Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Great Books From Graduate School, Vol. 3 | Thinking About Hip Hop Philosophically

I was recently reading back through my masters thesis (THE CULTURE INDUSTRY, HIP HOP MUSIC AND THE WHITE PERSPECTIVE: HOW ONE-DIMENSIONAL REPRESENTATION OF HIP HOP MUSICHAS INFLUENCED WHITE RACIAL ATTITUDES) and had a good time reliving that time that changed the course of my life. There is so much hidden and not so hidden meaning within the discourse of hip hop music and I did my best to scrape beneath the surface to understand how discourse on rap music is really a discourse on race in America.

With all that being said, the ever so intellectual hip hop heads at WUW? would like to present to you:

Great Books From Graduate School, Vol. 3
Thinking About Hip Hop Philosophically

The selected titles are some of the best resources for the philosophical study of hip hop music, race, the media, and that peculiar race of people called the whites.

The following contains excerpts from my masters thesis: (Click here to read the complete study)

1.2 Hip Hop Music 
Hip Hop music (also referred to as rap music) emerged an extension of disco, Jamaican “Dub”, rock, and R&B, while rapping emerged from MC’s who would talk over the music as DJ’s fused the various music genres for the crowd to dance (George 1998). Hip hop music developed as a local, underground, alternative to the mainstream with a message which confronted urban poverty, racism, and a growing sense of economic abandonment in Black inner city neighborhoods (Rose 1994, George 1998). Although not exclusively a Black movement, the hip hop culture gave many young Blacks an avenue to create a new space in which they could communicate and express the frustrations and hopes specific to the Black community (Rose 1994). As hip hop spread from the streets of New York City to cities across America, it began to take on the local identity of the artists and their communities.

Hip hop music has become a highly contested art form as it has climbed to the top of the popular music charts and influenced various areas of culture from education to advertising (Kitwana 2002, Carter 2006, Ibrahim 1999, Fordham and Ogbu 1986). Following its popularity, critics of hip hop music have credited it for the destruction of the Black community, gang and drug related violence, demeaning of women, and the overall destruction of America’s values (Rose 2008). 

Towards the end of the 1990’s, hip hop music became increasingly associated with its negative manifestations, particularly “gangsta rap,” but also highly misogynistic, materialistic, violent, and hyper-sexual lyrics and images. Hip Hop’s multiple dimensions of politics, religion, comedy, social commentary, urban story telling, and social critique became underrepresented in mass media, as the commodities of gangster, ghetto, violence, drug dealer, and misogyny were thought to attract a wealthy, suburban, white, teenage audience. The culture industry’s intentional one-dimensional representation of hip hop music, for the purpose of attracting White consumers, plays on historically negative assumptions of the Black culture. This positioning of hip hop music created an economic environment which necessitated rappers adopt the commoditized negative images, which continued the cycle of one-dimensionalization. As hip hop artists continued to play the roles defined for them by the culture industry by representing negative images through hip hop music, Whites continued to accept the negative images and lyrics as authentic Blackness. The acceptance of these manufactured images and lyrics led the culture industry to increase production of the one-dimensional, negative forms of hip hop music.

1.3 The Culture Industry 

Frankfurt School authors such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse extensively critiqued the media’s ability to influence the thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs of consumers. In their 1947 book, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer named the combination of radio, print, television, and advertising the “culture industry.” They critiqued the culture industry’s power to create false consciousness and reinforce dominant ideologies, which lead to reproduction of ideology instead of expansion of the mind. 
Each single manifestation of the culture industry inescapably reproduces human beings as what the whole has made them. And all its agents, from the producer to the women’s organizations, are on alert to ensure that the simple reproduction of mind does not lead on to the expansion of mind. (Horkheimer and Adorno 1947:100) 
Horkheimer and Adorno’s culture industry thesis provided a foundation for Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 book, One Dimensional Man. Marcuse furthered their critique by emphasizing the way the culture industry eliminates the multiple dimensions of reason, identity, and culture. He argued that the one-way mediation of information (mainly through the new medium of television, but also radio, news papers, cinema, and advertising) disrupted the individual’s and the culture’s ability to discern true needs from false needs. He also argued that the culture industry’s influence over all of culture reproduced dominant cultural ideologies in individuals and limited the expansion of the mind and perspectives, thus rendering the man and culture one-dimensional. 

