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Deconstructing Niggy: A Brief Exploration of Race and Hip Hop

July 22, 2009 2 comments

Deconstructing Niggy

There is much talk in America these days around the issue of race. With Barack Hussein Obama as the elected President of the United States, we have begun to collectively reflect upon our relationship with race and racism—and the conversation seems to have polarized into two radically different positions. On one hand, Obama’s viability as a presidential candidate across a wide range of demographics prompts liberals to proudly declare that, finally, we live in a “post-racial” America, no longer tethered to the racial divisiveness that has infected our political systems since the country’s inception. On the other hand, a great number of people are still asking the question “are we ready for a black president?,” which itself seems to indicate that a genuine “post-racial” America is still on the horizon of human evolution. The truth, of course, lies somewhere between, or beyond, these two extremes—we have certainly made some tremendous strides in our collective attitudes toward race and racism, but we cannot confuse our accomplishments with outright victory. There can be no singular victory over racism, but like peace itself, it is a victory that must be won again and again, perpetually into the future.

Niggy Tardust is about what it means to look at history and the present as a whole, as opposed to running away in disgust or bowing one’s head in guilt—saying ‘yes’ to all that has been, in full acknowledgement; saying ‘yes, all of those things convene in me….’” -Saul Williams

In furthering the dialogue on race and racism, Hip Hop culture offers a fascinating means of exploring the subject, as racial identity has always been at the front and center of the art form. Just as in any genre of art, Hip Hop is capable of reflecting the entirety of the human condition—all of our beauty, all of our misery, all of our scars and scabs, all of our boundless creativity and limitless potential. Consider the wide range of conscious depth as expressed through Hip Hop—developmental studies have consistently shown that human beings develop through several distinct stages of consciousness and identity: from ego-centric consciousness (“me”), to ethno-centric consciousness (“others like me,” in terms of race, religion, nationality, etc.), to world-centric consciousness (“all of us”), to Kosmo-centric consciousness (“all of existence”).

Each of these broad stages of human development open us to radically different ways of perceiving ourselves and the world around us, with our entire sense of identity being the interface between the two. And we can find all of it within Hip Hop—from the power-driven thug mentality of ego-centrism, to the rivalries, racism, and misogyny of ethno-centrism, to the more conscious expressions of world-centrism often found in underground Hip Hop, to the rare but remarkable few who, like Saul, are using the art as a genuine means of embodied mysticism and Self realization.

Hip Hop culture includes all of these very different attitudes and altitudes of consciousness, which has made it one of the most controversial art forms in the modern world, and especially frustrating to those who want to either idealize it, demonize it, or dismiss it altogether. With roots extending deep into the core of African-American oppression, Hip Hop offers us a fascinating glimpse into the problems of race and racism in the world, as well as a means of overcoming our limited perceptions of reality by simply opening ourselves to all of the different voices the genre has to offer, and integrating these perspectives into a cohesive understanding of ourselves and each other. From this integration we can begin to see the subtleties that exist between, for example, the well-known Hip Hop groups N.W.A. and Public Enemy, the former offering a 1st-person account of life in the ghetto from an ego/ethnocentric point of view, and the latter offering a more 3rd-person view of the ghetto from a largely world-centric perspective. Both accounts are necessary for a full picture to emerge, which Hip Hop culture is more than happy to serve up.

While studying the Integral model, it can be easy to mistake “race” as a notion which, once we move past the ethno-centric stage of development, is something we no longer need to concern ourselves with. (Speaking in the context of the U.S., this is probably more true for whites than minorities, simply because minorities often report being subtly reminded of the color of their skin on a daily basis, simply from living in a white-majority mainstream culture.) But it is important to remember that even if we have moved beyond our exclusive identity with our own racial heritage, that aspect of our identity does not simply vanish, but instead becomes even more textured and nuanced than ever before. We also have the ability to more deeply explore other racial identities, cultures, and heritages, further enriching our own, and slowly peeling back many of the residual filters we unconsciously place over our perceptions of reality. The goal is not to be color-blind, as our politically-correct society often tells us to be, but to allow ourselves to see the entire spectrum of color, much more vividly than ever before. From this integral vantage point, we can see that our similarities are where we find Truth, our differences are where we find Beauty, and navigating between the two is where we find our Goodness.

A shamelessly self-indulgent photo of me and Saul, just to show you all how cool i am.

There aren’t many artists in the world today who more fully exemplify this integrative consciousness in Hip Hop than Saul Williams. His capacity to so fully engage the “language of the mystics” of the spiritual realm, to pull it down through the sounds and visions of the mental realm, and to push the transcendent clarity of consciousness through your entire body, is absolutely unparalleled. And while he is pushing spirit all the way down through our souls, through our minds, and into our feet, he is simultaneously pulling some of our darkest shadows up through consciousness, using art to disarm much of the fear and resentment that has prevented our collective dialogue around race and racism from moving forward for decades. I highly recommend you pick up his latest album, a collaboration with Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails, titled The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust.

