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slavery and hip-hop

blame touchfaith for this post.

In recent weeks, I have been doing some supplemental reading and thinking (when not plowing through Jordan's Wheel of Time, which I finished last night) with the goal of clarifying and reinforcing my arguments on the connections between slavery and bio-anthropological behaviors (as opposed to socio-economic behaviors). Much of what I am seeking to reinforce are assertions I could not eloquently reinforce with sufficient clarity during a drunken conversation with touchfaith when he was last in town.

The definition of slavery gains far more or less depth than what you will find in any dictionary definition, depending on the context of use. While, at its root, all forms of slavery involves ownership of a person by another person or entity, that is only a first-order universality I feel confident espousing. Moving past that, you have mindset of slave and slave-owner, religious and political environment which support social ethics and behavior, as well as layers of military activity, levels of technology, and history of practice.

The problem I have always had with dealing with slavery as a bio-anthropological issue is that you can only deal with it over time, universally, on that first order. To compare the slave trade of the Incas to the slave trade of the Egyptians to the slave trade of the Americas to the slave trade of the Babylonians on an even matrix is nearly impossible. All I just did was name four cultures in which slavery existed, there are probably close to a hundred more distinct times and models one could create separate taxonomies for, if not more. I realize that categorizing things based on attributes is a very Western-minded method of attacking a problem or a theory, but I do it to better draw connections on a broader scale, rather than pigeonhole each issue in context.

My aim has been to find some broadly applicable biologically based root to slavery. In Nature, many of the things which "separate" us from other high-functioning species is our myriad of complex social behaviors. On a base biological model, slavery seems to hold some pretty significant benefits up front to those in the role of a "master", with some major flaws in the long-term implementation. If this is the case, how has it survived as a practice for so long? Part of this I want to attribute to a systemic shortsightedness of post-agrarian social constructs, but there is some archaeological evidence which suggests that slavery existed even in cultures where a hunter-gatherer model is the predominant one!

I persist in ascribing this recurring phenomena to the biological predisposition our species has towards entropy. What many would coin "human nature" I ascribe to a core of traits which are universal in potential, yet wildly differentiated in manifestation over time and population groups. Slavery continues to exist because it makes life easier NOW, so long as one is free of moral dilemmas which might lessen quality of life on a level of personal introspection. Ultimately, however, aside from the few instantiations who used slaves as a food source or a religious fuel (sometimes literally) for sacrificial rites, most slave-embracing cultures eventually cross the simple edicts of biological drives. When there are more resources going to the slave population of a given environment than the "master" population, and the gene pool is more vibrant within that slave population (due to forced and rapid reproduction, and, oftentimes, increased physical conditioning), your "master" population is, in fact, endangering itself.

Usually, the persistence of a higher slave-master population is punctuated and offset by hard forced labor and undernourishment as a form of population contrail in that slave population. This lessens the biological drive feedback, but, socially oftentimes precipitates revolt, which topples the system. More shortsightedness. I am nowhere near through enough reading yet to make anything but strong assertions, with limited data to back them. Eventually, I hope to find a more unifying phenomenological explanation which I can put forth in a more eloquent (and footnoted) manner, but, for now, I'm just plodding away on it. One more pot on my legion of mental cook fires.

touchfaith's current line of inquiry, however, is very much in line with something I have been working on, which is tracing the cultural precedents and effects of slavery in this country. Unlike many other antiquated slavery models (Romans, Egyprians and Babylonians aside, hence their mention above), slavery of the Americas is fairly well documented. Unfortunately, because it is such a horrific and contentious issue, picking the data out of the rivers of argument and debate is rough going. Kind of like needles in fields full of haystacks.

One of the most significant cultural links between hip-hop and slavery that comes to me, at least in the US, is a byproduct not of slavery itself, but the reconstruction. While the cause-and-effect of the two is undeniable, the "separate-but-equal" doctrine was, in many ways, as culturally profound as the institution of slavery itself in this country. While there were many different crutches to take weight off the bad foot that is the moral weight of slavery, all of them had to be broken when abolition was passed into law, at least on a level of national social acceptability. Certainly, different regional social paradigms embraced or rejected the abolishment of slavery in different ways. I would argue that many of the states which still refer to the Civil War as "The War of Northern Aggression" would laugh at my assertion that abolition at law changed social and cultural constructs and ties. I think it might have, if separate-but-equal had not been waiting in the wings.

Music, as a part of the African-American slave culture and life, is documented, both in the cultural situations transplanted slaves fount themselves in, and in the remnants of the cultures they were taken from. If, you believe, as I do, that the roots of hip-hop can be traced back through the mainstream rock environment pre-Elvis, and the roots of jazz movements, both before and after Elvis, then there are many links between hip-hop and slavery that I could point out.

