about keeping it real, it’s about keeping it right.”

If you love hip-hop, you should pick up a copy of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. It’s a beautiful book.

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