Hitchens, Mos Def & hip hop’s strange histories

July 12, 2009 at 6:41 pm | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera, Terrorism, U.S. Politics | 13 Comments

Blame Reagan for making me into a monster
Blame Oliver north and Iran-Contra
I ran contraband that they sponsored
Before this rhyming stuff we was in concert

Jay-Z – ‘Blue Magic

First, I might as well endorse Ben Thompson’s positive review of the new, ‘implausibly impeccable’, Mos Def record. It’s been 10 years since Dante Smith’s exceptional debut, and in the intervening years he’s seemed more interested in his acting career than mouthing rhymes into a microphone. For that reason, The Ecstatic is an unexpected delight. Musically & lyrically, it’s the most enthusiastic, eloquent & interesting thing he’s produced since Black On Both Sides and should be regarded as one of the best hip hop records of recent years.

But as good as that album is, this post isn’t really about that. Instead, I want to discuss an incident which Thompson briefly refers to in his review; an awkward, awful exchange between Smith and Christopher Hitchens on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher:

Obviously, neither of the two men covers himself in glory here. Smith’s habit of repeatedly proclaiming – and then defending – his ignorance about Al Qaeda & the Taliban (to the point of mixing the two groups up) is cringe-makingly embarrassing, and Hitchens is at his sneering, condescending worst, delighting in dishing-out put-downs to someone he clearly considers an intellectual inferior. But Mos Def certainly isn’t the idiot Hitchens assumes him to be; whilst wasn’t lucky enough to go from private schooling to Oxford and then various journals of world renown, he is a dextrous rapper, a fine actor and a man who can speak eloquently on a number of subjects – just not the beliefs of Islamic militants. For a kid from public housing in Brooklyn, that ain’t half bad.

But what I found interesting in Smith’s contribution was the parallel he offered between these Islamic militants and the case Assata Shakur. Shakur was a political activist and Black Panther who was indicted of 10 crimes throughout the 1970′s, including robbery, kidnapping, attempted murder and murder. She was eventually convicted of murdering a state trooper at the New Jersey turnpike, but has always denied the charge. Her defenders insist to this day that she was a political prisoner of the United States and – years after escaping from prison – she successfully claimed political asylum in Cuba. Rightly or wrongly, she is still widely celebrated as a living martyr for black emancipation, and her life story is cited as ‘proof’ of the federal government’s mistreatment of African Americans and why the state shouldn’t be trusted.

What I think Smith was trying to get across – with difficulty given the rude belligerence of Hitchens – was that the people from his community who believe Assata Shakur was a political prisoner won’t automatically believe the federal government and media when they describe Islamic terrorists as a mortal enemy. With such a history of grievance about how the levers of power have been pulled against them, distrust of the state can be a reflex reaction, and that can occasionally lead you to some pretty unorthodox – and sometimes unsavoury – positions.

I think he’s wrong, of course: Osama Bin Laden is no Assata Shakur, Al Qaeda are no Black Panthers and the ideology, aims and practices of bomb-throwing Islamists are infinitely more deadly, malevolent and morally debased than anything the Black Panthers did to advance their own goals. But by inviting that comparison, Mos Def does (albeit inadvertently) demonstrate that the distance between a government and a deprived, disenfranchised community allows for the growth of conspiracy theories as a way of explaining the world around them.

The conspiracy theory is something Mos Def should know plenty about, for they abound in his realm of hip hop. Listen to a few rap albums and it won’t be long before you find an ‘interesting’ interpretation of history: the Jews’ role in black oppression, the CIA flooding the ‘hood’ with heroin, giving black people HIV, killing Tupac & Biggie, or George W. Bush being responsible for 9/11. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this wealth of crank theories happens to originate from people who’ve lived in some of the most isolated & impoverished communities in America.

There are many different explanations for why conspiracy theories form and how they spread, but I think the most important cultural/political aspect is how they’re often reactions from peoples or communities who feel distanced from & distrustful of the establishment. If you reduced that amount of alienation, you’d probably reduce the number and the power of these strange alternate histories. In the end, if you feel so powerless, the government must seem a hell of a lot more powerful than it actually is.

Update: Lou Perez wrote about the same incident a while back and has some interesting thoughts.

13 Comments »

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  1. Hey Neil:

    Back in April I wrote about Mos Def’s run-in with Christopher Hitchens: http://louperez.net/?p=211

    If you have the time, please check it out and let me know what you think.

    All the best,
    Lou

    • Hi Lou,

      Cheers for sharing your own post; I thought the part about him going on about what can be gained if people to have greater access to information – but then later claiming that he doesn’t trust these sources of information – to be particularly true. I’ve updated this post with a link to yours.

      Take care,

      Neil

      • Many thanks, Neil.

  2. Though what could possibly be more patronising than to invite a rapper on to this kind of show?

    Should Hitchens have held back?
    Would that not have been even more condescending?