Here is a short clip of Saul and Ken Wilber discussing race and racism from an Integral point of view:

A Brief Exploration of Race and Hip Hop

Hip hop is a natural evolution of 20th century music, which is itself considered by many to have been derived almost entirely from the legacy of black music and culture. In the early 1950’s, much of America was becoming fascinated by the new sounds they began to hear on local radio stations around the country, which were playing an exciting mix of black music, including gospel, blues, and boogie-woogie. In 1954, Sam Phillips, the head of Sun Records, was searching for someone who could translate these new sounds into something he could sell to white people. Despite the remarkable influence black music was having upon American culture, the Civil Rights movement had yet to hit its stride, and there was still as of yet no place for black artists within the newly-emerging mainstream of popular culture. To be blunt, black culture was simply not marketable. So Sam found the perfect man to help bring black music into the larger culture—and that man was Elvis Presley.

Remaining one of the most controversial figures in modern music, Elvis has been accused on the one hand of “stealing” black music and diluting it to the point where it was finally acceptable to the sensibilities of white America. Elvis himself is quoted as saying “The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in their shanties and in their juke joints and nobody paid it no mind ’til I goosed it up. I got it from them.” On the other hand, Elvis is credited as being a genuine step forward for black and white culture alike; as Little Richard said: “He was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music.”

Whether or not we perceive Elvis as a thief or as an innovator, one thing remains certain—almost the entire legacy of Rock and Roll can be attributed to his magnificent wake. Rock music itself became the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movements in the late fifties and sixties, and its unique confluence of black and white art may have actually contributed to the culture of racial equality that was beginning to emerge at this time.

Fast forwarding through five decades of music culture, it isn’t hard to see the natural progression of black music through many different forms of music, wildly mutating and undulating into almost as many different sorts of sounds as the human ear is capable of hearing. Blues and boogie-woogie became Rockabilly in the 1950’s, which became Rock and Roll in the late 50’s and 60’s, branching out into soul, funk, R&B, and disco in the 70’s. It was here that Hip Hop began to take its roots, naturally evolving out of Rock and Roll into an utterly novel genre of music—even though Rock and Hip Hop continue to share some very deep similarities, most notably in the verse-chorus-verse song structure and predominantly 4/4 timing (so much so that it might be said that the primary difference between them is in overall aesthetic directionality—while many prefer to Rock from side to side, Hip Hop moves your inner b-boy up and down….)

The massive success of Hip Hop as a global art form causes many people to proclaim Hip Hop to be the return of Rock and Roll to the people who created it in the first place. At the same time, Hip Hop has already escaped these sorts of ethnocentric notions of cultural ownership, and is currently blossoming as a genuine global art form. There are much-debated statistics that report 70% of Hip Hop sales coming from white people, one of the most significant examples ever of this sort of cross-pollination of perspectives through popular culture. But this is not as idyllic as it may sound, and continues to cause much uneasiness in black culture. Adding to the complexity of race in Hip Hop, many of the more “conscious” Hip Hop artists report a largely white turnout at live shows—which isn’t a bad thing from a world-centric perspective, but can be very frustrating for black artists trying to convey a message to their own culture. At the same time, criticism from within black communities has also been leveled against certain so-called “Gangsta rappers” who, far from keeping it real, are creating larger-than life personas and exaggerated theatrics based upon negative stereotypes, for the sake of selling music to white people. This, these critics argue, perpetuates those stereotypes in much the same way the racist “minstrel shows” of the 19th and early 20th century did, in which whites and even blacks would wear “blackface” and perform extremely racist skits, acts, and songs. In fact, the parallels between much of mainstream Hip Hop and minstrelsy can be summed up in this quote from Wikipedia:

“Blackface minstrelsy was the first distinctly American theatrical form. In the 1830s and 1840s, it was at the core of the rise of an American music industry, and for several decades it provided the lens through which white America saw black America. On the one hand, it had strong racist aspects; on the other, it resulted in the first broad awareness by white Americans of aspects of black folk culture.”

But let us not forget all those artists who, like Saul, continue to bring genuine artistry, creativity, and spirituality to the art, despite the fact that the radio is dominated by the same shallowness and superficiality that dominated the 80’s music scene. While “conscious” Hip Hop artists like Saul, Blackalicious, Lyrics Born, Lupe Fiasco, The Coup, Talib Kweli, Immortal Technique, and many others are pushed to the wayside of a mainstream which once reflected our stream-of-collective-consciousness—but has now been reduced to lowest-common-denominator marketing—let’s also remember that the music industry’s grasp over mainstream culture is beginning to crumble, creating more and more ways for these more enlightened artists to bring their art to the masses.


Originally published on Integral Life: Introducing Niggy Tardust (w/ Saul Williams and Ken Wilber)

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