White People Dance to Migos: Examining the Roots of Hip-Hop as Counterculture Becomes Pop Culture
Despite being born out of need for independence from the white style, hip-hop is gleefully consumed by white people. Whether it’s “Wakanda forever!” or “westside!” it is expected for Black cultural productions be consumed by white audiences. But considering the original goal of hip-hop, defining the Black aesthetic through the negation of a white aesthetic, how should we view the recent critical and commercial success of hip-hop?
In many ways, Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1970) set the scaffolding for modern hip-hop. In line with Larry Neal’s views in “The Black Arts Movement,” Scott-Heron creates a vision of the Black aesthetic that defines itself through a rejection of a dominant white aesthetic, which includes inequitable capitalism and sterile white cultural icons. Considering the rejection of a white aesthetic in Gil Scott-Heron’s poem, what is known by many as a predecessor to first hip-hop song, it is almost ironic to see hip-hop win traditionally “white” awards, such as Kendrick Lamar’s recent Pulitzer win for DAMN. (2017)
The motive behind the Black aesthetic is the destruction of the white thing, of the white ideas, and white ways of looking at the world. The new aesthetic is mostly predicated on an Ethics that asks the question: whose vision of the world is more meaningful, ours or the white oppressors? — “The Black Arts Movement,” Neal (1968)
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” reveals the image and importance of the Black aesthetic by illuminating the relative whiteness of American pop culture and American capitalism; Scott-Heron effectively defines the Black aesthetic and “the revolution” by what it is not. In comparison to earlier Black writers, such as those of the Harlem Renaissance, Scott-Heron relies on a predominantly colloquial style of poetry, and when he uses the language of television advertisements, it is in mockery rather than adoption.
The revolution will not go better with Coke
The revolution will not fight the germs that cause bad breath
The revolution WILL put you in the driver's seat
The revolution will not be televised
The Black aesthetic, as Neal puts it, is dedicated to “the destruction of the white thing.” By posturing television as the antithesis to the revolution, Scott-Heron implies that American capitalism is inherent to the white aesthetic (and “the white thing”) and therefore is contrary and in opposition to the Black aesthetic.
The anti-capitalist tone of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” echoes the Black power movements including, but not limited to, the Black Panther Party. The Panthers recognized the very framework of American capitalism to be a root of hegemonic rule in the United States. Nikhil Pal Singh, author of Black is a Country (2004), writes that the Panthers believed the source of Black oppression was “the sustained reproduction of racism within the exploitative field of capitalist social and economic relations.” Just as Scott-Heron dismisses the depravity of television advertisements, the Black Panthers introduced the social program, Free Breakfast for Children, to Oakland. The Black Panthers were not anti-capitalist by coincidence: the embodiment of Marxist and socialist ideals was part of a pointed effort to combat the impoverished conditions of predominantly Black neighborhoods that made social projects a necessity.
In addition to advertising, the whiteness of capitalism is highlighted by another component of late 60’s television: white people.
The revolution will not be right back after a message
About a white tornado, white lightning, or white people
Television (what the revolution clearly is not) is inundated with white capitalism and white people, the sheer number of which mentioned in Scott-Heron’s song indicates the importance for a Black aesthetic independent of mainstream pop culture. Steve McQueen, the Beverly Hillbillies, Natalie Woods, Spiro Agnew, Francis Scott Key, Johnny Cash, Tom Jones, illustrate the lack of Black representation in popular culture. The revolution is not televised because television is not interested in any concept or portrayal of blackness; television is not actively interested in the wellbeing of Black people.
Black Art is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America. In order to perform this task, the Black Arts Movement proposes a radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic. — “The Black Arts Movement,” Neal (1968)
One of two instances where Scott-Heron reveals what the revolution actually is, he modifies a capitalistic white aesthetic, a Hertz advertising slogan (Let Hertz put you in the driver’s seat) to promote a Black aesthetic. His second use of a positive definition of the revolution, “the revolution will be live,” functions in a similar way: he uses the terminology of the television to promote involvement in social justice as something to be bodily engaged with, not to be watched. Television is seen as the epitome of passivity, a sort of passivity that can be seen in more modern forms of television. Why go to a Black Lives Matter rally when you can watch the videos on Instagram?
