“In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliche”. (p. 15)
This is as concise and accurate a summary of the dead-end of Nirvana’s nihilism as one could ask for – but as an illustration of the wider impotence of cultural and artistic expression to push beyond a dominant social vision of neo-liberal capitalism it’s not wholly convincing.
Fisher is right about Cobain, but his observation begs the obvious question: is Nirvana the wrong listening choice? If we turn to artistic expression for exemplars of how to begin anew, to think beyond our current moment, to escape the scripted thoughts, words and movements that structure our lives, this is actually a vital question.
Who should we be listening to?
This is a question that overflows beautifully, but here I want to explore the significance of one group – The Roots. This is partly an expression of personal love, but it’s also borne out of two less subjective impulses: (1) The Roots are insufficiently appreciated as an artistic and intellectual resource – they are artists in need of critics and journalists equal to their own insight and intensity; and (2) while I appreciate the efforts of those studying politics in an academic setting to bring in cultural resources, I don’t identify with International Relations’ obsession with Science Fiction (even as I appreciate the significance genre fiction can achieve), nor do I get much out of Political Theory’s tendency to appeal to classic dramas, and the multidisciplinary use of cinema, while fascinating, rarely leaves me inspired – so, returning to what one knows and finds inspiring – I want to argue it’s well worth listening to The Roots (and hip hop music) to understand the world and find profound insights.
A simple proposition: The Roots are the most important artists in popular music today – not bigger than Jesus, or the only band that matters – but possibly the best hip-hop group ever and a creative and intellectual force the quality of which is rare in music, especially music that maintains a popular orientation. This proposition matters because understanding and appreciating The Roots’ work over the past thirteen years takes the listener into an artistic world that expresses a very particular experience of the first decade of the 21st century (black, urban and American) through profound musical originality and penetrating intelligence, this experience provides a very different vision that has the potential to disrupt the exhausted and nihilistic sense of inevitability that Fisher so rightly identifies.
“I’m kinda like W.E.B. Du Bois meets Heavy D and the Boyz”
– Dice Raw, “Get Busy”, Rising Down (2008)
W.E.B. Du Bois‘ idea of double-consciousness provides a way of appreciating the importance of The Roots. Double-consciousness is defined by a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” While this burden threatens to overwhelm a positive sense of self-awareness and confidence, it also enables a second-sight in women and men systematically repressed and whose experiences are devalued, allowing a sharper vision of social violence and providing substantial resources for struggle and emancipation. The Roots carry over this sense of double-consciousness, but rendered more positive and confident by decades of growing black self-awareness, increasing social strength and important political victories in the US and more widely, such that they render the potential psychological weakness of double-consciousness into an incisive and positive vision, one wholly at odds with Cobain’s musical and cultural legacy of frustrated exhaustion.
Speaking of traditions of black music in America, Du Bois says,
“Little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty. And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.”
Black culture in America provides an alternative reservoir of tradition (in the form of hip-hop culture, black musical traditions, political radicalism and distinctive forms of socially engaged religious practice) that not only nourishes the social imagination but is resistant to co-option. Hip-hop music is received by the dominant culture as a threat that must be commodified and tamed, but the refusal of a hip-hop artist to acquiesce to their own commodification need not reduce to an empty and ironic refusal nor solipsistic underground fetishism. The Roots, among others, maintain both a lucrative musical career and a challenging artistic output, at least in part, because of their capacity to occupy multiple subject positions – knowing that the music business is a business, intentionally challenging young, black, urban identities normally associated with hip hop, exploiting the fear of black assertiveness in mainstream culture in the US and working as “working musicians” who write, perform, produce, arrange for multiple artists, across generations and genres. But they are not simply polymaths too nimble to succumb to commodification – they are also self conscious creators of their own musical and intellectual space, shared in common, tied to tradition, and pushing relentlessly outward and forward. It is this quality, so essential to beginnings, that I focus on here.
Over a series of posts I want to consider the visions contained in The Roots music, with a particular focus on the political importance of their work – running from their groundbreaking 1999 album, Things Fall Apart, to their 2011 concept album, undun, I pull out a central theme from each album, which hardly defines the limits of their significance, but rather focuses on some of the insights they offer up with abundance.
