Why I love hip-hop… (it’s complicated!)

Written by Chris Arning (Twitter: @semiotico)

1.                  Hip-hop is a form of critical theory, hip-hop is a critical consciousness that challenges authority and spits truth to power. Disenfranchisement is the centripetal force of hip-hop culture. This is why although it comes from Black culture, it is a cultural patrimony to the world to worry its way out. Chuck D from Public Enemy said “What we need is awareness; mental self-defensive fitness.” This is particularly vital now in the era of the Culture Wars with neo-liberal hegemony steadily extirpating all hubs of resistance. Hip-hop is potentially a source of critical theory and a critique of dominant discourses – conscious rappers are new Gramscian ‘organic intellectuals’.

2.                  Because I am perfectionist and it spurs me with a passion for self-development, constant struggle, and of constant improvement: always striving, overcoming adversity is part of hip-hop’s modus operandi, the hustle is not just commercial but internal – a jihad to overcome one’s inner demons and inertia. Writing a track is working out of a puzzle; it helps us think into new places. It keeps me thinking and young.

3.                  Because it allows word play. Revelling in a very British pastime of wit, neologisms, epigram and the one liner, that suffuse every level of British culture: from working class, terrace culture, football chants, to cabaret revues, nonsense rhyme of Edward Lear (from whose work spoken word artist and hip-hop fan Scroobius Pip took his name) and the witty put downs of Coward, Churchill, Wodehouse, Wilde.

4.                  An aspirational self image of the performativity and swagger of African American culture: a sort of cat-like cool that is about demonstrating capability, competence and a masterful control of diction and wordplay – being a microphone controller in the literal sense of it; the ability to feel in control in hip-hop is unparalleled, that is why it is the refuge of the chauvinist and anyone with self esteem issues! Hip-hop offers a route to compensatory grandiosity, catharsis for frustration, and hip-hop transforms pain to pageantry, just ask Tupac!

5.                  Because it is open source, DIY creativity, from the whimsical cut and paste noodling of De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, to the intricate sonic barrage of (Public Enemy’s) It Takes a Nation of Millions [to hold us back] – hip-hop allows an open canvas to all sorts of voices from backpack to conscious, gangster, to horrorcore, trap and grime. You can cuss out the police, talk explicitly about sex, be scatological or write phantasmagorical allegoric like Lupe Fiasco, as Digital Underground invited every teenager back in 1988 – ‘Just do what ya like, kid…’

6.                  Because although I love hip-hop, I don’t hear enough hip-hop that represents my own very unique take on the culture, and too often feel oppressed or excluded from what I hear. But hip-hop is parallel to intersectionality and I seek to perform an ‘immanent critique’ of hip-hop by its own avowed tenets. As Mos Def said in the track Fear Not Of Man on his album Black on Both Sides, he writes hip-hop is not some monster living up in the hills, it’s a living breathing culture. And I want to make my own rather modest contribution.

7.                  Because I consider hip-hop to be as much a spiritual path as art form. Dr. Dre said: ‘My life is a soundtrack I compose to the beat’. Trudging in the footsteps of Rilke, Khalil Gibran or Paolo Coehlo’s Warrior Of Light. Because hip-hop is about a personal transformation and spiritual and personal catharsis, rehabilitation or redemption like the parable of Jeremiah. In the Tao of Wu, RZA describes how meditation helps his art. The most personal hip-hop songs are prayers, incantatory magic, psalms. Ralph Basui Watkins says, they’re secular spirituals.

8.                  Because of hip-hop and its narrative of identity and provenance. As Rakim said, ‘it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.’ Arguably, it is both those things! Hip-hop is an opportunity both to play with identity and heritage, but at the same time it is a means by which we can work out who we are and to be more than we thought we could. I identify with the stories in Anita Natasha Sharma’s great book Hip-Hop Desis – a chronicle of 2nd generation South Asians who reject the double bind of conservative, conformism demanded by their racist Indian co-ethnics and a condescending white society and use hip-hop creatively to counter cultures of disenfranchisement. I have done the same to navigate the treacherous waters of being born mixed race, middle class and invariably invalidated by both sides.

9.                  Because I am a beat junkie and probably addicted to the cortisol, adrenaline and chemicals that are released when you mosh and head nod to a Mobb Deep or Wu Tang. It is euphoric, it is sublime, it is the beast unleashed when the beat comes on. It is euphoria, nihilism, oblivion. In his The Dead Emcee Scrolls, Saul Williams wrote a poem called Om where he alludes to the metronomic pulse of the beat having a calming effect. It’s used by therapists to allow difficult feelings to be expressed within a managed context…  it’s emotionally very potent.

10.      in his book Why I Write, George Orwell lists aesthetic enjoyment as one of 3 reasons for why he writes along with political conviction and desire to leave a legacy and make one’s mark and me too. Rhyme is often decried as a light and trivial thing (In the preface to Paradise Lost Milton: ‘a jingling of like endings’). But it’s not just rhyme, but Rhythm And Poetry is that defines rapping: the flow and the syncopated tension between that and how the voice rides the beat when combined with meaningful lyrics is just priceless. It is a very galvanising force.

Read more from Chris Arning here: http://chrisarning.weebly.com/


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