Stephanie Joy Tisdale
The Liberator Magazine 5.2 #15, 2006
"Generations are fiction. The act of determining a group of people by imposing a beginning and ending date around them is a way to impose a narrative. They are interesting and necessary fictions because they allow claims to be staked around ideas. But generations are fictions nonetheless, often created simply to suit the needs of demographers, journalists, futurists and marketers."
-Jeff Chang, "Cant Stop Wont Stop"
Ever notice how much hip-hop means to some folks? Not just the folks that should be attached to the genre (i.e. the groundbreakers and their righteous apprentices). No--what is termed "hip-hop" has become ambiguous, all-encompassing and inclusive enough to interest swarms of followers. Hip-hop and its associates have created a history, culture and experience that are devoid of any significant connection to the outside world.
And hip-hop becomes the immaculately conceived genre, begetting itself, for itself, by itself. It may appear that all has been said and done that can possibly be said and done in regard to hip-hop. Cultivated out of very real circumstances, the genre has come quite close to being a farce. While hip-hop appears to have reached its zenith--according to the American Dream formula--the hollow center of what was once an intense sociopolitical force is heard and felt by pioneers and devotees alike. So the questions become: what is hip-hop and how did it lead us here? Who is to blame for this complicated musical form, which ultimately requires participants to sell their qualms and inhibitions for a false sense of achievement?
In "Can't Stop Won't Stop," hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang provides close to 500 pages of an intense textual analysis, exposing hip-hop for what it is: an extension of the people who developed and culturally-informed the genre itself. Among other things, Jeff Chang does what a lot of so-called hip-hop journalists fail to do; he historicizes hip-hop, contextualizing the social and political circumstances of the United States, Jamaica and Columbia (among other places) which ultimately influenced the cultural experiences of hip-hop's foreparents. More importantly, Chang provides the historical foundation necessary to fairly critique hip-hop's industry and musicians.
Unabashedly, the text exposes the bad and ugly elements of the 1960s and 1970s which would ultimately produce some good: a revolutionary art form. Beginning with "Necropolis: The Bronx and the Politics of Abandonment," Chang examines the economy of the South Bronx and the overt racism which caused not only "White Flight" but also created the atmosphere that would give birth to hip-hop. Chang goes on to explore the deep roots of hip-hop in Jamaica, investigating the role of seldom-mentioned but highly influential musicians like Lee "Scratch" Perry.
More than anything else, Chang discusses the aspects of hip-hop which connect the genre to its pioneers: the English and Spanish-speaking descendants of Africa. While this might seem like a moot point, the re-creation of hip-hop has subsequently divorced the art form from any distinct cultural origin. However impossible this task might seem--especially with hip-hop's African elements--the attempt to separate hip-hop from its cultural framework has been somewhat successful. Rarely are the origins of hip-hop discussed outside of the signature narrative stamped and approved by the corporate hip-hop industry: beginning with the Sugar Hill Gang and DJ Kool Herc.
However, hip-hop was cultivated in the post-Civil Rights, post-Black Power Movement Era, where the brutality of city-planning and economic initiatives proved to be as oppressive as segregation. Chang's comprehensive text discusses the rise and decline of New York City's youth entourages (often termed gangs), Afrika Bambaataa's movement for solidarity and the financial state of the union which would make Jay-Z a "product of Reganomics." Where hip-hop's savvy lyricists take-off, "Can't Stop Won't Stop finishes," providing a historical critique of the significant events which continued to define the music throughout its development.
"The scope and content of hip-hop has narrowed over the years; the range of images are much narrower than during the late 1980s," says Chang. "We really do have to get back to the political struggle." In reference to his own politicization, Chang makes a point of identifying his personal influences. "I came up during the Anti-Apartheid Movement. My mentors were non-Asian Americans." It is no surprise, then, that Chang's book is so centered; not in a superficial or patronizing way, but in a truth-be-told manner.
Chang discusses the more controversial aspects of hip-hop; the elements of the music grounded in the systematic oppression of Africans from Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the U.S. "The 'War on Drugs' paved the way for the Patriot Act," Chang proclaims. He blames hip-hop's fertility on the "politics of containment" and the "politics of abandonment," where poverty and social oppression cultivated the creativity of hip-hop's founders. Hence, hip-hop has transitioned from the gritty experiences of the oppressed to an entertaining pastime for Middle America. "We now have suburban whites identifying hip-hop with Black caricatures," says Chang. "Hip-hop has become a part of the main stream: it's now American culture."
Chang sees no reason for us to remain comfortable in the midst of ignorant bliss. Instead, he works towards destabilizing the Hollywood version of hip-hop: the perspective heavily laden with white-supremacist fantasies and corporate control. Chang revisits occurrences in hip-hop history with journalistic grace, from the truth behind New York City's gangs to the unlikely--and very white American--foundations of two of hip-hop's most influential publications: "The Source" and "XXL." More importantly, Chang is committed to "moving from Audiotopia to political action."
"Hip-hop is not in and of itself a revolution; you're not revolutionary solely because you're hip-hop," says Chang. According to Chang, the task is very evident. And the question becomes: "How do you take what we've gained in terms of cultural power and translate it into political power?" As Chang puts it, "Hip-hop provides an opening for creating mass political movements. It's the currency that allows folks to talk all over the world." And whether we want to acknowledge it or not, hip-hop is speaking volumes to the world, the question is what is it saying?
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