Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Honduras, Hip-Hop, and the Radio: some notes

I apologize in advance for the notes format. I presently don't have the time to work this out in a more presentable form and need to get this up so it can be digested and expanded further. This was off the back of a recent phone conversation with mlove over at Gathering Forces, a blog project I am a part of.

A return to C.L.R.'s American Civilization and a further study of culture and mass communications will be necessary, but that will have to come at a later time.

Hip-hop is reflective of the self-movement of the working class and its myriad particularities and subjectivities (people of color, women, poor white folks, college kids, etc), meaning it moves on by its own logic and not by the force of external factors (bosses, cops, capitalists, repression, climate change, etc.) even if these have influence.

Hip-hop on the radio is only a partial expression of the whole of hip-hop, but it has its own totality and self-movement and the music still found on radio has validity. This much we have said before.

It's partiality is due to the limitations of the radio medium not only technologically, but in its monopolization and standardization--which is, consistent with the growth of capitalism. This is a fact I have not given enough credence to. It was an attempt to guard against conservatism and the "external factors" issue, but it must now be more explicitly acknowledged.

Where the patriarchy and barbarism of hip-hop surface, D&HHP has consistently opposed making those things exceptional to hip-hop, but in opposing we do so as the hip-hop generation and in actual struggle not by calling for non-patriarchal hip-hop. This latter point isn't exactly new. What has been more recent is our more integrated understanding of the complexity of the fight. What we don't do is make synthetic arguments for how hip-hop "used to be."

In the late 80s and early 90s hip-hop was not more balanced, it only appeared as such because of its limitation to traditional mass communication (radio, TV, print). These forms were then able to capture a larger totality, but hip-hop has grown larger and radio has grown thinner (not necessarily proportionately, for radio has its own self-movement). The radio then had not experienced the monopolization it went through ten years later.

The reaction to this change has been conservative: either conclusions are drawn about hip-hop itself; "radio killed hip-hop" (which is not altogether unrelated but a distinct part no less that does have an effect on hip-hop) or about the need to return radio to what it used to be which was, in the real, no more democratic and related to the particular forms of hip-hop then. It's imposing the form (a pre-monopolized radio) separate from the content (a more developed hip-hop).

Typical half-hearted conclusions have meant liberal approaches, (letter-writing, boycotting, picketing with aim of democratizing radio) or establishing "liberated zones" of culture and communication like the Hip-Hop Media Lab folks (who generally have a very sharp and precise perspective on hip-hop as commons, as a social movement, and radio as a worn out, monopolized medium). We've seen some insurrectionary sentiments (usually exaggerated and comic) call for the occupation of radio, or tie up the DJ and play the music the people want to hear (often acted out in hip-hop records since the 80s). On the one hand, some people want to hear what is currently played, on the other hand it stems from a legitimate appraisal of radio's limitations.

The conclusion I have drawn has confounded the problem to some degree. I assumed that when new subjectivities arise, or working class self-activity deepens or generalizes, radio or "popular" (another conflation I'm guilty of) hip-hop will reflect this new activity; that it was profitable to play Ice Cube, Public Enemy, and Arrested Development then, so it would be in the future but with hip-hop in new forms. But this is synthetic cognition. We were right to see hip-hop as moving, but radio has moved too. We can't expect a simple return (even in new form) for two reasons: one, because it is a concrete reality that the radio has been monopolized and its playlists standardized a great deal more than twenty years ago. Two, new mediums have surfaced via Internet that undercut the basis for radio. How many "popular" artists can we think of that are shut outside of that medium? I can think of Charles Hamilton and Asher Roth. There are many more. The Soviet Union didn't restore capitalism as Trotsky predicted, radio won't merely return to playing either a more diverse hip-hop or a more organically and overt political hip-hop as I predicted.

On the other hand, radio can't completely filter out the political character of our generation reflected in hip-hop. The recent "Run this Town" song is a good example. It isn't an explicitly political song even if has explicit political aspects. But radio can't help but narrow it generally. This narrowed hip-hop still reflects contradictions, it can't be free of them, but the contradictions it sends up will still be fragmented, degenerated, and few.

The political hip-hop of the 80s and 90s (as we have said before) wasn't pure. It wasn't free of the contradictions of its time. Ice Cube was called out by Common for "slangin bean pies and St. Ides in the same sentence." On the surface, Cube is a hypocrite, but the truth of the matter is that, as Cube says, "I go where the brothers go." Cube threw up the multitude of tensions flowing through the anti-apartheid/black consciousness/street rebellion of his time. In 2006, Cube said, "I used to be lyrical political, now y'all want it sugar-coated like cereal." Two years later he makes a thoroughly anti-racist political song, "Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It." (I encourage y'all to watch it again) BDP and X-Clan had a feud over black nationalism vs. humanism. These debates were happening on radio because they were happening in real life, at black colleges, in black communities, etc.

