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«Bigger Than Hip-Hop: Music and Politics in the Hip-Hop Generation Committee: Janet Staiger, Supervisor Jennifer Fuller Mary Kearney Jürgen Streeck ...»

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Marnie Ruth Binfield


The Dissertation Committee for Marnie Ruth Binfield Certifies that this is the

approved version of the following dissertation:

Bigger Than Hip-Hop: Music and Politics in the Hip-Hop Generation


Janet Staiger, Supervisor

Jennifer Fuller

Mary Kearney

Jürgen Streeck

Christine Williams

Bigger Than Hip-Hop: Music and Politics in the Hip-Hop Generation


Marnie Ruth Binfield, B.A. M.A.

Dissertation Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of The University of Texas at Austin in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy The University of Texas at Austin December 2009 Dedication To Zoe and Harper The Future Acknowledgements My deepest thanks and gratitude are due to the members of the National Hip Hop Political Convention, especially to those who continue to grind for the NHHPC. Thank you for inviting me into the community and for sharing your beliefs, your dreams, and your disappointments.

Props to the Austin crew for always stepping up when I had questions and needed help. Thanks especially to KC, Debbie, and Clifford for always representing and always holding it down. Austin is lucky to have y’all.

The Carver Library and The Victory Grill regularly supplied meeting spaces, for which I am grateful.

Mystic quickly responded to my request to quote her lyrics and kindly read an earlier draft of chapter three. Thanks to her for permission to use her work and for her interest in mine.

All of my committee members have been patient and constructive as I worked through the challenges of researching and writing while raising a family. I deeply appreciate their support and their constructive criticism. My advisor, Janet Staiger, has consistently offered encouragement and helped me to feel that I could succeed even when the work was especially difficult. Thank you, Janet. I cannot imagine anyone better to work with.

v Thanks to my mom, who is always interested in what I am doing and always asks lots of questions. Thanks as well to my mother-in-law whose help with the kids assured that I had the time necessary to travel, to concentrate, and to write. Moms might not make the world go ‘round, but the definitely make sure it keeps going.

The community that sustains me in Austin is awesome. Y’all know who you are and I love you.

And, of course, much love to my man, Aaron. We worked hard and we did it. We both know I would not be where I am without you. I am not even going to try to list your contributions, but will just say thanks for it all. This is yours, too. And I love you.

With Love and Respect, Marnie

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In 1988, rap group Public Enemy’s front man Chuck D declared that hip-hop was the “black CNN.” His assertion was that hip-hop music could be used as a tool to disseminate information amongst communities that traditionally have been underserved by mainstream media outlets. In the years since, several explicitly political and activist groups have formed within hip-hop communities. Most hip-hop audience members are not, however, directly involved in such groups.

My dissertation investigates the links between hip-hop music and culture and politics in the lives of audience members, exploring audience member’s definitions of politics and community and examining the influence of hip-hop on these definitions.

This is an ethnographic project that includes participant observation as well as indepth interviews with self-identified hip-hop fans. Participant observation took place at two National Hip-Hop Political Convention conferences, in Austin at concerts, panel discussions, and other hip-hop oriented events, and online in an email listserv devoted to

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individual members to hip-hop communities. In addition, I asked participants to explore their definitions of “politics” and to comment on connections between music and politics from their individual perspectives. Finally, participants were asked to list issues of particular concern to them.

This is an interdisciplinary project that combines aspects of sociology, cultural studies, and popular music studies. I also rely upon Patricia Hill Collins’ concept of intersectionality, assuming that race, class, and gender each work together to contribute to audience members’ experience with hip-hop music and culture and their sense of belonging to the hip-hop community. This project contributes to understandings of music reception as well as to understanding political affiliation and practice by exploring and describing the ways in which people register and experience music and politics in the hiphop generation.

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Chapter 1: “What’s the Scenario?”: Studying Hip-Hop and Politics

Review of Literature

Popular Music Studies within Cultural Studies

Black Popular Music

The Politics of Hip-Hop Music


Research Design

Convention Meetings, Listserv Members, and Austin Participants.............44 Chapter Outline

Chapter 2: Hip-Hop Music, Community, and Politics

What is Hip-Hop?: Defining a Genre

Hip-Hop Communities

The Role of Hip-Hop and Social Movements

How Hip-Hop Music Works Politically

Chapter 3: Political Lyrics and Hip-Hop’s Contributions to Social Change Movements

The Roots of Political Hip-Hop

Hard Times Old School

Hip-Hop Feminism

Black Nationalism and Afrocentrism

Public Enemy

Gangsta Rap

Conscious Rap

Political Lyrics and Community Building

Challenges to Making Political Music Effective

Chapter 4: Hip-Hop’s Political Concerns

Violence and Police Brutality

ix Economics

Media Justice

Identity Politics

Coalition Building

Chapter 5: Electoral Politics, Grassroots Activism, and Hip-Hop Leadership...158 To vote or not to vote

Grassroots Politics


Politicians as Leaders

Community Leaders

Rappers as Leaders

Chapter 6: Breaking It Down

Who Is Hip-Hop?

