I have been sitting on these for months now, constrained by time and my own underdeveloped ideas. I need help. All ideas and written works are a collective product and I have no idea why I haven't asked for assistance before. I have been doing a close study of Marx and the broad communist tradition on organization for two years which has helped to create new categories of thought as well as to refine old ones. The original and second versions of the Theses on Hip-Hop were too underdeveloped and influenced by orthodox Marxism to go much further than the positive contributions they made without a more thorough study of Marx.
1. Activity/Labor/Use Value (not "Culture") - While we might casually describe hip-hop as a "culture," it is far more consistent with its essence to see it as an activity; an activity that is historic in nature. By historic we mean that it rests on the shoulders of the social activity of previous generations of people and is not something abstract, fixed, or eternal.
Positing hip-hop as an activity as opposed to a culture allows us to see it in its all-sidedness. Hip-hop is both influenced by the activity of people just as it shapes that activity; it is a dialectic. Seeing hip-hop one-dimensionally as influential (for example, that it makes people violent, misogynistic, or materialistic) abstracts it, places it above society and beyond the control of everyday people. The educator must be educated too. On the other hand, arguing that hip-hop simply "reflects" society or mass activity also takes it out of our control; our control to consciously and critically shape it in a way that fulfills what Marx called our species-being, that is, fulfillment of our ability to modify external nature to suit our needs and wants according to our own conscious activity.
This practical-critical activity is labor and hip-hop cannot be anything but labor because it produces a use value that satisfies a need. By labor, we don't necessarily mean wage labor though the use values of hip-hop has certainly and inevitably been commodified and so has the labor power of those producing it. Rather, we see it universally, both in its degraded form under capitalism and in its potentiality to be free of the division of labor that is capitalism.
One consequence of seeing hip-hop as an all-sided activity means that our ability to change is dependent upon our ability to organize collectively and struggle against capitalism. Either side of the one-sided approach means either determinism, that is, hip-hop is what it is and there's nothing we can do to change it, or individualism, which usually means let's put out a rap album against misogyny. While the latter is fine, in and of itself it cannot challenge the social basis for misogyny: the patriarchal division of labor under capitalism. This requires mass organization and struggle of female and male-bodied people.
2. Foundation - The foundations of hip-hop lies in the destruction of welfare state capitalism and the recomposition of the American and, later, global working class. This restructuring meant the uprooting of productive industries to the US and global South which formerly employed Black labor, the breakup of militant working class activity and political organization, the gutting of social services so that the working class take on a larger burden of its reproductive costs, the militarization of neighborhoods of color to ensure compliance and quell resistance, and the massive incarceration of the black population that is seen as unwanted labor.
This was done in order to raise the rate of profit.
This of course fell on Black workers with a certain intensity as they were already a part of the division of labor that was either unpaid or paid below its reproductive costs.
3. Subjectivity - The story of hip-hop's origins is not esoteric anymore. Many of us may not know it but a lot of us know some of the places, personalities, and periods that set it in motion. Though it began in the South Bronx among Black youth, many of them from the Caribbean or had folks from the same, before it was a household name it quickly grew to absorb other layers of NY working class youth, foremost among them were Puerto Ricans. They were often dismissed by Black hip-hop youth, though through their experiences with white supremacy, they knew they weren't white. In hip-hop they saw something that they could embrace as their own; they could seize it and enlarge it through imbuing their own experience and therefore give it a larger totality. This is the real story of hip-hop: groups of people who take forms of hip-hop, innovate on those forms, and as such expanding its content.
Just like PR youth in 1970s New York, hip-hop has seen the absorption of other subjectivities, black queer youth in New Orleans, white trailer parks in the Midwest, the wards of Houston, the favelas of Brazil, the open air ghettoes of Palestine, the Banlieues of Paris. It takes on forms such as gangsta walking in Memphis, turf dancing in the Bay Area, krumping in L.A., etc.
Is hip-hop “just” artists? Yes and no.
In a sense the exclusivity of being an artist has been broken down as more and more people use forms of hip-hop to express their species being and where the artists are no longer just pop icons or those aspiring to be. Hip-hop is constantly being democratized both by new forms of technology such as YouTube and freeware production but also by the forms of hip-hop itself. By that it is meant that to do or to be hip-hop does not require formal musical knowledge and ability but merely the desire to do it. Here is where many who don’t understand hip-hop make the claim, “anyone can do it.” This is true and it is this that is partly the power and peculiarity of hip-hop, though like any other form, it has its masters and journeymen. As stated in point one, hip-hop is an activity; not the exclusive activity of artists but the exclusive activity of humans under a definite social development.
4. Politics - Hip-hop taken as a whole has no logical and coherent set of politics--it never did and as it grows it will be more and more difficult to discern. The most we can do is deduce general sensibilities and possibilities, mass and informal forms of politics, based on the broad activity of hip-hop. What we can consistently observe from hip-hop’s beginnings to its most advanced and modern forms is a rejection of official institutions such as the police, the courts, and the whole bureaucracy of the State. More explicitly there is the rejection of the white supremacist forms of these institutions as can be seen not only from the litany of lyrics of artists from all periods and subgenres but by the very folks who connect with the music. The experiences of Black people under white supremacy in the post-civil rights period has to an overwhelming extent informed hip-hop.
