Hip Hop’s Conversation about Consciousness

I learned of Carl Joseph’s suicide because I was facilitating a dialogue about identity and bullying at Renaissance High School on the second anniversary of his death. Tiffany is one of several dozen students from six high schools preparing to meet each other at South Hadley High School on April 30. Students from the different schools have expressed a mix of trepidation and excitement about getting past the stereotypes they hold about each other. Can these youth find reasons to bond with each other despite the stereotypes, rather than staying within comfort zones of familiar identification with people they already know or identify with as ‘the same as me’?

Dialogue: Identities and Bullying
western Massachusetts

shielding ourselves from the light?
shielding ourselves from the light?

This screenshot of a future technological wasteland is from Katy Perry’s music video, E.T., featuring Kanye West. A brief scene near the end includes two museum-style placards denoting a problematic relation between homo sapiens and other species sharing Earth. In 2011, what lenses are we using to block knowledge of extinctions coming within mere decades?

A complicated, evolutionary relationship unfolds over the course of Katy Perry’s song.  Listening past the dominating lyrics, fluctuations of volume mark incursions of alternate reality, loud bursts punctuating the sensual quality of the steady soft tones. The softer sounds persist, providing solid ground for the ethereal. It’s as if there’s a conversation within the music between the physical and the spiritual.

“What if we learn bad things?”

In the class I’m teaching on Media and Culture, several students recently attended DayGlow’s Escape Reality Tour. Some of them enjoyed themselves so much they are practically desperate to repeat the experience. I have to admit, it sounds incredible, a kind of collective audience culture that I know about by reference not personal experience. This generation’s style of celebrating the body with dance-and-party is in high form at remix concerts by performers like Girl Talk – who, I’m just sortof starting to wonder – may have taken the musical form originated by rappers & hip hop artists and are now pushing that envelope in their own directions.

I’m not a musicologist, so don’t take my unresearched hypothesis as fact. What really strikes me is a difference in tone and intent (technically, what linguistic anthropologists call “indexicality“) between white-skinned remixers and many of their brown-skinned inspirations. Again, my exposure is limited, but sample this youtube video taken during the DayGlow show at UMass which captures lead performer “STARKILLERS” emblazoned across the monster projection screen, and a pounding lyric repeats “SATISFACTION”  several times.

What’s going on? I juxtapose these (predominately white) college student’s talk about DayGlow with their selection of hip hop songs as soundtracks for individual midterm video projects. Ten of twenty-one, nearly 50%, of the songs selected come from the genre of hip hop. What themes (if any) are present within this music? Is there a coherent conversation, or do the lyrics and sounds represent essentially random and disconnected topics? Kenny Alfonso responds to an earlier blogentry, Hip Hop plays with structure, explaining:

Kanye, as well as many other artists, have been trying for years to portray their struggles to the world, and make it evident that just because someone is successful in the music industry, television industry, etc., doesn’t mean that they live the perfect life. While reading deeper into the lyrics of my favorite hip hop artists, I gained more respect for all of them, and realize that their lives might not be as eas[y] as everyone might think.

Kenny signals a painful fact: the ability to escape reality is a privilege.

Everyone needs entertainment

This past weekend, I attended a Gala Fundraiser in memory of a wannabe Morehouse Man who took his life two years ago in the nearby urban setting of Springfield. There were 350 people in attendance, including me and Tiffany.

excerpt from an essay by Tiffany Griffin
excerpt from an essay by Tiffany Griffin

She knew at least a dozen people there but kept me company throughout the evening, despite my nosiness about her texting (Hi Ashley!) and Facebook activities 🙂  Come on – I had to know if she was carrying an extra battery pack so she could stay plugged in!  She met another young person at our table; I returned from getting dessert to see them communicating nonverbally. “Are you showing her your rings?” I asked. “Something like that,” she replied.  Uh huh. Not for me to know!

