As one of the most globally prominent subcultures, hip-hop bears an extraordinary burden of representation for the African-American community it speaks for. Since this representation is projected through mass media, it relies on the endorsement of predominantly white media conglomerates that hold no such burden and merely seek marketability. Just as Theodor Adorno speaks of the destructive nature of the ‘culture industry’ (Adorno), a capitalist world inevitably demands the commodification of hip-hop culture in the continuous quest for profit, regardless of the detrimental effect of such hyperbolic, sensationalised images have on the representation of black, working-class youth, and despite the need for re-addressing old racial politics.
This essay will investigate how the burden of racial representation affected the rise of hip-hop to its prominent state, exploring the authenticity and potential political power that mainstream hip-hop artists have had to forfeit in order to gain their standing, and looking at why realistic, political representations remain ‘underground’. The introduction of a spectrum of hip-hop representation will contest the opinion that ‘mainstream’ unambiguously equates to negative images, using the case studies of duo Dead Prez in comparison to the commodification of leading artists-cum-entrepreneurs Jay-Z and Kanye West. The third category will examine hip-hop figures that perfectly depict the genre’s commodification by almost parodying stereotypes such as 2 Chainz. Textual analysis of lyrics and branding will establish the implicit difficulties of the burden of racial representation throughout the spectrum, and therefore introduce the idea that mediated images cannot provide an ‘authentic’ picture of ghetto life to mass audiences.
A range of hip-hop acts provide varying representations of the black youth culture, but only those presented through ubiquitous mass media determine the global hegemonic view. The question that arises is whether these mainstream acts are responsible for depicting a realistic or positive image of black youth, given their status and agency. Historically an under- or mis-represented minority, pressure to find the bearer and most effective form of the burden of black representation is prevalent. Chuck D commented that, given mainstream media’s neglect and exploitation of the black community, hip-hop may be seen as the ‘Black CNN’; ‘I thought it could be used- under the radar- for getting the information out [to] Black communities. It [still] does, but it’s not really under the radar…Packaged, endorsed, homogenized. A big white pimp is sitting over it’ (qtd. by Kitwana: 47). Evidently, hip-hop’s negotiation of racial representation is problematized by the industry structure and has affected how rappers respond to this burden.
Hip-hop duo, Dead Prez, produces ‘revolutionary but gangsta’ tracks in which they rap about social ills and issues with the music industry that prevent their mainstream success and hinder the reach and impact of their messages. They explicitly note the lack of realistic representation:
‘I know it’s part of they plans
To make us think it’s all about party and dancin’
And yo it might sound good when you spittin’ your rap
But in reality, don’t nobody live like that’ (Dead Prez)
Although their image provides a more realistic perception of black life, their focus on sincere lyrics rather than fetishized images mean they are excluded from the narrow range of mainstream hip-hop. Corporate media are not concerned with activist response but rather consumer response, and therefore filter content to reinforce their own agenda. As Timothy Guzman notes, ‘the majority of rappers are used by the major labels to sell propaganda’ (Guzman), such as ideologies of individual agency and the glamorization of commodity indulgence. Thus, Dead Prez’s music is ‘so real that the radio will never play it’ (Dead Prez).
The next category of rappers is best characterised by Jay-Z and Kanye West, who achieved mass success through the marketization of signifiers of authenticity, both in terms of lyrical skill and conforming to the accepted narratives of black ghetto ascendance. Despite statuses of authenticity, both rappers also epitomize commodified hip-hop in both their music and private lives. Their branding and displays of economic power and material wealth make them extremely marketable, and are therefore highly endorsed by corporate media. The images they perpetuate focus on possessive individualism as well as stereotypical signifiers of black culture. Certainly, mass media exploit these representations in order to promote commodity culture, making hip-hop a saleable asset. Overlooked, then, are the realities of black youth unemployment and lack of social mobility; while Reagan mobilised the perception of self-induced poverty and criminality, mainstream hip-hop extends this with the notion that black prosperity is achievable through commodity culture, which undermines the implicit issues faced by black Americans. It additionally reduces black agency to bodily pursuits of racial conformity. Carried through from Reaganism is the emphasis on personal agency, meaning concepts of communal aid through realistic representation that gives voice to otherwise silenced issues is pushed from the agenda. Though by their premise regarded as credible spokesmen for black youth, these artists avoid explicit political critique. For example, Jay-Z raps: ‘[my songs] ain’t politically correct/ This may offend my political connects’ (Jay-Z). Ironically, his appraisal is limited to musical aesthetics and notably circumvents actual political criticism, probably because of the very political connections (famously with President Obama and powerful corporate sponsors) he is mindful of offending.
