|What I dig about Hip Hop is the art. Just the art - no other additives, artificial preservatives or material ingredients. I'm not the Hip Hop expert, but I am an avid Hip Hop enthusiast. Not a connoisseur of concrete beats, rhymes, lines and sampling scratches, but easily entranced by the ecumenical flow of cultural energy. By that range of spiritual measure, Hip Hop is my escape.
So you can imagine my constipated consternation upon finding this furious rush to politicize Hip Hop.
At one time, I blindly embraced the notion of artist as elected official, lobbyist and grassroots advocate. Now, I am aghast with terror by the emphasis on fusing an art form with the structured insanity of modern politics. Cats like Def Jam Records ruler Russell Simmons clawing on down to the pretentious P-Diddy are poised to transform the griot-styled cultural sensation into a partisan movement. At a time when the Hip Hop world is stunned by slumping album sales, the last focus by those who control its commercialization should be on its politics. What the music will always need, however, is a continuous dose of aesthetic overhaul to ensure panurgic vitality and authenticity.
This is why I appreciate the periodic diversions into urban-rooted dithyramb. Take Pamela Mitchell for example - I dig the ongoing artistic endeavor she's habitually engaged in with the D.C.-based Cipher Links (CL) Project. Day in and day out, Mitchell and her team of sound sculptors produce art through an eclectic, yet well-placed movement of dialogue, bass and collective rhythm. It's about the continued development of Hip Hop and its artistic universe, rather than Hip Hop as a political platform. Mitchell's national documentary project explores American life through use of recorded voices reflecting change and struggle. Conversations, interviews and what Mitchell calls "Ciphers" (much taking place in the highly-charged, loquacious living room Sunday "CL Jamz" Sessions are captured on tape and used as content for CL audio programs.
"It hasn't been easy," claims the ever gregarious and trenchant Mitchell, describing the joys and pains of art: the highs, the lows. Heights reached. Expectations shattered - but, that's art "and that's why I work hard with mission held steadfast in mind."
"Cipher Links encourages the most fundamental elements in Hip Hop. It promotes self-education, self-evaluation, critical thinking, healing and artistic development," observes Mitchell. "We have found artists are inspired by the exchange of music and lyrics taking place in CL. Therefore, music does a good job of identifying issues that surface when different cultures attempt to co-exist."
Bopping my head to deep, jazz-born beats during a CL Jamz, I eagerly await the Fall 2001 launch of CipherLinks.com.
Mitchell drives a solid point. Hip Hop by its very nature encompasses every human emotion and worldly physical force, including politics. Yet, should there be a concerted effort to ignite Hip Hop political movements?
Of course not. To do so perpetuates the self-mutilation of the art by its purveyors. Many may accuse this admitted Hip Hop non-expert of unjustified Hip Hop hating in lieu of my obvious limited exposure to it. That my rant is premature biting at the expense of the music, the culture and the millions of loyal listeners, magnificent MCs and straight dope DJs who comprise the heart and soul of this conformist atrophy. But, instead, the author seeks to raise javelin and shield in defense of his long-time, recently re-discovered love: Hip Hop.
Hip Hop is, indisputably, the most influential art form on the global stage. Hence, it should stay as such since art forms - by their nature - are spiritual acts of individual consciousness abound. Art is the metaphysical extension of our humanity, the power of our being. Politics is an organized effort towards controlling that which makes us human - it presents systematic structure and order in an attempt to distract our more anarchistic, free-will leanings.
Now, I would dispute that all fundamental social systems - such as politics - are art-forms in their own right: however, the difference being that this is an art-form reliant on regimentation, structure and institutionalization. Thus, a mix of Hip Hop and politics can prove volatile and apocalyptic, primarily for Hip Hop and the global souls it impacts.
Our good Senator (and hustler in disguise) Joe Lieberman from Connecticut (D) wants to place certain restrictions on the marketing of "adult" entertainment to "minors." Reads an explanation from his office regarding introduction of the Media Marketing Accountability Act of 2001 (co-sponsored by Senators Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY)): "WHAT WOULD THE BILL DO? The FTC has the authority under current law to bring actions against businesses that engage in false and deceptive advertising practices. But the FTC's lawyers have concluded that the Commission's authority does not extend to this specific deceptive practice. The Media Marketing Accountability Act is designed to fill that gap in the law, and would apply the same rules and penalties under current law to entertainment companies that target the marketing of adult-rated products directly to children." Note how politicians use "children ..." when kids have nothing to really do with it.
The heavy hitters and moguls of the Hip Hop industry (Simmons, Diddy and crew) have, in response to this proposed legislation, formed what I would view as a Faustian alliance with the likes of Lieberman, Kohl and Clinton (Hillary rides on borrowed popularity from her husband's Black mass appeal) in an effort to seemingly curtail passage of the bill or, at most, dilute its impact on their multi-million dollar marketing efforts which amass billions each year. Hence, the reason for this summer's past Hip Hop Summit and Simmons' sudden interest in playing the Capitol Hill game.
However, Hip Hop industry execs and artists alike need to tread lightly or not tread at all in these waters. My advice: if you do tread, simply hire lobbyists, lawyers and consultants to do closed door footwork for you, keeping the focus on maintaining and enhancing the business model rather than accepting below the belt compromises on artist behavior. Political deals are based on a process of reciprocity - one hand washing the other. If Lieberman deals, he's going to want a return on his negotiated investment. In reality, the limits on advertising and marketing proposed by Lieberman are a veil for a greater threat: unstoppable restrictions on the art itself. What happens here is the erosion of free speech as Hip Hop knows it in the interest of one centrist Democrat hoping to attract family values freaks for the 2004 Presidential run. Suddenly, direct standards of conduct are placed on Hip Hop with little or no advisement from the artists. It's not an art form anymore; it's a heavily regulated and restricted industry marketing tool. MCs, then, are getting sued, harassed, fined or worse for what the federal government deems as "explicit."
High rollers of the Black intelligentsia who want to so desperately make Hip Hop political are merely searching for grant money and new audiences to absorb aging political agendas. Hip Hop has the larger following, therefore more peeps buying their tomes and registering for their conferences. The cries for Hip Hop politicization are now far from few - they grow in packs of many, strewn across incense-filled taverns, crouched over seminar tables and countless panel discussions. It is most unsettling: setting standards for an art-form best left alone to set its own.
C.D. Ellison is Contributing Writer to Metro Connection. He can be reached