So I went to the hip-hop debate at the Barbican last night, which I have to say was a great evening of entertainment. I followed an Intelligence Squared debate online early last year on the Arab Revolutions and thought it was pretty well organized. My man concern with this one, being on hip-hop was that the deck would be stacked in favour of the motion either through the format, framing of the question or the choice of participants. I feared a Newsnight post election cringeworthy Paxman and Dizzee (Mr.) Rascal moment. This is partly because I feel protective of hip-hop as a fan and commentator, occasional bedroom rapper and have watched the hijack of the genre and its move from niche subculture to default ‘urban’ music form with a mix of admiration and dismay. Also because hip-hop is often scape goated by those who often do not understand the complexity of the genre or refuse to acknowledge the social conditions that gave rise to it and that continue to fuel its evolution.
I wrote on Twitter before the debate “TBH, I’m expecting a rumbustious, splenetic bun fight long on rhetoric, self promotion and compensatory grandiosity and short on reasoned case”. In the end my expectations were only partially realized. There was happily less whimsy and more substance than I had feared – a pleasant surprise.
To their credit the Intelligence Squared team had assembled a very impressive list of speakers for the delectation of the crowd. To have luminaries such as KRS one, Jesse Jackson and Benjamin Zephaniah on the same bill cannot be naysaid. The addition of people online such as Q-Tip, Quest Love from the Roots and wild cards such as PJ O’Rourke - whose contribution (“One question for you: “What the f*** am i doing on this panel!?”“) though tokenistic brought the house down – made for a very entertaining evening. As with much in the world of hip-hop there was a grandiose and circus like aspects to the proceedings and whilst the format was ostensibly designed to conform to that of a formal Parliamentary debate or ‘quick fire courtroom’ as it was billed with two acts for the advocate to make their case and cross-examine witnesses and to each have a closing address, the motion was always too controversial, too wide and poorly crafted for there to be a clear, clean argument made on either side.
For ‘hip-hop’ as a term is inchoate enough to mean so many different things. It can mean the subculture that came to prominence in the South Bronx in the late 70s. It means a predominantly musical form based on bass driven beats and percussive rhymed vocals. In the 21st-century it has come to mean an all pervasive urban music form somewhat intermingled with R&B and bass inflected pop music. It is also a way of acting and being, a state of mind which has become somewhat of a meme and has made its way across borders and been adopted by almost every youth culture in the world as a do-it-yourself mode of soft expression and resistance. Within this one discourse, culture, music form sits many different messages and values: nihilistic, empowering, creative, destructive, unifying and divisive – it is a cacophony of voices.
All of these different hip-hops were conflated in the mouths of speakers during the 3 hours of debate. This meant that we had the phenomenon of Shaun Bailey special adviser to the Prime Minister’s office on youth, crime and welfare issues attacking one of his childhood heroes KRS one for disavowing the influence of the N word and violent lyrics whilst at the same time paying homage to his lyrical prowess and genius as a wordsmith. We also had a Dream Hampton, hip-hop journalist and cultural critic defending the profanity and creative expression of hip-hop as a raw art form whilst vehemently holding to account KRS ONE and others for hypocrisy and misogeny.
At the same time we had Slaughterhouse a hip-hop group of young and boisterous rappers who seemed to be invited to somewhat confirm stereotypes around the issue and worthy only too happy to oblige. I found myself asking myself why they hadn’t invited on Das Racist or People Under the Stairs or another more media friendly crew.
Anyway, having been grilled by Cortenay on their use of the word ‘bitch’ and having been torn up by Tricia Rose, the lead singer of the group detached his clickable mic saying that the audience weren’t in his preferred demographic which drew quite a lot of laughter for the assembled audience. Having said that, some of the witnesses called by Eric Dyson seemed not to want to acknowledge that there was any truth in the statement that some messages in hip-hop have led to encouraging gang culture, teenage pregnancy and other social ills - i think this undermined their credibility IMO.
Jesse Jackson for example who turned hip-hop a culture of resistance did not seem to engage with the arguments that there had been a change in the tenor of the music and its messages since the early 90s. I found Fox News’s Jason Whitlock’s argument very interesting that hip-hop has become the marketing arm of incarcerating black men, that the imagery makes black people look disposable and supports a prison building industrial complex which disproportionately imprisons black men. His point was not really addressed and was not rebutted by Dyson or any of the defenders of hip-hop and opponents of the motion and I think it needed to be. Having said that, there was absolutely no acknowledgement of the reformist broadsides aimed at hip-hop from within. Hip-hop heads have been speaking out about this for years. There’s the group Non-Fixion who acknowledge hip-hop had become an incubator for Republican ideology, Dead Prez and Immortal Technique and Lupe Fiasco and all those who seek to uplift the genre as well as Little Brother and Das Racist who poke fun at the clichés and expose the empty rhetoric of much mainstream hip-hop music. Hip-hop often performs the most scathing self scrutiny of itself via immanent critique. The debate was often carried on as if hip-hop was a monolithic agent…
I have to say that I found both advocates to be extremely skilled and persuasive speakers as you would expect. I did feel that Eamon Courtney was hamstrung by his obvious ignorance of the artform that so many of us hold so dear and it was a little bit arrogant of him to weigh in and expect to shine without doing a bit more homework.
For his part, pastor and professor Michael Eric Dyson - whose book on hip-hop Know What I Mean? I found to be marred by his obvious bias as a hip-hop head - liberally quotes from the canon with evangelical zeal, I felt played to the gallery and exploited his position as street savvy scrapper versus the patrician and out of touch barrister.