The cultural buy-in in the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson until its turnover by Brown v. Board of Education almost 60 years later was key in the continued cycles of cultural isolation and exploitation which existed long after slavery was dead in the books. The cultural segregation of African-Americans, on a legally reinforced level, created a quasi-vacuum made up of groups of largely economically and educationally marginalized individuals. Across many cultural pockets, this population, who had a history of conglomerate cultural traditions as a result of the process by which they came tho this country, did what seemed natural - they made their own culture to fill the vacuum, since they were not welcome in the mainstream.

The evolution of blues to jazz took place in this quasi-cultural vacuum. The music's content was largely made up of experiences within a segregated population in content, but, aesthetically, had a wide range of sounds, rhythms and syncopation. It existed in the vacuum until it became a desirable mainstream commodity, at which point, you have a steady stream of acquisition and, in certain cases, outright theft of methods, and sometimes even song titles or lyrics. One significant element of the blues, however, was the birth of riffs, and the regularly acceptable musical "innovation" of sampling - not necessarily in a recording format, but certainly through mimicry of musical improvisation and tunes of the day. It also allowed, for the first time in many ways, talented and creative African-Americans to have a voice in the homes and lives of a huge population that would rather know nothing about them. They might not have liked the people, but, since ragtime, the middle and upper class were devout consumers of the music.

Of course, this musical phenomena, partially as a result of its format, partially as a result of the roots of what we term today as the "music industry", was readily co-opted to reach the demographics that thought the idea of a black man playing the trumpet and singing in their homes, even over the radio, was too heavy a cultural line to cross. Aside from Lous Jordan and the Mills Brothers, I can't name any black R&B artists of this era who made much of a media presence. That is in direct contrast to the dozens of artists who plied their talent, only to have it consumed by the masses when it was covered by a white musician. As jazz became more mainstream, and continued to evolve, a new offshoot of the sound developed through re-innovation and conglomeration of other cultural sounds and roots. The kernel developed into the base of what today we know as rock.

Little Richard, Fats Domino, Etta James, Chuck Berry, Louis Jordan - these were the musicians who took what they had, and turned it into a new progression of music. As the separate-but-equal process finally started the road down a fiery dismantling in the 1950's, they were the ones laying new roads of sound, and finding new words for an old voice. Despite attempted socio-political reform, the formula of co-opting a largely African-American sound, with roots in an experience alien to the majority of the consumers had already been executed, and the results were profitable. Elvis became the king of rock and roll, despite the fact that he would have had nothing to shake his hips to were it not for the largely marginalized (and, in certain cases, demonized) predecessors of the sound and style he executed.

The use of music as a form of shared experience in the face of hardship crosses all cultural boundaries. In America, however, the exploitation of music as a commodity, oftentimes by the very people who are causing the environment which created the cultural experience which spawned the music, is frightful in its success. This cycle repeated itself after the "birth" of rock and roll until the 60's, when funk hit the scene. Ownership of music and sound, and ownership of musicians, as well as the control of the dollars the consuming population spent on that media are all very similar to the design and implementation of the framework slave traders operated with.

James Brown, The Meters, and later George Clinton and P-Funk created something that could not be co-opted or repackaged. Certainly, people tried, but the marriage of image and visual had evolved as part of showmanship. It was no longer how you sounded alone, or what you were singing about - it was the whole hog - how you dressed, what your band looked like, how you danced while you performed, all these things figured into the appreciation and consumption of music. I'm not saying that visuals had no place before this period (certainly, anyone who was ever in a marching band can argue this) but it was the first time that the image became inseparable from the music, and the culture creating and consuming that music.

I'm painting with a thick brush here - I know it. I'm just trying to get to hip hop, and, at the same time, show the precident of cultural exploitation for commercial gain which was, by the time hip hop hit the scene in the late 70's, was largely an unbroken chain. Throughout the melange of musical movements described above, music was the heart, but lyrics were the soul. Words that found their way into commonplace use which might otherwise never be heard in the ears of many of the people who spoke them, in appreciation or imitation of the music they listened to.

Hip hop took that all on and more. When DJ Herc started the whole break-beat thing off, he was recycling an idea, but using a new twist. This process echoed back the whole of the musical traditions whose shoulders that innovation stood on. Likewise, as hip hop developed, sampling, looping, and remixing went from defining innovations at the start of a movement to a myriad of specializations within a full-blown sound.

The content of early hip hop, as well as the children which are either lumped into its core (beat boxing, djing, gangsta), or stood on their own,have many similarities in content. They speak/sing of hardship, drugs, guns, violence and bondage - using rhythms and parlance which were, like the antics of P-Funk and James Brown, not easily co-optable. In addition, the style and dance which was borne of the music were tied backwards to the musical tradition was borne from, and, uncertain cases, spawned wholly new trends and traditions (see:graf art and Hammer Pants).