Guzman claims ‘[Kanye West and Jay-Z’s] music has no substance or positive meaning behind the lyrics. It is music that destroys the minds of urban youths’ (Guzman). This bold statement seems contestable given the opposing argument that such rappers provide an uplifting representation that was also previously denied; indeed, these artists also represent aspirational black figures. However, the significance of such representation is limited as ‘no utopian public image or monument is available to symbolise collective aspirations’ (Mitchell: 888) because of the issues to eschews, as discussed above.
Alternatively, they more implicitly represent a kind of Trojan Horse of the music industry that is able to exploit the system. Certainly, Todd Boyd described Spike Lee’s public image as ‘a compromised image of Blackness for mass consumption in return for the financial power to challenge the racial status quo elsewhere’ (Boyd: 138). To this extent, it seems reasonable that in a society of racial prejudice those able should use anything at their disposal to gain dominant standing and consequently a voice for an underrepresented class. Corroborating this is the inclusion of some politically-conscious content, most notably with West’s 2013 Yeezus album. Indeed, once credible mainstream success is established labels are able to market anything with existing branding. New Slaves in particular introduces provoking themes to mainstream discourse that are otherwise neglected. West boldly confronts the idea that blacks remain enslaved in America, mirroring Paul Gilroy’s theories of the legitimising and entrapment of commodity culture (Gilroy). He positions himself as a victim of ‘rich nigga racism’ (West), as if to authenticate his elevated position as still marginalised by dominant culture. Although no solution is reached (and the outspoken themes may be viewed merely as a shock-factor or market niche), this text could be read as the implementation of subliminal messaging to mass audiences, paving the way for more sincere conversation in years to come.
Mickey Hess writes that ‘a theory of hip-hop’s seemingly conflicting concerns of authenticity and marketability may work to reframe W.E.B. Dubois’ concept of double-consciousness in commercial terms as artists work to produce marketable music for mainstream listeners yet at the same time to maintain a necessary level of authenticity to a place of cultural origin’ (Hess: 298). This argument suggests that moments of realism can enter the mainstream as long as they are teamed with marketability, implying that mainstream hip-hop may be used as a platform for some sort of reformist racial representation. This is somewhat problematic as racial representation that is mediated by marketing strategy is inevitably inauthentic and unrealistic, and, as Tricia Rose writes, ‘corporate media outlets empower these businessmen-rappers, underpromote the more sophisticated rhymes, and play down the vigorous and well-informed analysis and criticism’ (Rose: 11-12).