What has the situation in Honduras clarified for us? And this where the discussion with mlove was pivotal. That when the state turns to repressive measures, it makes a political monopoly of mass communication (even in private, bourgeois forms, for the Honduran oligarchy "owns" the vast majority of comm enterprises and has shut down the rest.) It raises the question for a mass revolutionary movement to seize and overthrow mass comm institutions AS PART AND PARCEL of a general quest for political power. Honduras is different, a movement has arisen in response to a coup with the green light in Washington, despite its language, but there are still lessons to draw. These measures won't be off the table at a particular historical juncture here in the US. The FBI has just arrested a man who helped coordinate G20 demos in Pittsburgh with twitter and police scanners.

This is where we draw the line between the liberals and the liberated zone "new economy" ideas. We believe that in a general power struggle between workers and the ruling-class, the control and self-management of radio must coincide. Of course, that isn't what's being debated. Usually these conversations happen apart from general political critiques. Yet when these conversations do occur, they are political and they are a segue into talking about monopoly capitalism and political struggle generally.

We can expect the not marginal view that "radio is a limited form for hip-hop" to become more widespread and antagonistic. For now, it has been resolved through the opening of new forms of communication. I was wrong for limiting this critique of radio to hip-hop conservatives and backpackers. These claims have a mass character. There is a need to see the relationship between the situation in Honduras and in other recent rebellions where the seizure of radio was on the table (or a necessary task) and the changing attitude of the hip-hop generation towards traditional communication mediums.

What this means is that we must now shatter the liberal illusions and push the "liberated zones" perspective to an actual power challenge (this would be programmatic and strategic; we shouldn't try to encourage this apart from a general attack on and challenge to the State, obviously).


  1. comment cont.

    At bottom the critique of radio is a critique over who should control it, its corporate benefactors or the larger community it claims to represent? Now, mind you, I realize there may be a little bit of ego attached to the desire to hear local artists if you are one yourself, but I think there's a deeper political content that's been generally missed here. Davey D, who most of you have probably heard of, has made a valid point on his blog that while black radio claims to represent the black community, not a god damn thing was said about the mass actions against the Oakland police by this community after the cops murdered Oscar Grant.

    In Honduras, the State has taken control of all radio in order to stifle the mass movement that is taking place there against the coup. The interesting thing about this is that the control is being flexed through private ownership, not through direct state takeover. This has already happened here. For working class Hondurans, this has made manifest the need to seize the radio along with their workplaces, schools, and communities. We have to ask, is the problem of radio independent of other problems of control in society?

    Furthermore, it isn't just local artists, or conservative hip-hop backpackers who have grown tired of corporate radio. It has a mass character, even if folks still listen to it, as I do. Strategically speaking, I can't see that meeting with local radio personalities will doing anything at all to change what, ultimately, has to come from the behest of the community. There has to be actual ORGANIZING around this question, a challenge for power. Although, I imagine that while most folks see this question as valid, there are other more pressing questions that should take priority, such as police brutality, gentrification, unemployment, etc. Not much can be done about radio that hasn't been done with other forms of media. It seems to me that what Honduras shows us is that the control over radio will have to come during an advanced stage of mass struggle, a stage we are definitely not in.

    That's my two cents.

  2. This link is to a relevant conversation happening on the Pitch Weekly website, a KC magazine, about the relationship of local artists to KPRS, KC's black radio station (supposedly). I tried to broaden the discussion by throwing up the demand for community control.


    Hey folks,

    This is a very interesting conversation. Admittedly, I haven't read the entire string of comments as there are a lot, but I've read enough to get a basic sense of what's at stake and the general fault lines in how people are seeing this issue.

    At the risk of being marginalized for the tardiness of my comment, I'd like to introduce a couple of factors and broaden the conversation about radio and the community in general.

    First, I think the critique of KPRS says nothing exceptional about this particular radio station, as Reach rightfully points out. The standardization of radio and its playlists is a global phenomenon. While Sku shows us there are exceptions to the rule in terms of musical content, KPRS reflects a general pattern of the monopolization of ALL aspects society, not just radio. It is the same in New Orleans and here in Austin where I live now. Whether I turn on the radio or walk into a restaurant or a bookstore, I see the same shit here as I do in every other city. This has everything to do with the increasing control that capitalism generally exercises over our lives.

    Second, the particular set of artists that get play reflects no one-to-one relationship with how hard artists work. I think ALL of us can admit that we do not nor have ever lived in a meritocracy. An MC can work hard her entire life and never have the privilege of being played on the radio, even if they have all the talent in the world. This doesn't mean that those artists don't work hard, but let's be real. Where people are at in life bears no direct reflection on how much they have put into it. Those crackers on Wall Street are just the beginning. Straight nepotism.

    Third, radio is a decaying institution. It has been superseded by other more open-source and democratic means of dissemination. It seems that, in a sense, we are about ten years late on this discussion. I'm actually surprised that this conversation is still taking place on these terms. Because this tightening grip over how radio is run is in direct proportion to the democratization of certain web-based media. They are losing control and are trying to reassert it, like the Hip-Hop Media Labs folks mention in their response to the arrest of DJ Drama over two years ago.