Decolonial Resistance in Hip Hop: Re-Colonial Resistances, Love, and Wayward Self-Determination


Joe Hinton | Race & Ethnicity | Analysis | August 5th, 2019



Although many forms of black expressive culture contain elements of political resistance, hip hop is a form that has been recognized by numerous scholars for its unique, complex, and nuanced forms of offering political discourse. As Damon Sajnani notes, the origins of hip hop are inherently political, specifically rooted in the politics of the "decolonization of local urban space". Hip Hop today, the most popular genre in the United States (if not the world), is quite disconnected from these political roots in a radical anti-colonial politic built through creating livelihood out of structure-based psychological pain.

What is the nature of resistance in hip hop, and what do scholars have to say about its current status? Many note that hip hop has been co-opted by a white-controlled market and has been manipulated so as to promote limited narratives of Blackness, many of which are derived from minstrel tropes. Sometimes, these tropes can be manifested as partial resistances to white-supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal settler-colonialism. Sometimes, when they rely on European notions of political resistance that are either inherently capitalistic or statist/nationalist, they reify colonial structures and are thus re-colonial. Sometimes they flip the narrative of oppression or expose it for what it is, as Tricia Rose notes, but do so in a way that constitutes a solid first step to resistance but does not completely answer the question of how one wants to exist and live in a world beyond the reality of this oppression.

In my eyes, the only types of resistant expressive culture that can actually spur Black liberation must create alternative visions that denounce resistances that rely on other closely related forms of oppression and toxic psychologies. Building off the ideas of Cornel West, Zoe Samudzi, and William C. Anderson, these visions must be centered in both collective love and individualist, wayward, and deviant lifestyle choices. By wayward and deviant, I mean prone to reject the boxes imposed by American culture and its depictions of Blackness. I draw on the idea that Black and indigenous people in the United States exist liminally, not as citizens. This means that as the state is functioned to precipitate our extinction and/or suffering and to prevent our full integration into the benefits of society, and that our existence as colonial subjects, regardless of socioeconomic advancement, renders our status perpetually ambiguous and subject to a constantly uncertain chaos and threat of violence that reinforces a spiritual feeling of collective subordination. This chaos can be overcome by a moment of creation and establishment of what the state deprives us of and excludes us from: self-love. Hip Hop originally sought to achieve this, but it has been co-opted by the market and the limited narratives it promotes, with some notable exceptions. Once based in love, and dedicated to the creation of love-based communities, these forms of culture can help spur mobilization against white-supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal settler-colonialism (WSCPSC) to defend ourselves against it and eventually overthrow it; or, more immediately, find a way to create communities that employ social rules and customs that promote Black and indigenous love, rather than relying on the false promises of liberal reformism and partial resistances.

Although it remains true that hip hop has been co-opted by a powerful white media establishment, it also remains true that hip hop is an inherently resistant genre in that it constantly engages with the "politics of having fun," a framework that can be perceived as seemingly apolitical, but is actually quite focused on the psychological effects of socio-political hierarchies. Where songs can be differentiated in their political efficacy is the degree to which they promote a liberational Black politic. As Cornel West notes, a truly liberational Black politic is committed to fighting racism at its root: capitalism. And is also determined to end all associated forms of oppression that result from capitalism and colonialism: homophobia, sexism, ableism, and transphobia. Within hip hop, although the 80s and 90s featured a number of artists for whom the legacy of Black Power reigned eminent, the modern mainstream genre is primarily full of either market-driven resistances, partial resistances, or their associated re-colonial resistances.