At another level there is a rejection of culture that is associated with white supremacy and so the language, dress, and mannerisms of multiple layers of the hip-hop generation and multiple subjectivities within it have tended to defy what is considered normal and proper. This has come with a contradiction where many of these “counter” cultural aspects have been commodified and made acceptable back to certain layers of white society. This is not unique to hip-hop but unique to capitalism.
Where hip-hop has tried to cohere a set of politics it has been lackluster. Hip-hop has so far failed as an independent political project. It has been recuperated by bourgeois and non-profit forms of political organizing and activity.
We have seen hip-hop mayors and presidents and a stratum of individuals that have gone into official political life but they have been met with disappointment and disillusionment at every step, if not cynicism from the outset. Certainly with the 2008 election of Barack Obama there was a genuine interest in official politics but this collapsed with his acceleration of the crisis that it was hoped he would halt.
The non-profit organizations in general are themselves the result of the privatization and looting of social services beginning in the 1970s and the attempt by the ruling class to regulate the extension of services to those who defer to the logic and priorities of capital. They have been confined to teaching the activity of hip-hop within a narrow, culturally conservative (four elements) and politically liberal framework. Furthermore, the NGOs have used hip-hop to legitimize the present system by encouraging youth to stay in school, to defer to authority, and where it encourages action it is channeled into bourgeois forms such as petitions, voting, and safe forms of protest.
Outside the NGOs, you have the cultural organizations, some going back to the earliest days of hip-hop while others have emerged in more recent years. These organizations are not only out of touch with the present hip-hop generation but they have determinedly attacked it (save for those whose activity is confined to antiquated forms). Their problem is, in their fetishism of the four elements, they were unable to make sense of the subsequent changes hip-hop underwent as a result of its own contradictory development as well as its struggles against official society.
The most far left of hip-hop expressions is confined to the production and performance of radical music. The emergence of such forms of hip-hop in the mid-80s to the early 90s were intertwined with two key mass experiences. 1) The anti-apartheid solidarity movement on black campuses and campuses with sizeable numbers of black students where campus struggle and organizing for divestment from the South African regime renewed conversations about the value of forms of nationalism and communism. 2) The uprising of Black and Latino workers in Los Angeles in 1992 helped to politicize a subjectivity that had long been in incubation since the demise of Black Power.
As the 90s and Clintonian New Democrat politics progressed and these experiences receded into the background, the remaining political rappers and those inspired by them became not only more marginal but more conservative in their understanding of the content of hip-hop. Since 2007 we are living in an increasingly politicized world with the worldwide capitalist crisis, the assault on the global working class, and the forms of struggle that have emerged in response. Necessarily we’ve entered a new incubation period where hip-hop can begin to assume forms that are an outgrowth of the period. But we should be clear that it will not be or look anything like the forms we saw in the last epoch of struggle--those that continue the old forms will have no currency with this generation.
We should also be careful about where we’re looking for these new forms. Radio, television, and the old terrestrial forms of communication likely will not be where we will find it, though their less centralized character 20-25 years ago was able to capture parts of the politicized hip-hop then. Since then, the consolidation and monopolization of these archaic entertainment mediums reduces the possibility for any broad expression of hip-hop to emerge. This doesn’t mean it won’t; we can only speculate. Radical hip-hop was, is, and can be commodified and sold as can any other use value produced by labor. But what we can say is that today hip-hop is as more comprehensive and universal than it has ever been while TV and radio are narrower than they have ever been (narrower in the range of hip-hop forms it expressed previously).
Very few who produce radical music actually organize. Though there has been some openings with Hip-Hop Occupies that have more proactively tried to tie the music into practical-critical activity, there has yet to be a conscious form of hip-hop organization that is class struggle based; that is, left of the Democrats and non-profits and that focuses on building mass direct action. The best we've seen is class struggle organizations having a political hip-hop artist appear at an event and hip-hop is therefore turned into a spectacle rather than a mass activity. I'll be happy to be proven wrong on this if such an organization exists.
Most marginally, there have been rightist forms of hip-hop, “hip-hop republicans” and assorted right-wing rappers but they are generally more of a spectacle than communist rappers. Such hip-hop warrants very little discussion.
5. Totality - Though "hip-hop" remains a contested word, we assert that what comprises hip-hop is a totality of contradictory tendencies and mass experiences. Contradictory, because while hip-hop likely may not have been what is without its codification into four universally recognized elements (rapping, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti art), it has long progressed beyond these elements into something for more complicated. The four original elements of hip-hop are not its totality, not only in the sense of it not being limited to four forms of activity (the DJ, the MC, the breakdancer, and the graffiti artist and these forms of activity themselves have changed due to their activity) but also because the activity of hip-hop isn't just a trade, art, or skill. Hip-hop is our lived experience necessarily extending beyond artists and informs the sensibilities of entire generations.
Furthemore, hip-hop isn't confined to formal recognition by those peoples and experiences which form part of its totality. Some use the term "rap" or "rap music." Though hip-hop emerged through the activity of South Bronx youth in the early 1970s, many who participate in the activity of hip-hop today have no memory or knowledge of this history. In fact, many of the so-called pioneers of hip-hop have rebuked the present generation with claims that what we do and who we are is not hip-hop. This conservatism and dogmatism is incompatible with the contradictory and historical nature of hip-hop.
Political and "conscious" rap are limited by the same tension as explained above.