Anti-bullying applies to everyone

I learned of Carl Joseph’s suicide because I was facilitating a dialogue about identity and bullying at Renaissance High School on the second anniversary of his death. Tiffany is one of several dozen students from six high schools preparing to meet each other at South Hadley High School on April 30. Students from the different schools have expressed a mix of trepidation and excitement about getting past the stereotypes they hold about each other. Can these youth find reasons to bond with each other despite the stereotypes, rather than staying within comfort zones of familiar identification with people they already know or identify with as ‘the same as me’?

Six $500 and seven $1000 college scholarships were given to the winners of an essay contest about the effects of bullying in their lives. In presenting the awards, Regina Jeames read a sentence from each student’s essay. First-place winner Peter Nassar writes that we need to “end the savagery.” “Bullying can follow you home,” warns Jason Dinnall. Quinn Hegarty emphasizes “dissolving isolation” while Benjamin Gelinas laments “wasted potential.” Kabrillen Jones admonishes: “Look into the eyes of our children.” The core challenge is articulated by Stephanie Collins: “It takes one person to stand up and say, ‘That’s not right.'”

What’s this got to do with Hip Hop?

Dancing – to hip hop – capped the official ceremonies at Carl’s Gala. Hip Hop is what young people are listening to – all kinds of youth, from diverse backgrounds and various motivations. The intensity of living out loud and taking things on as they come was in high evidence throughout the Gala. Nikki Minaj’s Go Hard music video ft Lil Wayne captures the sentiment (warning: potentially offensive lyrics):

“Yo SB I think its my time.

You know why?

My tears have dried and I know that

no weapon formed against me will prosper. And I

truly believe that my haters are my motivators…”

Sirdeaner Walker, Carl’s mother, is a fount of inspiration and goodwill. Her activism and compassion are evident in a series of interviews with 22News. Gwynnetta Sneed received overflowing praise for her vision and follow-through in creating the Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover Foundation and making the Gala happen. We got to witness her character in action, public misbehavior inviting public rebuke.  Members of my community also made me feel proud. I had been wondering about their involvement, not sure of the details of Carl’s story.

“It is considered a given in group and organizational life that issues are taken up by whatever group is most affected by them; however, often that group is then accused of taking up only these issues for reasons of self-interest rather than for the benefit of the whole” (Connolly and Noumair, p. 328 in Off White).

Near the end of the event, one of Sirdeaner Walker’s co-workers approached and thanked me, assuming I was a member of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. (I look the type, wink!) Her approach allowed me the chance to ask about GLSEN’s presence.

It turns out that GLSEN offered help . . . and their help was welcomed! This embodies the sentiment expressed by Susan Skaza in her essay about how to stop bullying by “simply being a good example.” Here are two communities – stereotypically riven by homophobia, heterosexism, and racism – joining together in a common cause to end bullying of everyone’s children, for any reason.

I  thought it was especially impressive when the Christian minister, Reverend Peter Sylver, said he didn’t know what God thinks about what people do when they go to sleep, but he knows what God expects of us during the day: radical love.

Radical Love

The Chinese fortune reads, "Opportunities multiply as they are seized, they die when neglected."
The Chinese fortune reads, "Opportunities multiply as they are seized, they die when neglected."

Whatever one’s spiritual beliefs, including agnostics and atheists, the savagery of bullying is only going to end when members of groups reach out, radically, across differences to forge new bonds on the basis of shared experiences or common values. Bullying is children’s version of grown-up violence. As long as adults continue to justify and promote brutal competition over planetary resources, children will act out what they see modeled. Radical love means embracing the foreign, accepting the alien.

This brings us back to Hip Hop. Katy Perry is pop, but for some reason Kanye decided she must have something to say to Hip Hop, otherwise he would not have contributed ‘bookends’ to her video. The layers of that conversation can be interpreted in many different ways. For me, what matters is the moment when conversation – the trading of verses – turns to dialogue.

Dialogue is the special form of communication in which participants are open enough to allow themselves to be changed by interacting with the foreign and alien other. Change of this kind is the ultimate evidence of radical love.

