commentary Hip-hop

Hip Hop as a Material and Immaterial Reality

I apologize for the long hiatus from posting blogs. It seems that it is easy to fall out of this habit for the academic, as writing seems to be the action that generates the most nervousness. Researching be damned, it’s the writing your thoughts out in incomplete formations, clunky sentences, and ridiculous claims that seems to cause me to question myself.

Yet, as the great and practical philosophy of Stoicism denotes, one must persist and resist lest be a needless victim of your own mind. In that vein, as I currently work on an article centered around decoupling the culture of hip hop from the artform of rap (if that’s even possible), I want to briefly talk about one of the points that has come up in my literary reading. Namely, hip hop as both a material and immaterial reality.

What do I mean when I say this? Well, I am referring to alternative knowledge (or epistemology as Wanda [pronounced V] Canton adeptly writes about in her recent article) versus the material culture that has been born from the hip hop movement. When I speak of hip hop and knowledge, I am mostly referring to the “fifth element” of hip hop culture (i.e., knowledge). This facet has been widely talked about and develop by hip hop researcher Dr. Justin Williams (Bristol University) and Dr. Sina Nietzsche (international researcher and educator). Their collective edited 2022 special issue, “Knowledge Reigns Supreme”: The Fifth Element in Hip Hop Culture” with Global Hip Hop Studies (GHHS) goes real in-depth on the issue but I’ll do my best to summarize with my available understanding of the topic.

Because hip hop culture was born from a very specific set of socioeconomic, cultural, and political conditions, the communities that hip hop touched and was cultivated by inscribed hip hop with community knowledge. Not only community-based knowledge did they create but the very infrastructure to support the passing of this ‘knowledge’ (or epistemology) from person to person, community member to community member. Because of this, the nature of hip hop culture can be thought of as an alternative method of culturally-specific communication between community members based upon their alienation from the wider society, the hegemonic consensus of what societal relations should look like. As mostly minority communities were being pushed out of life itself, they needed to communicate to stay alive. But communication was too being “colonized” from the outside in and there was little that could be done to stop this relentless domination.

Thus, hip hop became a way to communicate, to survive under harsh conditions, and ultimately to create alternative family networks that could thrive under extreme persecution. We all need connection and a place to belong, and for persecuted black, Latino, and minority communities in the south Bronx in the 1960-70s, that what hip hop promised them. A home, even if it was illegal, vilified by the world, equated with violence, dangerous, financially precarious, and misogynistic. It was somewhere to belong to, to call their own. Graffiti was a way to reclaim territory lost to the postmodern colonizer, rap was a way to speak without being understood by the masses, breakdance was a way to talk with the body, and DJing was unique reclaiming of predominately white-dominated disco.

As Travis L. Gosa notes in the Cambridge Companion to Hip Hop (2015), thanks to Afrika Bambaataa, hip hop shifted away from simply being party music (cultivated by DJ Kool Herc) to what is called “edutainment.” This term, however benign, had long-lasting implications upon the evolution of hip hop culture, and more specifically rap. Hip hop was no longer just a cultural pastime but something that symbolized the liberation of the African-American from the legacy of slavery, racism, and “othering” around them. Hip hop represented the control of the narrative of the decrepit urban environment. The Universal Zulu Nation was ultimately the outgrowth of Bambaataa’s mission to uplift the future generation of African-American hip hoppers, becoming a strong and influential political organization against the war-loving, slavery-upholding external forces. Essentially, the humanist drive to better oneself and in the process the world at large. This was the true intention of hip hop, not aggression.

As Gosa notes,

“Knowledge of self, according to the Zulu Nation’s literature, can be derived from the critical and self-reflective study of anything in the universe, as long as knowledge is deployed toward peace, unity, love, and having fun.”

Gosa (2015)

This is the immaterial core of hip hop culture, the part which cannot be touched. What CAN be touched is the turntable, the rapper, the microphone, the clothing, the graffiti can (balloon), the wall, the breakdancer, the floor, the MC, the recording. These things are the material world of hip hop but the immaterial (knowledge) is what gives these material realities meaning. Without hip hop’s epistemic underpinning, a can of spray paint is just a can, a rapper a loud and obnoxious performer, and a graffiti artist a vandal who should be arrested. Without stepping into the shoes of the worldview of hip hop, there is no ability to truly understand why hip hop looks and sounds the way it does. This extends to contemporary practitioners as well. Despite their fame, many may not be aware of what hip hop actually means, what it truly means to the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the socioeconomically downtrodden. In these spaces, a different way of making knowledge exists which is alien to the priviledged.

As Canton notes,

Rather than objective or universal truths, so-called ‘rationality’ and ‘knowledge’ are themselves constructions which shape how we live in and through the world.

Canton (2022, p. 62)

Hip hop is everywhere, both physically and culturally but without attuning yourself to the fifth element, you got a lot of work to do.

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