When the culture industry apprehended hip hop music, it one-dimensionalized the art and expression to reproduce hegemonic relationships between Whites and Blacks and reproduced historical ideologies of the Black culture as inferior and responsible for their own inequality (Schuman, etal 1997, Sears, etal 2000, Charles and Bobo 2009, Huddy and Feldman 2009, Rose 2008). This representation of hip hop music has damaging effects on the way Whites filter their encounters with Blacks some Whites are unable to distance themselves from the negatively mediated representations that form and reproduce historically negative racial attitudes towards Blacks in America. 

Ben Agger agrees in The Virtual Self (2004a), that individuals in today’s culture are saturated with images and messages. “Selves’ psyches are engaged by the culture industries, which induce people to spend hours watching television and Web surfing, consuming advertising images that form identity” (Agger 2004a:107). Todd Gitlin reinforces the effect of the culture industry’s influence as he argues that American culture has been saturated by images to the point that it is incapable of making conscious choices and decisions: 

Collectively, the main ‘effect’ of media saturation is that we live – we have no other choice – in societies whose people waste away countless hours watching television, listening to recorded music, playing video games, connecting to the internet, and so on unto the next wave of technologies (Gitlin 2002). 

Being saturated with media images that form identity and lull society into a quotidian experience of consumption without critical analysis leads the legitimization of hegemonic boundaries of class, race, and gender forces (Kellner 1995:62). Interrogating the culture industry’s positioning of Black images through the co-option of hip hop music is necessary to reveal one source which informs Whites’ leaps of abstraction (Senge 2006) when filtering their beliefs about Blacks. Leaps of abstraction are made possible when the culture industry saturates mass media with one-dimensional negative representations of hip hop music and Whites, unable to separate themselves from the media torrent (Gitlin 2002), accept the images as authentic representations of Blackness and project reproduced negative perceptions onto individual Blacks.

1.4 Commodification of Hip Hop Music 
In the same critical view of the Frankfurt School authors, many hip hop intellectuals, Michael Eric Dyson (1996), Patricia Rose (1994, 2008), Todd Boyd (2003), Bakari Kitwana (2002,2005) and Nelson George (1998, 2005), have critiqued the role of the culture industry in distorting hip hop music into a one-dimensional form, commoditized and sold as violent, misogynistic, materialistic, and destructive. 

The culture industry has limited the representation of hip hop to narrow, negative associations of Blackness, and by “letting commercialized hip hop become a nearly constant caricature of gangstas, pimps, and hoes, we’ve come to equate black poverty with black street life. This denies and silences a wide range of black urban ghetto experiences and points of view which venerates predatory street culture” (Rose 2008:139). These limited caricatures of black poverty reinforce Whites’ negative racial attitudes of the Black culture being inherently dysfunctional and responsible for their own inequality (Schuman, etal 1997, Sears, etal 2000, Charles and Bobo 2009, Huddy and Feldman 2009, Rose 2008, Kitwana 2002). The saturation of these images “produces representations that attempt to induce consent to certain political positions, getting members of the society to see specific ideologies as ‘the way things are’” (Kellner 1995:59). In other words, the saturation of narrow representations of Blacks as gangstas, pimps, and hoes through commercial hip hop, creates an illusion that what is represented is a seamless extension of the Black reality: 
The more densely and completely its techniques duplicate empirical objects, the more easily it creates the illusion that the world outside is a seamless extension of the one which has been revealed in the cinema. (Horkheimer and Adorno 1947:99) 

3.2 The Assumption that Whites are Hip Hop’s Primary Audience 
Since 1992, it has been regularly reported by various sources from Public Enemy’s Chuck D, music magazines and executives, to hip hop scholars like Patricia Rose that whites purchase anywhere from 60-80% of all rap music (Kitwana 2002, Rose 2008). 

