The task of Socialism and Democracy is to participate, in a spirit of solidarity, in the development of a radical, theoretically informed popular opposition. We envisage a movement that stands viscerally- and can act strategically-against the rule of capital and its associated practices of marketization, domination, and repression. These practices, however, have numerous handles to grab onto, often including the complicity of at least some of capital’s victims. Many of us, while thinking that we’re following our own strivings, may in fact be transmitting impulses of aggression or aggrandizement instilled in us, whether directly (e.g., via military training) or indirectly (e.g., through advertising or other forms of hype), by the ruling class. This is, after all, what cultural domination is all about.
Where is the mass support-base for applying alternative principles? The development of such a base is hampered by the fact that the most widely diffused common tastes are the very ones which the commercial culture itself has chosen to promote. An alternative set of aspirations- dubbed “counterculture” in its 1960s embodiment-will require a whole new language, a whole new network of communication. The dialectical puzzle lies in the challenge of simultaneously building upon the existing patterns (so as not to be just talking to ourselves) while at the same time developing an agenda that overturns all encrusted habits. Only by doing both these things can we leap free of an oppressive and expansionist order, which-as much of the world now sees-has run completely amok, engendering permanent war and environmental devastation while claiming exemption from even the most limited legal restraints.
This is the global context for hip-hop’s new political role. Three decades on from its birth in the ravaged communities of the South Bronx, hip-hop has become, at least among young people, a universal language of disaffection and revolt. At the same time, it has spawned a multibillion-dollar industry, complete with tycoons, conspicuous consumption, and deadly rivalries. These impulses are at once complementary and antagonistic. In some cases they reside in distinct (often contending) trends or individuals; in others, they exist side by side in the same person. Their coexistence, on whatever terms, expresses in vibrant form a set of contradictions that have become steadily more acute in the U.S. over the last few years.
Underlying everything is the increasingly bitter polarization of capitalist society, both within the U.S. and on a global scale-a trend indelibly embodied in the Reagan-era rejection of progressive social reform in favor of punitive and repressive policies both at home and abroad. As these policies have hardened under Reagan’s successors (including Clinton), life at the bottom has become more and more desperate, and people have responded in ways that are precisely mirrored by the contending motifs in hip-hop. The inescapable rage, if not turned inward, churns either into rebellion or into power-lust and scapegoating. And again, the two sets of impulses sometimes mesh, sometimes clash with one another.
What unites the essays and interviews below is, on the one hand, a recognition of these conflicting impulses in hip-hop and, on the other, the hope that the more socially conscious and constructive of them will prevail. It is especially important to note that the perspective here articulated comes largely from within the hip-hop community itself, including both active hip-hop artists and respected commentators. Many in this orbit have remarked upon the existence of a “Hip Hop Generation” that embraces, in the U.S. alone, some 40 million people. While hip-hop originated in the African American community, its resonance¾and increasingly, its practice¾cuts across all ethnic and national lines, as illustrated by the annual Hip Hop Festival in Havana, now a nine-year tradition.1 Hip-hop authenticity is rooted not in anyone’s physical traits or language, but in the shared experience of oppression.
It is within this framework that the political potential of hip-hop emerges. While hip-hop’s origins give it a revolutionary thrust, its “mainstreaming” poses the usual difficulty with such developments. Both subversive and cooptive approaches can be found among leading hip-hop performers. Which of them will win out? The struggle is waged on numerous fronts; the analyses that follow shed light on it from a number of angles. Even if we set aside hip-hop’s more purely commercial manifestations, there remain differences in political approach among hip-hop artists-whether in what they perform or in the venues for which they perform it-that may bear crucially on the direction in which they lead the generation that has been named for them. We can draw hope from the presence of hip-hop performers at events (such as antiwar demonstrations) that gather a broad range of constituencies in radical opposition to official policies. With the approach of the 2004 U.S. elections, however, there are signs that a lowest-common-denominator approach to political action may be gaining ground.
Many hip-hop activists, even while strongly skeptical of electoral engagement (at least within U.S. national two-party parameters), are open to defining common short-term approaches. They hope to draw an otherwise dormant constituency into using established channels without, in the process, selling themselves out. The ability of newly mobilized young people to walk this line will be a major test of the degree to which the concept of a Hip Hop Generation carries any practical meaning. The first National Hip Hop Political Convention (June 2004), with its 6,000 participants, embraced as a central short-term goal the mobilization of a new voting bloc to defeat George W. Bush in November. In the follow-up, it faces the challenge not just of bringing such a bloc into being, but also of assuring that its identity and unity run much deeper, in view of the clear complicity of top Democrats, first, in politely allowing Bush to take office by fraud,2 and subsequently in approving the main lines of his policy. The Convention-organizers’ awareness of this challenge is reflected in the intense and almost exclusive focus of the event’s meetings on issues of progressive social reform that aim far beyond what the Democratic leadership has in mind (see the Convention’s 5-point agenda below, p. 227).
