Buddha Between Beats: Hip-Hop Through A Dharma Lens
After reading some of the commentary on the White Buddhist Talk article here on TWM, it occurred to me our crew here might benefit from a bit of context on the whole Hip Hop question.
Hip Hop is at the moment the medium through which global culture (if such a thing exists) is primarily mediated, through participation, imitation, analysis, critique, condemnation, monitoring, etc. Most of us who’ve attended a rally recently probably didn’t have to wait long before there was a Hip Hop-inflected reference, chant, poem or performance. Hip Hop seems at times to be a proxy – and not without a certain degree of justification – for “urban underclass”… and often specifically “young and black.” Considering the historical centrality of young African Americans to the nation’s most transformative social change movements, it’s essential to understand Hip Hop, particularly for those of us working to end oppression, regardless of one’s musical tastes.
Only for the sake of establishing my bona fides (wink-nudge), I was rapper, keyboardist and musical arranger in 1995 for a group called Exile Society/Triple XXX. At that time we were one of only three touring acts that combined rap and live music, along with The Roots and Canadian duo The Dream Warriors.
The following observations should be seen in the spirit of the eighty four thousand dharmas and not an absolutist theory of knowledge; it’s only one of many possible takes on the subject.
No material phenomena should be considered absent its historical antecedents and context. Trying to understand entire classes of people through statistics is like attempting to grok American politics by obsessing over the 2012 presidential election (ignoring Eugene Debs, the Southern Strategy, etc.). Hip Hop is the most consequential recent cultural salvo in a long-running existential dialectic between two suffering human communities: an American sociopolitical and economic ruling class sustained by subjugation and oppression (and thus guilty, fearful), and the descendants of those whose expropriated labor is largely responsible for that nation’s existence and success.
American chattel slavery standardized the Three Poisons or kleshas: ignorance (of our common human destiny), attachment (to money and power gained through the trade), and aversion (to black bodies). In spite of significant economic, social, political and cultural gains, and this poorly publicized apology for slavery and Jim Crow, the black community has never collectively addressed the pernicious psychological trauma we’ve endured. Moreover, the conditions that systematically disadvantage Black Americans persist in modern forms. Combined, these perpetuate social and economic inequities.
They unquestionably existed (and continue to exist) in the South Bronx, a spectacularly blighted borough of New York City… especially in the mid-1970s when Gerald Ford denied federal assistance to the municipality to avoid bankruptcy. Controversially depicted in the 1981 film Fort Apache, The Bronx, the dangerous, dilapidated neighborhood is both damning commentary on the US caste system and powerful symbol for human endurance and our capacity to transmute suffering.
As highlighted in the informative documentary, What Ever Happened to Hip Hop, mid-1970s New York realities of social abandonment, gang activity and Black Nationalism fertilized the rubble from which Hip Hop would eventually spring. These realities were personified in a single reformed gang member by the name of Afrika Bambaataa (pictured in the feature photo above). Bambaataa was an influential warlord in the vast and powerful New York City gang The Black Spades until winning an essay contest that took him to Africa where his consciousness was raised and he was ordained a Zulu chief. Upon returning to America he began following the lead of a visionary local Jamaican DJ named Kool Herc, who was spinning together disco and funk record “breakbeats” on two turntables to build extended mixes which could be rapped or danced to indefinitely. Bambaataa vowed, through music, to turn the perpetrators of violence in the community toward more positive and productive ends.
His Bronx River Organization eventually expanded into the Universal Zulu Nation, the par excellence assembly continuing to embody and promote the highest aspects of Hip Hop to this day. These aspects, dubbed the Four Core Elements: DJing, emceeing, b-boying (breaking) and graffiti art, are the bedrock of the culture. With literally nothing but imagination, creativity and rhythm, the Zulu Nation and other dope-and-def denizens of the South Bronx parlayed ghetto dysfunction into a movement with truly international currency and broad sociopolitical implications. Bambaataa’s further elaboration of Four Principles underlying Hip Hop: peace, love, unity and having fun, may have initiated a tradition of numbered lists Siddhartha himself would have smiled upon. Later, the Four Principles would be amended by the addition of beatboxing (percussive sounds made with the mouth), fashion, language, knowledge and entrepreneurism at the instigation of perennial battle-rap titan and Hip Hop philosopher/metaphysician KRS One (a major influence on my early rap utterances).
