Hip-Hop and Colonialism: Recognition and Response

Jared A. Ball, Ph.D.

John Henrik Clarke
used to always say that “to talk about the subject I am
going to talk around it.” The purpose of
this four-part series
was to have hip-hop be that talk around which a focus could be placed on
colonialism or the meta-analogy for the conditions we currently face. It is fitting then that this series conclude
at the conclusion of a year that witnessed the under-discussed 50th
anniversary of Kwame Nkrumah’s
attempt at independence from colonialism in Ghana. For it was precisely the issue of the
colonialism, its recurrence or continuity, that Nkrumah tried desperately to
make clear. It was the struggle over an
ideology which produces colonialism and from which emerges an ideology of the
colonized that inspired such a focus which, as Ayi Kwei Armah described
recently, was about Nkrumah’s concern not with “political power in a colony,
but the inception of an African liberation movement.” My point within this series can best be
summarized similarly and in microcosm; our concern cannot be with the
prevailing wisdoms contained within popular hip-hop journalism, scholarship or
media reform which often argue or describe a struggle for “power” within a
colony. Ours must be a concern over how,
in this case hip-hop, can demonstrate the existence and need to overthrow the
colonial status or the very existence of colony. It is, again, a struggle to understand how a
colonialism model of analysis can address that which is raised by Ahmad
in his biography of Nkrumah, that attempts to understand anything
about our current world, including hip-hop, without recognizing the
fundamentality of this colonial relationship would be like trying to
“understand the tides absent recognition of the moon.”

is this recognition of “the moon” of colonialism which necessitates new or
updated analyses and actions which move beyond those imposed boundaries within
which too much of the popular discussion is relegated. I have previously
to make this point regarding one of the most known public intellectuals
Michael Eric Dyson. The goal was not to
reduce the issue to the failings of this or that individual but to draw
attention to the colonizing process of which requires use of members of the
colonized population to mouth the views of the colonizer, that is, to
circumvent the long-told aphorism “a white man can’t sell you no pigs
feet.” At the time it was Dyson’s
insistence upon having regular and friendly discussions with Manhattan
Institute-sponsored white conservative in Black skin (face!) John McWhorter who
routinely (intentionally) misses the point that (intentionally) cavernous gaps
exist between that which is popular hip-hop and that which has been
suppressed. McWhorter has yet again done
so suggesting some signs that hip-hop is “growing up” while, of course,
remaining ignorantly – and only – within that which is popular and ignoring the
massive amounts of suppressed hip-hop which have long-since and continue to
brilliantly raise the issues in need of redress and, therefore, kept
(intentionally) from popularity.

too has Jeff Chang, a leading hip-hop scholar, recently written a piece for Foreign Policy magazine where he remains
safely within acceptable ranges of discussion even while ostensibly talking
about hip-hop and global politics. He
does so by reporting hip-hop’s global popularity, even raising some concerns,
but does so absent any discussion of this itself being foreign policy. As described earlier, colonialism requires a
domestic and foreign policy to which empire-promoting concepts of people and
the world, of the exchange of money and culture can be grafted, shaped. So Chang does well to note the global
popularity of hip-hop which has by now become “a lingua franca that binds young
people all around the world” but in that same sentence negates the power of the
first thought by concluding that this gives “them the chance to alter it with
their own national flavor.” For if that
which binds are chains – or more appropriate to the immediate moment,
nooses – than what good is it? Or better yet, for whom is this bind meant to
benefit and for whom is it meant to hurt?
Of course there exists an agency to resist. This is all well, good, and true and
precisely why so much of an effort is made to weaken any potential to
resist. However, it misses that
important point of colonialism which is that individual or even small group
collective agency is no even match for the power of mass media and
communication or their ideological content which they are employed and designed
to impose on we the subjects. Yes, in
this Big L
remix with Kwame Ture
put together by the current writer demonstrates the
power of agency to retain cultural value and counter-hegemonic politics but it,
in and of itself, should not be mistaken for genuine power or progress toward
overthrowing systems of inequality or imbalance.

Chang’s need to retain
the fraudulent ethics of “objective professional journalism” force him to
balance statements he quotes regarding that imbalance or the intentional
shifting of popular hip-hop throughout the world with more mythology about rap
“moguls” who are evidence of the culture’s “power” further confusing or
obfuscating the issue of the primacy of colonialism. So no matter how many times he and others
refer to the “success” of a Jay-Z or Russell Simmons or Puffy or the fact, as
Chang states, that hip-hop sold “59 million albums” last year in the U.S. or
that it spearheads (pun intended) a $10 billion “luxury and consumer goods”
industry the point remains that hip-hop has not eradicated one ghetto or slum
or done one thing to slow the increasing
gaps in wealth
or freed one political
. Is, as Chang seems to
suggest, Coca-Cola’s $4.1 billion
deal for Glaceau’s Vitamin Water, somehow balanced because out of that came
$100 million for one rapper (50 Cent)? Obviously not.

