Impure Hip Hop Dissent

I was reading an essay by Tommie Shelby called “Impure Dissent: Hip Hop and the Political Ethics of Marginalized Black Urban Youth”. In it, Shelby argues that political rap, although it’s lyrics are sometimes misogynistic, homophobic, celebrate violence against cops, and valorize gunplay and street crime, still exhibit an important form of political dissent that should not be cast aside because of its “impurity”. He calls this political rap music “impure dissent”, and argues that it has some intrinsic value since it is not meant to elicit some sort of social change, or somehow change the status quo.

Among the many interesting ideas mentioned, Shelby says that beyond condemning an injustice, impure hip hop dissent has two further functions: “to publicly pledge loyalty to the oppressed, and to explicitly withhold loyalty from the state. {…} This dissent is the expression of solidarity with the oppressed against perceived injustice, not so much because those in power may change course as a result, but because the dissenters want to make clear whose side they are on.”

Another thing that struck me was that while the political speech in hip hop may make its way into the public sphere, it does not necessarily ask for a rational communicative exchange. How could it? When you’re singing about glorifying street crime, you’re not inviting other people to take part in a conversation about its merits. This one-sided dissent may strike other people as “morally impure” since dissenters are refusing to listen much less reply to criticism. “These dissenters … may seem to be lacking in [the] appropriate civic spirit of reciprocity.” Shelby offers another possibility. Dissenters may hold the opinion that critics are arguing in bad faith, and that their unsympathetic attitudes towards their plight is an indication that a meaningful dialog is just not possible.

This reminded me of some of the insensitive responses to the Ferguson protests, in particular the hashtag #PantsUpDontLoot. Perhaps the tiny faction of individuals who were actually involved in the looting could be described as practicing “impure protesting”. They might not have been looking for dialog. Especially not from someone who would reduce the entirety of all racial injustices in the country to “pull up your pants.” Maybe they were looting because they were just really fucking angry.

Shelby’s essay comes from the book “From Voice To Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age”, which I highly recommend. It was a happy coincidence that I read this today since I was planning on going to the movies to watch “Straight Outta Compton.”

Movie watching inspired by this sign I saw while walking around Brooklyn today.

Movie watching inspired by this sign I saw while walking around Brooklyn today.

Also: When I thought about writing this I was thinking about how impure hip hop dissent might compare to narcocorridos. Several times I have heard narcocorridos compared to hip hop since they promote and glorify violence. And much like hip hop artists, many narcocorrido artists come from very humble backgrounds and have faced years of neglect and injustice from the state. However, the more I thought about it, the harder it was to make the case that narcocorridos can qualify as impure dissent. Mainly because, in my limited knowledge of narcolyrics, much of that music is not political at all. It mostly just celebrates narcoculture. It’s worth looking into, though. I might also have a very biased opinion since I come from a place that was very much affected by narco violence.

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply