Saturday, March 19, 2005

Commodification of Culture: From Black Oppression to Black Coolness

How could Identities pose a viable revolutionary alternative when ‘identities,’ racial, religious or cultural, can and are co-opted?

Nowhere is the exploitation of culture and differences more evident and indeed tragic, as in the United States. Hip hop as a culture of marginalized African Americans has in the past two decades been gradually integrated into the mainstream. As an art form of potential radical roots, it has been sacrificed on the altar of the American music industry.

Emerging out of the ills of urban America, hip hop was descriptive of the social conditions wherein economically marginalized Americans found themselves. Undoubtedly, the legacy of slavery casts a long shadow over black people today. Latinos who emigrated from South America, now the largest non-Caucasian minority, are recent additions living in similar conditions as African Americans.

Hip hop used to be in the underground. It used to speak of the language of oppression, a running social commentary on the deprivations people of color suffer in urban areas in arguably the richest country the world. But Hip hop has lost its edge. Its potential for an articulation of social ills and racial, economic and political discrimination has since died with Martin Luther King.

It is not clear, to me at least, how the transition occurred. It could have been due to the stagnation of the music industry since the demise of ‘alternative music’ (best represented by the Seattle-based grunge bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam) in the early to mid 90s. Big Business was in search of something novel, something edgy, something radical and divorce from the stale and formulaic pop and rock music. It seems far fetched but the idea of ‘flexible accumulation’ based on product innovation seems to apply.

Hip hop music is now the new pop. The Philippines being a barometer of what is popular in American culture, one need only turn on the radio and hear local stations churning black music constantly these days. Today’s contemporary artists, far from pioneers such as Dead Prez and Public Enemy, now speak the ‘good life’ marked by superficial indicators of success such as cars, easy women and ‘bling-bling’ (jewelry). “Gangsterism” is glorified, highlighting the depiction of the violent black male. The tragedy is that this image is a self-fulfilling prophecy as the ‘gangsta’ life is increasingly portrayed as not only the epitome of cool but a viable vehicle of deliverance from social and economic marginality.

The sublime message of today’s hip hop artist seems to be “I am from the ghetto. I hustled, I sold drugs, I was a gangsta. This is my life and that is why I rap about it. I am black, I’m tough and I made it in the entertainment industry (because I wasn’t physically gifted to make it in the sports ‘industry’). I now sell millions of records world-wide. I am successful. I now have my own clothing line, produce and act in movies. If I can make it, you can make it.”

The promise of escape lures black Americans today. Recent Latin-American artists mirror the co-optation. Hip hop is a clear example of identities stolen for profit.

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