Hippo City

James Eric Prichard

This past Tuesday the Office of Multicultural Affairs hosted a public showing of Byron Hurt’s documentary “Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes” and followed it with a talk by filmmaker and lecturer Rubin Whitmore II. The documentary discusses the gender roles espoused by current hip-hop culture, focusing mainly on the thuggish portrayal of male rap artists. The talk centered on the perpetuators of the gender roles, their blameworthiness and the possibility of change.
Whitmore said that there is a machine in place that creates the media images in hip-hop, and that the consumers, artists and industry personnel perpetuate the machine by not rebelling against it. A big part of the problem is that people are relatively apathetic toward the negative effects of the images. I think that this apathy exists partially because the negative images do not affect many of the consumers of rap music.
This lack of effect comes from the distinction between the hip-hop aesthetic and hip-hop culture. I subscribe to a large part of the hip-hop aesthetic: I like a lot of rap music and turntablism. Other elements of the aesthetic I enjoy to a lesser extent or am apathetic toward. I would place myself to some degree within the hip-hop aesthetic, as an appreciator, consumer and completely serious artist. My actions sustain and further the aesthetic.
I am not, however, a member of the hip-hop culture. There are social and ideological elements to the culture that exist outside of the art that the culture creates. You can’t capture “Hip-Hop” on a record or in an art museum because you only get the aesthetic; you don’t capture the underlying culture that birthed it. Frustration with racial profiling is a part of the hip-hop culture, as are harmful portrayals of women. Hip-hop as a culture is much larger than the art I enjoy.
The art is a snapshot of a culture with an objective history. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” is a great song, but the song has connections to the history of the culture that give it dimensionality beyond its aesthetic value. Even if you thoroughly understand the culture and history, that knowledge is academic unless you live within the culture. Simply knowing about the socio-historical influences behind rap music or break-dancing, does not make you a part of the culture.
The stereotypical “white kids from the suburbs,” any artistic tastes or cultural understanding notwithstanding, are not a part of the hip-hop culture that they experience. They do not contribute to the same milieu and are not affected by social and ideological elements of the culture or the culture’s art. The pervasive gender role that tells young men they must be aggressive and hyper-masculine affects those within the culture by permeating their living places. To me and my peers, however, that gender role is a game, a mask that we can easily don or discard. Hip-hop affects us as a multifaceted artistic movement, but not as a social reality. We do not live within the concrete historical fact that is hip-hop culture.
We care for hip-hop artistically. For us, sexism, racism and homophobia are poisons that infect hip-hop because they diminish its artistic worth. “Thugging” is annoying because it leads to repetitive expressions, not because it limits the male experience in a tangible way. Jedi Mind Tricks’ “Violent by Design” is a good album despite its violence and aggression; the images it promotes are forgivable to us when they are presented expertly.
When outside appreciators of hip-hop actually care about the social ramifications of the aesthetic and culture, they do so because they have a moral aversion to the general types of some images and messages. They care about the ramifications in the same way that they care about other harmful ideologies. For them, the sexism within hip-hop is wrong like the xenophobia in South Africa is wrong, because it is objectively immoral, not for any personal proximity.
They care about the hip-hop aesthetic and the general concept of having positive societies, but they don’t personally care about hip-hop culture. They might have special emotional connections to the culture because it created an aesthetic they appreciate, but these are tenuous and fragile. These outside appreciators have little impetus for changing hip-hop culture, especially if they are able to satisfy their aesthetic desires despite negative images.
These outside appreciators, however, drive much of the hip-hop machine. They outnumber those solidly within the culture and pump money into the industry, and yet they remain largely unaffected by the culture that the industry heavily affects. It will be difficult for hip-hop to change as long as its industrial side remains fueled by apathy.