Partial resistances vary as to the terms to which they reify colonial resistances, but most do to one extent or another. N.W.A's "Fuck tha Police" emphatically decries the historically biased and anti-Black prosecuting tendencies of the City of Los Angeles quite creatively while also reifying the colonial oppression of gay people by using homophobic slurs. The sexual domination narratives promoted by Cardi B and Nicki Minaj take a step towards a less subordinate position for Black women and do promote positive narratives that Black women can be proud of their sexuality, but also reify the objectification and exploitation of the Black female body by offering limited options for how a famous Black women is to present herself and her body. This is not to say that other options are not presented by other Black females; to do so would be myopic. I am rather emphasizing that the female rappers with the most prominence do not fit these narrow images, coincidentally; they are approved by a white-controlled media elite that has never shied away from aligning Black female exploitation and lucrative profits. In the wake of the death of Nipsey Hussle, an LA rapper known for his generosity and devotion to community uplift, Jay Z exclaimed that Black people should look to gentrify their own neighborhoods before white people can. Given that gentrification is fundamentally aligned with the same ideologies of settler-colonialism and economic exploitation that hip hop was founded on alleviating and eliminating, suggesting such a notion is especially re-colonial. All of these are examples of when artists in hip hop use their platforms to promote the advancement of an oppressed group, but somehow reify a hierarchy that exists to make Black people and Black women suffer.

Then how can hip hop be completely resistant and neither partial nor re-colonial? As Sajnani notes, the diasporic nature of Black nationalism is an effective liberational alternative to the pain of WSPCSC, a nationalism distinct from its European analog. This nationalism has been referred to vaguely by scholars such as Bakari Kitwana, specifically to his conception of a Hip-Hop Generation, and was cited positively by West in his analysis of Morrison's Beloved. Many arguments regarding Black self-determination usually rely on this statist conception. Sajnani's analysis of the Black national bourgeoisie, of which Jay Z is a prominent member, is particularly revealing. He claims that partial resistances are often performed by prominent Blacks as a means to receive compensation from the white cultural gatekeepers while Black exploitation is upheld by the national order. To Sajnani, to support the American Dream is to ignore economic stratification, which in the US is always a racial topic. Black capitalists, especially in hip hop, engage in the rhetoric of the American Dream quite regularly, relying on a misguided bootstraps ideology. But even if Black capitalism can't be a true form of resistance to WSPCSC, can diasporic nationalism constitute a more complete resistance? As Zoé Samudzi and William C. Anderson propose in their powerful novel on the anarchism of Blackness as Black as Resistance,

"attempting to reclaim and repurpose the settler state will not lead to liberation, and it will not provide the kind of urgent material relief so many people desperately need, though electing empathetic officials sometimes can arguably mitigate against harm. Only through a material disruption of these geographies, through the cultivation of Black autonomy, can Black liberation begin to be actualized."

As such, a legitimate response to WSPCSC must not consider the future of Blackness as reliant on a statist solution. Although Sajnani's support of a somewhat re-colonial nationalism, no matter if distinct from European nationalism, is misguided, his emphasis on "resisting the appropriation of Hip Hop and elaborating its original mission" (I would replace appropriation with misappropriation) is quite relevant to establishing a liberatory Black politic through hip hop. What is the next step?

While resistance in Black politics today often calls for criminal justice reform instead of radical restructuring of the industrial-prison complex, 2018 saw some powerful forms of resistance enter the mainstream, most notably Childish Gambino's "This is America." Gambino's Grammy-award-winning song and video effectively criticizes the current state of hip hop and minstrel tropes. As Frank Guan notes, "It's a tribute to the cultural dominance of trap music and a reflection on the ludicrous social logic that made the environment from which trap emerges, the logic where money makes the man, and every black man is a criminal." Gambino's work helped bring a critical element of reflection into the mainstream of pop and hip hop: that the limited, minstrel-reproducing narratives of Blackness in popular culture contribute to past and present forms of social subordination. It is a crucial step towards finding a liberatory politic and is quite close to a complete form of resistance. Where it falls short however is along two fronts: an explicit embrace of a collective love ethic, and a moment of creation that accepts the reality of Black liminality and becomes devoted to a deviant determination of one's self that allows for the complexity of Blackness to live freely and waywardly, away from the psychological boxes imposed on us by WSCPSC.