Poetry is a concrete function, an action. No more abstractions. Poems are physical entities: fists, daggers, airplane poems, and poems that shoot guns. Poems are transformed from physical objects into personal forces. —“The Black Arts Movement,” Neal (1968)
The Black aesthetic of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is not contained to Scott-Heron alone. Poets of the same era including, but not limited to, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and June Jordan embody the independent aesthetic presented by Neal. In “Poem About Police Brutality” (1974), written in a defiantly conversational style, June Jordan wonders what it will take to combat police brutality in the United States:
what you think would happen if everytime they kill a black boy then we kill a cop
everytime they kill a black man then we kill a cop
you think the accident rate would lower subsequently?
Although Jordan’s question is hypothetical, it is a serious question. What could be done to lower rates of police violence? Will it take the death of those whom society deems more valuable than others? Her poem illustrates how art can function as active social change, asking questions like why a Black life is significantly less valuable than a white cop’s. Her wondering if “to kill a cop” would lower the accident rate is radical not because of the threat of violence, but instead because it seeks to question which members of society have the authority to kill. Similarly, Singh writes that Black Power groups like the Panthers when “challenging the police... did not so much challenge the government’s monopoly on physical violence, as disrupt its ability to nominate and designate normative, national subjects--in other words, its monopoly on legitimate symbolic violence.” The Black Arts are linked to Black Power movements because they both suggest a reordering of white hegemonic power and encourage action in the case of pacifism or passivity.
White Prizes for Black Arts?
Television, at least in the era in which “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was written, has been a white aesthetic. It embodies passivity and white culture that the Black aesthetic must be independent from in order to thrive. Scott-Heron, in opposition to “the white thing,” sets the scaffolding for a new form of Black expression, a Black aesthetic: hip-hop. By combining poetry invested in activism with funk music, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” can arguably be seen as the first hip-hop song. Scott-Heron’s influence can be seen on contemporary mainstream hip-hop artists such as Drake and Kanye West. Hip-hop, at its roots, emerged from a need for independence from whiteness. Even as modern hip-hop formed out of multicultural New York City, it was intended as a counter cultural endeavor.
But what does it mean now that hip-hop is now in the musical limelight? It is currently the most popular genre in the world and is consumed by white audience. And, most significantly, hip-hop has been increasingly accepted by traditionally white institutions as a form of “high culture.” In 2018, Kendrick Lamar, one of the most commercially and critically successful Black hip-hop artists of his generation, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 2017 album DAMN. This marked the first time that the award has been given to an artist playing neither jazz nor classical music. Considering that, since its inception, the Pulitzer has historically been awarded by and given to white artists, what does it mean for a Black man to win a white prize? If the Black aesthetic was intended to exist in opposition to a white aesthetic, does this mean that hip-hop has lost the independence that Neal originally called for? Does it mean that the Pulitzer Prizes are now able to recognize Black art as “high art”?
Financially, it is in the best interest of the hip-hop artist to further appeal to a white audience already wearing “Straight Outta Compton” hoodies and blasting Tupac from Subaru Imprezas. But even if there is no intention to reach out to white audiences, to maintain a black aesthetic that rejects a white way of doing things, this relationship seems unavoidable. Being opposed to a white aesthetic is very attractive to a white audience. White people are seemingly embarrassed of their own whiteness. They don’t want to be white because whiteness, like country music, just isn’t cool anymore.
This is not to say that white people only like hip-hop because it is not white. Everyone has the right to like what sounds good. But given the history of the commodification of blackness, an independent black aesthetic seems virtually impossible. To the white listener, hip-hop is musical proof of their lack of racism and a means to pretend, just for 3 minutes as they watch a music video on their iPhone, that they are part of the revolution.
About the author: Charlie Lahud-Zahner is a Junior studying Cultural Studies and Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University. He is currently re-listening to Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy and trying to make the perfect egg sandwich.