Friday, April 29, 2011

Hip Hop & Hipsterism: A Philosophy of Us and Them

Here's an excerpt from my contribution to n+1's "What was the Hipster?" book. Last fall the conversation circulated around at spots like NYMag (114 comments), NYTimes ("f this intellectual minutiae, someone implies), Yglesias ("flat-out good writing"), hilobrow (they prefer the term "revivalist", and other spots that if I weren't so out of practice with my linking I would include. But Mr. Google can help if you want more...

On my end I offered some thoughts from the perspective of someone who never really encountered the term until I started hanging with nyc media types. And so I began with this:

There is a difference . . . between Norman and myself in that I think he still imagines that he has something to save, whereas I have never had anything to lose.  Or, perhaps I ought to put it another way: the things that most white people imagine that they can salvage from the storm of life is really, in sum, their innocence. It was this commodity precisely which I had to get rid of at once, literally, on pain of death
- James Baldwin
The quotation is from James Baldwin’s “love letter” to Norman Mailer, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” published in Esquire in 1961, four years after Mailer’s “The White Negro” first appeared in Dissent Magazine. If the n+1 panel is a modern update (repurposing?) of Mailer’s attempt to define the hipster, then consider this “Black Boy’s” response a recapitulation of Baldwin’s dismissive-but-gracious riposte. The hipster, most essentially, strikes me as an avatar of innocence. No one self-identifies as a hipster, and by most definitions the hipster has no agenda of its own. Maybe it was an idea, an inception, planted a long time ago, only to exist as a projection from our own subconscious. Baldwin’s point, then, is to suggest that an essay on the White Negro -- and I’d argue, as analogue to a panel on hipsters -- is the indulgence of a dream, a fantasy, that requires the luxury of sleeping through life to obtain (this echoes Nietzsche’s first maxim in Twilight of the Idols: “Idleness is the beginning of all psychology”). Baldwin’s sentiment is one that cuts right to the heart of what white privilege in America is about. The artful shirking off of human responsibility in the face of ostensible ongoing injustice. A certain entitled pacifism -- passive-aggression as institutional oppression -- that preserves the status quo of Us and Them. They say the issue of class is about the Haves and the Have Nots, but that’s one capitalist-construct up from the fundamental ground-level conversation of Us and Them. And the hipster discussion, much like Mailer’s “White Negro” essay, is a different kind of discussion: one about Us and Them, carried on almost entirely among those who Have.

-- snip, 2500 words later I concluded with this --

Young people who came up during the hip hop explosion saw it empower black people, but also saw it enter the same system of commercial exploitation that created preppies and yuppies and all the rest. If hip hop learned by watching white America, then maybe the new young white America, in their best and only attempt to try and help correct things, said, look we’re going to make ourselves so silly, so pathetically vapid, that you have no choice but to return to the roots of what you believed you could obtain through hip hop. And in so doing, help us all get back to the roots of what we all believe you can obtain through art and culture. And what we all want is to find the means and way of turning a philosophy of Us and Them into simply Us.

Hip-hop allows for the same conversation, one about us and them, but also steers towards more substance, content, towards real people, real issues of inequity, injustice. I mean to say: if you're talking about hipsters, and want to get somewhere, you might be better off just talking hip hop. To more directly get to the point. To make your words and ideas more actionable. To skip indulging in intellectual exercises like "The White Negro." To choose the more difficult route: learning hip hop codes and sensibility, because it’s a genuine culture, not a shell or an aesthetic. It's not a rationalization, it has depth. If both hipsterism and hip-hop are doors to move all of us on to a shared place, hip hop is the one that isn’t revolving, returning you to where you started.


to be honest, I was a little disappointed that my thesis -- it's more productive to talk about hip hop than hipsters -- didn't get more traction in the public conversation, especially since a lot of that public analysis centers around how silly it is to talk about hipsters. and that's on me to keep writing more better, knahmean... but all told, with opinions from females of this generation, and from the original beatnik/hippie/hipster generation, along with me holding it down for negroes and hip hop, and the usual tassel of male tighty-whiteyswhile it is indeed a book for those who care about "intellectual minutia", it's also a fairly comprehensive, diverse, and provocative all-inclusive take on an elusive subject. word.


  1. Interesting Post,
    thought you might like my machinima film
    its a hip hop life
    best wishes
    elf ~

  2. Hip Hop the most common thing found today, we should try and individually think about it.

  3. It was really great to come across the entire blog. The post was really nice and overall work is just great.


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