It was an act of solidarity and defiance that seemed to make no sense: the Newark School Board last month voted unanimously to name Amiri Baraka as the district’s official poet laureate. The move coincides with the New Jersey legislature’s efforts to force Baraka out as the state’s poet laureate — even if it means abolishing the post — after his September 20th performance of a poem called “Somebody Blew Up America” in which Baraka rehashes the imbecilic rumor that Jews were forewarned of the World Trade Center attack. Why would the nine-member school board, funded by the state, intentionally honor a hate-monger and stick its collective thumb in the legislature’s eye?
The most palatable answer is that Baraka is a longtime Newark resident who’s held many poetry workshops and readings in the city’s public schools (in hindsight, a slightly alarming notion) and thus the gesture is the school board’s way of saying, “We got your back, bro.”
It’s a partial explanation, but almost certainly not a full one. The fuller explanation is racially-charged and multi-layered and casts a profoundly disturbing light on an ugly aspect of African-American culture. To glimpse it, we must first return to Baraka’s poem. The passage that’s gained the most notoriety is the anti-Semitic interlude. Equally noteworthy, however, is a later verse in which Baraka mocks Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as racial sell-outs: “Who do Tom Ass Clarence work for/ Who doo doo come out the Colon’s mouth/ Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleezza?”
This theme is not uncommon among established black artists. In fact, three weeks after Baraka’s September performance, singer Harry Belafonte echoed Baraka’s sentiments during a radio interview, comparing Secretary of State Powell to a plantation slave who’d betrayed his people and his true beliefs “to come into the house of the master.” Belafonte explained: “What Colin Powell serves is to give the illusion that the Bush cabinet is a diverse cabinet, made up of people of color … when in fact none of that is true.” Several days later, on the Larry King Show, Belafonte expanded his slur to include Rice as well.
It’s tempting to dismiss such comments, in Baraka’s and Belafonte’s cases, as the crankiness of advanced age; Baraka is 68, Belafonte 75, so both are old enough to have had their brains significantly addled by actual, rather than imagined, encounters with institutional racism.
What’s more painful is the currency of notions of black authenticity and solidarity among the hip hop generation — and it’s in this context that the Newark School Board’s decision must be understood. Hip hop is the dominant cultural force in the lives of inner city kids, and out of roughly 42,000 students in the Newark Public Schools, over 25,000 are black. (Another 13,000 are Hispanic, which creates the paradox of an overwhelmingly “minority” majority.) For the hip hop generation, Baraka and Belafonte are exemplars, war horses who fought the good fight … and whose standards rappers are now conscience-bound to bear into the new millennium. The anachronism is striking. Many of today’s most socially-conscious hip hop performers, who obviously grew up long after Jim Crow, and who have prospered substantially from their artistic endeavors, continue to cultivate a seething rage against traditional American values — to scorn moderate black voices as traitors and to ascribe black failure, on an individual or a collective level, to sinister conspiracies of white elites and a class structure geared to maintain white power.
HIP HOP POLITICS
This is the politics of hip hop — and, yes, though it’s often submerged beneath thuggish mannerisms, hip hop does have a decided politics. In essence, it’s a toxic coalescing of Marxist cant, Afrocentric bombast and apocalyptic visions of race war; thus, it’s amorphous enough to accommodate grizzled lefties like Baraka and Belafonte still trying to resuscitate revolutionary fantasies, and lunatic howling rappers preaching the value of ethnic genocide.
In his 1998 track “Heat,” for example, the rapper Paris warns “Devils fear this brand new sh*t … I bleed them the next time I see them … I pray on these devils … look what it’s come to; who you gonna run to when we get to mobbing? I’m filling his body up with lead, yeah; cracker in my way, slit his throat, watch his body shake; that’s how we do it in the motherf**king Bay [i.e. San Francisco], sitting on the dock of the dirty with my AK [i.e. an AK47 rifle].”
Hateful flourishes, of course, are nothing new in hip hop; they go back at least to the late 1980’s and Public Enemy, the first overtly political rappers whose leader, Chuck D., once rhymed, “My own kind blind, brain-trained on the devil level … chasing down loot, Dole or Newt, who do you shoot?” What is new is the idea that such venom comprises social awareness. Long before September 11th 2001, the rap group the Coup planned to release an album whose cover depicted the World Trade Center exploding in flames. (The cover was scrapped in the days after the attack.) Asked to explain the intent of the original design, Boots Riley, lead rapper of the Coup, replied, “I wanted to show that our music was powerful in and of itself and that our music was something that would help destroy capitalism. Just like the White House symbolizes the government of the United States, a big symbol of capitalism is the World Trade Center. So blowing up the World Trade Center would be metaphorical, so we decided to use this image for our record cover.”
The band Killarmy, an offshoot of the wildly popular Wu Tang Clan, trains its sights on more than just the capitalist system in their 1997 rap “Blood For Blood”: “To all my universal soldiers, stand at attention … the mission be assassination, snipers hitting Caucasians with semi-automatic shots heard around the world. See I got a war plan more deadlier than Hitler; it was all written down in ancient scriptures … We create a massacre like Texas chainsaw, blood for blood, keep the unity thick like mud … outlaws dipped in black; I be pulling out gats, launching deadly attacks; I be going to war, unheard and unseen, awakened from your dreams by gunshots and screams. Don’t got time for no snitches, leave ‘em count the stitches … Now we got an all out war.”
The Constitution, to be sure, guarantees potty-mouthed rappers, pouty poet laureates and even washed-up calypso singers the right to promote pinheaded bigotry dressed up as political discourse. But whereas time is rapidly passing Baraka and Belafonte by, hip hop is still very much in its ascendancy. And young black people take hip hop’s lyrical content quite seriously — indeed, they consider their receptiveness to it a sign of their own political sophistication. Chuck D., over a decade ago, labeled rap “the black CNN.” Right now, hip hop is literally drumming into the minds of black kids — many of whom no doubt attend public school in Newark — a reflexive militancy in which rebellion against educational, societal or political norms is equated with their racial identity, and in which striving to succeed is tantamount to racial betrayal.
(This is the reason, incidentally, why hip hop performers who do in fact succeed are obligated to a steady regimen of pathological gestures in order to re-affirm their street credibility. Nothing proves you haven’t sold out more than a well-publicized brush with the law. What this translates into, in the culture of hip hop, is the reality that no male artist can afford to be without an arrest record.)
If you’re doing well for yourself, you’re doing badly for your people. Ironically, there’s one sense in which this is true; every kid from the projects who studies or works his way out of the projects thereby gives lie to the belief—and handy alibi—that white society is hopelessly stacked against kids from the projects.
Such self-destructive thinking, seasoned liberally with Cliff Notes Kapital, paranoid theorizing and violent racist eschatology, now comprises a fully fledged, and preposterously wrongheaded, consciousness. For a glimpse of it, you need look no further than the woofing, cheering reactions of the mostly black studio audience on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam to each poet’s laundry list of anti-American clichés. It’s no coincidence that Baraka was a guest on the show, or that he read a poem called “Why Is We Americans?” which concluded: “But we is also at the end of our silence and sit down;/ We are at the end of being under your ignorant smell, your intentional hell;/ Give us our lives, or plan to forfeit your own.” Nor is it a coincidence that Mos Def, another avowedly political rapper, whose lyrics pay homage to both Marx and Farrakhan, is the host. Watching consecutive episodes of Def Poetry Jam (which in November mutated from the small screen to the Broadway stage) is an excruciating exercise, but it’s also a useful primer on what now passes for cultural awareness among young blacks.
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