Chicago basedAround the same time Chief Keef, who has spent much of this year under house arrest because of gun charges, threatened the older Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, who in a fit of reckoning the previous week expressed grievous concerns about the younger rapper’s nihilistic music. Keef threatened on Twitter to “smack him like da lil bitch he is.” Again, after an outcry, he said his account had been hacked. Finally, also last month, Chief Keef was relieved of his Instagram account after posting, also to Twitter, a photo of himself receiving oral sex from a woman.By any measure, this is raw, difficult-to-consume stuff. That it’s coming from one of hip-hop’s most promising young stars newly signed to a major label makes it unusually scandalous. But what’s most surprising about the situation is that it highlights the vast gap between Chief Keef and the rest of hip-hop, at least its mainstream, popular incarnation.
Ultimately, Chief Keef reminds me of how I didn't leave hip hop. In many ways, hip hop left me. I still love her.
Let's be honest though: we all age out of youth culture.
At present, the commercial rap which is popular now is a product of a reality TV show Facebook culture where mediocrity is prized and talent eschewed. In the culture of illusion, we can all be famous. Sarah Palin with all of her human mediocrity and white trash populism can be a viable candidate for the highest office in the land. The Tea Party GOP, with its penchant for anti-intellectualism, racism, nativism, and conspiranoid fantasies, are a national force in the country's politics. The popularity of Chief Keef is a product of that same cultural low-water mark. As a member of the hip hop generation (and someone who has also written extensively about hip hop and black popular culture) I find this transition tragic and unfortunate, but not at all surprising.
While every album cannot be as good as the legendary Liquid Swords (just rereleased in a great collector's edition by Get on Down, the latter kindly blessed me with a copy), The NY Times' surrender to a subgenre of hip hop that requires no real melody, rhyme technique, sophisticated use of metaphor, and simply consists of the mouth utterances of semi-literate "street poets" who would be felled in a battle with Rapping Granny, cannot be ignored for what its popularity suggests about the health of commercial hip hop as a genre of music:
Certainly, the Golden Age of hip hop from 1989-1996 produced many horrible albums and songs. However, what were once considered failures of artistry and craft in that era, would be heralded as visionary triumphs in the current musicscape.Sure, plenty of rap is like this, but rarely, in this era of hip-hop’s full assimilation into the mainstream, does it attract much attention. It’s a surprise that Chief Keef is beginning to gain traction because there’s strikingly little room for what he does in the hip-hop mainstream, which is preoccupied with success and, probably even more impossible for him, melody.
The NY Times expose on Chief Keef is part of a long history where grotesque blackness is given a stage as an object of fetishistic delight and curiousity for white cultural critics. The Black Culture Industry markets blackness to white people while simultaneously selling authentic negritude back to the African American community. We see this dynamic in the hip hop music press and commercial radio, where for example, while hip hop is a black musical form, it is part of a broader popular culture industry that is run and controlled by white people, and sold to a public that is largely not African-American.
We have to be careful in our critique. Chief Keef and other commercial rap artists are no less authentically "black" because of how they present a debased and ugly caricature of black humanity and life. Moreover, "blackness" is both beautiful and ugly. Much of commercial hip hop comes from the "popular"--the lower case "p" of the "folk" and their "real" "living" culture--but it circulates in a media environment and broader social context where the "Popular" serves the interests of a white controlled industry, economy, and Capital.
Black bodies have historically been a source of profit. Consequently, the black bodies and human props of commercial hip hop are part of a long history where the white gaze has objectified black art and culture.
Black artists have struggled to negotiate this dynamic, what some have described as the "sex/race marketplace," for their own (and at times limited) advantage and gain.
In all, Chief Keef and others exist in a Black Superpublic where our private shames, spaces, pleasures, and humanity--and not necessarily progressive, positive, or respectable politics and behavior--are on display for a global mass public. Chief Keef may just be trying "to get his hustle on." He most certainly knows little, and cares even less about, such realities. But commercial hip hop artists are taken by many around the world as a real representation of our humanity and personhood: here black men are reduced to hyper thugs and hoodlums; black women are sex freak deviants who are owned and traded by the men in their lives like so much jewelry or other fashion accessory item.