It is the broad ferment behind this drive-a welcome development of the last few years-that has made hip-hop a natural focus of attention for Socialism and Democracy. Nonetheless, the subject is one that we would scarcely have imagined addressing had it not been for the timely initiative of S&D board-member Yusuf Nuruddin, who not only propelled this project from the beginning, but also was responsible for getting most of the material we have brought together, as well as setting forth, in his own closing article, a significant proposal for advancing the political goals that much of the Hip Hop Generation has come to embrace. While the cultural framework of his exposition is African American, the oppression to which it responds-from that of plantation-slavery to that of present-day urban poverty-bears all the earmarks of the rule of capital. Hip-hop has the power to strip away, among other things, the political rhetoric which for so long has masked this domination. We then confront the key question that faces the Hip Hop Generation and its successors: Can they go beyond their reform proposals? Will they be able to formulate and build toward an entirely different structure?
Among the issues which most forcefully join an immediate demand to a long-range analysis is the life-and-death political/legal struggle around the fate of one of the contributors to this collection, Mumia Abu-Jamal.3 It still remains to be seen whether the judicial authorities will ever consent to hear the full evidence in his case, but its outcome will be an important test for the political evolution of the Hip Hop Generation. I note this here for several reasons. First, Mumia’s steady stream of spoken and published commentary embodies uncompromising radicalism and clarity of expression. Second, these very attributes have motivated the case against him from the beginning, and have augmented the danger to him throughout the course of adjudication. In this sense, the official drive to silence Mumia is unrelated to any supposed evidence against him, and the thrust of official rulings all along has been to suppress information-to disallow exculpatory testimony-rather than to try to account for it. Third, the U.S. ruling class’s preference for criminalizing oppressed people rather than respecting their concerns and their needs (as shown in this country’s exceptionally high incarceration rate as well as its use of the death penalty) is a familiar fact of daily life to hip-hop’s core community. Finally, a recent ruling against Mumia signals a quickening timetable for resolving his case. With the forces at play so sharply aligned, with such rich opportunities for political education, and with the dramatic scenario of a man’s life hanging in the balance while a whole power-apparatus strives, for political reasons, to bury the disclosures that could save him, Mumia’s case offers an urgent focus and rallying point for Hip Hop Generation activism.
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For space reasons, we have had to delay publication of some non-hip-hop material originally intended for this issue. One topic whose urgency precluded such delay is that of the current struggle in Venezuela, where the radical populist government of Hugo Chávez, despite having come into office through election, has been under continuous attack from Washington for its commitment to serve the impoverished (and largely non-European) majority of its own population-a stance that has propelled Chávez into bold affirmations of sovereignty and into deepening cooperation with Cuba (notably, the barter of Venezuelan oil for the pioneering services of Cuban healthcare workers). A critical moment in the standoff was the right-wing (and U.S.-supported) coup-attempt against Chávez in April 2002. Fortuitously, that whole episode, culminating in Chávez’s rescue via popular uprising, was recorded by a visiting documentary crew in their film The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Macdonald Stainsby’s report about a particular effort to show this film dramatizes some of the less predictable obstacles to conveying an awareness of Third World struggles to populations in the North.
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The first half of 2004 witnessed the passing of three men whose writings and activism have been of enormous importance to the Left-not least, in building bridges among diverse popular consti- tuencies. Paul Sweezy, perhaps the leading 20th century authority on Marxian economics, also contributed in a major way, through the Monthly Review (which he co-founded in 1949), to educating the North American Left about the centrality of Third World liberation to the global struggle for socialism. William Hinton, as a participant observer in the late 1940s revolution in the Chinese countryside, taught a whole generation of Western leftists, through his book Fanshen, about the unexpected discoveries and problems that arise in the course of a massive revolutionary awakening as seen from close up. David Dellinger, a lifelong practitioner of revolutionary nonviolence, was at the center of mass protest activity during the whole period of the Vietnam war, and in that capacity played an exemplary role in helping unite the antiwar with the social justice movement. We salute all three of these fighters, and draw strength from their lives.
2. Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003), pp. 11-81; Vincent Bugliosi, The Betrayal of America: How the Supreme Court Undermined the Constitution and Chose Our President (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2001).
3. See our Bio note at the end of this issue. For general background on his case, see Dave Lindorff, Killing Time: An Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2003).