No amount of realism is visible in the third category of rappers. Typified by 2 Chainz, this branch of hip-hop epitomizes the damaging representation of black youth in its reduction of black consciousness to the identification with violent, sexist and hedonistic images of masculinity rather than real contemporary issues. 2 Chainz is a mass-circulated figure who produces standardised beats, simplistic and repetitive lyrics and focuses on fetishized elements of commodity culture. Through his overt performativity of clichéd fashion and gesticulation he perpetuates a stereotypically simplistic image of black youth culture that Rose calls ‘neo-minstrelsy’ (Rose: 29) and Kevin Powell labels ‘a cultural safari for white people’ (Powell qtd. by Kitwana: 53). Although enjoyed by the masses, this performance is detrimental to the realistic representation of black culture. Bill Yousman explains that ‘White youth adoption of Black cultural forms in the 21st century is also a performance, one that allows Whites to contain their fears and animosities towards Black through rituals not of ridicule, as in previous eras, but of adoration’ (Yousman: 366). Indeed, the novelty makes such acts non-threatening to dominant structure as it adheres to an accepted model of blackness; the monopolisation of independent labels has reduced hip-hop to a narrow range of images that are easily circulated to a wide audience. Limiting these images simplifies the representation of black youth culture and perpetuates the flawed concept that masculinity is achieved through such displays of sexism, aggression and possessive individualism. Additionally, to those unconnected to hip-hop culture, such representations denote unrealistic perceptions of black pathology and immorality, yet essentialist illustrations dilute white guilt and reduce the need to address racial inequalities. Guzman notes that ‘the music industry use rappers to further demoralize people who have no idea what is happening in their communities and the world’ (Guzman). This circulation of political apathy keeps the masses focused on commodity indulgence and away from discussions of bottom-up progression, which would jeopardise corporate power. Indeed, these black mainstream figures forfeit potential for progressive race relations because it is absent from industrial motivation. Instead, dominant structures are left unchallenged by the immense powers of the masses with the distraction of ‘big booty hos’ and ‘the Gucci store’ (2 Chainz). Global audiences that rely on media representations are adopting these misguided images of black youth culture (Kitwana: 123); a white hip-hop fan said: ‘the stuff in the music, it appeals to our sense of learning about other cultures and wanting to know more about something that we’ll probably never experience’ (qtd. by Hurt, 2007). The idea that audiences are ‘learning’ through these hyperbolic, unrealistic depictions suggests that hip-hop artists have the burden to represent an accurate image of black youth culture so as to address the issue of race relations.
However, a broader question is whether hip-hop should or can be responsible for projecting authentic racial representations. Tupac said: ‘I don’t know how to be responsible for what every black male does…Yes, I am going to say I’m a thug, because I came from the gutter and I’m still here!’ (Tupac). Certainly, discourses that position hip-hop as the encouragement of black social deviance are somewhat perfunctory; in many ways mainstream hip-hop is a microcosm of American culture with the manifestation of broad themes of identity crisis. Quinn notes the ‘(re)assertion of alternative models of gendered and sexual relations that chimed with an increasingly liberalized and sexualized U.S. society’ (Quinn: 132). Therefore, if hip-hop speaks for American society, its role is more importantly an outlet of social concerns rather than an authentic image of a single social group.
Furthermore, it is debatable as to whether popular culture is an appropriate arena for addressing race issues. Mass media is an incredibly powerful hegemonic tool, one previously absent of black representation, and has the ability to globally imbue ideological discourses. Hip-hop’s international presence on mainstream media makes it an apt forum for the improvement of race relations, and has the potential to provide the ‘catalysts necessary to jump-start an international human rights movement in this generation, a movement with the potential to parallel if not surpass yesterday’s civil rights success’ (Kitwana: 11). However, the consolidation of traditional media means a continuity of mediated representations is controlled by very few corporate figures. Thus, nuanced discussions are replaced by the fortification of commodified cultural capital. Nevertheless, new media outlets promise democratisation of the media industry with user-generated content and prosumerism. By its premise, new media provides a commons-like platform for individual and group representation by bypassing traditional media and corporate mediation. In theory, this suggests that hip-hop acts would be able to circulate both authentic and positive representations of the African-American community in order to introduce realistic perceptions that may lead to activism and progressive political agendas. Yet, the lack of continuity and ubiquity of new media content creates fragmentation and diminished impact. Consequently, representations with potential to alter hegemony rely on being ultimately endorsed by traditional media, meaning ‘user-generated content is firmly locked into the commercial dynamics of the mediascape’ (van Dijick: 53), and the same obstacles apply.
