The price of hip hop intellectuals
Times Standard, October 30, 2008
In 1931 the brutal soviet dictator Joseph Stalin convinced writer/intellectual Maxim Gorky to “return to become Stalin’s literary ornament” as written by Simon Sebag Montefiore in his recent book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.
It turned out authors and poets were relatively inexpensive. A mansion, a pair of vacation homes, the rights to his publishing monies, and a driver were all it took to lure the founder of “socialist realism” from Italian exile back to the Soviet Union, where Gorky became a mouthpiece for a bureaucratic machine that murdered and displaced millions.
I wonder what the price would be for most hip hop “stars” these days? Would a down-on-his-luck Flavor Flav be as willing to rap for a dictator as he is to embarrass himself on a reality television show?
In the money-driven world consumption and wealth have only become more important since 1931. The MTV/BET fashion amplification engine seems to be bumping 250 dollar jeans and cocaine as icons of glamour which lays hip hop in precisely the place Gorky was for Stalin: cover.
Hip hop conversations about politics are important. Far beyond the rappers who plug for Obama, (and the tiny handful who have advocated for McCain) we need to consider the long-term consequences for so-called political hip hop that acts as a cover for political scheming.
NWA star Eazy-E dropped $2500 for a fundraiser dinner with George W. Bush in 1991, an antic he described as a publicity stunt. Regardless of who got used in that exchange: George W. Bush, or Eazy-E, the desire for publicity with no thought to the discussion the sound bite pushed off the stage is a logical extension of Gorky’s greed.
In 2008 country music stars and rappers face off in a corporate chain store version of the presidential debates – and some second tier emcees have advocated for McCain precisely because it is the kind of tantalizing entertainment/reporting that will get their names in the paper.
In the presidential election coverage, pundits have enjoyed picking on rappers who have advocated for Barack Obama, and musicians have made quick work producing political themed songs (the best of which, in my opinion, is reggae star Cocoa Tea’s “Barack Obama”), but they are shallow versions of the political capacity of hip hop.
As a medium of discussion, the least valuable conversation in hip hop is who people are going to vote for. I’d rather hear emcees debate about the war in Iraq, economic crisis, and women’s issues – but heck; I’d rather hear the candidates discuss those issues.
As the economy tightens and wealth pools in the hands of a few, the price of a struggling hip hop musician will certainly go down. Given the success rate hip hop musicians is one-in-a-million, and that those on the top amplify their consumptive success by name-dropping “necessary” labels of fashionable clothes and expensive cars, we shouldn’t be surprised to see more hip hop musicians working for well-paying oppressors in the future. The only question will be at what price?