Due to many of the changes since the 50's culturally, there was now a market ready to consume the media, without having to cover everything to make it acceptable to the mainstream. While that might sound good, in reality, the majority of the artists responsible for getting hip hop off the ground were living in situations not so different from the conditions of the slaves who first brought African sounds to America. The difference, which seems apparent to me in the raps of Ice T, or Dr. Dre, is that slaves had a sense of potential salvation through the abolition of slavery. The new slavery of the ghetto, and the urban segregation widespread in major cities on the east and west coast with sizable African American populations was even more hopeless in many ways than the preceding system. The chains of urban life were invisible, while the chains of slavery were tangible. In both cases, the music addresses those chains, but hip hop met them with far more anger and violence than the roots of the music it evolved from. Worse, the new slavery of the urban ghetto pitted African-American against his neighbors - creating division and where once there had been hope for unifying action.

The difference this time around was the success of the artists leading to the establishment of their own corner within the industry. While, to a certain extent, this fueled some of the violence which punctuated much of hip hop's history, the establishment of independently produced labels, and the circumvention of the major media outlets for success allowed hip hop to exist and flourish longer than it might have before being co-opted by those media outlets. That certainly has happened, to a lesser and greater extent nationally and internationally, but there is an instantly recognizable difference between post-production imitation hip hop made for pop consumption, and the real deal, whose roots are tied to the experiences which provide the lyrics.

Right, so, my lunch hour is totally gone, and I've wandered all over the place. The short version is I can see tons of connections, both evolutionary, and from a perspective of content and sound, between slavery and hip hop. I admit readily that my knowledge of hip hop not as deep as some of the people I assume will be reading this, and that my strength of understanding lies far more in movements and ideas than specific applications and artists. That being said, I don't think that what I wrote above was a waste. In fact, it makes me want to know more. I could definitely keep going on more concrete links, but I feel like I don't have quite enough info to make whatever I could say about the ties between the traditions which have manifested in hip hop and the culture it spanned, and slavery, which lies at the roots of the musical traditions which brought hip hop into being as meaningful as some of the connections I can see between the other elements I expounded upon.

Anywho, I hope y'all have a nice holiday, whatever it is you celebrate.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 22nd, 2006 08:10 pm (UTC)
Meh. Bad music is still bad music...and hip hop is barely music to begin with, in my never-humble opinion. :P
Dec. 22nd, 2006 08:25 pm (UTC)
I dont know what to say.
I cant disagree with you more. It cant be done.

Dec. 22nd, 2006 08:33 pm (UTC)
Well, then I'm fairly certain that the last thing that either of us wants to do is go through the other's music collection. :P
Dec. 22nd, 2006 08:37 pm (UTC)
you would prob find a few things you 'd like. I have enough rock to make almost anyone sit down and rock.
but i am def a fan of hip-hop and believe it is a truly american creation that is still mainly practiced by its creators.

Unlike rock which was "borrowed".
Dec. 22nd, 2006 08:55 pm (UTC)
Re: well
See, I really don't care about any of that. All I care about is what's pleasing to my ear, no matter what the source, the genre, the inspiration, or the cultural connotations. Hip hop ain't it.

I prefer music with a strong, dominant melody, and there's very little rap or hip-hop or even R&B that emphasizes melody enough for my taste; most of them are percussion-heavy with almost no actual singing, and what little singing or instrumentals there are tend to go off in directions I don't much like. Rap is more like beat-poetry than singing, and R&B tends to be so all over the place that identifying a melody is next to impossible. And don't even get me started on gangsta rap. Ugh. (Incidentally, I have much the same objections to the various genres of dance/techno; there's very little in that vein I can stomach either.)

Don't get me wrong; there's actually some I do like. I can think of a few rap songs from the 80s that still grab my ear, but listening to them critically, they tend to be the ones that have more emphasis on melody than most other examples of the genre, others are parodies, like Weird Al's "It's All About the Pentiums". Hell, there's even one or two I've done as karaoke, for the hell of it.

But the fact of the matter is that not only don't I grok the appeal of hip hop, musically speaking, but I'd rather listen to opera than hip hop...and that's saying something. :P
Dec. 22nd, 2006 09:01 pm (UTC)
Re: well

We since you put it that way...more power to ya.

