Marcuse, Hip Hop and Revolution
I shall examine the relationship between the later work of Herbert Marcuse — An Essay on Liberation (1969), Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972) — and Hip Hop music born out of the ghettos of New York in the 1970s. In particular, I will discuss how this genre of music from marginalized inhabitants of ghettos meets certain conditions that Marcuse posits as necessary for revolutionary action.
For Marcuse, this marginal group has the least to lose from overhauling the status quo, because their consciousness is already at odds with the hegemonic discourse. On that note, Marcuse argues that there is “a black literature . . . which may well be called revolutionary: it lends voice to a total rebellion which lends expression in the aesthetic form’’ (1972). For Marcuse, ‘black music’ — here he was talking in 1972 about blues and jazz, but his comments can be equally applied to Hip Hop — “is the cry and song of the slaves and the ghettos which, born in an exasperated tension, announces a violent rupture with the established white order.” In this way, he identifies black literature, music, argot and slang as a potentially revolutionary language of the ‘other,’ contra the all-encompassing and thus incestuous discourse of the establishment.
That said, I will also examine the problems of this reading in terms of how a great deal of contemporary Hip Hop betrays Marcuse’s conditions in that it emblematises a false consciousness at work, which has appropriated a hard-hitting reductionist version of reality (Fisher, 2011). In this vein, I will also critique the incumbent risk in Marcuse’s analysis of essentialising the marginalized which is indicative of reductive binary thinking (Newman, 2001).
In conclusion, whilst history has not necessarily vindicated Marcuse’s claims, it will be demonstrated that there is still something of them that can be salvaged by way of Hip Hop music and culture which will be demonstrated through drawing upon contemporary examples.
I will examine the relationship between Hip Hop and social revolution through the more upbeat later work of Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), including 1969’s An Essay on Liberation, and 1972’s Counterrevolution and Revolt. I shall begin with a brief introduction to Marcuse, and also to the genre known as Hip Hop, which will lead onto a discussion of how this style of music — which was popularized from the marginalized inhabitants of the South Bronx ghetto in the USA — meets certain conditions that Marcuse posits as necessary for revolutionary action. I will then look at some of the problems of this reading in terms of how Hip Hop betrays some of Marcuse’s conditions, as well as some more general problems with his theory of revolutionary art. I will argue that, whilst history has not necessarily vindicated Marcuse’s claims, there is still something of them that can certainly be salvaged, which is made evident through a contemporary Hip Hop example.
Like many Jewish intellectuals in Germany during the Third Reich, Marcuse fled his native land. He settled in Berkeley, California, and his radical brand of social philosophy led him to become appointed by students as the father of the ‘New Left’ during the 1960s-1970s US counter-culture. Quite notably, in relation to this paper, he served as the doctoral supervisor to Angela Davis — the social activist who was associated with both the Communist Party, as well as Black Panthers. Accordingly, Marcuse is important in this reading because of the great emphasis in his work on the power of the margins of society to effect revolutionary change. For Marcuse, such marginal sections have the least to lose from overhauling the status quo, because their consciousness is already at odds with the hegemonic discourse. People from these margins are thus necessarily able literally to see, feel and hear with a unique perspective. Significantly, Marcuse repeatedly places great emphasis on the revolutionary potential within black ghetto movements, as well as various women’s movements. Moreover, he explicitly asserts the power of art from such spectrums of society to effect real revolutionary rupture from within what he calls — alluding to Freud — ‘a repressive reality principle.’ That is, the demand of civilized society that individuals eschew gratification of their wants in favour of satisfying societal norms.
Ghetto Hip Hop
Angela Davis argues in Marcusian vein that
“art is a special form of social consciousness that can potentially awaken an urge in those affected by it to creatively transform their oppressive environment…[and that] Ultimately, it can propel people toward social emancipation.”
Marcuse builds on similar themes in his later works, most prominently in Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972). There he argues that there is “a black literature . . . which may well be called revolutionary: it lends voice to a total rebellion which finds expression in the aesthetic form.” The aesthetic form of what came to be known in the South Bronx ghetto of New York in 1973 as ‘Hip Hop’ was pioneered by African-American artists with monikers such as ‘Afrika Bambaataa,’ and the ‘Zulu Nation,’ thus demonstrating a clear pan-African consciousness. Afrika Bambaataa was in fact so named in allusion to a Zulu chief who led an armed rebellion against unfair economic practices in early 20th century South Africa. By extension, these pioneering artists also demonstrated an understanding of the Griot tradition of Western Africa from which modern Hip Hop developed. So, rhythmically rapping over the beat of a drum is something that had been happening for centuries in the caste based societies of Western Africa in particular, whereby the Griot would fulfill the role of a poet, musician, singer, political advisor, genealogist, and thus memorize elaborate fables and tales to deliver what we would now deem ‘rap’. Skipping across a continent and a few hundred years following the transatlantic slave trade, you have peoples of African origin in the West Indies, and the United States, rapping over beats. This is best exemplified by groups including the Golden Gate Quartet in the 1930’s, the Last Poets, the Watts Prophets, Amiri Baraka, and, of course, Gil-Scott Heron in the 1960’s and 70’s and onwards.