Things Fall Apart (1999)
“I am no man, I am dynamite.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo
“Listen close to my poetry, I examine this like an analyst, to see if you can handle this”
– Black Thought, “Next Movement“
Beginning are difficult – this is a simple truth that is particularly pertinent to anyone who feels pressed in by the world as it has been given, who struggles to find fractures in the world that might be expanded far enough to stand up to their full height. Partly this is a struggle to give expression to the discontent one feels – it’s not enough to know, as the early Roots’ records insistently documented, that one’s culture has been distorted, co-opted, defiled and weakened by its basest impulses – we need an analysis, an account of the dynamics that make’s our present condition combustible material for making new worlds.
Those of us who study and write on politics would do well to remember this, as the challenge is not to find a research question to answer or a puzzle to solve but rather – if we hope to properly criticize existing conditions – to understand what it is that makes the social world unlivable, destructive, painful and suffocating, in order to reach beyond that condition, to the next movement. This resonates with Marx’s imperative to not only understand but to change the world, obviously, but there is more to be said.
The central theme of Things Fall Apart is the need to revitalize hip hop culture in the wake of its commodification, to rewrite the debased morality of masculine bravado and materialistic ambition. Yet it is no nostalgia trip – instead it’s a reconstruction, rooted in the past the Roots reference, revere and celebrate like few others, but struggling at each turn to make the frustration, anger and sense of loss fertile and productive. The frustration that motivates Things Fall Apart is much more than the self-referential critique of musical purists, it’s most fundamental basis is in the crisis of black culture in America at the time – which mainstream hip hop of the era seemed to ignore completely, as the anger of black experience was reduced to a gangsta swagger and the hopes of emancipation sold for dreams of conspicuous consumption. The Roots self-consciously set out to restore hip hop’s conscience, as well as the truly threatening anger of a denigrated people aware of their suffering and unwilling to accept their position.
“The rage is still in me, never act too friendly. Scully down creepin’ while you tilted off Henny. Many men begin pure but in this world of sin your holdin’ tight my morale by injure. We scramble, because this game life is the gamble. Vandalize your terrain, go against the grain”
– Malik B, “Table of Contents (Parts 1 & 2)“
To change the world is no easy task. It requires a foundation to stand on and a vision of where the horizon should be redrawn. That foundation is partly made up of a culture that nourishes one’s sense of self, enabling a confidence that safety and freedom are real ends worth pursuing, but its completed by the experience of uncertainty, violence, loss – the negation of one’s confidence as motivation. This experience is part of the human condition – but the question of how to overcome exhaustion and loss of faith is no easier to answer for being common. Its answer requires confidence, strength, and mythology to sustain vision beyond the everyday uncertainties and doubts. This truth infuses the entire album, as The Roots celebrate their ability to best lesser rappers, call forth a party vibe that makes the next movement seem a festival to lose and find one’s self in, and, most importantly, set out to explode the taken for granted inevitability of the status quo – they call forth their own explosive power.
“Every body, touch this Illa-Fifth Dynamite. C’mon, touch this Illa-Fifth Dynamite. C’mon, touch this Illa-Fifth Dynamite. Check it out, eve-ry bo-dy. Touch this Illa-Fifth Dynamite. C’mon, touch this Illa-Fifth Dynamite. C’mon, touch this Illa-Fith Dynamite.”
– The Roots, “Dynamite!“
As Nietzsche claimed to have uncovered the fundamental contradiction at the heart of European thought, which rendered him an explosive force that would rend the culture he refused and sought to re-imagine, The Roots know that for hip hop culture to move beyond its limitations, both internal and imposed from outside, it must shed its idols – both inspired and defamed. Hip hop cannot go back to its insular origins, nor can it be sustained as the commodification and perverse exaggeration of ghetto suffering – this is the thesis The Roots develop on Things Fall Apart and which defines the work that follows. What this requires is that the consciousness of hip hop must expand beyond its given boundaries, without forgetting or neglecting, the black, urban and American experience from which it grows – expanding its concern to defend and ennoble the experience of those people who are marginalized, oppressed and suffering. Expansion, however, threatens to dull the tools that hip hop artists wield, their rage, their sense for the hypocrisy of the social order, their knowledge that what separates the cop and the criminal is power not goodness and their focused rage – which is the greatest protection against commodification and co-option.
