Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Black Is Back

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Black Is Back

Article excerpt

Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar [*]

Vijay Prashad [*]

Hip-hop's art of rebellion can trigger a battle against racism or raise the white flag to hyper-consumerism

From Bogota to Beijing, hip-hop's apostles are spreading "the word", striking chords of rage and rebellion in privileged and poor kids alike, in rich countries and poor. The world, it seems, is in love with black America. But this is a treacherous affair. Back in the homeland, a war is being waged against this very same group. One of the frontlines is the prison-industrial complex--an expanding fortress, with the U.S. rate of incarceration (682 per 100,000) six to ten times higher than that of most industrialised nations. Of the two million prisoners, 49 per cent are black and 17 per cent are Latino even though they respectively represent 13 and 11 per cent of the population. Almost one in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are caught in the web of correctional control (incarceration, probation or parole). These men lose their right to vote, lose their place as citizens, both in the eyes of the State and in white society.

Outside of the penitentiaries, unemployment is a prison of its own. At seven per cent, the rate may seem low, but look closer and you find that this does not recognise the "disposable" part-time workers, generally composed of ethnic minorities and women. About eight per cent of African Americans are officially unemployed, but the real bombshell is reserved for black youth: almost 32 per cent cannot find a job.

Hip-hop is the "CNN of Black America", raps Chuck D of Public Enemy. Read this line with a metaphorical eye to catch a crucial but not complete reflection of the world's Janus-like attraction to rap's art of rebellion. On the one hand, CNN offers constant news coverage world-wide. In symbolic terms, we find rappers cast as reporters on the frontline, offering live updates through their music of the trials, tribulations and peculiarities of neighbourhoods and cities, from Lagos to Frankfurt. On the other hand, global media networks, like CNN, just scratch the surface and cater to mainstream political "tastes" by offering easily digestible nuggets of infotainment. Illustrating this negative side, we find a few posses of Tokyo rappers and fans, for example, literally burning their skin in tanning salons. This is an extreme example reflecting the international mantra: "Be black for a day, wigger for an afternoon!" [Wigger refers to white people who copy black fashions.]

Contradictory impulses

Much like jazz and rock 'n' roll in the past, hip-hop has made working class U.S. youth in general and African Americans in particular a cultural hearth for the international market. Its iconic power takes many forms, depending upon the particular political goals and constraints of its practitioners. For some, hip-hop is used to attack poverty, oppression and government corruption. Other fans and musicians take aim at cultural orthodoxy by glorifying gang violence, hyper-materialism and explicit misogyny. Often these contradictory elements take shape simultaneously.

In the heart of advanced industrial countries, hip-hop serves as a liberation anthem for those oppressed by racism and poverty. In the disadvantaged suburbs of Paris, the lilting sounds of Senegalese MC Solaar radiate beside North African-inspired rai rap, while NTM (Nique Ta M[grave{e}]re -- "screw your mother") besiege the fascism of Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National party. …

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