The best hip hop is eloquently intelligent; lyrical, satirical, even politically critical; a worthy offspring of blues, jazz and soul.
But the hip hop scene has long been dominated by ‘gangsta rap’. And gangsta ideology is one of the many ways through which capitalism exerts its control over the exploited and the oppressed.
The gangsterisation of society is a typical expression of decomposing capitalism. In Russia the mafia is almost indistinguishable from the ruling political elite; in Liberia or Sierra Leone the gangs are armed to the teeth and engage in ‘civil war’; in the US urban ghettos, the gang has become the refuge for the most dispossessed, a pseudo-community offering them a means of day-to-day survival. But just as in Africa the armed gangs become instruments of competing imperialisms, so in New York or LA the gangs are in no way an expression of proletarian revolt, as the self-proclaimed ‘communists’ of Aufheben once suggested. On the contrary, they function as instruments of capital’s totalitarian occupation of social life.
This is obvious at the level of commerce: gangsta culture is a conduit for the drug trade, the weapons trade, and even the fashion industry. Nike, Reebok and the other labels are inseparable from the gangsta image. But gangsta is also a political ideology, a packaging of revolt, channelling rebellion into new forms of division. The rap group Public Enemy once chanted the slogan ‘Fight the Power’. But the influence of black nationalism on such groups ensures that the real power, which exploits all colours with equal zeal, remains hidden from view. Black nationalism – together with gangsta’s infamous demeaning of women and gays – is a means of dividing the proletariat, of obliterating its class identity.
Eminem, of course, has managed to cross the racial divide; and this, alongside his undoubted talents as a rapper, is one of the reasons why he has been made into a megastar. Eminem, we are told, is the voice of ‘white trash America’: codename for the most down-trodden section of the white American working class. And how is this section of the proletariat presented through the chain-saw wielding, blue overalls-wearing, drink and drug-guzzling posture adopted by Eminem in his controversial British tour? Not just as misogynist and homophobic, but above all as self-destructive and nihilistic: “I don’t give a fuck”. And nihilism is just another way of sterilising critical thought.
But what about all the shock and outrage vented by the Daily Mail, the Beckhams, or the politically correct Student Union puritans? More grist to the campaign, boosting Slim Shady’s subversive image. Real subversion lies elsewhere – in the rigorous criticism of this social order and the proposal of a revolutionary alternative. When the working class unites across all divisions, and calls capitalism into question, it will draw behind it the best of the artists, and put an end to the bourgeoisie’s cynical theft and manipulation of all forms of cultural creativity.