How the ‘Sister Souljah moment’ remains teachable

OPINION - For almost 20 years hip-hop was used to drive white voters to conservative political candidates, to conservative political positions...

For some, hip-hop was both the child of politics (think Reagan counter-revolution) and the parent of politics (think the United States Social Forum). Others make the claim that hip-hop isn’t just not political, it’s markedly apolitical. And yet others claim that it is the greatest internal threat facing black America.

I’m a child of hip-hop. I remember the first time I heard “Rapper’s Delight”, the first time I heard Run DMC, LL Cool J, Rakim. I remember my first pair of turntables, and still have my first mixer. But I also remember Ice T and NWA’s records predicting the Rodney King riots. Similarly, I remember Bill Clinton’s 1992 attempt to use Sister Souljah as a punching bag, twisting her words to score political points with conservative white voters. Finally I, like many others, did double takes when we saw Barack Obama use hip-hop to defuse critiques that he wasn’t authentic enough, literally brushing his shoulders off when attacked by Sen. Hilary Clinton on the campaign trail.

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These examples, and dozens of others like them, cause MCs, cultural critics, activists, pundits, and regular people to casually connect hip-hop to politics. Personally, I define politics as the competition over scarce resources (tax dollars, political positions, care), and as the attempt to shape the common sense notions we have about that competition.

While hip-hop isn’t inherently political, hip-hop, like all black popular culture, shapes ideas about black spaces, about black bodies, about black institutions, ideas that shape political attitudes and behaviors. The question isn’t so much about whether hip-hop is political or not. The question is what are these politics, and how do they work?

Until Obama’s election in 2008 we had some idea how whites used hip-hop to stoke racial resentment. Bill Clinton attacked Sistah Souljah in 1992 because he knew that attacking a black working class female MC would generate the derision he needed to pull conservative whites towards him and away from his opponents. For almost 20 years, hip-hop was used to drive white voters to conservative political candidates, to conservative political positions.

But perhaps the more interesting question to me given the growing wealth gap within black communities is how hip-hop works in those spaces. Research suggests that rap consumption and exposure shape black attitudes in problematic ways. Black youth exposed to violent rap videos and records are more likely to accept violence as a means of conflict resolution than youth not so exposed. Experiments I conducted suggest that black suburban youth exposed to the videos of someone like 50 Cent think very differently about cities and their problems than people not exposed.

My research also suggests that the lyrics of rap in general largely reproduces some of the most problematic tendencies of the contemporary political context. You are as likely to find trenchant attacks on welfare in rap, as you are in any GOP screed. Similarly you are as likely to find lyrics lauding the power of the market and the entrepreneur/hustler as you are in any Heritage Foundation Report. Finally, even though elites like Russell Simmons are now using hip-hop to actively mobilize voters, my work suggests these groups often work to increase the clout of elites rather than regular black folk—the type MCs routinely rhyme about.

Now for those interested in using hip-hop to make another world, this may come as bad news. Rather than making another world hip-hop (and to be fair, rap specifically) reproduces the world we live in and fight against. But I would argue this is not so much a function of hip-hop…as it is a function of the institutions that help to shape what we’re exposed to on radio stations, and a function of the marked lack of an institutionalized black left. Our goal then is to infuse hip-hop and black popular culture writ large with a different spirit that will help to inculcate a new vision, another world.