Hip Hop on Trial at The Barbican
‘Hip Hop doesn’t enhance society, it degrades it’ was the subject of last night’s ‘Hip Hop on Trial’ debate at The Barbican. Put together by Versus and Intelligence Squared, this was a panel debate that combined on-site speakers (the likes of Reverend Jesse Jackson, KRS-One, Michael Eric Dyson, dream hampton, Tricia Rose and Benjamin Zephaniah to name a few) with contributors in the States (Q Tip, ?uestlove, Toure, P.J O’Rourke) beamed to us live by Satellite, using Google + technology and YouTube to bring the whole thing to a wider audience. So, how did it all come together?
‘Hip hop doesn’t enhance society, it degrades it’ is almost far too big a statement for me to really deal with in one blog post, but I will say, as a hip hop fan, I disagree with this. What was frustrating about the debate from the offset was the assumption that ‘hip hop’ is just one thing and that thing is music. Hip hop is comprised of many things and to zone in on just the music for the purposes of this debate was a bit of an easy way out in my view.
Thankfully speakers such as KRS-One and Tricia Rose highlighted that there are degrees of rap out there. Essentially the entire beef lies with commercial rap. It’s what rap has become, what it’s evolved into that people have a problem with, but even so, to say it degrades society is to be hyperbolic. There’s an assumption that hip hop (i.e, rap) creates all these cultural and societal problems of which it speaks, yet what it does, and always has done, is a reflect what it happening around us. It’s social commentary. Well, at least the likes of classics like Rappers Delight was, I’m not sure Lil Wayne is commenting on all that much.
So does hip hop (and for arguments sake here, let’s just correct that to ‘commercial rap’) degrade society? No, it simply highlights parts of it we may not necessarily like all that much. Society is doing a fine job of degrading itself.
There was, predictably, the bog standard debate tied up in this over the use of words like ‘Bitch’ ‘Ho’ and the N word. KRS-One can wax lyrical about the N word and why it’s acceptable to use, though when Reverend Jesse Jackson refused to condemn it, I must say, I was baffled. Here’s a man who was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, who was around when the word was used in a completely different and very hurtful way, who hung out with MLK and Malcolm X and yet here he didn’t really seem to have an opinion on that word one way or another, which I found disappointing.
To discuss the word ‘Bitch’, we went live to the Google + hangout to talk to rapper Joe Budden and members of his group ‘Slaughterhouse’, eager to hear their justification for using that word. They quite literally had nothing. I believe it was something along the lines of
‘Not all women are bitches. A bitch is a bitch!’
When challenged on his views, Joe Budden threw his toys out the pram, complained about how no one knew how they were talking about, no one had ‘done their research’ (I agree, apparently no one had done their research into what an inarticulate douchebag he was) and he left the panel.
Joe Budden was the one person on the panel who represented the commercial rap in question. Q Tip and ?uestlove can’t exactly side with Budden’s particular brand of ignorance. While I don’t agree with the use of the word ‘Bitch’, I was open to hearing Budden’s justification of it. Instead, he behaved like some sort of stereotypical hip hop caricature, angry, cursing people out and just leaving. Not sure if he understands the premise of a debate, but you will be challenged on your views, that’s just the way it goes. For a man who I’m assuming is in his late 20s, early 30s, he had the reaction of a moody teenage boy.
Rapper and singer Estelle was also live via the Google + hangout and her view on the word ‘Bitch’ is ‘I know they’re not talking about me, I don’t carry myself that way.’ I found this to be a disappointing response – this idea that it’s OK to call some women ‘bitches’ but not others is disheartening. We can’t take the attitude of ‘well, it doesn’t affect me so they can carry on doing what they’re doing’ is just silly and frankly, nothing would ever get solved if we looked at the world that way.
But all in all, I found focus of the debates to be jarring. To still be discussing ‘Bitch’ ‘Ho’ and the N word at this stage in the game with hip hop seems redundant and prevents the discussion from moving forward and delving into more pressing factors, which you could tell the panel wanted to do.
It oversimplified a very complex issue, attempted once again to blame all society’s ills on hip hop rather than address the fact that the ills of which we speak had been around long before hip hop ever came on the scene.
(I think it was KRS-One who rightly pointed out if we’re condemning hip hop for sexism, misogyny and homophobia, those three things are present in the church).
I was hoping for a debate that would go deeper. I also found it odd that the debate was had on British soil with not one UK rapper there to represent and discuss how hip hop culture has evolved here on these shores. It was all a little too States-centric. Don’t get me wrong, the speakers were exceptional (I imagine I won’t get to say I was in the same room as Reverend Jesse Jackson, KRS-One and Michael Eric Dyson at the same time again any time soon), but there were so many other branches to this debate that weren’t even touched on that by the end of it, most of the speakers themselves had rendered the entire discussion ‘bullshit’.
I enjoyed the concept, but please if we’re to have another debate about ‘hip hop’ can we really have it? Surely we should be way past the point of simply dissecting the use of bad language.