Additionally, the very nature of mediated imaging is problematic as it is separated from lived experience and relies on, as Edward Said theorizes, the reader being the creator of meaning (Said). Moreover, the nature of popular culture denotes passive engagement that people indulge in during their leisure time. Such escapism is rendered essential in capitalist societal pressure for daily profit-hunting, producing what Adorno labels ‘passive dupes’ (Adorno: 492). The lack of a receptive audience makes popular culture a questionable arena for enlightening racial representation.
Hip-hop began as a forum for the discussion of black social issues, communal spirit and empirical representation of a marginalised race. Its global appropriation through commercial mediation has produced the circulation of out-dated racial politics. Kitwana comments: ‘if white hip-hop kids ignore hip-hop’s history and do not resist the temptation to reproduce the old racial politics, we will have lost a beautiful democratic momentum set in motion by American youth, one that has the vision and capacity to leave the old racial politics on the pages of history where it belongs’ (Kitwana: 106). However, it seems inconceivable that hip-hop can bear the burden of racial representation, whether in terms of authenticity or uplift. The idea that sensationalised mainstream hip-hop images are ‘uplifting’ seem troubled as they provide erroneous messages about the prosperity of black youth culture, and yet ‘authentic’ images are too confronting to be accepted as popular culture. In reality, all that exists is this theatre of human anxiety, the dramatization of identity crisis through hyperbolic images that is in equal parts relieving and damaging; it allows escapism for a range of groups and individuals while channelling their human angst, and yet also abuses the representation of American black youth as a platform for this. The genre has allowed the elevation of black figures, though only under the terms of the white corporations. Evidently, they must find a way to break free from corporate media as well as the entrapment of commodity culture that is used as a ‘distraction from and compensation for a wider inequality’ (Gilroy: 6) before progressive racial representation may be circulated in order to confront prevailing race relations.
2 Chainz, Birthday Song (Def Jam, 2012).
Adorno, Theodor. 2002. Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno. London: University of California Press.
Boyd, Todd. 1997. ‘The Day The Niggaz Took Over: Basketball, Commodity Culture, and Black Masculinity.’ in Out of Bounds: Sports, Media and Politics of Identity, ed. Aaron Baker and Todd Boyd. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Dead Prez, Turn off The Radio (Full Clip, 2002).
Gilroy, Paul. 2011. Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture. Cambridge Mass: Harvard UP.
Guzman, T. 2013. Why does the Music Industry keep ‘underground hip hop’ underground?.Silent Crow News, Available at: http://silentcrownews.com/wordpress/?p=2405 [Accessed: 28 Nov 2013].
Hess, Mickey. 2005. “Metal Faces, Rap Masks: Identity and Resistance in Hip Hop’s Persona Artist” in Popular Music and Society. Taylor & Francis Group.
Hurt, Byron. 2007. Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. Independent Lens Series, PBS. First broadcast, February 20th.
Jay-Z, ‘Death of Autotune’ (Roc Nation, 2009).
Kitwana, Bakari. 2005. Why White Kids Love Hip Hop. New York: Basic Civitas Books.
Mitchell, W. 1990. The Violence of Public Art: “Do the Right Thing”. Critical Inquiry, 16 (4), pp. 880-899. [Accessed: 27 Nov 2013].
Quinn, Eithne. 2005. Nuthin but a G Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap. New York: Columbia University Press.
Rose, Tricia. 2008. The Hip-Hop Wars. New York: Basic.
Said, Edward. 1983. The World, the Text and the Critic. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Tupac, Changes (Interscope/Death Row, 1992).
Van Dijick, J. 2008. Users like you? Theorizing agency in user-generated content. Media, Culture and Society, 31 (41), Available from: doi: 10.1177/0163443708098245 [Accessed: 28 Nov 2013].
West, Kanye, New Slaves (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2013).
Yousman, B. 2003. Blackophilia and Blackophobia: White Youth, the Consumption of Rap Music and White Supremacy. Communication Theory, 13 (4), pp. 366-391. Available from: doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.2003.tb00297. [Accessed: 27 Nov 2013].