Over these last few weeks, it's been hard to miss the presence of hip-hop in protests over incidents involving police and unarmed black men.
In some ways, there is nothing more vague and all-encompassing than the term "hip-hop." But its imprint can be seen in the age and cross-cultural makeup of the protest crowds, which have even included prominent hip-hop stars. When President Obama addressed Ferguson and Eric Garner in his first sit-down interview on the issue, his comments aired first on BET's 106 & Park, where rapper B.o.B. also appeared.
The Fix reached out to hip-hop scholar James Peterson of Lehigh University to get a sense of what this moment means for this now-middle-aged genre of music that has long since become something much more than just a genre. We caught up with him while he is in Japan, on tour for his book, "The Hip-Hop Underground and African American Culture: Beneath the Surface."
FIX: What do you make of this moment and what it means and says about hip hop?
PETERSON: Hip-hop is my specialty, and for such a long time I’ve had to bear the brunt of criticism from people who say that it was apolitical and the hip-hop generation was apathetic and disengaged. I have known this not to be true. Hip-hop artists have been talking about police brutality since 1982. This hip-hop generation has been talking about government surveillance since the 1990s. And the hip-hop generation activism is at the forefront of this generation of activists. So people who have criticized hip-hip for being apathetic and staying on sidelines have to keep quiet now.
I've been watching particularly the local St. Louis hip hop artists and the others. You look at T-Dubb-O, who is leading some of the civic unrest, and you get a truer sense of what the role can be for hip-hip in 21st Century activism. And nationally known artists have been involved -- J. Cole, Talib Kweli in Ferguson. But then superstar-level artists like Pharell and Jay-Z are also figuring out how to engage, they are reaching out to cultural critics and activists and leaders to figure out how they should engage. The reason we need Jay-Z and Macklemore and these superstar artists is that they can leverage more clout, more political capital and more capital capital. This is an exciting time when basketball stars and rap stars have to engage because their constituency is engaged and, if they don’t, they will seem inauthentic.
FIX: Obama has been called the Hip-Hop president. He famously channeled Jay-Z during the campaign and of course Jay and Bey were on the dais at his second inauguration. What role, if any, does his presence and presidency play in all of this?
PETERSON: It’s possible because of him but also in spite of him. His ascendancy instilled so much hope in the hip-hop generation -- maybe falsely -- but his presidency has revealed its limitations. But the same people who worked for the Obama for America group -- the artists who rode with Obama -- feel like they have more political cache. They elected him and the failures of his presidency, they can take it on the chin and still come out swinging. They feel like they helped put Obama in office and that’s a different level of political accountability than the hip-hop generation has ever had.
Obama hasn't said this enough directly, but their claim about our issues of the hip-hop generation and poor communities is if we get out in the streets and make our bodies seen and known then that puts pressure on them. They asked us to force them to respond. I don’t know if people are satisfied with his response, but they can't say we aren't out en masse, and part of that has to do with social media and the ability to organize and have a voice that way.
THE FIX: What happens post-Obama?
PETERSON: That’s a critical question. I hope post-Obama we continue to fight and pressing for policies, for overhauling tactics, for alternatives to lethal force. And the second track is to have a more sustained commitment to get at the issues of implicit racial bias and youth bias and class bias. There is cultural work we have to do along with the policy work.
But in some ways there is greater space for unity to actually do that Post-Obama than there is to do that now. There is infighting within that coalition between substance and symbolism. There are a lot of people wedded to that symbolism, from our parents' generation. And then there are people to the left of Obama who are not hung up on the symbolism, and they want to deal with the substance. That has unfortunately made enemies out of people who have been great friends.
Post-Obama, we can mend those fences and the racialized politics likely won’t exist to the same degree once we get another white president.