9 thoughts on “Hip Hop’s Conversation about Consciousness”

  1. Race, religion and other differences impacts us all in very different ways. It can cause us pain through prejudice, rejoice from upcoming and uniqueness that can only be celebrated. But with this difference can bring many different opportunities for everyone, or for some to capture while others cannot. For example, suburban white children get far better education from those in urban situations that also can be filled through violence, drugs, and gangs. Suburban kids get all the new toys and are predominantly spoiled with all the things you need to live plus more. I am not trying to make judgements about anyone, I am one of these suburban kids myself. Than we go onto college and get an education to raise another wealthy suburban family. These kids are so fortunate they ultimately do not see all the things they are privileged to do. I realize going to a university to learn is a privilege while other kids suffer from all the expenses of college that I do not think about. Or about attending fun events such as dayglow or other concerts or sporting events, I think of that as a “night out” or an event I am use too, while urban kids cannot afford going to these events. I am extremely fortunate and blessed to have everything I do and yet, most of the time, I am blind of all the opportunities I get to experience while others do not. The best illustration of this race consciousness idea is from the movie “Blind Side” and the main character Michael Oher (African American) has nothing, and gets taken in by a wealthy white family and gets his own room. The first time he sees his room, he is in awe, the mother asks if this is his first room before, he replies saying “this is my first bed”. This blindness concept is clearly alive today and my only suggestion of stopping this sharing the power and wealth and donating to charities and such. However, our country and economic system of lassie-fairre goes against this idea of sharing the wealth, thus I am unsure of anyway stopping this struggle.

