Colonialism is the Lens and Hip-Hop is the Mirror

Jared A. Ball, Ph.D.

Green Institute Communications Fellow

 

It is July 29, 2007 and Washington, DC is in full focus. Its hip-hop community is doing big things with D’mite’s (Bomani Armah) “Read A Book,” making waves, we recently celebrated Hip-Hop Theater, Head-Roc is on the rise in progressive politics,* and DC’s Petey Greene is again popular. It is also days after a new report announced that the number of juveniles being held in our jails has tripled. As it is days after DC Black radio stalwarts Ambrose I. Lane, Sr. and Mark Thompson were unceremoniously removed from Black-owned Radio One’s XM airwaves. And though not based in DC it will be shown to be pertinent and entirely related that it is also a few days after AllHipHop.com released its poll concerning the control of hip-hop and that American Indian and activist professor Ward Churchill had his tenure revoked by the University of Colorado.

It continues that colonialism, without conscious and organized interruption, reproduces itself even as it goes often unnamed or perhaps misunderstood. Whether referred to euphemistically (consciously or not) as “inequality,” “racism,” “misogyny” or, in terms of image and media, as “poor/inaccurate representation,” “entertainment,” and “news,” colonialism is what Fanon wrote it to be. “Colonialism,”
he said, “is not a type of individual relations but the conquest of a national territory and the oppression of a people: that is all.” Colonialism demonstrates itself daily and discourages any consideration of its application so it is perfectly appropriate that this particular four-part series attempts to establish colonialism as model, method or lens through which to explore its contemporary expression. The lens or analogy may be imperfect but it remains best suited to make plain seemingly disparate events which is necessary if, again following the call of Fanon, we are to adhere to his claim that “one of the first duties of intellectuals and democratic elements in colonialist countries is unreservedly to support the national aspirations of colonized peoples.”

On one panel at the DC Hip-Hop Theater Festival the focus became difficulty in finding space where alternative representations of hip-hop, identity and politics could exist. Artists described their inability to book space in the city’s theaters as well as their difficulty in reaching much of the youth of DC who either never hear of their work or who upon hearing/seeing cannot penetrate the established and accepted notions of themselves. But this is inevitable in colonialism. As Black and Latino bodies are being relocated for the reclamation of city centers by elite whites, “gentrification,” it will by definition be difficult to find places to perform what have been forced to be counter-images of themselves. And certainly if youth are to be forced by the city’s two leading Black-targeted commercial radio stations to hear Keyshia Cole’s “Let it Go” or T.I.’s “Big Things Poppin’” a combined 120 and 80 times per week (respectively) then it is, again, inevitable – whether the songs are liked or not – that these will largely define their standard for cultural expression.

Similarly, on that panel the question was asked, “well if, as you say, popular media must image us a specific way how can you account for BET’s support for and the subsequent popularity of D’mite’s “Read A Book?” My response, being clear to note that I consider D’mite (Bomani Armah) as a friend and colleague, was that another friend’s critique of that song rings accurate to me. That is, while yes the song is a strong and catchy parody of Lil’ John and the crunk strand of hip-hop, it suits well the systemic need of colonialism to have the target of analysis or critical focus be the artist and the powerless. As Head-Roc, also on the panel, said, “I no longer make music about the wack emcee. I make music about the system.” Therein lies the clear and critical, if not subtle difference and explanation for why one is selected for promotion the other targeted for omission.