“This directed to whoever in listening range. Yo the whole state of things in the world bout to change. Black rain fallin’ from the sky look strange. The ghetto is red hot, we steppin on flames. Yo, it’s infliction on a price for fame and it was all the same, but then the antidote came: The Black Thought, ill syllablist, out the Fifth, this heavyweight rap shit I’m about to lift like, a phylum lift up it’s seed to sunlight I plug in the mic, draw like a gunfight. I never use a cordless, or stand applaudless. Sippin’ cholorophyll out of ill silver goblets, I’m like a faucet, monopoly’s the object. There ain’t no way to cut this tap, you gotta get wet. Your head is throbbin and I ain’t said shit yet, The Roots crew, the next movement, c’mon!”
– Black Thought, “Next Movement”
This is a lesson to be studied and learned. Are we critical academics, radical philosophers, thinkers of what might come, teachers of social engagement and political change? If so, we must ensure we can hear the lessons riding on the airwaves all around us. Can you articulate, preserve and celebrate the experiences that pushed you to know and alter the world? Can you face its limitations while continuing to draw sustenance from that which made you? Can you seek out change beyond your own needs with the same passion you have for your own battles? Can you retain the indignation the world has inspired in you even as the emissaries of the order of things seek to placate you with their comforts and acceptance?
“But before the raw live shows I remember I’se a little snot-nosed rockin’ Gazelle goggles and Izod clothes, learnin’ the ropes of ghetto survival, peepin’ out the situation I had to slide through, had to watch my back my front plus my sides too . When it came to gettin’ mine I ain’t tryin’ to argue, sometimes I wouldn’ta made it if it wasn’t for you Hip-Hop, you the love of my life and that’s true”
– Black Thought, “Act Too (The Love of my Life)“
Fisher uses Cobain’s music to illustrate the sense of futility that enables capitalism’s seeming inevitability. The Roots illustrate another sensibility – they are no less aware of the risks of shouting into the void of contemporary consumer capitalism – but they have tools that Cobain, in his isolation and self-doubt, lacked. First among these is a sense of community apart from the dominant culture – Du Bois’ double consciousness rendered in communal form – as finding a place in a sub-culture provides positive reinforcement of one’s ideals and support to survive without being subservient. Hip hop culture shares this with punk culture – as anyone who has moved between the two can recognize. The Roots’ emergence as mature artists was made possible by this sense of shared purpose – in the late 1990s, working as part of the Soulquarians music collective and playing a part in many other records, they took alternative hip hop and neo-soul to new levels (artistically and commercially). Creativity in any genre – musical or intellectual – requires a sense of home and place, not only to nourish one’s sense of self but also to know the needs of others. This is essentially a form of political community.
“What’s the cure for this hip-hop cancer? Equivalent to this avalanche of black snow, rap flow to get my people thinkin mo’, we at the brink of war. What does it all mean? What’s it all for? With knowledge of yourself, then you’re through the first door. My people hungry and thirst for more, next music explore”
– Black Thought, “Ain’t Saying Nothing New“
The distinctive feature of hip hop as a political community, and the second resource that Cobain lacked, is its assertive form of self-affirmation/creation. Partly drawn from a sense of hybridity that allows the title allusion to jump from Keats’ anti-modernism to Achebe’s postcolonial sensibility to US civil rights politics and to late 20th century America; partly drawn from a combative relationship with dominant American culture – in which hip hop has to be defended as product and art against multiple denunciations, where the forces of law and order are revealed in their brutality and hypocrisy, where myths of equality and prosperity are rendered unbelievable – this self-assertion is bravado and braggadocio rendered as political virtues and creative necessities.
“I shot the sheriff, the deputy, and head of bank treasury. So mounties in the county got a big bounty stressin’ me , but tell ’em to hold off, they too short to measure me. Mos and Black Thought blast forth with the weaponry.”
– Mos Def, “Double Trouble“
These tools are essential to any beginning, to any attempt to alter the shape of the world, to reconstruct the order of things – a sense of shared purpose and support, along with the boldness to create one’s own idols and declare boldly their superiority to the world we’re given into. In their exploration of hip hop music The Roots exemplify not only a particular bind that many of us find ourselves in, but the necessary tools to pick the locks that constrain and find trajectories of escape that lead to flourishing.