  2. I identify as a straight, white, able-bodied female from the middle to upper-middle class, based upon how I identify, I was born into life of privilege because of how my DNA, chromosomes and genes decided to mesh. I’m from a predominantly white, Catholic suburban town right outside of Boston and yes it’s safe to say I grew up slightly sheltered from cultural exposure and variation of difference amongst people. However, that never stopped me from always viewing myself as a very excepting person who yearned for an exposure to cultural diversity and exposure to the unknown.
    Even still, in my high school we had some diversity, ranging from different races, religion and sexual orientation and what I found was that I was very fortunate to grow up in a high school that was very excepting of all types of people. But once again I will reiterate the fact that this is not the fortunate case for all high schools. Bullying is a problem; a very serious problem, not just on the east coast but around the country. We live in a society that trains and brain washes us from the moment we come out of the womb. We are constantly being conditioned to believe stereotypes and social structure of how to view the world. Don’t get me wrong I was brought up the same way however even though I was conditioned to believe certain things, I’m aware of that and am working on being more conscious of my thoughts because that is the first step.
    I became much more aware of how serious bullying was when I came to Umass Amherst. Meeting so many different people from an array of places we began to talk about our experiences from the past. What I noticed was that I was someone who had an unbelievable college experience, I was never worried about going to school or afraid to be myself, I was never targeted for my identity or spiritual choices however I found that I fell into the minority for people having a similar experience. I was a lucky one and we can thank social identity and structure for that.
    Let’s face it, society won’t be changed in a day however if we start by changing the views and ideas of people that live in our society little by little this world could be morphed into a pretty cool place. “Radical love means embracing the foreign, accepting the alien.”(Steph) This way of thinking with such open-mind ness is a great start and with a little effort it would spread like wild fire. Because the truth is, the world isn’t blinded from the truth, it’s afraid of speaking out against it. No one wants to be that person who stands up against everything society says you’re supposed to believe but we all need to be that person if we want change. We all need to spread some radical love!
    Which brings me to my next point, Steph poses this question above, “Can these youth find reasons to bond with each other despite the stereotypes, rather than staying within comfort zones of familiar identification with people they already know or identify with as ‘the same as me’?” And I think our generation is beginning to answer that question with a capital YES and we are finding this answer through music. Every single day people all over the world no matter what they look like, where they come from, what they believe or how they communicate are bonding and breaking stereotypical boundaries over music. Music is the one of the few things that you feel or hear first rather than see to judge whether you like it or not. This is why you have those “suburban white kids”, “urban kids” and so on rockin out to the same artist. Even though we are different we all feel good about the same music which then translates into us feeling good about each other as we bond over the music. Slowly and slowly music is beginning to change the world; everyday people from everywhere gather at venues with people who are nothing like them and they only thing bridging the gap is music.
    That’s what music does; it drowns out the world, over powers the body and makes you feel alive. And at the moment in which you experience this it doesn’t matter if the person next to you is white, black or Hispanic because in that moment you are all just people enjoying what makes you feel alive. That is where music overpowers the consciousness of race- where radical love takes over.
    Then all of sudden, DAYGLOW sweeps the nations sucking in people all over the world like a tornado. When you log onto Ticketmaster to buy your DAYGLOW ticket all you are thinking about is that you want to be in the atmosphere DAYGLOW creates and who ever else has that same thought process you want to be there too. As you walk into the venue and look around everyone is different, people travel from colleges everywhere to attend and yet difference doesn’t matter. There is no place for negative judgments and you literally “escape reality”. The atmosphere that forms at DAYGLOW is like none I have ever experienced because the reality is if I was any where else with that many people portraying that many differences it wouldn’t be the same. But the music brings us together and shrinks the diversity gap. It is an unspoken truth that if you are attending DAYGLOW you want the same thing as the next person; to feel the music and escape the complexities of the everyday world. That is where music brings us together, where DAYGLOW bridges the gap because everyone knows they have at least one thing in common with the person who is standing (extremely close) next to you. Since everyone there has something right off the bat they know makes them similar to the other, everyone loves everyone and that is where you’ll see radical love at it’s finest.
    Granted, society will always have stereotypes and social identities will always exist however it is how much we let them control our lives and judgments as we work towards the future that will keep us from digressing back to ways of the past. We are a generation unlike any other, growing up with more pressures, more technology and more expectations than any other. On top of that, we do so in an environment that tells us how to live and we need to respond by not losing ourselves. So sometimes we need to escape, take a break from the harsh cruelties of the world and find common ground with complete strangers through not only DAYGLOW but music.
    Which is why when Steph approached us and asked us to research deeper into DAYGLOW, ask questions and look into the three social relations, we as a class became defensive and responded first with a stern “NO!” and then eased out of the conversation with “What if we learn bad things?” We didn’t want to know how they targeted their audiences, what producers or distributors they went through, if they were in fact illegally using music or did they work with certain music industries and is the paint made in an un-ethical environment? At this moment, we didn’t want to know any of these answers; we didn’t want to know if the three social relations that applied to DAYGLOW were good or bad. Because the truth is, DAYGLOW was and is are escape, we leave all of our troubles at the door and it facilitates an environment that is blind to color or cultural difference but sees the common ground of the human race as a whole and understands that when we enter we all are in an agreement that we simply want to be. And enjoy the overpowering feeling of the love for life you feel as you live the music. It aids an environment that is accepting of all who have the mutual understanding that for the next five hours they want to escape, love and live. DAYGLOW isn’t just a rave with paint, it’s one small step to altering society’s distorted thoughts by trying to bridge the gap through music and joy. And if us as a class were to find out that our one method of escape was also corrupt and bad, well that is something that we just wouldn’t be able to handle at the moment.
    We live in a world of complexities where the predominate moto to live by is survival of the fittest. We as the Millenials are drowning in the expectation we are supposed to live up to and have a plate of responsibilities and complexities that is over flowing. To add another negative portion on top would simply be too much, that is a task for another day…