Although, the theory that Whites are the main consumers of hip hop music and more importantly of the violent gangster version is commonly accepted, Bakari Kitwana challenges the Whites as primary consumer thesis in his 2005 book, Why White Kids Love Hip Hop. Kitwana claims that this thesis stems from a 1991 article by David Samuels published in the New Republic entitled, “The Rap on Rap: the Black Music that Isn’t Either.” Although Samuels never claimed a percentage, his claim that Whites accounted for the majority of hip hop’s consumers and has continually been reiterated since that article. 

Kitwana states that the percentage of Whites as hip hop consumers consistently ranges from 60 to 80 percent, but “search high and low and you would be hard pressed to find a source for it” (Kitwana 2005:83). Kitwana cites three main sources of the Whites as primary hip hop consumer theory; Record label executives in the late 1980’s, Soundscan in 1991, and the Soundata surveys in 1992. These three sources began making the conclusion that Whites were the primary consumers without hard evidence to support it. 

However, after the thesis caught on, it began to be reiterated in magazines, books, television, and within the music industry. Referring to the Neilson-Soundscan surveys, Kitwana says:
…although the company prides itself on being able to obtain demographic data of hip-hop sales in a given area, none of the searches or data they compile specify race, nor do they target suburban versus rural neighborhoods. Rather Soundscan breaks data down into categories such as “high-income” and “low-income” areas, not in terms of black and white, suburban or urban (Kitwana 2005:87). 
A soundscan spokesperson concurs: “A variety of conclusions can be drawn depending on how they are looking at the data, but any conclusions reached about white kids and black kids, suburban and urban involves a fair amount of conjecture.” (Kitwana 2005:87,88) 
This counter argument concerning the legitimacy of the Whites as primary audience is crucial in the exploration of the interaction between director, author, and audience. Whether or not Whites are the primary audience is not as important as the perception that Whites are hip hop’s primary audience. Because Whites have been accepted as the primary audience of hip hop music, the culture industry has shaped the images and messages of hip hop music to fit what they believe Whites’ will accept and purchase as an authentic representation of the Black culture. 


At every part of the cycle of assumptions, the culture industry inserts itself to mediate the relationship between the artists and the audience. However, the audience gives feedback to both the artist and the culture industry through its consumption. The theory of a capitalist society is that individuals exchange goods on an open market and producers meet individual’s wants and needs. This is where the culture industry inserts itself to convert the free market to a mediated market, which creates false consciousness and induces consumption of false needs. The modern and post-modern society of capitalism demands expanding markets and increased consumption that can only be maintained through the creation of false needs and the development of false consciousness (Agger 2004b). 

But, as Marcuse emphasized, the true nature of the culture industry is not that it thrusts itself upon the individual but that it develops false consciousness within the individual. The culture industry increases consumption by rapturing individuals into a quotidian immersion inside the media torrent in which “they don’t experience culture as a series of arguments, borne of texts. Instead, culture inheres in the world, as solid and nature like as buildings and glaciers” (Agger 2004b:41). 

Caught in the media torrent and experiencing the cultural texts as fixed truths, false needs and false consciousness moves from imposed ideological arguments to internalized beliefs and self-imposed creation of false needs (Agger 2004a:99). When Whites internalize the culture industry’s negative racial ideology presented in the form one-dimensional hip mop music and accept the representations as fixed truths inherent to the Black culture, the ideology changes from imposed arguments to internally accepted beliefs about the fixed nature of the world. 
Accepting these narrow representations of hip hop music as fixed truths about the Black culture deepens the one-dimensionalization of hip hop music which deepens Whites historically negative perceptions of Blacks. In this way the audience’s assumptions are equally responsible for the negative representations of Blacks in popular hip hop music as the audience works in conjunction with the culture industry accepting the negatively mediated representations of hip hop music and de-authorizing the hip hop texts to rewrite the meaning of multi-dimensional music one-dimensionally.
Hard core hip hop in the mid-to late 1980’s was defined as true hip hop as opposed to watered down commercial stuff that was emerging with greater frequency as independent labels buckled under the consolidation of the music industry. With the rise of so-called gangsta rap by the late 1980’s and the early 1990’s, mainstream media outlets began equating “hard-core” with so-called gangsta rap (Kitwana 2005:84).

