This Week's Show •

‘The Changing Same’: Race in America

Orlando Patterson has spent his career puzzling over the "immutable force" in American race relations. Is it the ongoing, grassroots cultural revolution we see and hear in the world of jazz and hip-hop? Or the eternal racial gap — in health and wealth, in incomes and outcomes — documented by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander? Patterson is optimistic.

As a scholar and a father, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has spent his career puzzling over the “immutable force” in American race relations. Is it the ongoing, grassroots cultural revolution we see and hear in the worlds of activism and hip-hop? Or the eternal racial gap — in health and wealth, in incomes and outcomes — documented by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander?

Even in the wake of the Justice Department’s grim report on Ferguson, the Jamaican-born Patterson is an optimist.

The result of all that thinking is The Cultural Matrix, an anthology of essays about the complex world of scarcity and violence that black youths bear and bring to light in their unmatched “cultural capital” — rappers, artists, athletes and fashion plates who fill seats in American arenas and export a world-leading look and sound.

Patterson admits that our prisons are much too black considering who commits the crimes. Both inner-city neighborhoods and black suburbs are overpoliced. (The small city of Ferguson, for example, seems to run on a combination of racial bias and extractive economics. Its city manager stepped down on Wednesday.) And this week we were reminded that frat boys still veer into antebellum politics when they think no one is looking.

Patterson has crunched the numbers and says both sides of the racial divide have “20-percent problems.” Twenty percent of whites are hardcore racists. And twenty percent of African-Americans live lives “disconnected” from the values of the society at large — that means more crime and violence, drugs and weak family ties.

So this week we’re asking, in a wide-open way, just what — if anything — is to be done to reconcile and reengage two cultures after the revelations in Ferguson, to reclaim and enrich the gains made at Selma 50 years ago. To Orlando Patterson’s mind, we’re doing better than ever before.

Hip-Hop’s Case for Hip-Hop

The people who produce this culture are both alienated and deeply American. Hip-hop’s embrace of materialism is exactly what you would expect of American materialism. It comes from a people who are steeped in a desire for material things but are denied those things.

Jelani Cobb, historian and journalist

We’re including a Spotify playlist to be thought of as hip-hop’s case for hip-hop. These songs are New York Times-approved: they’re recognizable as psalms, jeremiads, laments, and exaltations present in other kinds of music.

There’s very little of the wanton celebration of violence that Orlando Patterson finds (and maybe plays up) in the hip-hop canon. There’s materialism, set against

o maybe this is “respectable” music, in the bad sense of politics of respectability. But we know that it’s popular music, with mainstream acclaim, and it tells a forty-year story of musicians’ introspection.

Photo of the hip-hop collective Odd Future. Credit: Terry Richardson.

Podcast • March 26, 2009

The President of Flow… and the end of Hip Hop?

What if “My President is black” is a reset button, marking the end of a cultural era? Just talking here again about the hip hop pulse of Obama Nation. Tricia Rose says the President of ...

What if “My President is black” is a reset button, marking the end of a cultural era? Just talking here again about the hip hop pulse of Obama Nation. Tricia Rose says the President of Flow will be (surely ought to be) the death of commercial hip hop… of the last decade’s giant stars like Jay-Z, and of the iconic trinity of gangstas, pimps and ho’s in the lyrics of violence and carnal excess. Professor Rose, the Brown University author of Hip Hop Wars, loves the form of rap, quotes Nas as prophecy, reveres the art of Lupe Fiasco and Immortal Technique among many cult practitioners. But times have changed, she says, and the Obama – Hip Hop linkage (Adam Bradley’s theme) is mostly fantasy — a link of opposites, actually, not influences.

 The civil rights movement made Obama possible… Now there’s no question that hip hop encouraged the cultural comfort that Obama represents, but he really represents the fruition of a civil rights legacy. That’s what I think people see in him predominantly. We’re reading through a hip hop lens that has four generations of black culture behind it. Almost all of his gestures, his language, his connection to the church, everything he does is both “civil rights” and occasionally “hip hop generation.” Young people see the connection to hip hop. They see the “brush your shoulder,” the fist-bump and all these moments, and there’s a great deal of excitement about those symbolic points of continuity. I see that. But if he’s hip hop, how do we account for this sense of systemic belonging that he represents? …There’s really no rhetorical continuity between Obama’s political vision as an elected official in the system, in the highest office, and the cultural politics of marginality, outsider status, and a kind of perpetual speaking-truth-to-power type of politics. There’s no parallel.

Patricia Rose in conversation with Chris Lydon, March 24, 2009 at the Watson Institute.

Braunze, the embodiment of call-in radio wisdom, on the line from Birmingham, goes a step further.

