The Political Imaginaries of Black Atlantic Cultural Creation

By Alisha Hines


Recently, drummer/producer/music journalist ?uestlove of the hip-hop band The Roots released the first two installments of what will be a six article-series on the subject of the state of hip hop in the 21st century. [Unfortunately, this essay will be made public before the series is complete.] He sets out with the argument that hip-hop music/culture has reached an apex as a ubiquitous expressive form in the U.S. Something has been lost, though, according to ?uestlove as hip-hop has now become underwritten in most mainstream cultural production.

“Once hip hop culture is ubiquitous, it is also invisible. Once its everywhere, it is nowhere. What once offered resistance to mainstream culture is now an integral part of the sullen dominant.”

In the second installment, ?uestlove expands on exactly what he finds to be so troubling about the current state of hip-hop. What has historically been an “aspirational strain” in black culture has proliferated into an ethos of conspicuous consumption. He states “Hip hop is about having things to prove you’re not a have-not.” And as a result, “hip hop has become almost exclusively about winners.” ?uestlove describes a few flashpoints in hip-hop history to illustrate his point that there has been a steady progression in the direction of hyper-commodification, consumption, and gross displays of wealth by hip hop artists. Mid-way through the article, I think he poses an important question that speaks to my interests here. He asks “What does it mean that hearing the song somehow makes me measure myself against its outsize boastings?” Here, it seems, is the crux of the problem contemporary hip-hop poses for its producers, its consumers, and its critics.

Lamentations over the failure of hip-hop to contain and advance ‘the struggle,’ broadly defined, in perpetuity are neither new nor unfamiliar (Common released “I Used to Love H.E.R.” twenty years ago). That hip-hop has been believed to contain such a dream, though, I think is worth considering as a question of how a black cultural ethos has or has not change over time. Excellent studies of hip-hop have been written in recent decades, but it seems they could at this point be updated to include a historicization of its mourned demise. It has been nearly ten years since Nas released his album “Hip Hop is Dead” (2006), which was only a flashpoint in the growing wave of discontent with the then current character of chart-topping hip-hop music. But who exactly is being failed and on what grounds? What have been considered legitimate strategies to resuscitate the dying art form? Finally, what might be the limits of those terms and how viable have those strategies been? ?uestlove chose a small fraction of hip-hop artists to support the argument about the relationship between hip-hop and obtuse consumerism in his most recent article. I think considering the most visible and highest paid representatives of the genre is a valid methodology, however it only allows for a quite pessimistic view of the state of hip-hop and its future (which comes across pretty strongly in Questlove’s essays to date).

Scholarship that has been produced in the field of black Atlantic studies as well as the conceptualization of the black Atlantic itself among its diaspora are useful to this discussion. How might the black Atlantic as a concept, historical legacy, and political/cultural resource, help us gauge not only the enduring underwritten terms and conditions of black musical expression that have propped up authenticity claims in this genre, but also the limits of those standards to grant legitimacy vis-à-vis ever-changing definitions of blackness, political projects, and relationships to a distant and largely imagined historical past.

My analysis in this section leans heavily on Paul Gilroy’s ideas about modern black Atlantic diasporic cultural production. What we seem to have encountered is a common problematic encountered in the “scholarly contemplation” of the cultural expressions of politically, economically and culturally oppressed groups. Gilroy poses the question as such: What special analytic problems arise if a style, genre, or particular performance of music is identified as being expressive of the absolute essence of the group that produced it?”

Gilroy argues that critical social theories are embedded in black musical culture because black “musics”, in many ways, contain and articulate an endless power struggle between oppressed and oppressor. This forms the basis of the antiphony this form of expression makes possible. The call and response that transpires between the performer and the audience is rooted in a shared experience of racial terror and trauma. This model, though, according to Gilroy is disrupted by black America (black Americans in the United States) and its particular strain of black Atlantic diasporic expressive culture. He claims that black culture has undergone a “fundamental dislocation” in its recent history; “black music produced out of the racial slavery which made modern western civilization possible, now dominate its popular cultures.”[1] One needn’t look further than the strange career of hip-hop in the United States for evidence of this claim.

Gilroy claims the black American experience was a departure, or at least a shift in the black Atlantic diasporic modernity. In this case, new terms of inclusion, of identification and a new set of reconstructed narratives came to be deployed by these cultural producers. The four elements of this new cultural ethos Gilroy has defined:

  1. politics
  2. commentary on work-leisure relationship
  3. folk historicism
  4. gender/sexuality

I could reinterpret my first essay on Jay-Z and Frank Ocean’s single Oceans based on this formulation and draw some interesting parallels and conclusions. I think, like ?uestlove, that a discussion of those mainstream artists is a great analytical starting point.

The message, if you will, of the single Oceans opens these questions about how the black Atlantic functions as a concept, how it has been deployed to claim legitimacy within an enclosed cultural community, and how that functionality has changed over time.

 To cite this article:

> Exploring the Black Atlantic Through Sound

> Jay Z’s Oceans: Cultural Production, Historical Imaginaries, and Collective Identity

> Distant Relatives: Antiphony and the Original Call

> “I know the mid-Atlantic slave trade fascinates me:” On romanticizing the Black Atlantic


[1] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), 80.









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