Subject: Jeff Chang, author of Can't Stop Won't Stop -- a book (currently $6 on amazon? cop it now, yo.), and a website -- long and short, he's one of the contemporary Professors of Hip Hop.
Backstory: In part two of this three-part interview, we get into Obama and hip hop, and really the question that prompted me to get Jeff's opinion.
Mission: The two meatiest Q&A's in the interview are below. Let's peep the science:
(Part 1 of interview is here)
(Part 3 of interview is here)
PART 2: WILL OBAMA KILL HIP HOP???
TAN: I think this is the pea under my mattress that prompted all of this: in a recent slate article you used the phrase, “postracial-is-the-new-black.” It made me think, maybe Obama is the new hip hop...
Your book Can't Stop Won't Stop seems all the more relevant today, not because of hip hop, but because it's the story of our post-racial generation. In the current phrasing we’re swapping out hip hop semantics for new slang that's more inclusive/accessible.
Obama has personified this transition; the same way "hip hop" once served as a cultural uniter, Obama is now serving that role in a a more tangible way.
Looking back now, it seems hip hop, perhaps, had a certain misplaced ambition. In the 80s and 90s all we had was Hip Hop, so we needed it to be in politics and fashion and music and make cookies and do dishes and be transcendent. Now we know different. We can’t deny hip hop’s influence, but that no longer makes a given thing "hip hop" in that KRS-istential sense. Obama may brush the dirt off his shoulder, and show his love, but he's clearly not hip hop, right? He's bigger, badder, better.
All this makes me wonder: is hip hop still as relevant as it seemed to be, or at least aspired to be, a few years ago? if so, how? if not, didn't obama play a big role in killing it off?
Jeff: i think you're right on the mark in identifying right now as a moment in which everything is shifting. success--even partial success--always creates new tensions, new anxieties, new questions. obama is certainly a symbol of hip-hop's success in literally desegregating the popular culture. but without hip-hop, obama is unimaginable.
it's as simple as yz calling for 'a black president solution' back in 1989. i'm certain that against the backdrop of ronald reagan, nelson mandela, 'do the right thing', tawana brawley, and howard beach, he was imagining someone like a fela anikulapo-kuti/louis farrakhan figure--'black power's in the realm and the government's disagreeing'. now that we're in 2008, the first real black presidential candidate is, well, half white.
in a way, that's the difference between culture and politics. hip-hop is the art of the impossible. it imagined we could rule the world when we were clearly so far from actually doing so. politics is the art of the possible. democracy in theory reduces everything to the mean+1.
i'm as ambivalent about the idea of the 'post-racial' as you are, and not just because it denies an identity of blackness or brownness or yellowness--or an identity that sits somewhere between all of that--but it also denies an identity of whiteness. whiteness is an identity born of and linked to power, after all, and one that we thus have to understand as well.
hip-hop was the new black, and in that way, it created all kinds of avenues for people like me who aren't black to understand and value culture differently than it has been valued by society in the past. that, in turn, created ways of understanding what political power looks like in this country, and furthered desires to understand and value people and communities differently. so in the end, i'm for a movement whether in culture or politics that redistributes power, shares power, flips off authority and flips the given script.
if hip-hop would go back to being disadvantaged voices yelling loudly, that might solve the problem. but here's the problem--that's impossible now. too much has changed. the only realistic way forward is to admit that in some important ways we aren't the underdog anymore, that we fucking won. and then we have to get over our fear of 'what happens next'? what happens next is we take this shit over and run it.
TAN: A lot of your piece talks about the new multi-racial majority. reports have whites becoming minority in 2050. How do you see things changing once ethnics are running this piece?
Jeff: dude. now the census bureau says 2042. and the brookings institution says 18-29's hit that g-spot in 2028. 2028!!! i might even live that long.
so yeah, this is the big question now, right? this is where whiteness as the identity of power is crucial--i think of all the anti-black racism of my folks. it's pretty viscerally about both being higher up the food chain AND being lighter skinned. that, i think, was part of the real fear behind the 'is he black enough?' talk--but it was the Fear That Could Not Be Named, except perhaps by a cadre of folks who lived through COINTELPRO with a gun under their pillow. and generationally, some of us have been so eager to crash the party that those folks just sound really old. that's the flipside of 'post-racial' if you will.
the truth is probably somewhere in between--and my sympathies probably lie closer to the cadres than the david broders of the world, who are ready to call it a day for racism before driving home to their gated community.
lots of folks i spoke to this year, especially bun b and david banner, really wanted to emphasize that obama would be the president of america, not of non-white america, and that we needed to deal with that. which for me raised the obama and faith question. do we place our faith in him that he's gonna make things right? in this sense, 'yes we can' was a neat little rhetorical device--it allowed obama to wipe that dirt off his shoulder. it's not me, it's you. barack is getting ready to let us down easy. but then again, i truly buy his sincerity. i'm feeling that earnestness. after so many years of 'kick me please', it's nice to hear someone say, 'have it your way' and like really really mean it.
i guess my best hope is that the difficult conversations around race continue, that obama's presence puts a ceiling on the biliousness and the viciousness, and that the general arc gets pointed again in the direction of justice. as for the rest of it, i take his challenge seriously--if obama's in the office, then let's get it.
Saving the best for last in PART III: Which came first: The Death of Hip Hop or The Death of Wall Street... and, did crack pave the way for Barack?