Courtney gave a very polished and effective opening address where he introduced the notion of the ‘hip-hoposphere’ a realm of crass degradation, ignorance and self hating nihilism. He accused the defence of languishing in this realm, a heterotopia of their own making with preventive them recognising the ills that affect the artform.
Again, hip-hop fans such as Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock have frequently explored these issues, but no matter, we’ll forgive him this. He also made quite a schoolboy error by calling as witnesses panel members who were far from uncritical advocates for his case (Zephaniah, Tricia Rose etc) who ended up repudiating his arguments.
Despite these silly errors, I did feel that he landed quite a few blows for the motion in terms of speaking of the negativity, violence, minstrelry and misogyny in some hip-hop lyrics. It was refreshing to hear this being intoned in a Caribbean lilt. He intoned in stentorian baritone at one point: “Hip-hop fosters thuggery and it fosters misplaced values and appeals to the base in society. It’s addictive, it’s seductive and it’s toxic”.
I thought he let himself down in Act 2 which was about hip-hop being ‘bad poetry’ where he failed to define the genre of poetry, which he could have done in many ways. For example he could have referred to Nobel Prize winning Derek Walcott for example, a son of the Caribbean and somebody whose lyricism could have provided some context of evaluation. He could at least have talked about iambic pentameter and discussed lack of variation in prosody as Adam Bradley did in Book of Rhymes. Instead, he just focused in on profanity (very predictably so!) and then proceeded to trot out some of the most egregious examples of filthy, sadistic, misanthropic lyrics out of context and then held these up for condemnation and ridicule as if most hip-hop fans themselves would not be able to easily judge such lack of imagination and imbelicity for themselves! This stance was easily made to look ridiculous by the erudite and interesting professor James Peterson a brilliant speaker and who pointed out the nuance of metaphor and double meaning in hip-hop. I did think that reference to the idea of ‘signifying’ (as Russell Potter wrote in his book Spectacular Vernaculars) could have also clarified things here but Courtenay’s case was so weak on this point anyway that only a rather slender garnering of evidence was required to rebut it.
John Sutherland, the UCL English professor on the panel, one of only two white people on the panel – uncomfortably waiting for over an hour to be invited to speak! made a very pertinent point here which was around the performative aspect of hip-hop and the ways in which hip-hop artists assume alter egos separate from their real selves and are analogous to actors in the roles they play. A fantastical, performative aspect of the genre, if neglected, can lead us into invalid evaluations of the truth function of hip-hop lyrics and gullibility of the audience, understanding of irony etc.
Dyson made a strong case that hip-hop is only reflective of the culture in which it grows up – that it is the ferocious expression of a degraded people but that crime rates have gone down in the states since the mid-90s which is the period coinciding with the growth of the subculture into a mainstream music form. I did think overall that that the advocates were probably level pegging after Act 1 but that Eric Dyson definitely shaded it in Act Two when he rebutted the charge of stultification through ‘bad poetry’, by saying “You talk about education. Hip-hop fosters rhetorical genius!”. This is true and I believe that imagination, creativity and wordplay fostered via participation in hip-hop could be said to be a form of do it yourself mentorship and of course identity formation. He also ended very strongly in his peroration, though directing an ad hominem ‘nigga please’ at Courtenay showed lack of respect and underlined the extent to which he was relying on hip-hop rhetoric and braggadocio.
As I look back at the debate, I find it difficult to distinguish his words from those of Jesse Jackson and KRS ONE who seemed to form a trident of uncritical defense of hip-hop. One decent point that KRS ONE made, amongst quite a lot of tenuous sophistry, was the question, what sort of society is it that it is that hip-hop is said to be degrading, a society of iniquity, warmongering and massive inequality and that perhaps such a society deserves to be degraded? Typical scurrilous KRS ONE… I wished he’d rapped – why didn’t he a deliver a rendition of By All Means Necessary?
Tricia Rose for me was definitely the star of the show and her crystalline intelligence shone through. In my opinion she has written (still!, even though published in 1992) best book ever written on hip-hop music and culture Black Noise. She was placed in the invidious position of being cast as a supporter of the motion when she, of all participants, seems most simultaneously protective of the genre and at the same time most appraised to its defects. If we paraphrase Toni Morrison, “we criticize what we love” - Rose epitomized this sentiment for me. She has by far the most nuanced, best informed and most intelligent perspective on the entire subject and I agree with Sonia from the hip-hop Meet Up who has suggested that she should have been one of the advocates perhaps defending hip-hop and I hate to say that it perhaps it was only sexism in society, not just in hip-hop, that prevented this from being the case.
Overall the debate was defeated 72% against the motion that hip-hop degrades society with only about 20% in favour. I guess that it is not surprising that only a hip-hop head or moral crusader on race or gender issues would bother to turn up to such a debate for £35 on a school night! There was a swing from undecideds to polarities during the debate though so I guess by that metric the advocates had done their job.
My abiding impression was that it was a good debate but that the advocates were probably not the best candidates for the job but that poor definition of what hip-hop we are talking about was to blame in the confusion that reigned in the debate. I would have liked to have seen more in depth discussions online between the participants perhaps in text to accompany the live debate. Overall though, it was a fun night of ideas almost made worthwhile in and of itself by a question from the floor from a young guy nicknamed Stinky who attempted to recite the simple chorus from Jay-Z’s ‘99 Problems’ and managed to f**k it up in front of a whole room of Jigga and hip-hop fans but who carried on regardless. Guy had balls.