  3. Often times in Comm121 Steph talked about the fact that many of us saw things in a “white way”. We never thought about seeing things this way but it was seemingly apparent that we did. Seeing in a “white way” is similar to the idea of heteronormativity. Heterosexuality is unconsciously perceived as the correct way to live and therefore heterosexual individuals are unfairly privileged in the same way that white individuals are solely because of their race. As Sgershlak said, many white college students do not think about the opportunities they are presented with because they have always been there. Many of them have not faced much adversity if any at all and this has influenced their perspective on the world. Many hip-hop songs feature themes of constant struggle and turmoil the artists have faced in their lives. Although the messages may not be something some members of the audience, including white college students, can relate to, something about it keeps them interested. It may be that they are so interested because it is something they are so unfamiliar with and they use the music as a device to learn about another culture. The songs teach them about struggles they will never have to face in their own lives and it makes them more conscious of the world around them. They know they can escape reality, but it is not something everyone else has the privilege to do. Even if these kids will never deal with the struggles some of their favorite artists face, the music teaches them that they exist and teaches them to be more aware and understanding because of it.

  4. “While reading deeper into the lyrics of my favorite hip hop artists, I gained more respect for all of them, and realize that their lives might not be as eas[y] as everyone might think.” To branch from the previous comments, it is important to have an open mind, since everyone interprets race a bit differently. To say that you are privileged to be white and live in the suburbs, is an opinion based solely on your perception of how you view being a minority living in the city. Having lived in the city until 10 years ago, then moving out to suburbs, privileges are viewed as opportunities which vary from environment. Each environment, both city and suburb, offers its own unique opportunities. Would you say being isolated in the suburbs surrounded by predominately white households is really beneficial in further developing skills required for entering a well diverse work force? What about living in the city surrounded by the hundreds of possible negative influences, wouldn’t overcoming these challenges and obstacles prove to be far greater and potentially life benefiting than any suburban education could teach you? Sure life at times is much easier being the majority than the minority, but that isn’t to say that being the majority is by any means a “privilege”. Would that imply that being; blind, deaf, homosexual,atheist, or handicapped are all unprivileged since they’re not the majority but rather the minority? Each one of those has its own privileges that I’m positive give an individual who falls into one of those categories that delight of saying that they are privileged to be unique, just as I am privileged in stating “I’m the minority”. How does this tie into hip-hop? Well hip-hop is most often written and performed by those who have over come adversity. However, would you care to hear the story of Kanye West, a former urban African-American living in poverty, if he wasn’t the celebrity he is today? This is often what makes hip-hop so popular, because it can be related by so many people, waking up everyday and knowing they are not the only ones attempting to over come the adversity. I would go even further to say that music in general allows individuals to relate on issues that some believe they are the only ones experiencing. Given that times are changing for the best, would this imply that music would also change for the best? Since it will ultimately reflect the views of an equal opportunity society. I think life is not to be viewed as being thankful for being privileged or unprivileged, but rather being thankful for the uniqueness that each of us carries around. And that we all share common interest and accomplishments, whether its DayGlow, College Degrees, Radical Love, Music, Communication courses, these are all accomplishments and events which make us all so similar.

  5. To continue….Music, such as hip-hop acts as a communication channel, which allows those who have struggled the opportunity to voice their day-to-day lives, in an attempt to get others to see life through a different perspective. Most communication channels themselves serve a similar purpose of connecting everyone together. Twitter for our course acted as our communications channel, which allowed each student to describe their day-to-day, minute-to-minute daily activity. These agencies which act as communication channels allow for social relationships which would have otherwise not exist. When talking on this issue I can only remember one particular scene from “RIP A Remix Manifesto”, in which we further discussed in class. “This is who OWNS our CULTURE”. This quote was shown while approx. 35 of the biggest music companies were shown in the background. It further reminded me of our class discussion, that ultimately these music corporations can control and manipulate how they want society and our culture to shift views. Given that we provide these corporations with more than enough information via social networking sites, corporations which sponsor and provide hip-hop can ultimately become a political candidates best friend.