I have come to learn that hip hop has an extremely high potential for being politically resistant to WSCPSC, but it is going to take a lot of work to return it to what it once accomplished. Very few forms of hip hop are directly engaged with a love ethic nor with an explicitly deviant rejection of WSCPSC based in self-determination. Two legacies of Black expressive culture will serve as my examples for such a cultural politic in this section: Toni Morrison's Beloved, as cited and analyzed by West, and the work of Prince, a genre-less Black artist whose influence on and connections to hip hop are understated. These forms of culture are committed to examining how Black people can create their own worlds under oppression, and even as they strive for radical changes, they are pragmatic and understand that a complete rejection of WSCPSC would constitute a violent revolution. As such, they utilize Black art as a means of peaceful resistance and alleviation of colonial pain, as hip hop once did. West noted that Morrison's Beloved was an active buffer against the pain of Black nihilism derived from WSCPSC, stressing that "Self-love and love of others are both modes toward increasing self-valuation and encouraging political resistance in one's community."

Black literature's emphasis on self-love and reflection must be replicated in hip hop. Prince understood that "Transcending categories however is not synonymous with abandoning ones' roots." After his death, Alicia Garza, a BLM founder noted that he "was from a world where Black was not only beautiful, but it was nuanced and complex and shifting and unapologetic and wise." Prince does not allow the chaos of Blackness (as constructed by WSCPSC) to render him a slave to reifying some form of colonial oppression, rather he recognizes that "it's about being comfortable in an unfixed state while improvising the topography of your life and music as you go along." Such a mindset and perspective are directly derivative of African religious culture. Thus, a liberational politic must be Afrofuturist. It must avoid the categorical labels offered by WSCPSC because of how much they limit us and function to constrict us. Perhaps a contemporary example of such a wayward, liberational politic comes in Saidiya Hartman's Wayward Lives: Beautiful Experiments, in which she reimagines the deviant and radical lifestyles and love-ethics of early 20th century upper-middle-class Black women. When Black people have the socioeconomic privilege to be able to transcend the limits of WSCPSC's social construction of race using a collective Black love ethic and staying true to the root cause of Black uplift, a promotion of a more plentiful array of types of Black existence can proliferate. And the commodification of Black art can start to dissipate, pushing more and more colonial subjects to reimagine their humanity away from internal colonialism.

This is the future I see for hip hop, one that returns it to its political roots. I understand that the pull of the market is strong, and that hip hop's decolonial future will require some serious changes in cultural discourse. Hip hop must return to its basis as a means of cultural self-defense, of engaging with the politics of having fun in a way that is more cognizant of decolonial motives. Taking down WSCPSC will require both explicit and implicit resistance, most of which will be anti-capitalist. Black expressive culture and its dynamism, specifically with regard to hip hop, have extreme potential for creating radical Black communities in the United States that are neither re-colonial nor based in the European need to monopolize violence, and embrace the duality of Black liminality, the complex nuances of double consciousness, and consider Blackness on one's own determined set of terms.


Notes

Berman, Judy. "'This Is America' 8 Things to Read about Chidish Gambino's New Music Video." New York Times, May 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/arts/music/childish-gambino-this-is-america-roundup.html.

Gordon Williams, James. "Black Muse 4 U: Liminality, Self-Determination, and Racial Uplift in the Music of Prince." Journal of African American Studies, vol. 21, no. 3, Sept. 2017.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise Rap Music and Black Culture In Contemporary America. Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

Sajnani, Damon. "Hip Hop's Origins as Organic Decolonization." Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society, 2015, https://decolonization.wordpress.com/2015/04/02/hiphops-origins-as-organic-decolonization/ .

Samudzi, Zoe, and William C. Anderson. As Black as Resistance. AK Press, 2018.

Sehgal, Parul. "An Exhilarating Work of History About Daring Adventures in Love." New York Times, Feb. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/19/books/wayward-lives-beautiful-experiments-saidiya-hartman.html.

West, Cornel. "Nihilism in Black America." Race Matters, Beacon, 1994.