    “Listen to a few rap albums and it won’t be long before you find an ‘interesting’ interpretation of history: the Jews’ role in black oppression, the CIA flooding the ‘hood’ with heroin, giving black people HIV, killing Tupac & Biggie, or George W. Bush being responsible for 9/11.”

    Poor babies, they can’t help believing this shit…they’re alienated you see.

    Yeah, multi-millionaire rap stars feeding crap to their fans, keeping them in their place (hell, who would buy this rubbish otherwise?)

    Now, there’s a conspiracy which makes sense…

    • Should Hitchens have held back?
      Would that not have been even more condescending?

      Maybe it’s just a matter of personal taste. If it were me, I would’ve been more interested in probing his own views further and trying to discover where they come from, rathher than simply bashing him into humiliation, but I suspect that means I wouldn’t make a good chat show guest.

      Poor babies, they can’t help believing this shit…they’re alienated you see.

      Yeah, multi-millionaire rap stars feeding crap to their fans, keeping them in their place (hell, who would buy this rubbish otherwise?)

      Hmmm. I think it’s actually been long established that hip hop can be as credible, creative & entertaining a musical genre as any other in popular music. But just like all other genres, good hip hop is not always (hardly ever, in fact) the best selling.

  3. Wow, very insightful post… I wasn’t even aware that this had been aired. I’m a fan of both Mos Def and Hitchens, so it was odd seeing them go up against each other like that. Great breakdown of it, props

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    • Did you really think that your being a fan of Christopher Hitchens and Mos Def would one day become totally congruent with one another? Its rather funny that.

      • Ain’t something you expect to see, is it? Actually, my main regret about this exchange was that it was conducted more as a talk show debate than a freestyle rap battle. Storied though it might be, Hitchens can’t really consider his career a success until he’s been properly dissed by a rapper.

  4. I think it’s actually been long established that hip hop can be as credible, creative & entertaining a musical genre as any other in popular music.

    (What exactly does “credible” mean in this context?)

    I think it’s also been long established that it reinforces alienation, violence, misogyny and homophobia.

    Of course it can also give middle class white boys a vicarious thrill – a touch of “credibility” perhaps? – so it’s not all bad!

  5. [...] in the hip hop groove (sorry cjcjc!), Marc Lynch’s post on how a rap beef relates to American foreign policy is just [...]

  6. (What exactly does “credible” mean in this context?)

    That hip hop is a genre with as much or as little artistic merit as any other. There’s good rap & bad rap, and – as is often the case in rock, pop, soul, jazz, whatever – the bad stuff tends to sell better than the good stuff.

    I think it’s also been long established that it reinforces alienation, violence, misogyny and homophobia.

    Well, I could cite tonnes of cases where that’s true. Equally, I could cite tonnes of cases where it’s not.

    Is hip hop inherently violent, misogynistic & homophobic? No. Are some of rap’s best-selling artists frequently violent, misogynistic & homophobic? Yes. Does that give people the excuse to generalise? No, it just proves that lots more people like listening & buying the more ugly, uninteresting forms of rap. So all we need to do is stop people buying bad music. Believe me, I’ve tried, it ain’t happening.

  7. Nice post Neil. I enjoyed the video- although your version missed Hitchens and the scotch confrontation with Maher which foreshadows his obnoxiousness to come.

    I thought Hitchens was being a bit of an arse. He could have been far more accommodating of an interesting and vaguely nuanced viewpoint Mos Def was discussing, albeit not as well articulated as it might be. I think the debate would have been more interesting and more constructive had Hitchens not been there at all, given Rushdie capable presence.

    There’s an interesting argument about whether enough time is spent by the media (and our governments for that matter) exploring the orgins of the terrorist grievances and the factors that sustain movements such as Al Qaeda- I’m talking financing as well as ideology.
    Plus, the notion that Osama Bin Laden is effectively a ‘mythical figure’ is quite valid, provided you don’t take the statement too literally. Clearly the US, and the UK to a lesser extent, have been fed a perceived ‘boogey-man’ interpretation of Bin Laden, over which a debate is perfectly valid. Not just to the extent of the danger the man himself presents but also the way we talk about, present, and understand that danger.

    You should check out this earlier appearance on Bill Maher by Mos Def (and Cornel West):

    Here Def really does go a little too far, but still, given how many people subscribe to these conspiracy-fed views, I think its important to debate these positions, if for nothing more than to expose them (which I felt Hitchens failed to do properly).
    He almost gets going a bit after 4:55 and after 8:00 he’s makes a couple of sensible points. You’ve really gotta sift through some crap though.

  8. [...] But whilst transparency can’t kill a good fairy tale, it can limit its scope and power. It seems to me that the only truly ethical & effective way of regulating conspiacy theories is by releasing as much factual information as possible and then allowing the consumers to do what they like with it. This won’t kill the conspiracy theory, of course, but it will undermine the argument that the state has ’something to hide’, which can be a powerful recruiting tool. As I wrote in a slightly different context: [...]


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