  6. Kanye West made a strong point that many people believe that hip-hop artist live a perfect life. I’ve seen many Afican-Americans aspiring to be hip-hop artists because they see the lives that they live on TV. However many rappers stuggle outside of what the media shows us. A lot of these artist had a difficult childhood through poverty and violence and music is their way of expressing their feelings. It is a way for them to escape the realities of life that they had been going through. Some will say that rap music is bad for people to listen to since it speaks a lot upon violence and drugs, but the sad part is that they are speaking upon what they live through. These are their lives so you have to respect them for going through all of the hardships that they do and channeling it into music and trying to better themselves. Music can be an outlet for them and a way for them to stay out of trouble. Many hip-hop artist talk about how if it weren’t for music than they would either be dead or in jail,so I really respect them since their lives are not easy.

  7. Every aspect of a person’s life, every moment, every interpretation, dictates the lens through which they will view the world as the mature and grow. Many are born into privilege, as SGershlak noted earlier. This privilege can often blind that person from the woes of others and the true ills of the real world. Often times, the most outspoken, raw, and real people you will meet are those who’ve been raised in a setting of neglect, or come from a background where they themselves have been let down, put down, or bullied. The former, separated from reality from the distractions and illusions of opulence, privilege, and luxury, rarely even contemplate what it would, and could, be like to be ostracized, neglected, or hurt. These individuals, those born or brought into privilege, are those often at the forefront of the modern bullying epidemic that seems to be sweeping through the U.S. and notably the world.
    I know. I was bullied in elementary and middle school. I know how much it hurts. I never came from a privileged family. Nor was I the best looking or coolest person in my community, illustrating common themes that bullies often use to their advantage. And just this year, a young girl from my town returned from school one day and decided to end her own life. It turned out she had been bullied. It was an awful circumstance that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
    I guess what I see from the bullying scenario is this: it is easier to have a mature, observant outlook on life if you realize how real and painful life can be. Living behind a veil of privilege disregards the real suffering of so many people in the world, and truly deflates any sense of altruism or even internally motivated activism one may feel if exposed to hardship and grief. Bullying not only affects the victim in obvious psychological ways, but it brings down the worth and eventual contribution to society that the perpetrator may add, as it sends them down a path of selfishness and disregard for others, hurting the broader community as a whole.

    I think a lot of the rawness and emotion that steph notices in hip hop may stem from the black cultures “inferiority” to white culture, in the eyes of the mainstream. While incorrect, seemingly racist, and very immature, this is a view that has been permeating through european and american cultures for hundreds of years. The animosity and struggle emphasized in many hip hop lyrics, and this is pure theory, may be a lashing out at childhood notions of inferiority or a violent response to bullying applied indirectly through mainstream racist ideals or directly through personal instances of disenfranchisement, neglect, and personal harm.
    As far as the concept of radical love is concerned, it is a progressive vision that could surely do a lot of good in this world. The real challenge will not so much be in breaking down existing stereotypes and changing peoples minds who seem to to reject notions of equality, but to change the broader societal notions so that children aren’t born into prejudiced cultures. And to that, will take a lot of civil action, a lot of cooperation, and a lot of struggle. Yet isn’t it worth it to struggle, if even one life could be saved?

  8. Much of urban/ hip-hop music communicates a common theme of the struggles and tribulations of the less fortunate. Most rappers are black, and come from a less privileged background, and communicate this message through their work. People of the same racial and socio-economic background can easily relate to this. However most of us college students who are extremely fortunate to be in our positions, gain an appreciation for our own situations by listening to these messages. We learn from the lyrics of these songs and gain a better understanding of what it is like to be on the other end of the spectrum.
    It is assumed that whites have more opportunity in the world. This is due to the socio-economic discrepancys. For the most part those who live in the suburbs are more likely to enjoy more privileges in life than those in an urban, low class setting. Music transcends socio-economic and cultural borders. It puts us all on the same wavelength and allows us to “escape reality”, as dayglow did for us umass students. Music is a great thing because it allows us to see through the eyes of others and broaden our understanding.

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