Not that ordinary Black people -- particularly young Black people -- have it all that much better. All the recent reports indicate that African America will be worse off, not better, after eight years of the Obama administration. The daily experiences of Blacks in any city is one where they could be potentially stopped, frisked, arrested and much worse for almost no reason whatsoever. Most African Americans may not be labeled something quite as extreme as “terrorists” across the board, but they certainly remain an object of the mainstream’s ire.
I’m reminded of the "Boondocks" comic strip, released not long after 9/11, when young Huey and Caesar discuss how Black Americans have slid to the “third most hated” ethnic group “behind people of Middle Eastern/Arab descent and people of East Indian descent... because they look kind of like people of Middle Eastern/Arab descent.”
Twelve years later it seems that the sick contest continues. Prior to the Boston Marathon bombings and the unleashing a new wave of Islamophobia, activists in the city were taking on the possibility of a city ordinance that would criminalize the wearing of saggy pants.
Like Yasiin Bey says, “‘hip-hop’ is just shorthand for ‘Black people.’” In other words, policy-makers understand well that if you want to single out African Americans in “post-racial,” “post-Civil Rights” America, then the easiest method is just to go after hip-hop. No longer do we talk about the “natural difference between the races” like Bull Connor or George Wallace did; now it’s about things like “culture” and “way of life.” The fact that most war criminals wear nice suits doesn’t mean that cops are stationed outside Armani. That would just be too consistent.
This reality may provide some insight into the seemingly random choice to “upgrade” Assata’s standing on the terror list in the here and now. Hip-hop may not be the reason for this development, but looking at the state of the culture does give us something of a window.
Chuck “Jigsaw” Creekmur has already pointed out the deep respect that Assata Shakur commands within hip-hop culture. Her name has been dropped in several songs. Common visited her in Cuba several years back where she’s been living in exile -- which in turn provided an in for the Sarah Palins of the world to criticize Barack Obama for inviting Common to the White House.
And, of course, Assata is Tupac’s godmother. Not to mention that her brother was his step-father. There’s something of a crux here; more than just a passing symbolic serendipity. Tupac (rest in peace) was a scion of his mother Afeni’s generation, that generation of Black Americans that had risen up and taken down legal segregation only to have the bigotry of the whole damn system slammed in their face. They were the ones that raised the larger questions that Malcolm and Martin had left unanswered when they were shot; the questions about why capitalism needs racism and why we pay water bills on a planet two-thirds water.
The Panthers, the Black Liberation Army, these were where those like Assata, Mutulu and Afeni ended up, and they scared the hell out of Nixon, the FBI and just about any guardian of the old order. That’s why so many ended up in jail, framed up, in exile or much worse, dead. And this left the next generation -- the hip-hop generation -- once again with dreams deferred. As Sonia Sanchez points out: “Hip-hop emerged because nothing had changed since the 60s.”
It was on the ashes of the Black Power movement that hip-hop took hold in the first place. Communities gutted and abandoned by white flight and the flourishing of drugs and gang wars were the markers of neoliberal Black America. But the ideas of something to be won still persisted, still managed to find their ways into the consciousness of that first wave of heads in various ways -- be that through the Afro-futurist cultural nationalism of the Zulu Nation or the heavy street-truth of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message.”
If, as Yasiin reminds us, hip-hop is "shorthand for Black people,” and if this culture in the matter of a couple decades has become the dominant one among young people (particularly of color), then it’s not too much of a stretch to see how counterintelligence previously aimed at stifling J. Edgar Hoover’s feared “Black messiah” can be translated into the targeting of any artist that might aim to speak truth to power.
This isn’t the stuff of conspiracy theory. Today’s mainstream, auto-tuned studio gangsterism makes it easy to forget that during the years of hip-hop’s “golden age,” many of the art-form’s brightest luminaries were publicly and secretly targeted. Public Enemy’s Black nationalism landed them in more than a few media dustups and political denunciations. Even more to the point, N.W.A and Ice-T were under surveillance of the the FBI and the LAPD in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
Right around the turn of the 2000’s, reports started to surface -- in papers from the Village Voice to the Miami Herald -- of law enforcement agencies dedicating significant resources to keeping tabs on hip-hop crews. Six inch dossiers and even whole departments in the NYPD were devoted to tracking the activities of well-known rappers. Even the Wu Tang Clan’s management was infiltrated by a government informant at one point, proving that artists didn’t have to be particularly “political” to find themselves targeted by the feds. Little wonder that so many are convinced that law enforcement was somehow complicit in the deaths of Biggie and Tupac.
Telescope this forward to today. The music industry is more consolidated than it’s ever been and hip-hop and rap, though still vibrant and rebellious in many cases, has a mainstream that is more homogenized and comparatively tame. Richard Wallace, otherwise known as Epic of Chicago juke militants BBU, puts it like this:
The money is all dried up in hip-hop, the Minstrel show is all that's left. The soul of hip-hop was bought and sold by capitalists. Hip-hop, blues, R&B, and jazz are what the effects of oppression sound like. That sound was bottled up and sold by capitalists who made millions by watering down the message and mass producing the product. I don't believe that any one style of hip-hop is better than another, but I do believe that the message we have been socialized to receive from hip-hop has been restructured to benefit capitalism and keep folks oppressed.It’s important to note that Epic uses the word “socialized” when talking about hip-hop commodification. Because socialization is a process (often quite an unstable one) that has to be conscious on the part of one group of people against another. It also can be undone and pushed against.
That’s precisely what many in powerful places don’t want. Record executives have heart attacks over platinum-selling artists taking militant stances (evidenced by their ongoing troubles with, for instance, Lupe Fiasco). And those at the grassroots level still often find themselves singled out by local authorities. The recent eviction of Bronx duo Rebel Diaz from their community arts space is only the most current example.
Federal obsession with the “Black messiah” is surely easy to overstate; it also underplays the very fact that Dr. King, Malcolm X and others like them would be nothing without a movement at their backs. But the notion of some kind of radical anti-racist leader seizing national attention certainly scares those with reason. The tragic and shocking death of Malcolm’s grandson -- whose own history of activism is being deliberately swept under the rug in favor of his prison record -- is a stark reminder of just how much they fear this.
The best way to hedge against the emergence of a new and radical anti-racist movement isn’t just to pen in today’s potential, but to ruthlessly scapegoat those leaders of the past. And yes, that’s still true with a Black president in power. Again, Epic’s words:
Our government is sold too, when it comes to Assata people say, ‘how could Obama let this happen?’, that seems to be the question instead of, ‘why did Obama do this?’ Obama is owned by the system that made him president. Sister Assata is a symbol of resistance to capitalism... The fact that our (US) government has been sold has to be accepted. Capitalism breeds systems of inequality that stretch far beyond US borders effecting race, gender and class. Assata isn't anti-American she is anti-capitalist, just like the soul of hip-hop.Reclaiming that soul is something that artists and activists alike need to never forget. It’s a soul that’s been around well before hip-hop itself, and has stayed alive through four hundred years of the Middle Passage, chattel slavery, Jim Crow and violent racist thuggery on the part of the US government. It’s a soul of survival by any means necessary. That soul is something Assata Shakur knows well, and that’s the reason she’s been labeled a terrorist. As she writes in her own poem:
Through the lies and the sell-outs,
The mistakes and the madness.
Through pain and hunger and frustration,
We carried it on.
Carried on the tradition.
Carried a strong tradition.
Carried a proud tradition.
Carried a Black tradition.
Carry it on.
Pass it down to the children.
Pass it down.
Carry it on.Published at Red Wedge magazine.
Carry it on now.
Carry it on