So the dust has settled following Labour’s crushing GE2015 defeat. Ed Miliband has faded into Memedom, four hats remain in the ring after Chuka ‘strictly vinyl’ Umunna bowed out gracefully from the Leadership race and Labour’s Left-Flank are battling it out with the more pragmatic centrists over the soul of the party. This isn’t a politics blog so please do not expect any deep analysis of the results or persuasive rhetoric, it is simply a few thoughts on what the Labour Party can learn from Hip Hop culture when considering the root of its brand.
Left Wing politics doesn’t always have an easy relationship with the world of art despite the popular perception of artists, writers and musicians as a gaggle of Marxists and Various shades of socialist. Art, in all of its forms has a distinctly individualistic streak which requires freedom, autonomy, innovation- and quite frankly- selfishness. This of course doesn’t include phenomena such as Social Realsim, the didactic poetry of the 60s American counterculture and the stringent leftism of musicians such as Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy. Neither does it mean that art cannot or should not be political, this is a debate for theorists which will likely rage on for as long as humans continue to create.
Despite humanity’s long history of protest-art there are numerous examples of how the conflict between the individual and the collective within th artistic community has seen many artist favour the former. One only has to think of the Italian Futurists who embraced a kind of dynamic right wing political undercurrent to their innovations, the notable fascist Ezra ‘make it new’ Pound, the CIA’s covert sponsorship of Abstract Expression and Cool Jazz, Jack Kerouac’s hatred of Communism, the fierce individualism of Punk/post-Punk bands such as the Sex Pistols and Joy Division (although the former would never admit to sharing common ground with the right), Iggy Pop’s Reaganism, Gilbert and Geroge’s adoration of Margaret Thatcher, Vincent Gallo’s ‘Conservatie radicalism’ and Tracy Emin’s heaping of praise upon David Cameron and Boris Johnson.
One of the few artistic movements which has effectively managed to keep a foot in the capitalist individualist camp whilst also maintaining a sense of duty to the wider community is Hip Hop. You might argue that Hip Hop in its current form is probably the least Left Wing genre around (bar Country & Western and Skinhead Nazi Punk). The emphasis on acquiring money, expensive champagne, luxury cars and designer clothing remains prevalent to this day and parties only seem worth attending if one has the freedom to throw copious amounts of their income at strippers. Consumerism is alive and well in Hip Hop as the top commercial tier of artists lend their names to various brands in the form of endorsements and rappers continue to personify the raison d’être of brand-based advertising (whether they’re being paid for it or not!).
That being said, Hip Hop has never lost its social consciousness. This isn’t an analysis of your standard lefty outliers like the militant socialist Immortal Technique or Dead Prez or your Afro- hippy cliques such as Arrested Development, De La Soul and early-A Tribe Called Quest or social justice campaigners such as Common, Talib Kweli and The Roots. The focus of this piece is how mainstream artists within Hip Hop, many of whom may be considered to be betraying the genres ‘conscious’ roots, demonstrate an ideological framework that should be at the core of the the Labour Party’s centre-left politics. It is worth mentioning some of the negative aspects of mainstream (and often underground) Hip Hop that any party of government would rightly denounce such as the sexism, violence and homophobia. These issues are topical battlegrounds for Hip Hop commentators and despite significant progressive strides being made, there are clearly cultural changes that need to happen however for the sake of this argument I’m going to set these aside.
Artists like Jay Z, Kanye West, Nas, Young Jeezy and the late-greats Tupac and Biggie all laced their heavily materialistic lyrics with social commentary when and where they can/could. Take Jay Z, Labour leadership candidate Liz Kendall’s favourite rapper, aka ‘ Che Guevara with bling on’ who raps ‘ how can I help the poor if I’m one of them?/I got rich and gave back that’s the win win’ on the Eminem-produced Black Album cut ‘Moment of Clarity.’ Jay Z embodies the bootstrap rags-to-riches story that defines the conservative narrative and often emphasises his ascent from the Bed Stuy projects to the upper echelons of wealth and status. In an interview with Zadie Smith, Jay expressed a mixture of sympathy and skepticism on the subject of the Occupy Wall Street movement speaking against both the practices of the rapacious business elite or ‘1 percent’ and the enterprenure-bashing of the far left stating ‘ this is free enterprise. This is what America was built on.’ If that doesn’t sound like it’s come straight out of the Labour centre’s (or right spending on how you measure it) playbook then I don’t know what does. Despite the smears of his GOP opponents Barack Obama is no socialist, at least not compared to the domestic policies of FDR (or even Nixon for that matter) or his counterparts on the mainstream European Left however it is worth considering that Jay Z would have a lot more to gain tax-wise from a Republican administration. Nevertheless Jay and Beyoncé continue to rub shoulders with the Obamas as well as speaking out on social issues and quietly paying bail for anti-police brutality demonstrators.
Kanye West is another example of a Hip Hop artist that reaches out on social issues whilst continuing to embody excessive materialism through his fashion endeavours, corporate deals and flashy lifestyle. Mr West has spoken on a range of social issues throughout his career such as the Bush Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, Reagan-era CIA corruption, violence and deprivation in his native Chicago, theconflictedness of wealthy African Americans and classism. Lecturing at places as diverse as the Oxford University Natural History Museum, inner-city schools in Chicago, Technical Colleges and at student unions for Black and Ethnic Minority undergraduates, Kanye is all about ‘Education, education, education.’ Kanye is known to be a conflicted character on record, frequently flirting between considering buying ’50 gold chains’ to rubbing shoulders with the head of the CIA to calling out racial profiling at airports- it has become something of a USP for him and it is something that the Labour Party can learn from. There are downsides to being all things to all men but being tiring mono-focussed is the greater risk.
Another character to consider would be Nas whose subject matter is often caught between ‘the hoes and the ice, 4-4s or Black Christ.’ You might see him walikng down the Road to Zion with Damien Marley confessing being ‘guilty of materialism’ or you might see him next to Diddy with a gold chain as cars explode behind him. One minute he’s discussing the Prison Industrial Complex with Civil Rights veteran Angela Davies next he’s joining grassroots movements such as the African American Anti-Defamation group ‘Color of Change’ all whilst holding it down as an entrepreneur backing various start ups and investing in Mass Appeal magazine.
Regardless of how wealthy rappers become there remains a sense of duty to their respective communities that sits beside their own individual advancement. Whether it’s Young Jeezy’s critiquing both the actions of the police in Ferguson and the ineffectiveness of rioting whilst simultaneously being the ‘Snowman’ poster boy for the illicit capitalism of the drug market or Tupac’s Versace-clad proclamations that ‘everyone needs a little help on their way to be self reliant‘ (equality of opportunity anyone?)Hip Hop artists always seem to veer to the centre-left once they reach a certain level of financial comfort. As Labour now looks to redefine its brand the word ‘aspiration’ is being thrown around by almost all of the Leadership contenders, this seems like a sensible idea to consider as the the individualist ideas of the 80s do seem to persist within the national consciousness. There is still room for a sense of societal belonging as Miliband’s ‘Mansion Tax’ policy and his highlighting of inequality seemed to resonate with the general public, however the British voters proved to still be largely concerned with self-interest, something that New Labour-for all it’s faults-seemed to understand. Despite the tendency towards ostentatiously flaunting wealth and status, Hip Hop has never seemed to lose its sense of responsibility to the community- this kind of balance should be at the centre of The Labour Party’s rebranding regardless of who is elected leader this autumn.