Even when noting
the politics of the music Chang’s emphasis cannot remain on his interviewee’s
point that “there is no room” for politically charged musical content in an
expanding commercially-sponsored and exported hip-hop music. When Michael Wanguhu, creator of the
documentary Hip-Hop Colony, states that “Hip-Hop in Africa
is like the new Pan-Africanism” Chang cannot stay there, interrogate that point
or make it the piece’s central statement.
For doing so would force the discussion, as previously outlined in these
essays, of the intentional shift needed in hip-hop away from one of
colonialism’s greatest threats, pan-Africanism.
In 2006 I sat down with this same filmmaker (Michael Wanguhu) for Words, Beats
and Life, Inc.
where we discussed this and did so in the context of the
story relayed by congressman John Lewis who told in his memoir
of having been on a 1964 SNCC
tour of Africa where every leader with whom they spoke warned that if SNCC were
anywhere to the right of Malcolm X they would not be welcomed. In other words, the point, which in popular
journalism or scholarship cannot be appropriately dealt with, is that
colonialism cannot sustain a situation where Malcolm X becomes the standard for
pan-African unity. It needs, as Chang’s
article states, for exported hip-hop to be what some in Africa have realized
more than we; that, musically popular hip-hop has been made to be what
McWhorter is to us politically, “white-boy oppressor music” even if performed
in Black-face by Black faces.

So here Chang,
again far less egregiously than McWhorter-types, is forced to comply to that
which popularizes both a narrowly-held discussion of hip-hop and in-turn those
who remain safely within that limited discussion – even across nominally
different political stripes – like
Chang, Dyson and McWhorter. None can or
are willing to discuss this intentional shift as part of maintenance of power
and as being connected to a legacy and continuation
of colonialism where the cultural expression of the colonized must be formatted
to the needs, goals, aspirations and ideology of the colonizer. This then requires the attendant need to
remove from the discussion the artists, activists, journalists and organizers
attempting in various (and not necessarily unified) ways to address, reform or
smash the problem of colonialism. To
name but a few is insufficient but a start which too many in popular
scholarship and journalism ignore.

there are those like Naji Mujahid of the DC Radio
, Pashir and JR of the Hip-Hop
War Report
and The Block Report, TRGGR Radio, DaveyD and FreeMix Radio just to name a
few. These journalists alone explode
myths which tell tales only of the horrors of hip-hop, the non-political,
misogynistic nature of the art or its role in holding down its creators. There are those like Rosa Clemente of the new
and improving Hip-Hop Caucus or Lisa
Fager and Paul Porter of IndustryEars
who too demonstrate the media policy impact on hip-hop maintaining it in its
most negative popular form and who consistently connect suppressed elements of
hip-hop to continued colonial legacies of poverty, police brutality and mass
incarceration. Hear an example of this
in a preview
from an upcoming edition of FreeMix
featuring Ms. Clemente.

And what of
artists like Head-Roc or Sun of Nun whose music ingeniously presents
these issues? Will even the recent (or
soon-to-be) release from semi-popular (and vicious) emcees Styles P and Black
Thought (‘Cause
I’m Black
) be aired? Its remix of
Syl Johnson’s classic bespeaks the remix of colonialism in the 21st
century so it too will probably suffer the same suppressed fate. You cannot sell products (or death) with
lyrics such as Black Thought’s “It’s only ten percent in the hood with health
benefits, genocide, Jena
6, guilty ‘till we innocent…” because as he also says, these ideas are “…like Assata {Shakur}, I’m in exile.” Indeed.
So will we hear on radio Wise
latest album or anything from The COUP or Hasan Salaam
or the hot journalistically-inspired mixtapes like High Treason from DJ Chela? And if (when) not, why?

regarding pan-Africanism we should note that the pan-Africanism so feared by
colonizers is what helped to produce the genius of Nkrumah who studied here in
the U.S. with other colonized Africans such as John Henrik Clarke within
extra-institutional organizations as the Harlem History Club and can be heard
described briefly in this second preview clip
from a forthcoming edition of FreeMix

None of these
colonial tides can be understood absent an understanding and focus upon the
influence of the moon of colonialism.
Routine responses or efforts to address these issues will not be
successful in upsetting this setup. Just as in politics there must be abnormal
organization there must be the same regarding the pursuit of quality cultural expression
or answers to ending the cycle of colonization which remains unfortunately


Jared A. Ball,
Ph.D., dubbed by Free Speech Radio News as “the first hip-hop
presidential candidate,” is currently running for the presidential
nomination of the Green Party. He is an assistant professor of
communication studies at Morgan
State University
. He is editor-at- large of the Journal of Hip-Hop and Global Culture from
Words, Beats and Life and hosts Jazz & Justice Mondays 1-3p EST
on DC's WPFW 89.3 FM Pacifica Radio. Ball is also the founder and
creator of FreeMix Radio: The
Original Mixtape Radio Show
, a hip-hop mixtape committed to the
practice of underground emancipatory journalism. Ball is also
a board member of the International Association for Hip- Hop
Education and a Communications Fellow with the Green Institute. He can be found online at voxunion.com.