Politics & Policy

The Art of Identity

The voice of the streets, and something more.

Ralph Ellison always remembered the black jazzmen of his native Oklahoma City fondly: “Life could be harsh, loud and wrong if it wished, but they lived it fully, and when they expressed their attitude toward the world it was with a fluid style that reduced the chaos of living to form.” This is a beautiful definition of jazz, and a brilliant one of art in general — for what more could we ask of art than to render human experience, even at its worst, an understandable and even palatable thing? American blacks have long made music of their suffering, and blues and jazz once gave prime voice to a part of black experience in America. As the years have passed, the timbre of that voice has changed, and so has the experience being articulated. We are now in the age of hip-hop, a culture born in the Bronx and bred of the calamities of ghetto life.

Jeff Chang, a writer on American culture and politics, has just put out his second volume on hip-hop. In Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop, he examines hip-hop in all its manifestations — as music, as dance, as graffiti, as photography, as film; hip-hop ad absurdum. The book, edited by Chang, is a mixed bag of essays, interviews, poems, raps, and photographs. Chang’s title is apt, for the definitions of hip-hop his volume offers are just as desultory and chaotic as the aesthetic it champions.

The book begins on an especially contrived note, with this hip-hop apologia from Chang: “Heir to the Black Arts and the postmodernist and multiculturalist movements, head high amid all of the terms batted about to try to frame the imperatives and urgencies of Now — such as post-Blackness, polyculturalism, globalism, and transnationalism — hip-hop is where flux, identity, revolution, and the masses mix, and keep on expanding.” It is not easy to make sense of this, and Chang’s attempt to mold hip-hop into a postmodern intellectual movement is utterly ineffective. This particular effort is revived at times by the contributors, notably in a roundtable on Homohop (gay contributions to hip-hop), but these moments are thankfully few.

One idea put forward repeatedly is that hip-hop is a form of protest. For Sanford Biggers, a sculptor and artist, hip-hop is “a rebel culture, and in that respect it [is] very much like rock, bebop, jazz, which went against the grain at the time.” Hip-hop is rebellious not only in artistic terms, but in political ones as well. In a discussion of “Identity and Aesthetics after Multiculturalism,” moderator Greg Tate suggests that hip-hop is naturally inclined toward politics: “Because of where hip-hop came from in the social base, it already suggested a political opposition and a political possibility for the creativity for the people at the margins of society, socially, economically — people at the margins in terms of power.”

Tate sees the artistic voice of a downtrodden people as being necessarily political in nature, but this may not be true. Similar claims have been made for blues and jazz, but Ralph Ellison, responding to LeRoi Jones’s book, Blues People, objected:

It is unfortunate that Jones thought it necessary to ignore the aesthetic nature of the blues in order to make his ideological point, for he might have come much closer had he considered the blues not as politics but as art. . . . For the blues are not primarily concerned with civil rights or obvious political protest; they are an art form and thus a transcendence of those conditions created within the Negro community by the denial of social justice.

Just as LeRoi Jones (soon to become Amiri Baraka) wished to foist politics and ideology onto the blues, so too do the contributors to this roundtable ostensibly devoted to aesthetics seek to politicize hip-hop. The discussion soon devolves into a paranoid fit and fantasy, ignoring the issue of art.

Ellison’s principle is correct here too, for the hip-hop forms are not political at root — they constitute instead a kind of black folk art rather than a means of political protest. To explain this assertion, we must turn to the only true unifying theme in Total Chaos, which runs as an undercurrent throughout Chang’s book: the question of black identity.

There is a notable passage in a roundtable discussion on hip-hop design. The graphic designer Cey Adams enunciates a theme that the book has been quietly (and unwittingly) moving toward. “One of the things I immediately thought about when I started to approach the idea of graphic design was that I am hip-hop, so I don’t need to always have to show it on paper. . . . It’s in me, and it’s in the artist” (emphasis in the original). Hip-hop, according to Adams, is an outgrowth of identity. The artist embodies the form — “I am hip-hop” — and the art is not so much a conscious intellectual effort as it is a medium for the expression of life on the black street. All the forms of art discussed in the book are means of articulating what it is to be young and black through song and dance, film and aerosol.

