The Clare Spark Blog

May 12, 2011

Rappers, Primitivism, and Ritual Rebellion

Common, a man of the streets

A successful poet/rapper/artist named Common (formerly Common Sense, sic) was invited to perform at the White House May 11, 2011. This blog is about the general problem of hip hop culture, its practitioners, and its noxious appeal.

“Liberals” and “conservatives” were divided yesterday regarding the propriety of the invitation. Fox News Channel was in a snit all day, while Jon Stewart’s show took umbrage at this misplaced Foxian zeal, citing their prior adoration of Ted Nugent, and their ignoring the agressive and homicidal lyrics of Johnny Cash. Stewart did his own comical rap, directed against the “twits” at Fox. I personally objected to the invite on many grounds, including Jay Carney’s ludicrous attempt to explain Common’s legitimacy as a poet because he was making “socially conscious art.”  One Facebook thread on the subject elicited a flood of comments, many of them in defense of Common and the need for catharsis. No one attacked hip hop culture as such.

I am not any kind of specialist in the study of hip hop culture (though I am not unfamiliar with it either), partly because I find it at best primitivist* and suspect that it is a travesty insofar as middle-class kids who make its music, tee-shirts, and glitzy jewelry,  and purchase its other products are not concerned with the problems of ghetto youth, except as an outlet for their own frustrations with parents, schoolteachers, and other authority figures, or as an easy way to tap a market of angry young black males and their white allies in rage. It is a cheap pseudo-romantic form of adolescent revolt. Does Common care about those black adolescents stuck in ineffective schools, propagandized into antagonism to education as “a white thing”, and often beguiled by the drug culture and its profits?

There is no such thing as art as an expression outside of, and independent of society.  If “Common” aspires to social criticism, he should provide a better analysis of the sorry condition of American black ghettoes–for instance, the policies of the Democratic machines that have long controlled the big cities. He might want to look also at the separatism and thuggery of such figures as Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Louis Farrakhan, with whom he has been associated. He might want to look at the poetry and prose of all the memorable writers and poets who came before, and whose language did not descend to the gutter. Oh, but he can’t do that, for the white oppressor is the target of his spleen, and so even those significant black writers who preceded him must have been Uncle Toms. Look at his images on the internet. Is he a clean cut entrepreneur or a man of the streets, attuned to the miseries of his brothers and sisters?

[Added 3-18-14: A vigorous dispute broke out today on my FB page over Bill O’Reilly’s takedown of Jay Z, and here is how I answered many comments: “My problem with Jay Z and other hip hop moguls is not their success in a capitalist society. It is this: they had no choice, for powerful culture critics on the social democratic Left joined the New Left in rejecting anything and everything produced by Eurocentrism/white supremacy. There have been wonderful black entertainers and composers from an earlier period, before black nationalists resegregated a culture that was syncretic and hence original: to name a few: Scott Joplin, Bojangles, Bert Williams, all the black jazzmen, bluesmen, etc. Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin would have never become great composers without their predecessors with darker skin. Fred Astaire would have not existed, nor would Gene Kelly. I could go on and on. How many young people today even know what “syncretism” means?]

Cultural anthropologists are familiar with the form of social control known as “ritual rebellion.” In an autocratic society, run by unaccountable and arbitrary kings, periodic “carnivals” or similar releases allow the lower orders to let off steam. They are kings for day in this world turned upside down. But the rebellion, that is never allowed to name its true target (incompetent authority), is ineffectual in transforming the conditions it abhors. The new day dawns, and the ties that bind the lower classes to illegitimate authority are stronger than ever. So it is with hip hop. Our black population deserves better guidance.

*Primitivism is regressive and often racist: it imagines savages as free from “civilized” rules, a Golden Age of liberated instincts where anything goes. Much of modernism is primitivist and expressed a disgust with “civilization” after the Great War. But there were numerous precedents, for instance Diderot in his Voyage of Bougainville. Or see Marcuse’s critique of “repressive desublimation,” a vigorous refusal of 1960s counter-cultural tendencies in his Eros and Civilization.

Blog at