In its celebration of his fringe to the mainstream success, The NY Times offers little comment on the spaces, neighborhoods, and limited life chances that are supposedly spoken to, and represented by rappers such as Chief Keef:
Chief Keef serves as a reminder of what’s been whitewashed out of the hip-hop mainstream: a sense of the struggle bedeviling the communities that produce much of the music. For someone whose primary exposure to hip-hop comes from terrestrial radio or BET, and whose idea of a mainstream hip-hop star is Drake, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne or even Rick Ross, who turned darker on his most recent album, “God Forgives, I Don’t,” the single-minded roughness of Chief Keef’s music would be almost wholly foreign...After a long climb that began with a YouTube groundswell, “I Don’t Like,” the collaboration with Lil Reese that’s the defining document of the current Chicago sound — stark, violent, happily unforgiving — has now spent a few months on the Billboard R&B/hip-hop singles chart.
Chief Keef's breakout single "I Don't Care" is a series of exclamations and declerative statements about disdain, disinterest, rage, and anger. He poses a profound philosophical conundrum: what would a life of joy and hope look like for a young black male member of the ghetto underclass like Chief Keef? Therein lies an existential dillemma, one that young black men in poor environments, surrounded by a culture of death and violence, must address if they are going to survive as spiritually, ethically, and morally whole human beings.What’s notable about Chief Keef and much of the Chicago music scene that he’s come to symbolize — known locally as drill music — is how those elements are all but absent. With rare exception this music is unmediated and raw and without bright spots, focused on anger and violence. The instinct is to call this tough, unforgiving and concrete-hard music joyless, but in truth it’s exuberant in its darkness. Most of its practitioners are young and coming into their creative own against a backdrop of outrageous violence in Chicago, particularly among young people — dozens of teenagers have been killed in Chicago this year — and often related to gangs. (There’s a long history of overlap between Chicago’s gangs and Chicago’s rap.) That their music is a symphony of ill-tempered threats shouldn’t be a surprise.
Chief Keef's statements of angst are signals back to Cornel West's seminal and prescient essay on the nihilistic threat to Black America:
...We must delve into the depths where neither liberals nor conservatives dare to tread, namely, into the murky waters of despair and dread that not flood the streets of black America. To talk about the depressing statistics of unemployment, infant mortality, incarceration, teenage pregnancy, and violent crime in one thing. But to face up to the monumental eclipse of hope, the unprecedented collapse of meaning, the incredible disregard for life (especially black life} and property in much of black America is something else.If Chief Keef and other "drill" rappers are to be taken seriously as barometers for a generation's feelings and sentiments--and their music as informal types of public opinion--Black America is clearly in a crisis where a generation has apparently been lost. Can they be saved? And what can be done to counter the triumph of nihilism--in the Age of Obama and its first Black President--over a whole cohort of lost African-American youth?
The liberal-conservative discussion conceals the most basic issue now facing black America: the nihilistic threat to its very existence. This threat is not simply a matter of relative economic deprivation and political powerlessness--though economic well-being and political clout are requisites for meaningful black progress. It is primarily a question of speaking to the profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair so widespread in black America...
Black people have always been in America's wilderness in search of a promised land. Yet many black folks now reside in a jungle with a cutthroat morality devoid of any faith in deliverance or hope for freedom. Contrary to the superficial claims of conservative behavioralists, these jungles are not primarily the result of pathological behavior. Rather, this behavior is the tragic response of a people bereft of resources to confront the workings of U.S. capitalist society. This does not mean that individual black people are not responsible for their actions--black murderers and rapists should go to jail. But it does mean that the nihilistic threat contributes to criminal behavior--a threat that feeds on poverty and shattered cultural institutions. The nihilistic threat is now more powerful than ever before because the armor to ward against it is weaker.