4.2 The Hierarchy of Reader Over Writer: Audience over Author 

The post-civil rights generation of White America has contributed to the increase in racial equality but has also held onto negative racial perceptions, which play out in public policy, schooling, and housing. Masked with humanitarian principles of inclusion and equality, the latent negative perceptions of Whites towards Blacks continue to reinforce historical exclusion and inequality as Lawrence Bobo and Camille Charles point out in the 2009 article, “Race in the American Mind: From the Moynihan Report to the Obama Candidacy:” 
From listening to too much commercialized, highly visible hip hop, one could get the impression that life in the ghetto is an ongoing party of violence and self destruction with “style,” that street culture is an all consuming thing, that poor black folks have created the conditions under which they live (Rose 2008:141).
While a majority of whites in the twenty-first century embrace racial equality in principle and believe in increasing the human capital characteristics of disadvantaged groups, their increasing inclination to blame blacks themselves (or Latinos) for their disadvantaged status results in what we call an implementation gap: whites are increasingly unwilling to support public policies such as affirmative action that they believe offer unfair advantages to a group of people they believe are unwilling to help themselves (Bobo and Charles 2009:249). 
Hip hop music, when filtered through the latent and explicit negative racial perceptions, loses its political power as an agent of negation, empowerment, and multi-dimensional representation of the Black experience. Many of the artists who are commonly referred to as gangsta or street rappers with negative messages, can be read dialectically depending on the audiences predetermined perspective of racial stereotypes. Tupac Shakur reflects on this dilemma in the movie Tupac: Resurrection: 
There’s a bad part because the kids see that and they mimic you. That’s the part I haven’t figured out yet… To me it’s like, when I sing, “I live the thug life baby I’m hopeless,”… I’m doing it for the kid that really does live the thug life and feels like it is hopeless. So… when I say it like that it’s to reach him. You understand? And even if when I reach him it-it-it make it look glorious to the guy that doesn’t live that life. I-I mean, I can’t help it, it’s a fact, you know… I think I am being responsible, but it’s hard (Quoted in Rose 2008:133) 
Tupac is attempting to communicate that his message is up for interpretation, and depending on the subject position of the audience, the message can be re-interpreted and re-written with unlimited messages. What Tupac is trying to come to grips with is the Derridean notion that reading is a form of writing, or with music, that listening is a form of writing. “One of Derrida’s most important points is that reading writes…. Derrida privileges reading because he notices that reading is a literary version in its own right, potentially even a text if it is published or posted” (Agger 2004b:23). 

For a youth growing up in a gang, drug, and violence infested neighborhood, Tupac’s words may mean hope and help guide them away from the “thug life.” For other youth growing up in similar situations, Tupac’s descriptions of the “thug life” may seem enticing and lead them into a lifestyle of destruction. Whites who listen to Tupac have the ability to filter Tupac’s message in different ways as well. Whites who are aware and sympathetic to the struggle of post-industrial urban poverty may read Tupac’s lyrics politically and his message may lead them to push for legislation that promotes equality and inclusion. But, for other Whites who are immersed in the culture industry’s cycle of assumptions, they may interpret Tupac’s stories as evidence of the inherent dysfunction of the Black community and even blame Tupac and members of the urban Black community for their own predicament.
Unfortunately, this real racial progress is juxtaposed with clear and convincing evidence of persisting racial tensions: a substantial portion of the white population still holds negative stereotypes of blacks and other minorities, and whites and minority groups have decidedly different views about the persistence of racial discrimination as well as the causes of racial inequality in American society. These trends no doubt contribute to the persistence of feelings of social distance between whites and racial minority groups, in addition to feelings of alienation among blacks, Latinos, and Asians (Bobo and Charles 2009:246). 
The audience’s (White consumers) racial assumptions are both a cause of hip hop’s one-dimensionalization and an effect of the culture industry’s one-dimensional representation of hip hop music. There are three points to emphasize when considering the White audience’s role in the culture industry’s cycle of assumptions; the de-authoring of texts by the culture industry, the filtering of images through historically negative perception of Black culture, and the postmodern hierarchy of reader over writer (or in this case, the listener over writer) and how the filtering of mediated images through negative racial perceptions re-writes the intended meaning of the author within culture.

If you are interested in race, hip hop, and/or the media culture - We recommend you pick up any or all of these books!

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