Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Hip Hop’s Conversation about Consciousness

April 18th, 2011

Dialogue: Identities and Bullying
western Massachusetts

shielding ourselves from the light?

shielding ourselves from the light?

This screenshot of a future technological wasteland is from Katy Perry’s music video, E.T., featuring Kanye West. A brief scene near the end includes two museum-style placards denoting a problematic relation between homo sapiens and other species sharing Earth. In 2011, what lenses are we using to block knowledge of extinctions coming within mere decades?

A complicated, evolutionary relationship unfolds over the course of Katy Perry’s song.  Listening past the dominating lyrics, fluctuations of volume mark incursions of alternate reality, loud bursts punctuating the sensual quality of the steady soft tones. The softer sounds persist, providing solid ground for the ethereal. It’s as if there’s a conversation within the music between the physical and the spiritual.

“What if we learn bad things?”

In the class I’m teaching on Media and Culture, several students recently attended DayGlow’s Escape Reality Tour. Some of them enjoyed themselves so much they are practically desperate to repeat the experience. I have to admit, it sounds incredible, a kind of collective audience culture that I know about by reference not personal experience. This generation’s style of celebrating the body with dance-and-party is in high form at remix concerts by performers like Girl Talk – who, I’m just sortof starting to wonder – may have taken the musical form originated by rappers & hip hop artists and are now pushing that envelope in their own directions.

I’m not a musicologist, so don’t take my unresearched hypothesis as fact. What really strikes me is a difference in tone and intent (technically, what linguistic anthropologists call “indexicality“) between white-skinned remixers and many of their brown-skinned inspirations. Again, my exposure is limited, but sample this youtube video taken during the DayGlow show at UMass which captures lead performer “STARKILLERS” emblazoned across the monster projection screen, and a pounding lyric repeats “SATISFACTION”  several times.

What’s going on? I juxtapose these (predominately white) college student’s talk about DayGlow with their selection of hip hop songs as soundtracks for individual midterm video projects. Ten of twenty-one, nearly 50%, of the songs selected come from the genre of hip hop. What themes (if any) are present within this music? Is there a coherent conversation, or do the lyrics and sounds represent essentially random and disconnected topics? Kenny Alfonso responds to an earlier blogentry, Hip Hop plays with structure, explaining:

Kanye, as well as many other artists, have been trying for years to portray their struggles to the world, and make it evident that just because someone is successful in the music industry, television industry, etc., doesn’t mean that they live the perfect life. While reading deeper into the lyrics of my favorite hip hop artists, I gained more respect for all of them, and realize that their lives might not be as eas[y] as everyone might think.

Kenny signals a painful fact: the ability to escape reality is a privilege.

Everyone needs entertainment

This past weekend, I attended a Gala Fundraiser in memory of a wannabe Morehouse Man who took his life two years ago in the nearby urban setting of Springfield. There were 350 people in attendance, including me and Tiffany.

excerpt from an essay by Tiffany Griffin

excerpt from an essay by Tiffany Griffin

She knew at least a dozen people there but kept me company throughout the evening, despite my nosiness about her texting (Hi Ashley!) and Facebook activities :-)   Come on – I had to know if she was carrying an extra battery pack so she could stay plugged in!  She met another young person at our table; I returned from getting dessert to see them communicating nonverbally. “Are you showing her your rings?” I asked. “Something like that,” she replied.  Uh huh. Not for me to know!

Anti-bullying applies to everyone

I learned of Carl Joseph’s suicide because I was facilitating a dialogue about identity and bullying at Renaissance High School on the second anniversary of his death. Tiffany is one of several dozen students from six high schools preparing to meet each other at South Hadley High School on April 30. Students from the different schools have expressed a mix of trepidation and excitement about getting past the stereotypes they hold about each other. Can these youth find reasons to bond with each other despite the stereotypes, rather than staying within comfort zones of familiar identification with people they already know or identify with as ‘the same as me’?

Six $500 and seven $1000 college scholarships were given to the winners of an essay contest about the effects of bullying in their lives. In presenting the awards, Regina Jeames read a sentence from each student’s essay. First-place winner Peter Nassar writes that we need to “end the savagery.” “Bullying can follow you home,” warns Jason Dinnall. Quinn Hegarty emphasizes “dissolving isolation” while Benjamin Gelinas laments “wasted potential.” Kabrillen Jones admonishes: “Look into the eyes of our children.” The core challenge is articulated by Stephanie Collins: “It takes one person to stand up and say, ‘That’s not right.’”

What’s this got to do with Hip Hop?

Dancing – to hip hop – capped the official ceremonies at Carl’s Gala. Hip Hop is what young people are listening to – all kinds of youth, from diverse backgrounds and various motivations. The intensity of living out loud and taking things on as they come was in high evidence throughout the Gala. Nikki Minaj’s Go Hard music video ft Lil Wayne captures the sentiment (warning: potentially offensive lyrics):

“Yo SB I think its my time.

You know why?

My tears have dried and I know that

no weapon formed against me will prosper. And I

truly believe that my haters are my motivators…”

Sirdeaner Walker, Carl’s mother, is a fount of inspiration and goodwill. Her activism and compassion are evident in a series of interviews with 22News. Gwynnetta Sneed received overflowing praise for her vision and follow-through in creating the Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover Foundation and making the Gala happen. We got to witness her character in action, public misbehavior inviting public rebuke.  Members of my community also made me feel proud. I had been wondering about their involvement, not sure of the details of Carl’s story.

“It is considered a given in group and organizational life that issues are taken up by whatever group is most affected by them; however, often that group is then accused of taking up only these issues for reasons of self-interest rather than for the benefit of the whole” (Connolly and Noumair, p. 328 in Off White).

Near the end of the event, one of Sirdeaner Walker’s co-workers approached and thanked me, assuming I was a member of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. (I look the type, wink!) Her approach allowed me the chance to ask about GLSEN’s presence.

It turns out that GLSEN offered help . . . and their help was welcomed! This embodies the sentiment expressed by Susan Skaza in her essay about how to stop bullying by “simply being a good example.” Here are two communities – stereotypically riven by homophobia, heterosexism, and racism – joining together in a common cause to end bullying of everyone’s children, for any reason.

I  thought it was especially impressive when the Christian minister, Reverend Peter Sylver, said he didn’t know what God thinks about what people do when they go to sleep, but he knows what God expects of us during the day: radical love.

Radical Love

The Chinese fortune reads, "Opportunities multiply as they are seized, they die when neglected."

The Chinese fortune reads, "Opportunities multiply as they are seized, they die when neglected."

Whatever one’s spiritual beliefs, including agnostics and atheists, the savagery of bullying is only going to end when members of groups reach out, radically, across differences to forge new bonds on the basis of shared experiences or common values. Bullying is children’s version of grown-up violence. As long as adults continue to justify and promote brutal competition over planetary resources, children will act out what they see modeled. Radical love means embracing the foreign, accepting the alien.

This brings us back to Hip Hop. Katy Perry is pop, but for some reason Kanye decided she must have something to say to Hip Hop, otherwise he would not have contributed ‘bookends’ to her video. The layers of that conversation can be interpreted in many different ways. For me, what matters is the moment when conversation – the trading of verses – turns to dialogue.

Dialogue is the special form of communication in which participants are open enough to allow themselves to be changed by interacting with the foreign and alien other. Change of this kind is the ultimate evidence of radical love.

Leave a Comment

Categories: Hip Hop, Series

Leave a Reply