Okay, you opened this link, I imagine, because you relate with hip-hop as music and culture, but you don’t know who the hell C.L.R. James was and what his relation to hip-hop is and you want an immediately satisfactory answer. If you bear with me, just for a minute, maybe I can make this relation understandable, concrete, valid, and relevant.
I’ll attempt to keep your interest by stating an absolute. If it weren’t for the West Indies, hip-hop would never have been. How could this be, you ask? Because of the mobile DJ movement which began in Jamaica in the 1940s with personalities like Coxsonne Dodd and Prince Buster. These DJs would drive around Kingston and other parts of Jamaica blasting native Ska music from their sound systems. It began as a viable means for folks to socialize and hear new music.
When many West Indians, Jamaicans included, began to migrate to the States, many settled in New York City. These newly arrived foreigners assimilated into their new lives, and American blacks and Latinos assimilated to theirs. (If you want to dig further, you should read Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop.)
James was a native of Trinidad in the West Indies were this culture started and he spent a great deal of his mature years in the States. This was approximately between the years 1938-1953, right along the same time as the DJ movement is developing in Jamaica.
Cool. Now we have a partial relation established. Are you still with me? Aight, let’s continue beyond loose association.
James, during the last few years of his stint here, spent some time writing a manuscript which he then called NOTES ON AMERICAN CIVILIZATION. In this manuscript he outlays his ideas on the American struggle for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; the mantra all Americans are familiar with from primary school forward. I'll attempt a summation of his contribution and, hopefully, it will become concretely relevant to all hip-hop heads and exactly why they should read the book AMERICAN CIVILIZATION.
The struggle for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a struggle which is not complete or motionless, but always in conflict. Throughout history, and America is no exception in this case, we develop art and culture which relate to the degree and level of struggle of the corresponding period. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, our unique, American fashion, reaches higher stages in relation to the particular struggles of American people. Whether these struggles take the form of women’s suffrage, eight-hour workdays, civil rights, emancipation, reconstruction, etc., a form of culture develops which gives expression to these seemingly disparate internal struggles within various sections of the working class, for they are all class struggles.
For example, the struggle for emancipation among black slaves beget a culture and music which reflects that particular struggle. The struggles of industrial workers in the 1930s beget a respective art which gave it context and relevancy. The Black Power movement developed a language, culture, and art unlike any other time in history.
The struggle of our period is as diverse as ever in history. The working class of the 21st century is in a struggle with itself to eliminate homophobia, socially and institutionally, to grant amnesty to our Latino immigrant brothers and sisters coming to our country to lend their culture of struggle and so we may lend our forms to them, to redefine the meaning of class in a deproletarianized, that is deindustrialized, non-factory worker society where service workers and cube slaves are developing a culture of resistance of their very own, to engage in struggle with the various sections of the Right who are largely winning the hearts and mind of American people, etc., etc., etc.
What medium of expression more clearly reflects this struggle than hip-hop? Where in the country does racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, politics, and class life more acutely find context than our hip-hop culture? This is it, dear readers. This is why James is relevant. If you have made it this far, my hope is that you have made the leaps in consciousness I have recently went through when reading this book.
Think you can hang for an added dose? Dope! I knew I could count on you! Hang on readers, this might get a bit abstract.
James writes in AMERICAN CIVILIZATION about the “universality” of culture in modern society; about the potentials modern society sets in motion for an integration of work life and cultural life. Up to our time, there was such a separation between production; the aspects of life which satisfies human needs, and artistic life; the way people express their particular form and level of production.
He saw the limitations of film; while they satisfied the mass desire for individuality and a break of the “mechanization”, the routinization, if you will, and sameness of life in factories—which up til the past twenty years or so, was the main form of American production—they did not fulfill the degree of universality that, he says, the drama of ancient Greece fulfilled for its age.
However, he acknowledges that while the drama of ancient Greece had a larger degree of universality, that the American film, radio, comic strip, television of the mid-20th century is creating the possibility for a medium which more intensely amalgamates, mixes, and integrates, work and cultural life in a much more democratic and accessible fashion and which does not limit itself to the most elementary of desires of human beings today. Hip-hop more accurately conveys the level of humankind’s “dislocation” in society, their disgust with the mundane routine of Monday-Friday or whatever shift they work, their boring sex life, and lack of excitement in general, etc.
Because of his expulsion from the country in 1953 due to McCarthyism, he was not able to write the book. His manuscript was finally released in 1993, nearly five years after his death in 1989.
James never wrote about hip-hop, partially because when he died hip-hop had not reached the level of development we have 17 years later. Not to say that hip-hop had not reached a beautiful summit in the late 80s, but maybe he was just too old then to continue writing, or maybe he just didn’t know about it. Hell, I don’t know, but I do know had he had the time, he would have seen, quite possibly, that hip-hop was the fulfillment of all his work. And, since I write from the perspective of hip-hop, I write on C.L.R. James and his relation to it. Congratulations, you made it, dog. Now go buy that shit.
I welcome any historical, bibliographical, etc. corrections and of course any and all criticisms. Peace.