I took your original post as you just complete dismissal of the validity of Rap as music...when you realy just dont like it. which is fine by me.

i dont like country that much...but some of the songs are ok.
Dec. 22nd, 2006 09:27 pm (UTC)
Re: well
Heh. Check out Me First and the Gimme Gimmes' new album, "Love Their Country". Punk covers of country songs rock! :)

Back when I was in school, I had a recording techniques teacher who had a lot of old drummer jokes. One of them--probably the most classic--is "What do you call a guy who likes to hang out with musicians? A drummer!". I feel much the same way about rappers, honestly; rappers and drummers don't so much make music as much as they accompany it.
SImilarly, according to musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez, "The border between music and noise is always culturally defined--which implies that, even within a single society, this border does not always pass through the same place; in short, there is rarely a consensus.... By all accounts there is no single and intercultural universal concept defining what music might be." So, while hip hop may be art--not art I like, but art of some kind, nonetheless--I have a hard time calling it 'music' with a clear conscience.

So when you say you took my original post as a complete dismissal of the validity of rap as music...you weren't completely wrong. But, honestly, it was more of a dismissal of its appeal than anything else in, as I said, my never-humble opinion. :)
Dec. 22nd, 2006 09:36 pm (UTC)
Just a first thought before I respond: There has actually been an exhaustive sociological comparative study on the question of slavery done by Orlando Patterson, entitled Slavery and Social Death. I think you would probably enjoy it because he actually invokes a sociobiological metaphor to characterize slavery: human parasitism.
Dec. 22nd, 2006 09:53 pm (UTC)
i'm halfway through it
my starting point of reference was to look at slavery as same-species parasitism, but it fell apart for me when i started framing my questions on the broader scope - it is possible to compartmentalize the biological z-factor when you don't view social/behavior as a byproduct of evolution, but i do, which muddies the waters soemwhat.

i got turned on to Patterson in an op-ed he wrote for the times like a year ago (o.k., it was march). i got through the first volume of freedom (which was pretty heavy), and am much more interested in what he has to say in a modern context (upcoming vol 2).

btw man, i didn't write any of this as a throw down. your post just got me thinking about all this again, and i hav had a post brewing on this for a while. as always, i highly value your thoughts and opinions, but i don't want you thinking this is a nerd line step - i know your knowledge on the subject blows mine out of the water.
Dec. 22nd, 2006 10:06 pm (UTC)
quick response.
To continue what has been an extended conversation between you and I, it seems like the fundamental difference between how you and I conceptualize this issue has to do with the levels on which we approach it. For me, the bio-anthropological approach is far too universal--it can't stand the test when you look at history in a non-linear way. Not to say that it's not useful, but I think that any approach that is attuned to behaviors has to pay close attention to how an individual relationship, whether it's between master and slave, capitalist and laborer, white and black, man and woman, etc, translates into a larger cultural arena. This is by no means an easy translation, and I don't think we yet have the language to sufficiently describe this dynamic. Moreover, considering the massive scope of the atlantic slave trade, there is a considerable amount of data concerning the concrete experiences, thoughts, and cultural productions of slaves that we simply don't have access to.

This problem interests me on a behavioral level because it references what has been consistently referred to as a pathological condition of the black family. There is no way to mend the ruptured lines of filiation enacted by the slave trade. For the descendents of Atlantic slaves, the best recourse we have to learn something about our ancestry is recorded in the language of property. We can see who they belonged to, who bought and sold them, who they were named by. We can sometimes figure out a mother but rarely a father. If these lost lines of descent are part of what shapes the present-day African diaspora, my question is how does that translate into contemporary black cultural production?

In order to talk about this, I think it's important, as you have started to do here, to talk about both the form and the content of hip-hop, as well as the modes of expression. When you read most white folks' accounts of hearing black music (and eonen's comments speak to this), there is a common, nearly-universal response, and that is one of disgust and confusion, one that speaks to the inability to categorize what they are hearing. It's hard to account for this response since black music is so central to American popular culture, but imagine peoples' first times hearing the blues, hearing jazz, hearing hip-hop. It seems that only upon constantly revisiting black music, by giving it a name, can we actually begin to appreciate it.

Appreciation here is a dubious term, though, because appreciation is coterminous in this context with exploitation and commodification. Appreciating black music has so constantly served as a means of showing one's appreciation for black people without actually engaging with the problems or the pain that the music manifests, without recognizing that this form of cultural production isn't "natural," it's not out of an inherent rhythmic nature to black folk, but rather it comes out of histories of oppression, of alienation, of kinlessness, of violence enacted on the black body. It should make anyone's appreciation of this music a kind of self-criticalone, because appreciation and domination in this context cannot so easily be separated.

I hope that that gives you an idea of what my sense is about this project, and I haven't even really started talking about what I'm actually talking about. Thanks again for writing this.
Dec. 27th, 2006 11:07 pm (UTC)
hoooray for Ben & Jerry's ice cream! ;D
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )


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