And without a predetermined consciously established lens, in this case colonialism, polls such as the recent one from AllHipHop.com become confused. The question was “Who Controls Hip-Hop?” and interviewees were given the options of “the people,” “the artists,” “radio stations,” or “record labels.” A better question might well have been “Why is Hip-Hop Controlled?” which would then help clarify that by controlling the means of selection, promotion, distribution and, therefore, societal impact it is labels who manage hip-hop for their international conglomerate owners themselves in need of mechanisms of limiting ranges of thought and behavior among as wide a population as possible. Here, of course, is why the largest label Universal Music Group (having bought the music publishing of Sony/BMG now one of three major labels owning more than 95% of music distributed around the world) is itself but one piece of Vivendi which is involved in any number of other international telecommunications and gaming ventures (not to mention the ownership of water). And curiously (or not) AllHipHop’s poll focuses on a majority who incorrectly suggest that people have the power – including the most curious agreement of Pharoahe Monch who in linguistic form took the opposite (and far more correct) line on his latest monster album Desire calling A&Rs “house niggers” and record labels “plantations.” AllHipHop then saves for the end an “oh by the way” that most polled correctly pointed to labels being in control. This would have to be diminished if mentioned at all so as to prevent further correct analysis pointing upwards to the powerful and away from D’mite’s unwashed wretched powerless. By the way, don’t look to YouTube for the “Read A Book” video. Viacom, by whom BET is owned and for whom BET is errand boy, has blocked it claiming its property under copyright laws.

And so it stands in perfect harmony that colonialism, while seeking to obscure its reality and application, would demand that professor Ward Churchill be dismissed from his post. His relentless focus on the ravages of colonialism, including recently
his description of the “psychological maiming” required by colonialism in support of the theft of land as part of the process of establishing and sustaining white or European “settler states” such as this the United States, demand that he be punished by such a system while his arguments be omitted, distorted and discredited. It is precisely this analysis, what Churchill describes as “indigenism,” which proceeds from an appropriate understanding of the basis of this colonial process being the theft from and suppression of those of the “Fourth World” or the indigenous/original peoples, that must be crushed so as to make room for analyses that suggest oppression stems from the behavior of the oppressed. For if, as Churchill correctly argues, “these indigenous peoples – nations, actually – compris[e] a ‘Fourth World’… upon the expropriation of whose lands and resources all states depend for their very existence” what land would D’mite have us buy and with what money? In other words, Black poverty is not the result of the choice to purchase “spinning rims” as D’mite suggests, it is that fundamental to colonialism is the monopolization of land ownership which forces, promotes and relegates only the purchase of rims and other trifling goods to the poor. And if this basis is understood all systems of media and popular culture can be more clearly identifiable as to their function and necessity in keeping image, thought, and action within what those in control find to be acceptable ranges.

This is why especially a Black-owned Radio One must remove those most likely to raise such serious questions to its colonized audience leaving even the Washington Post to question the contemporary absence of a Petey Greene and for David Corn to note the omission of the real and political Petey Greene from the recent film on the man. As Corn explains, “the most controversial remark Greene makes in the movie is a put-down of Motown impresario Berry Gordy. What the real Greene had to say about Vietnam, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, drugs, elections -- and I'm presuming he had some things to say on these and other hot-button subjects -- is not in the movie.” It is why Malcolm X made fundamental the question of land in his Message to the Grassroots and why we in the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement continue to say “free the land!” Colonialism must be or be part of any lens constructed to analyze hip-hop just as its being a mirror must be understood to be reflecting the colonial process currently in play.

The forthcoming final installment in this series will summarize the process of the music industry and colonial functionary and highlight some of the artists, organizations, activists and intellectuals working (and in need of help!) to make hange.

 

Jared A. Ball, Ph.D., dubbed by Free Speech Radio News as “the first hip-hop presidential candidate,” is currently running for the presidential nomination of the Green Party. He is an assistant professor of communication studies at Morgan State University. He is editor-at- large of the Journal of Hip-Hop and Global Culture from Words, Beats and Life and hosts Jazz & Justice Mondays 1-3p EST on DC's WPFW 89.3 FM Pacifica Radio. Ball is also the founder and creator of FreeMix Radio: The Original Mixtape Radio Show, a hip-hop mixtape committed to the practice of underground emancipatory journalism. Ball is also a board member of the International Association for Hip-Hop Education and a Communications Fellow with the Green Institute. He is currently working on his first book Hip-Hop as Mass Media: The Mixtape and Emancipatory Journalism and can be found online at voxunion.com.

 

* Full disclosure demands that it be made clear that Head-Roc works with this author on numerous political projects including Capitol Resistance, a presentation/show designed to demonstrates artistically and academically hip-hop’s societal function, and with this author’s bid for the Green Party’s presidential nomination.