“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.