Problems in the Creation and Maintenance of Hip-Hop Communities......201 The Failure of the National Hip Hop Political Convention

Hip-Hop Music and Its Political Potential

Telling Stories Is Not Enough

Hip Hop is Failing to Make Good on Its Promise

Hip-Hop Is A Tool

Future Research



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In 1988, rap group Public Enemy’s front man Chuck D declared that hip-hop was the “black CNN.” His assertion was that hip-hop music could be used as a tool to disseminate information amongst communities that traditionally have been underserved by mainstream media outlets. Since then, hip-hop has become a tremendous commercial success and is currently central to American mainstream popular music. Some pundits have lamented the negative impact of commercial success on hip-hop’s political potential, arguing that music focused lyrically on conspicuous consumption and professionally on making a hit, rather than making a statement, has severely diminished the music’s potential for contributing to positive social change.

Since the early nineteen-nineties, several explicitly political and activist groups have formed within hip-hop communities to address specific issues ranging from incarceration rates among young men of color to voter apathy among young people. For example, Russell Simmons’s Hip Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) was founded in

2001. Its mission is to harness the cultural relevance of Hip-Hop music to serve as a catalyst for education advocacy and other societal concerns fundamental to the well-being of at-risk youth throughout the United States. HSAN is a non-profit, non-partisan national coalition of Hip-Hop artists, entertainment industry leaders, education advocates, civil rights proponents, and youth leaders united in the belief that Hip-Hop is an enormously influential agent for social change which must be responsibly and proactively utilized to fight the war on poverty and injustice. (“HSAN mission statement”)

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Yearwood, is based in Washington, D.C. The group has made a national name for itself by involving big-name international hip-hop stars such as T.I. in its projects. The organization’s stated mission is to “empower young people in urban communities to participate in the policymaking process” (“Hip Hop Caucus…”). Their program also includes a twelve-point agenda and they have consistently focused their work on electoral politics.

The National Hip Hop Political Convention first convened in Newark, New Jersey, in 2004 with a focus on getting out the youth vote. The first Hip Hop Political Agenda also emerged from this meeting. They met again in Chicago 2006 to build the movement and amend the Agenda. Their third convention was held in Las Vegas in the summer of 2008. At this meeting members expressed concern about the vitality and future of the organization. This group and its email listserv became one of the central characters in this research on hip-hop and politics.

Much hip-hop organizing has also been done on a local, grassroots level. In his monograph on hip-hop activism in the San Francisco Bay area, Constant Elevation: The Rise of Bay Area Hip-Hop Activism, Jeff Chang describes several such groups ranging from the Black Dot Artists Collective, which provides free cultural arts programs and services to young people, to the Third World Majority, a group of young women of color working for global justice. Another organization is the Malcolm X Grassroots movement, a group devoted to defending human rights and community building that started in Brooklyn and has multiple chapters around the country, especially in the southern United

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resources and opportunities to make social, economic and political change on a local, regional and national level. Hip Hop Congress is the product of a merger of artists and students, music and community” (“About Hip Hop Congress”).

Clearly, hip-hop has been the catalyst for an array of group formations and community building efforts. This project engages three sets of interconnected questions that arise around the notion of a “hip-hop community.” First, it explores questions about identity, music, and cultural participation. The terms “Hip-Hop Nation,” “hip-hop community,” and “hip-hop generation” are common parlance among hip-hop fans, as is the phrase “I am hip-hop.” These terms imply that listening to hip-hop creates a connection among the individual listeners, artists, and other participants who make up hip-hop culture. One of the goals of this project is to assess whether listening, even to the point of fandom, amounts to cultural participation. Does a shared “taste culture” imply, as Herbert Gans suggested, shared values and ideology? Can a “taste culture” be adopted as a means to membership in a particular class? To what extent can we consider a taste culture a legitimate community? What binds the hip-hop community other than their taste in music?2 Second, this project examines the constitution of communities, the types of communities that listeners form in their relationship with hip-hop culture, and the functions that hip-hop communities serve for community members. If hip-hop audience members are connected into communities, what sorts of communities are these? Can

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Do community members expect these groups to have material impacts in physical communities or are they “support” groups? Under what circumstances might hip-hop communities transform into a bona fide social movement? Is this even the goal of hip-hop organizing?

Finally, in addition to assaying the types of connections and commitments that form within the “hip-hop nation,” this project investigates the links between hip-hop music and culture and politics in the lives of “everyday” audience members. How do hiphop fans understand the relationship between hip-hop culture and politics? How do they define these terms? Do members of the hip-hop audience conceive connections between their participation in hip-hop culture and political issues and practices? What issues do they consider central to “hip-hop politics”?

A substantial body of work exists on hip-hop, its producers, and, to a lesser extent, its audience. Several serious histories of the music and the scene associated with it (including graffiti and break dance especially) are available as are texts that describe the hip-hop community or The Hip-Hop Generation (Kitwana).3 Very little research has been done, however, on the ordinary people who make up the hip-hop audience. This project begins to address this gap in the literature, providing a view from within hip-hop communities and offering commentary from people who have not made it big in the business or shaped the musical scene dramatically but who work for social change in a variety of ways under the mantle of hip-hop.

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This is an interdisciplinary project that combines sociological theories and methods with insights from popular music studies and cultural studies. This review of literature focuses on popular music, discussing popular music studies within the larger field of cultural studies and considering Black popular music within popular music studies and placing hip-hop within the realm of Black popular music. I also review the literature on hip-hop and politics. Theories of community formation, social movement theory, and definitions of politics will be covered in detail in chapter two.

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