In this reading, it would be a folk art if it is any art at all. When it is political, where it is destructive (in the case of some graffiti), it is the voice of an embittered people; where it is more purely art created as art (as a novel or a mural), it is a celebration of and by that people. Ellison saw this clearly: The blues are “an art form and thus a transcendence” of the hardships of life. Hip-hop does not need the appellation of postmodern to be listened to, appreciated, and heeded.

What is the book missing, then? It lacks an honest account of the role of identity in the hip-hop aesthetic, which must be gleaned from under the surface. The chapters on hip-hop photography and film, most notably, fail to touch on a unifying hip-hop aesthetic beyond their particular subject matter; for these artists, their work is hip-hop if it simply records black artists and musicians. Again, identity is at the root of their definition, eclipsing questions of technique and even style.

But there is an aesthetic to hip-hop, just as there is an aesthetic to white Punk: It is a question of style, of comportment, and of attitude. This is not an art in the narrow sense, but a mode of living. We might call it the art of living — the reflection of life in the ghetto, the acceptance or rejection of that life, all given voice by the impulse to distinguish oneself from the madding crowd. Punk is a different animal, as it is not so much inborn as adopted. Hip-hop, too, can be adopted — by blacks or whites or gay Filipinos (per the testimony of one chapter in the book) — but at its roots it is the style of the black city.

Eisa Davis, writing on hip-hop theater, offers a helpful distinction: “The hip-hop stance is not a lifestyle, it’s a thinking style . . .” What Davis is implying is that imitation is meaningless — to dress and speak and act the lifestyle is insufficient. Hip-hop is not a style to adopt but an identity and consciousness that is formed from the earliest age. It is no coincidence that Davis provides her bona fides at the very start of her contribution, calling hip-hop her “after-school program” — that is, a presence and force in her earliest childhood, a part of her upbringing, indistinguishable from her personal identity.

And for some, this notion of blackness suffices. Danyel Smith, a novelist and editor-in-chief of VIBE, wants to see more black literature in bookstores. “all of it. Black literary fiction, street lit, Black fantasy and science fiction . . . I want some good Black crossword puzzle books. I want the whole universe of Blackness, and I want the whole universe.” Now certainly this is hyperbole, but Smith’s obsession with blackness is key. For her, literary hip-hop means books written by black authors for a black audience. She likes Lit Hop merely because it is an expression of blackness, not because it is an art unto itself. Even crossword puzzles should be black, should be different, should be in line with some notion of black identity and expression.

The novelist Adam Mansbach addresses these identity issues from a different perspective, in a footnote in his chapter on Lit Hop:

On paper, I’m . . . a white Jewish novelist with an MFA from Columbia. I’ve never activated my membership in that club, though. Nor have I ever made a conscious decision not to: I’ve just always been a hip-hopper, and the sensibilities, artistically and politically, that followed from that have dictated my path since I was eleven, memorizing [the Boogie Down Productions album] Criminal Minded and beginning to understand the subjectivity of whiteness, as hip-hop was wont to make a white boy do back then.

Can hip-hop, the mindset of the ghetto, be learned? This is surely an important question for the editor, who, as his website explains, was “born of Chinese and Native Hawaiian ancestry and raised in Hawai’i.” Yet Chang founded a hip-hop label and has produced a good number of albums, and has found great success as a hip-hop writer. Mansbach, for his part, is author of the confusedly titled novel Angry Black White Boy, and has one (very bad) hip-hop album under his belt.

This throws into relief the process by which American mainstream culture has engulfed this one subculture. Hip-hop is no longer limited to black practitioners, just as jazz is neither an African nor a Western musical style — it is the sum of its parts, and is a fully American art form. Perhaps it’s easiest to say that at this point, you don’t have to be black to try your hand at hip-hop. But it wouldn’t hurt.

The very fact of Jeff Chang’s stewardship of this book suggests that hip-hop is not a blacks-only art. But the book is a confused mess, reluctant or unable to offer any clear view of hip-hop aesthetics, and is content simply to label the productions of blacks in the city as hip-hop art. Photographs of torn-up buildings, graffiti on the walls — any mode of expression can qualify. This is a book at war with itself, with its own theses, and though that may suit its title it is no more acceptable or illuminating for readers. Defeat is an orphan; this is a failure that has many fathers.

  Joseph Abrams is an associate editor at NR.

<em>Total Chaos</em>, by Jeff Chang


Joseph AbramsCandace de Russy is a nationally recognized expert on education and cultural issues. A former college professor with a doctorate in French from Tulane University, she was appointed to the ...


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