By Edward Lovo

Rumour has it that hip-hop is not dead, that it’s been buried alive, and if one presses their ears against the ground they can hear the sounds from the underground. Hip-hop emerged in its spirit as an art form; its voice was an artistic expression of marginalized people. At its present state hip-hop has lost that spirit for another – the spirit of capitalism. Its voice is sweetened with the honey of bourgeois consciousness.

Hip-hop’s transformation into a commodity reflects an almost invisible but very powerful force in the system imposed by advanced industrial society. Industrial society imposes a technological order, a rationality that seems sensible – where the individual worker disappears from socially necessary but arduous labour in its mechanization – where individual enterprises are integrated into corporations to boost productivity and effectiveness – where free competition among unequally equipped economic subjects is regulated. All of this reflects the rationality behind technological progress, which has the promise of rendering individual autonomy possible. “The technological processes of mechanization and standardization might release individual energy into a yet uncharted realm of freedom beyond necessity.” However, with the advancement of this technological rationality comes a price.

Theorist Herbert Marcuse says, “Independence of thought, autonomy, and the right to political opposition are deprived of their basic critical function in a society which seems increasingly capable of satisfying the needs of the individuals through the way in which it is organized. Such a society may justly demand acceptance of its principles and institutions, and reduce the opposition to the discussion and promotion of alternative policies within the status quo. In this respect, it seems to make little difference whether the increasing satisfaction of needs is accomplished by an authoritarian or a non-authoritarian system.”

Non-conformity with the system, then, appears to go against rationality. Conformity is encouraged and develops a pattern of thought that rejects aspirations and ideas that do not conform with technological rationality — a pattern of thought which is essentially uncritical.

The art form of hip-hop was a vehicle for communicating the ideas, the emotions, and the aspirations of marginalized people which were repressed and stifled by the everyday reality — through hip-hop, people found an outlet where one’s voice discovered the expression it hungered for. Hip-hop held up a mirror to the social reality of urban life, not refracting its light but reflecting its rotten core which reality has numbed us to in our daily lives.

Hip-hop set itself against society, pushing the concealed realities of racism, black poverty, and urban ills past the bounds of sanity into absurdity. The rationality of the higher classes that everything is in working and established order was refuted by the ideals espoused by hip-hop.

Rappers such as Sticky Fingaz of Onyx expresses, in a single lyric, a poignantly distorted perception of reality: “They call me nigga so much, startin’ to think it’s my name.” Infused into his experience as a human is a sense of rupture from humanity — and though this isn’t a colonial situation, Theorist Frantz Fanon’s description of dehumanization of the colonized by the colonist is pertinent here. The oppressor (white people) has distinguished him/herself from the oppressed (black people) who bestialize the latter, which so much media in the ‘90s can testify to. This is what Sticky Fingaz conveys with this lyric. Regrettably, articulation of the black experience in America is entirely lost in the millennium’s hip-hop.

Rapper A.G. paints a frighteningly vivid picture of poor urban areas — ghettos — in the song “Runaway Slave,” not to mention the powerful symbolism invoked by the song title. A.G. is “livin’ in the slums with the bums” where at every corner can be found a crack vial, drug dealers, crack-heads; where “babies are having babies” and “juveniles act wild.” These are ugly truths that hip-hop used to convey about poor urban areas mainly populated by people of colour, truths which have been substituted for dreams of riches that no one but a very few will be able to attain.

Hip-hop of the millennium has substituted the spirit of art with the spirit of capitalism. In songs such as J. Cole’s “Dollar and a Dream III,” Jay-Z’s “So Ambitious,” Lil Wayne’s “Make it Rain,” and Rick Ross’s “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast)” resentment at poor socioeconomic conditions, the wish for social conditions to be different in urban areas for the betterment of the community transforms into individualistic dreams of prosperity.

This ideology of prosperity that has taken a hold of hip-hop stems from the slow systematic transformation of social reality that advanced, industrial society has incurred on it. Few show interest in hip-hop that does not obsess with prosperity or materialism. Hip-hop has been killed, and capitalism wedded to a technological rationality is the culprit, annihilating all opposition to it.

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