Friday, March 23, 2012

Hip-hop and the Neoliberal Turn

Lester Spence
  Johns Hopkins University

  The January/February 2012 Boston Review featured a provocative set of essays on the future of black politics. The essays echo yet provide much more heft than a somewhat similar forum the Boston Review held in 1992. They address a number of key issues, from the growing divide between the black poor and middle classes, the seeming unwillingness of government to tackle the issue of income inequality and of racial inequality, the lack of a critical black progressive infrastructure to tackle these issues. Below I unpack one of these ideas—the growing neoliberalization of black politics.
Hip-hop is in many ways a response to the neoliberal turn in cities, to manufacturing and safety-net disinvestment on the one hand, and to punitive and financial capital investment on the other hand. Just as we can loosely categorize old negro spirituals as work songs replete with call and response techniques that enhance and buffer field labor, we can loosely categorize rap as post-industrial work songs.
West’s track above works on a few different levels. One of the reasons I appreciate both Kanye and JayZ’s work is because they really drive home hip-hop’s anthemic elements. By remixing Shirley Bassey’s Diamonds Are Forever (the themesong for the 1971 James Bond film of the same name) the record deftly blends hard beats and basslines with the soft ethereal elements of Bassey’s voice and the ornate instrumentation of the original. It also binds a trenchant black Atlantic critique of the diamond industry, with a fierce love of Roc-A-Fella (Kanye West and Jay-Z’s first record label—symbolized by diamonds). But Jay-Z’s cameo at about the 2:25 mark strikes me. Comparing his ability to sell cocaine to his ability to sell records, JayZ notes “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business man, let me handle my business, damn.”
Neoliberalism—the dismantling of the state, privileging of markets over all other institutions, and relentless catering to corporate interests—has reshaped the economic and political terrain, sharpened class cleavages, and pitted disadvantaged groups against each other, presenting new challenges for any emergent black movement. 
Neoliberalism doesn’t quite represent the dismantling of the state. Indeed the state’s punitive power has grown, not diminished. Neoliberalism requires a powerful state to rollback the social safety net and to rollout neoliberal policies. Furthermore it requires a state with broad ranging surveillance and punitive powers to separate those unable to work within the neoliberal framework from those able to do so. The now 15 year old welfare reform bill signed by Bill Clinton replaced lifelong welfare benefits with temporary ones that required an intensely invasive bureaucracy
Case workers under the new bill were tasked to track not only whether the single mothers were looking for jobs and how they looked for them, but in some cases they were tasked with drug testing recipients and forcing them to identify the biological fathers of their children. And one need only travel the streets of Time Square to note a signal growth in both the police presence and in the arms police use to carry out their jobs. Finally we can track the increasing incarceration of American citizens, and African American citizens in particular.
Jay-Z quote above signals his willing acceptance of the neoliberal turn, a turn that forces people to take more and more responsibility for their own care and personal development under the guise of entrepreneurialism. The focus on the hustle and the hustler within rap, the focus on the grind, are all fundamental components of the neoliberal turn, as these themes push people to become more and more “productive” with their time even as they are rewarded less and less (and being punished them more and more). Rap magnates like JayZ see themselves as new jack entrepreneurs using their productivity and their entrepreneurial capital to develop black business and black communities. 
Above we see a clip of Creflo Dollar, head pastor of Creflo Dollar Ministries and founder of World Changers Church International. From a church with less than ten members, Pastor Dollar has grown his church to a congregation of over 30,000 members with annual revenues of over $60 million/year. According to the Wikipedia entry Dollar himself has a private jet, two Rolls-Royces, and expensive homes in Atlanta and in New York City. The sermon is a powerful example of the prosperity gospel—the fastest growing gospel in America, the fastest growing gospel in African America. Believing in God, truly believing in God will not only bring spiritual prosperity according to Dollar, but will bring material prosperity. Concomitantly not believing in God will block your blessings and will reduce your ability to prosper materially. Poverty along these lines is the result of a spiritual deficit rather than a material deficit. 
Finally, above we have a clip of Dave Bing, current mayor of the City of Detroit.  Bing makes the claim that fiscal mismanagement has caused Detroit’s economic crisis. Just as labor and automotive executives came together to stave off the collapse of the auto industry (incidentally by eviscerating worker benefits and past labor agreements), citizens have to sacrifice in order to stave off a state takeover. In 2011 the Michigan legislature passed Public Act 4 of 2011. The innocuous sounding act allows the state to appoint a financial emergency manager when a local government unit (a city, a township, a school system) experiences financial crisis. An online faq detailing the content of the Act provides an answer to the most important question—what happens when as the result of crisis a local government unit is placed in receivership?
…beginning then and throughout the receivership, the governing body and chief administrative officer of the unit of local government may not exercise any of the powers of those offices except as may specifically [be] authorized in writing by the Emergency Manager. In addition, the governing body and chief administrative officer are subject to any conditions required by the Emergency Manager. [Italics mine]
We already think of Detroit as a third world country on American soil—the best commercial of the 2011 Superbowl had the tagline “imported from Detroit”. Long before both major political parties urged deficit reduction policies, cities like Detroit were forced by state governments and bond rating agencies to reign in social spending. But in the wake of today’s crisis they are now being asked to do more than that—as a result of the financial crisis Detroit has been forced to make are cuts in both the police and fire department.
The black political imagination has been shaped by black popular culture, and by calls to faith by progressive black church leaders. And as blacks have increasingly become majority populations in American cities, it has been shaped by black elected officials (particularly by black mayors). This political imagination has for all intents and purposes been neoliberalized. Black populations internally divide themselves into two populations—black populations that have the potential to be responsible for themselves and for the race, and black populations that are irresponsible at best and are dangers to the race at worst. In dealing with this new increasingly multicultural political era, the first thing black activists need to take account of are the forces within black communities that make it increasingly difficult to articulate much less fight for progressive political visions. 

Lester Spence's book, Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics is available from the University of Minnesota Press. Lester Blogs @ and you can follow him twitter@lesterspence


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