KRS also said that “rap” is something you do; “hip hop” is something you live. And this gets to a crucial point in understanding the culture: the difference between rap and hip hop. The reflexive conflation of rapping, which is something anyone can do without regard for the aforementioned principles, and hip hop, principles intact, causes some to misperceive what the culture really stands for. From a Buddhist perspective it’s possible to draw a rough (hardly complete) analogy with absolute and relative truth: hip hop, as the umbrella phenomenon, is kind of like absolute truth, a totality; rap, as a standalone activity not necessarily associated with the whole, could be thought of as relative, relational.
This distinction made, it becomes easier to understand how subsequent generations of rappers pioneered innovations that caused fractures within the broader culture. So for example when Run DMC scored a 1986 monster hit by remaking Aerosmith’s classic rock hit Walk This Way with assistance from that band’s frontman and guitarist, Steve Tyler and Joe Perry, they took rap’s commercial potential into the stratosphere by helping to define the lucrative subgenre Rap-rock. This development was hardly welcomed by the entirety of the hip hop community. Even more controversial was the rise of Gangsta rap, which focused almost entirely on ghetto pathology and was codified as a distinct genre by NWA’s fateful 1988 debut album Straight Outta Compton.
Another grim milestone, a case study in the profound suffering plaguing rap music and hip hop generally, was a preventable east coast/west coast beef culminating in the deaths of two popular, talented artists. Until he was shot at a New York City studio in 1994, LA/Bay Area rapper Tupac Shakur had been an occasional collaborator with Brooklyn emcee Notorious BIG (aka Biggie Smalls). But after Tupac accused Biggie’s camp of arranging the hit, a cycle of posturing, slandering and threatening ensued. The situation quickly became a vortex of gang activity, scandalized, ravenous media, instigating cliques and fans, and duplicitous law enforcement. Ultimately both rappers were murdered under bizarre unsolved circumstances that haunt the hip hop community even now.
Contemporary Buddhism’s diversity arises out of a historical process of adapting certain originative beliefs to current circumstances over time. Similarly, to arrive at right thinking about present-day Hip Hop, one has to realize that it is a perfectly logical outcome of America’s peccatum originale, the Peculiar Institution. When the Founding Fathers decided to draw a strict line between classes of “men” that were freeborn and equal and enslaved and unequal, they created a paradigm in which the Negro was forced to transact the totality of her/his existence through sheer physicality. Having reduced Africans to units of economic production, mere objects, white males ensured that their darker-hued brethren would thenceforth be required to negotiate their human value chiefly through whatever the black body was capable of. Until the Civil War, that usually meant slave labor and reproduction. From Reconstruction to the modern period it meant sharecropping and convict-leasing. And while tireless sociopolitical and economic agitation has exponentially widened the field of possibility for the manifestation of African American humanity, black people, and men particularly, remain to an extent in thrall to a mindset that the body, and what can be done with it, is the decisive factor.
Introduce an American model of masculinity which has been, from the beginning, inextricably bound with violent, competitive, firearm-aided acquisitiveness, and today’s commercial rap music is explicated. Exploitation of the black body by various classes of men persists to the present moment, though altered in the sense that exploitation is now willfully entered. After NWA’s Straight Outta Compton bombshell, hordes of aspiring thug superstars crowded into studios, clubs and music conferences clamoring for an opportunity to market one or another brand of ghetto pathology to a largely white, suburban fan base. And so stereotypes and caricatures once used to justify slavery and Jim Crow repression – the Negro male as brutish and sexually uncontrollable — now form the framework for a contemporary understanding of Gangsta and other forms of violence-laced rap. Having internalized both black inferiority/primitivism and violent, individualistic, competitive American acquisitiveness, strutting, gesticulating thugs proliferate. Lifestyles portrayed are imminently bankable and serve to enrich a small few while spellbinding masses of urban youth to perceive such caricatures as normal. These individuals inevitably face consequences from the State as deviant styles and attitudes are tried on — and the ultimate victor is a burgeoning prison industrial complex.
These models of internalized inferiority and acquisitiveness are equally impactful upon black women, who in some ways fare even worse. Proper consideration of the predicament of African American females in these mangled matrices warrants another essay entirely; for example, the rise of the ‘twerking’ phenomenon constitutes potentially exploitative relationships to the black female body.
And yet ironically, these also factor into why rap is so culturally potent. In spite of it all, the music remains an expression of Hip Hop culture’s capacity to metabolize suffering… and at its best, to draw meaning and beauty out of disorder and decay. That remains potentially revolutionary. And funky.
Bezi is a Hip Hop recording artist, multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter, producer/composer, former member of “the Subterraneanz” rap group/band, documentarian, urban philosopher, strategist, activist, aspiring author and launcher of a dharma-influenced political third party.