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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.

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Comments (7)

  • Jeff

    Yeah! Love it, Bezi.

    I think it’s safe to say that the most creative and dynamic genres in Western music over the past 2 centuries followed in the wake of the Atlantic slave trade. Blues, jazz, soul, rock, Salsa, and hip hop all find their roots on the “dark continent.”

    Whenever they first break on the scene, these sounds are immediate and ALIVE – their raw vitality speaks for the young and disenfranchised despite the feeble but always-repeated remonstrance of cultural arbiters that “it’s not even music.” More dangerously, they are REBELLIOUS, saying a loud, proud “screw you” to mainstream sensibilities and challenging the quiet acceptability of racism and oppression.

    But of all the historic rollouts of new music in Amerikkka, I suspect hip hop has generated the most visceral repulsion (“Oh, I like all kinds of music except Rap, yuck!”) Some of us who grew up with the infectious but inoffensive rhythms of Motown were shocked and offended when N.W.A. sang “Fuck Tha Police” or Public Enemy talked about “Fight the Power.” (In response to those who despair at this kind of rage, watch “12 Years A Slave” or “Fruitvale Station” at your local Multiplex this month and see if you can’t begin to relate a little bit.)

    Despite the misogyny and political cooptation of its commercial forms, hip hop challenges us to confront the real conditions in communities of color, the implausibility of success or even security by following conventional educational and employment pathways, and the ever-present criminalization of the poor. And apropos of our recent discussion of violence in revolutionary struggle, it gives voice to the anger that has led to riots rather than peaceful civil disobedience when cumulative brutality becomes too much to bear silently any longer.

    Revolutions arise out of turbulent emotions and end-of-the-line desperation as well as from inspired utopian visions. For many Buddhists, hip hop can be a window to that world, a chance for us to recognize the view from below the wheels of power and to acknowledge the validity of different levels of struggle. Forget most of the shit on the radio, check out The Roots, Common, Talib Kweli, Ursula Rucker, Pete Rock, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Guru, the Pharcyde, DJ Spinna, and of course the Subterraneanz! Plus anybody Bezi recommends – what about it, bro?

  • bezi


    ha ha! Word. Knew at least you’d pipe up. Writing about this subject here at TWM so far seems to be drawing mostly crickets but I’m glad somebody is into it. For anyone else who decides they’re intrigued, the classics are always a good bet: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Rakim, Queen Latifah, Lyte, KRS of course, Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, X Clan…

    other artists would be Nas (though he’s inconsistent politically), Immortal Technique, K’Naan and Blitz the Ambassador (DOPE African cats), Dead Prez, Mr Lif and Masspyke (Boston homeboys like Guru), there are quite a few. This ought to get folks started tho’…

    uh huh… you would have no American culture (such as it is), no America at all, if it weren’t for the dark continent. This country has a somewhat arcane way of expressing its gratitude. As a dyed-in-the-wool (aging) b-boy, I’d get a guilty kick out of thinking rap generated the most visceral repulsion of all black music. But there were people – nice, respectable, civilized apparently – who vehemently felt the blues was absolutely “devil’s music”, jazz was “marihuana and cocaine-crazed negro jungle noise”, and “nigger-rock-bop” (LOL… what?) to corrupt the fine white youth of the fifties and early sixties.

    “Rock and Roll has Got to Go, and Go it Does…” *crash!* That was always comedy to me.

    I just returned to the library a book titled Black Sexual Politics, which is at least as important to race relations today as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome and The New Jim Crow. It’s by Patricia Hill Collins and it is SHARP, unflinching and unsparing. And she wrote some passages about Hip Hop which were very poignant and insightful. She made a great point (among many) – it was the closing of the doors of Civil Rights-era opportunity my generation and I were protesting and asserting our humanity in the face of. As Cube said: “hell on earth/was growing up in the Eighties…” Coming of age in Roxbury (basically Boston’s version of South Bronx at the time)… um, yeah. True enough. I wrote and saved a paragraph from the book which was one of the most nuanced about Hip Hop I’ve read ever, anywhere. I’ll post it if there’s any interest

  • Breeze Harper

    Brilliant and timely. Thank you so much.

    I am embarking on a new academic book project about hip hop and this came at the right moment.


  • bezi

    You bet. Huh – would love to hear more about that… and hope it will be a little more objective and context-based than other academic literature has been…

  • Breeze Harper

    Bezi, it’s a book about black men using hip hop philosophy for their vegan oriented health/food and social justice activism. I plan it to be a lovely book, positive, awesome, etc., looking at the phenomenal work of DJ Cavem, Stic.Man, Supa Nova Slom, and Bryant Terry. It won’t come out until the end of 2015.

  • Jeff

    Very intriguing, Breeze! Please give us BPF hip hop lovers a heads-up as the book comes out. Thanks.

  • bezi

    Noyce! Stic Man has said a few of the kinds of things I’d be saying if I cared enough to try and cold bum rush the music industry. Huh huh. No THANKS. He’s presenting a holistic platform with a lot of useful and important elements. Vegans have to be careful to get enough calcium! And iron.

    “Recognizing that their everyday lives resemble those of prison inmates often politicizes individuals (ain’t that the truth). Autobiographies by African Americans who were imprisoned because of their political beliefs, for example Angela Davis and Assata Shakur, or who became politicized during their imprisonment, for example Malcolm X or George Jackson, point to the significance of actual of actual incarceration as a catalyst for resistance. In the 1980s, many poor and working class African American youth who were locked up in urban ghettos and facing the closing door of opportunity refused to turn their rage upon one another. Instead, many chose to rap about the violence and intolerance around them and, in the process, created an influential hip hop culture that reached youth all over the world. Crafted in the South Bronx, an urban landscape that had been abandoned by virtually everyone, African American, Latino and Afro-Caribbean youth created rap, break dancing, tagging (graffiti), fashions, and other cultural creations. Ice Cube’s rap about his good day represents the tip of an immense hip hop iceberg. With few other public forums to share their outrage at a society that had so thoroughly written them off, Black youth used rap and Hip Hop to protest the closing door of opportunity in their lives and to claim their humanity in the face of the dehumanization of racial segregation and ghettoization. Without strategies of noncooperation … such as hip hop, Black people simply would not have survived.”

    um… yep. That’s Patricia Hill Collins, Black Sexual Politics. Anyone who’s been following my hip hop oriented posts here might detect some familiar thematic statements. When I read her I felt HELLA vindicated.

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