I think that hip hop is the antithesis of Obama. What it has turned into is the antithesis of all the values and progressive understandings that black culture has had since we landed here 4 or 5 hundred years ago… It’s a “faux African-American” culture. This correlation, this conflation of hip hop culture with Barack Obama is all wrong. Barack Obama is just a brotha! I think all of us hope that the Obama Effect eclipses hip hop… The corporate conception of hip hop, when adopted by African-American youth, is an opportunity death sentence. These are my relatives and friends I’m speaking about. The aesthetic, or anti-aesthetic, of hip hop is such that the opportunity they’d like to have is fated to be impossible.

Technologist and singer “Braunze” in conversation with Chris Lydon and Tricia Rose, March 24, 2009.

Podcast • March 18, 2009

Obama & Hip Hop: The Transracial Drumbeat

Adam Bradley is talking about the President of Flow — about how 30 years of hip-hop (“the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world”) laid down the rhyme-and-rhythm track for the Age ...

Adam Bradley is talking about the President of Flow — about how 30 years of hip-hop (“the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world”) laid down the rhyme-and-rhythm track for the Age of Obama. Add this to the open-source mix of Obama ingredients, along with the “black prophetic tradition” of church and civil-rights history:

Part of it is that sense of swagger… the confidence with which Barack Obama carries himself and the fluency he brings, across racial lines… You listen to Barack Obama’s speeches from 2004, and you hear consistently the drumbeat of the common good, a broader understanding of race.

So that dogged trans-racialism — I am not going to say that he is post-racial, because he is very much someone who takes us deeper into race, rather than away from it — defies some of the binary ideas of Black and White that a lot of black political figures over the last several generations have used to consolidate power. That is his “threat,” and maybe also a place we can see him picking up on hip-hop, a movement that has on it a clear association with black identity, but from its birth, was multi-racial, was about community across racial lines: Latinos, White hipsters of lower Manhattan coming together with hip-hoppers to create this new form.

There is a new American reality out there. We’re only starting to catch up with hip-hop in that regard. We are just catching up to where hip-hop has already been. Barack Obama manifests that.

Jay-Z has a line on that song, “My President is Black,” in which he says, “My president is black/ in fact he’s half white/ So even in a racist’s mind he’s half right/ So even if you got a racist mind its alright/ My president is black but his house is all white.” There is so much joy in that, and so much behind the correction that Jay-Z is giving to Young Jeezy’s line of “my president is black.” Adding that half-white element is so fundamental to understanding how Obama works.

A lot of people, Shelby Steele in particular, have thought about Obama as a kind of bargainer — a Bill Cosby, or better yet, a Heathcliff Huxtable for American politics in the twenty-first century: someone who is identifiably black and yet curries favor with whites, or at least makes them comfortable and unburdens them of some of their sense of guilt… I think that this misses some of what Obama does and what Obama can do in part because of his biraciality. There is a way that he has the capacity to bridge the divide, not in an artificial way of placation, but as a genuine embodiment of himself. Because he has already had to do that in his own life, his own personality.

Ralph Ellison has that phrase, “the completion of personality.” What we have seen, and we are able to witness it in [Obama’s] memoir, Dreams From My Father, in particular, is a child of mixed racial origins and a lot of mixed connections with the Black and African sides of his origin, nonetheless finding his way, stumbling his way, toward a sense of wholeness. And maybe, just maybe, he can help this country do the same thing.

Adam Bradley in conversation with Chris Lydon, March 11, 2009

Adam Bradley makes a polished case for the rough diamonds of rap and hip hop. It’s “new-school music but old-school poetry,” he says, solidly founded not only on African oral tradition, black “signifying” and word-play artists like Muhammad Ali (“the first heavyweight champion of rap”) but also on the ancient sounds of strong-stress English poetry back to Beowulf.

Bradley was raised both classical and hip: home-schooled in Salt Lake City by a grandmother who fed him Shelley and the Romantic poets; and night-schooled by a big brother who led him through town. In his Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, you can feel Bradley’s valiant drive to justify the sound of rap to two exacting influences: the queen mother of “close reading” who taught him at Harvard, Helen Vendler; and the fussiest of all authorities on jazz, Ralph Ellison, whose posthumous novel Three Days Before the Shooting Adam Bradley had a large hand in re-editing. Bradley wants to show the rest of us how to hear hip hop as, love it or not, the poetry that speaks for and about the real universal civilization of the 21st Century…

My big question is still: what’s the chance that hip hop will return to us someday as art of genius, with the majesty of Count Basie in Sweden in 1962? Or this recent rearrangement by a string quartet in Paris of Miles Davis’s “All Blues” from 1959?