Hitchens, Mos Def & hip hop’s strange historiesJuly 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.