On questions of authenticity…

by Marcus K. Dowling

“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” – The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats

On Saturday evening, VH1 aired Kanye West’s “Storytellers” episode, and in doing so, confirmed the “Louis Vuitton Don’s” place as the most emotionally accessible and soul baring artist in modern music, and, upon further review, likely of the modern era. From statements being accepting of homosexuality, to the absurdity of proclaiming OJ Simpson as “amazing,” to proclaiming with great hubris that he is shamed by his inability to watch himself perform, Kanye really outdid himself, and, in the world of hip hop seems to have created the most divisive line yet in the sand as to whether the Chicago native is idiot savant, just a plain idiot, or pure unadulterated genius. At the end of my furious spell of typing I hope to at least have you, the reader, aware of the man, the artist as none of the above, but rather an important bellwether of our change in social climate, our change in culture, and a harbinger of things to come.

In all earnestness, rap’s “authenticity” is a product of the pros and cons of Reaganomics, and the Reagan era. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five can only rap about “white lines” in a completely devastated section of the Bronx due to the urban neglect and urban blight caused solely by Reagan’s inadequacy in handling national urban social concerns. Early rap obsessions with gold, furs, cars, diamonds and the accoutrements of wealth come from a media driven by the heretofore unseen levels of wealth that celebrities attained in an era of unparalleled prosperity for the wealthy, where the phrase “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” was life. Slick Rick’s ostentatiousness is not a reflection so much of his status, as it is of his extreme desire to acquire said status.

As hip hop has progressed as a genre, it has been such a wonderful mirror of our country’s development and decline. As soul music was the voice of the civil rights movement, rappers are unbelievable urban griots of our history dealing with unprecedented rises in gang violence, drug abuse, and the attempts of many to become part of a generation of Americans who went to college in increased numbers, as intellectualism was drawn into the fold as well. The beats, the rhymes, the aesthetic has always been reflective, and not so much advancing of any cultural movement in society. A man gets arrested, he writes “F**k the Police.” A man reads about teen pregnancy, he writes “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” And so on, and so forth, ad infinitum.

As the genre moved into the Clinton years, the unabashed era of good feelings, as unemployment was low, we had no truly pressing foreign conflicts of which to speak, entrepreneurship was encouraged and success was plentiful, we went from angry hip hop to ridiculous insipidly joyous tracks, celebrating cars, money, drugs, diamond studded tooth protection (Seriously. In fifty years, people will cackle at the concept of Nelly’s “Grills” and what the song is talking about, and TV Johnny may be far more entertaining than he is now, if not already) and all manner of monetary gain and the prize posessions they afford.

What is “authentic,” let me reiterate, is not a solid concept. To make it a solid concept is to be particularly racist (in that nothing other than explicitly “black” issues have any shrift in hip hop), classist (in presuming that middle and upper class people have no voice, and that “urban” is secretly a code word for “poor”), sexist (in presuming that issues of the female gender are of no interest in the hyper testosterone fueled world of hip hop) or any other negatively connoted classifying extraction. Authenticity to me is both cultural and ultimately intrinsically a time, space and place based concept, and can only be examined as such.

That point leads us into where we are today. Let’s look at our society in recent memory. A plane overthrown by a Middle Eastern terror organization successfully piloted a plane, in our own airspace, into the world trade center in downtown MANHATTAN and dropped 13.4 MILLION square feet of office space into the ground, killing nearly THREE THOUSAND PEOPLE. We then engaged in a foreign conflict, and, upon realizing we couldn’t kill the man responsible, we killed the President of Iraq, who, was a “bad man” to our nation before, but who hadn’t been particularly “kill him where he stands” evil in comparison. Our president was admittedly, an idiot. The “leader of the free world,” a man routinely ridiculed in a country he runs. Recreational and harder drug use runs rampant in greater numbers than ever before. The internet reports literally everything, as soon as it happens, and story after story, from Bill Clinton to Barry Bonds and everybody in between rip apart the carefully constructed pack of lies of honesty and truth that the country has always been built upon.

So, if a musician that sees all of this and endures the tragic and sudden death of a parent and loses the love of his life and wants to start wearing oddly fitted suits, a mullet and date a bald headed German ex-lesbian model, and tell me that when “your love locks down, you lose,” well, sh*t. I may just be inclined to agree. His expression is angst ridden, confused, yet ultimately impressive and heartfelt. To think that this music is bad, to think that the electronic beats, morose lyrical content, and extreme reflection of kids like Drake, Charles Hamilton, Colin Munroe or B.O.B. or the completely escapist silliness of Asher Roth aren’t “real” or aren’t “hip hop,” then stop, take a look around you, and seriously  question the society in which you live.

To question the globalism and all encompassing new focus of the movement, the fresh and new approaches of MIA, Santigold, and the everchanging stylistic approaches of folks like Missy Elliot, NERD, et. al. is again, to look at the world around you, and be blind and ignorant. Somewhere, somebody is expressing an emotion that could be a ray of sunshine. They absolutely deserve a voice and platform.

The era of the ultra determined “boom bap” is dead. Sure, it’s great to genuflect at it’s grave, and occasionally see if there’s anything it can still offer to the music it propagated, but to me, it’s no longer relevant, no longer “authentic.” Hard rhymes just existing as hard rhymes are vacant expression to me. If somebody can help me cry because six of my best friends are jobless, if somebody can make me laugh as my cousin does his third tour of Iraq, of somebody can sympathize with my intermittent bouts with explosive anger at the perpetual instability of my workplace, and if someone can help me lament lost love, I want that a lot more right now than somebody telling me how hot their ride is, or how hot of an emcee they are, or anything I’ve already heard.

These times are harder than any we’ve ever faced. Two turntables and a mic, as important as they were, are still key, but given what we’re facing as a society and universe,  just aren’t as important anymore. The problems have depth and scope now. Our music, which always provides the answer, must respond in kind. Authenticity has a brand new meaning, which ultimately is no meaning at all.

Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.

  • Stone

    Wow. That is, quite possibly, the best summation of the current state of hip-hop that I have EVER seen.

    >>classist (in presuming that middle and upper class people have no voice, and that “urban” is secretly a code word for “poor”)

    I think the whole authenticity thing boils down strictly to class and assimilation. Now you have rappers like B.O.B. and Kid Cudi name dropping Coldplay before they namedrop KRS-One. The melting pot of cultures and music is a scary thing for someone who is knee deep in the hip-hop. I can’t knock them. Hip-hop was an expression of black culture and and outlet for angst at mainstream socitey. But the world is what it is. Globalization has changed the game, and the new class understands this better than most.

    On the other tip, I seriously might have to send this out as an email blast to everybody I know. The world needs to see this.

  • illtek

    Interesting views Marcus. I am very interested also at the direction which Hip Hop is taking right now. With the popularity of iTunes and other online music hubs, I find it hard to predict what will happen. Music is approaching worthlessness, in a monetary sense. While I don’t believe the powers that be will let that happen, I have been curious as to what is happening to the music industry now. MTV doesn’t play music anymore, and BET.. well I haven’t watched BET in years. The music videos aren’t as wild and expensive as they once where and this last quarter was pretty quiet on the Hip Hop front. I’m sure alot of people are losing money. This loss of a central advertising hub for music like MTV or BET seems to have had a large effect on record sales. I hope for the sake of the music we can bounce back. Maybe we will revert to the days of radio and make music that relies less on the image and more on the god damn sound! The type of music that will grab you by the neck and make your head bob uncontrollably. We’ll see I guess.

    Thanks for the food for thought,

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