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Don't dismiss hip-hop: Yvonne Bynoe responds to ColorLines' coverage of the debate between civil rights and hip-hop politics. (To the Point).

Black Americans have never been a monolith, politically or culturally. Since the days of slavery, black Americans of various socio-economic levels, religions, and political persuasions have existed in communities across this nation. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, blacks constructed a united front to combat and defeat U.S. apartheid. It would be a mistake, however, to construe this political pragmatism as evidence that there was a general political consensus among blacks. Proponents of integration/assimilation and supporters of "Black Power" were at loggerheads, advocating competing visions of liberty in a post-Jim Crow society.

The hip-hop generation, or more specifically, those black Americans born between 1965 and 1984, is a unique group insofar as they are the first to be raised in an ostensibly integrated society. This group is physically and psychically removed from the monumental issue of legal segregation. Moreover, unlike their elders, the hip-hop generation is simultaneously contending with critical issues such as AIDS/HIV, police brutality, criminal-justice inequities, and their own economic viability. In the absence of one focal concern to galvanize around, the hip-hop generation publicly displays its multiplicity of ideas, personas, and political beliefs. Hip-hop culture and its most commercialized element, rap music, have become vehicles to freely display the "good, the bad, and the ugly" of young black America.

New Political Realities

Today, the real or imagined battles between the civil rights generation and the hip-hop generation have a great deal to do with the former clinging to policies and programs that highlight their best days instead of promoting a new political agenda for black Americans. In a Village Voice article discussing the absent voice of so-called black leadership on post-9/11 civil rights issues, writer Thulani Davis states, "the black public is still unaware of any leaders, organizations, or coalitions proposing an African American agenda for the 21st century....We are still stuck in a cycle of reaction that is often all about sound bites and seldom about jobs, education, shelter, and constitutional rights."

Similarly, in some circles it has become a popular mantra to attribute the electoral losses of civil-rights era politicians to "our side" forces, rather than to their records. In reality, many of these politicians have remained in office for decades virtually unchallenged, having ridden the wave of being the first black elected official in heavily black communities. While many older black voters rewarded these politicians for their early tenacity and activism, many younger blacks, knowing only about what is currently occurring (or not) in their communities, feel no such loyalty.

In Alabama, five-term incumbent, Earl Hilliard, was defeated 56 percent to 44 percent by a 34-year-old lawyer, Artur Davis, in the June 2002 Democratic primary. Hilliard was the first black man elected to Congress from Alabama since Reconstruction. In his essay, "The Maturation of the Black Vote," Alabama doctor Audra Robinson states, "This race should have been about the deplorable conditions of the counties that make up the district. This race should have been about espousing new ideas to improve the overall status of the blacks who make up the majority of this district. Instead, it became a referendum, pitting the Civil Right's Era against the Gen-X/Hip-Hop Era." Robinson continues by saying, "Amazingly, [Hilliard] continues to blame his loss on the "outside influence" on the race. Never mind the fact that his district has languished in squalor during his entire Congressional tenure."

Hip Hop Culture Left Adrift

Much of the Black Nationalist rhetoric of rap music takes its cues from the Black Power Movement. However, unlike the Black Arts Movement, which was the cultural arm of the Black Power Movement, hip-hop culture never developed as part of any political or economic movement. Although the middle 1980s were populated with politically conscious rap artists such as Public Enemy, X-Clan, Paris, and KRS-One, who highlighted the injustices being experienced by young and poor people of color, they got no love from the civil-rights crowd. The civil rights establishment, by failing to critically analyze and distinguish "political" rap from the merely trite and materialistic, missed a significant opportunity to use hip-hop to engage and politicize young people around the reactionary policies of the Reagan/Bush administrations.

Hip-hop culture--abandoned and left to the dictates of multinational corporations--has largely metastasized into apolitical entertainment. Essayist Christopher Tyson states, "Alienated and underestimated, hip-hop became vulnerable to mainstream influence. Since social integrationist philosophy identifies white reality as the default cultural, political, and social norm, hip-hop became in some measure a reflection of the "American" culture. Therefore, partying and leisure activities were esteemed above the more serious occupations of collective responsibility and organization."

New Visions for the Hip-Hop Generation

Rather than engage in useless finger pointing with the civil rights generation, hip-hop generation leaders and activists need to begin to strategize about how to radically change our communities and circumstances.

Robin D.G. Kelley in Freedom Dreams says, "In a world where so many youth believe that 'getting paid' and living ostentatiously was the goal of the black freedom movement, there is little space to even discuss building a radical democratic public culture. Too many young people really believe that this is the best that we can do." Kelley goes on to say, "What are today's activists dreaming about? We know what they are fighting against, but what are they fighting for?" The key element of this line of inquiry hinges on whether the activism and nascent political engagement of the hip-hop generation are focused on reordering American society or just grabbing more of the pie. The former ideology supports the elevation of all marginalized groups, including black Americans. The latter vision supports the norm, dictating that elites (now including those of color) gain power and wealth at the expense of the masses left at the bottom of the well.

Michael Eric Dyson stares in Between God and Gangsta Rap, "the debates about hip-hop culture strike the deepest nerves in black culture--how we name ourselves; how the white world views us; how we shape images and identities that are tied to commerce and exploitation. Like the black culture that produces it, rap is both a new thing and the same ol' same ol'!" Dyson's remark raises the question, how visionary can a hip-hop political movement be that is closely tied to the same ol', same ol', ghetto bling-bling reportage that dominates so much of the rap music incessantly blared into our communities.

Perhaps until now the hip-hop generation has failed to live large enough, having satisfied itself with living someone else's dream instead of making its own. If the hip-hop generation is truly going to be revolutionary, we need to recognize that the soundtrack that accompanies our actions must be transformed. New-school activists and leaders will not be nodding their heads to rap music celebrating the values and baubles of an entrenched political and social system that has disenfranchised most of us. True revolutionaries will demand a new thing, rap music that not only tells our stories, but also speaks truth to power and encourages folks to imagine new realities.

Yvonne Bynoe is a cultural critic, political analyst, and president of the Urban Think Tank Institute, which addresses political, economic, and cultural issues from the perspective of the post-civil rights generation, also known as the hip-hop generation.
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Author:Bynoe, Yvonne
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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