Friday, June 20, 2008

'Conscious' of What?

Photo of The Dawnbreaker Collective doin' they thang

John McWhorter who wrote "Losing the Race", and "Winning the Race" has a new book out called, "All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America". Here's part of an excerpt:

By John McWhorter

(Gotham, June 19, 2008)

The Words I Manifest: Is Conscious Rap Different?

And you will find that this perspective is best –-check it out/ These are the words that I manifest.

Gang Starr, "Manifest," No More Mr. Nice Guy

A typical take on rap is that whatever Paul Wall and Busta Rhymes are pulling, there is a whole body of "conscious" rap, also termed "underground," "alternative," "grassroots" or less formally "digging in the crates" rap, that steps away from the gunplay and misogyny and takes on serious issues. This, we might think, is what will spark a revolution.
Because The Roots have a particularly iconic status as conscious rappers, I'll start with them. It's not that I don't like what they do: For starters, they're from my hometown of Philadelphia – I get to hear things like hoagies and Mount Airy mentioned and street names I know from my childhood. And as far as I'm concerned, their lyrics are poetry, pure and simple – they barely even need the beats behind them. The Roots write dense straight-up poetry, such that it's no surprise that, as they say on Things Fall Apart, they have a big fan base among the coffee house set ("coffee house girls and white boys").
However, in terms of what kind of "politics" this poetry puts across, it seems to me that what it ultimately has to tell us is "Sheeee-it!!!!!!" -- and that's not enough. I will make my case with two of the "fiercer" songs from their masterpiece of 2006, Game Theory.

"False Media" seems to be the one everybody finds especially significant. The message? "If I can't work to make it, I'll rob and take it." Because I am "a monster y'all done created." Now, there's no point in droning on that this "glorifies violence." What emcee Black Thought means, what you are meant to glean, is that society is so set against black men that poor ones can barely get jobs, and that it's therefore inevitable and justifiable, that so many of them go "thug." But that's a questionable proposition. Why did so many fewer black men go "thug" after Reconstruction or during the Great Depression?

Nevertheless, Black Thought is tapping a widely-held conviction about poor blacks and employment. Writers like Bakari Kitwana concur with insights like Black Thought's, such that Kitwana includes in his list of items on a hip-hop political agenda "the retention and creation of jobs for working-class Americans." Robin Kelley rhapsodizes over Ice Cube's "A Bird in the Hand" on Death Certificate, where a black man just out of high school keeps being turned down for service jobs and, as Kelley puts it, "It does not take much reflection for him to realize that the drug dealers are the only people in his neighborhood making decent money."

The problem is that the unemployment of poor black men does not correlate meaningfully with availability of jobs. A black man without a diploma who wants a job can get one. I state that not as a moral point, but as an empirical one. Here are some reasons why: The beat from "A Bird in the Hand" is now fading away ... and now gone. Please consider the following:

An influential argument is that the relocation of low-skill factory jobs from city centers to suburbs or abroad created an unemployment crisis for black men. However, Indianapolis' black community saw the same rise in unemployment among black men despite the fact that factories there did not relocate in significant numbers. Meanwhile, New York saw just as many black men drift into chronic unemployment despite the fact that manufacturing jobs were never a major mainstay of black employment in New York. Two academic studies have shown that factory relocation was responsible for at most a third of the unemployment among poor black men.

Poor blacks themselves in surveys do not support the idea that jobs are unavailable to them. In 1987, only 13 percent of unemployed poor blacks surveyed said they were out of work because they couldn't find a job. In 1980, half of the unemployed black teens surveyed in Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston said decently paying work was easy to find; 71 percent said minimum wage work was easy to find. (Read the rest of the excerpt here) You can read a review of the book here and recent pieces from McWhorter about the same subject here and here.

I don't know anything about hip-hop other than some of it I like and some of it I don't. I'd love to hear from those of you who are really knowledgeable about it what you think of McWhorter's views. What his writing got me thinking about though is the whole notion of any music or other artistic expression being 'conscious'. Anyone claiming what they create is 'conscious' needs to answer the question, "conscious of what"? I recommend that one measure of the value of claims to 'consciousness' is the degree to which what one creates reflects a consciousness of the oneness of humankind:

"The bedrock of a strategy that can engage the world's population in assuming responsibility for its collective destiny must be the consciousness of the oneness of humankind. Deceptively simple in popular discourse, the concept that humanity constitutes a single people presents fundamental challenges to the way that most of the institutions of contemporary society carry out their functions. Whether in the form of the adversarial structure of civil government, the advocacy principle informing most of civil law, a glorification of the struggle between classes and other social groups, or the competitive spirit dominating so much of modern life, conflict is accepted as the mainspring of human interaction. It represents yet another expression in social organization of the materialistic interpretation of life that has progressively consolidated itself over the past two centuries.

In a letter addressed to Queen Victoria over a century ago, and employing an analogy that points to the one model holding convincing promise for the organization of a planetary society, Bahá'u'lláh compared the world to the human body. There is, indeed, no other model in phenomenal existence to which we can reasonably look. Human society is composed not of a mass of merely differentiated cells but of associations of individuals, each one of whom is endowed with intelligence and will; nevertheless, the modes of operation that characterize man's biological nature illustrate fundamental principles of existence. Chief among these is that of unity in diversity. Paradoxically, it is precisely the wholeness and complexity of the order constituting the human body -- and the perfect integration into it of the body's cells -- that permit the full realization of the distinctive capacities inherent in each of these component elements. No cell lives apart from the body, whether in contributing to its functioning or in deriving its share from the well-being of the whole. The physical well-being thus achieved finds its purpose in making possible the expression of human consciousness; that is to say, the purpose of biological development transcends the mere existence of the body and its parts.

What is true of the life of the individual has its parallels in human society. The human species is an organic whole, the leading edge of the evolutionary process. That human consciousness necessarily operates through an infinite diversity of individual minds and motivations detracts in no way from its essential unity. Indeed, it is precisely an inhering diversity that distinguishes unity from homogeneity or uniformity. What the peoples of the world are today experiencing, Bahá'u'lláh said, is their collective coming-of-age, and it is through this emerging maturity of the race that the principle of unity in diversity will find full expression. From its earliest beginnings in the consolidation of family life, the process of social organization has successively moved from the simple structures of clan and tribe, through multitudinous forms of urban society, to the eventual emergence of the nation-state, each stage opening up a wealth of new opportunities for the exercise of human capacity."
(Baha'i International Community, 1995 Mar 03, The Prosperity of Humankind)

Artistic endeavors, hip-hop or otherwise, that are animated by such a consciousness will harmonize with the spiritual, intellectual, moral and social needs of a human race approaching maturity. These endeavors will contribute to building human capacity to meet the supreme challenge of our time, the creation of a global civilization based on spiritual principles. The Dawnbreaker Collective and hip-hop artist Badi are two examples that I highly recommend!