On that note, and on a slight aside, the creator of the superb TV show The Wire, David Simon, goes so far as to argue that the living tradition of African-American music, with its roots going back to the transatlantic slave trade, is the USA’s truly greatest cultural contribution. He’s talking here — echoing Marcuse — about blues, jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and of course rock-and-roll (remember Chuck Berry first, not Elvis). So Simon here brings to mind Congo Square in New Orleans (again, an explicit reference back to Africa and the transatlantic slave trade), the South Bronx in New York, and the marriage of the West African pentatonic scale and rhythm with European arrangement and instrumentation.
In terms of the beats, in the early 1970’s in the South Bronx, pioneering Hip Hop DJ Kool Herc began to isolate and loop the instrumental part of hard funk records, the sort typified by James Brown, in order to emphasize the break. He would then switch from one break to another using the same two turntable set-up of disco DJs, and use two copies of the same record to elongate the said break. This form of breakbeat DJing, accompanied by lyrically syncopated rhyme structures, i.e. rapping, was undertaken alongside dancers, who became known as break boys and break girls, or more simply b-boys and b-girls.
The noun ‘Hip Hop,’ in the argot of the ghetto in which it was created, refers to ‘intelligent (Hip) movement (Hop).’ For Marcuse, ‘black music’ — here he was talking in 1972 about blues and jazz, but his comments can be equally applied to Hip Hop —
“is the cry and song of the slaves and the ghettos which, born in an exasperated tension, announces a violent rupture with the established white order.”
In this vein, then, Marcuse asserts that:
“In this music, the very lives and deaths of black men and women are lived again: the music is body; the aesthetic form is the ‘gesture’ of pain, sorrow, indictment. However, with the takeover by the whites, a significant change occurs: white ‘rock’ is what its black paradigm is not, namely, performance. It is as if the crying and shouting, the jumping and playing, now takes place in an artificial, organized space; that they are directed toward a (sympathetic) audience”.
By way of elucidating the distinction between authentic ‘gesture’ and ‘performance,’ Marcuse is keen to stress the problematic dilution of a potentially revolutionary aesthetic form once the Rolling Stones, for example, cover Muddy Waters or Otis Redding; thus transmuting pain into performance by way of unabashed plagiarism (and apologies for offending anybody’s aesthetic sensibilities, but surely anyone that’s seen Mick Jagger perform Muddy Waters’ ‘Mannish Boy’ cannot be anything but dismayed at just how lame the pupil is compared with the master!).
The problem with this transmution for Marcuse is that the carnivalesque performance — in the tradition running from Woodstock to Glastonbury — functions as a
“safety valve to upturn order such that order may be maintained.”
Although it may create a temporarily positive atmosphere, the performance ultimately merely reinforces the status quo. Therefore, whilst Marcuse acknowledges the rebellious nature of some white rock music — and, of course, I must insert the not insignificant caveat of a fair amount of punk in here — he maintains that for the main part, it “remains artistic without the negating power of art,” and that by often partaking in commercialized carnivalesque performances, it “loses the transcendence which opposes art to the established order.” Therefore, for Marcuse, this art “remains immanent in this order, one-dimensional, and thus succumbs to this order.’’ As a result, Marcuse posits the need for a different discourse to break the hegemonic one that engulfs any resistance by means of what he terms “incestuous reasoning.” In this way, he identifies black literature, music, argot and slang as a potentially revolutionary language of the ‘other,’ contra the all-encompassing and thus incestuous discourse of the establishment.
This language of the ‘other’ incorporates all of the criteria of Marcuse’s definition of the genuinely revolutionary, which can in turn most powerfully reside in the margins, in what he characterizes as:
‘‘The substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colours; the unemployed and unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process; their life is the most immediate and the most real need for ending intolerable conditions and institutions. Thus their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not. Their opposition hits the system from without and is therefore not deflected by the system; it is an elementary force which violates the rules of the game and, in doing so, reveals it as a rigged game”.
This, of course, brings to mind a proto- Adornian immanent critique, and implies that African-American Hip Hop — given that it originates from the marginalized and exploited, from those who can use the language of the oppressor in inventive ways to disrupt the status quo — comprises all the necessary ingredients of a Marcusian revolutionary aesthetic medium. What is more, to add to the radical potential of this music, given its marginalized authors, Marcuse is adamant that the ghetto is the site par excellence of meaningful resistance. Referring to the faubourgs, or banlieus of Paris during the eighteenth century, he observes that:
‘‘Confined to small areas of living and dying, [the ghetto] can be more easily organized and directed. Moreover, located in the core cities of the country, the ghettos form natural geographical centres from which the struggle can be mounted against targets of vital economic and political importance . . . and their location makes for spreading and ‘contagious’ upheavals’’.
This is reflected in the block party tradition initiated by the founding fathers of Hip Hop in the South Bronx in the 1970’s. Within this social and cultural melting pot, parties to help integrate the community via the medium of rapping, DJ-ing, breakdancing and graffiti art emerged. This is best encapsulated in the development of the cipher tradition. Consider the definition of this noun as a secret code in which participants, including rappers, beat-boxers and break-dancers, gather in a circle along with a crowd in order to engage in a communal rap session. It is clear that the participants involved in such gatherings were not involved in them for a pay day, but rather as a mode of cultural expression. Therefore, corroborating Marcuse’s claims, during this epoch we have ‘exploited outsiders’ of ‘other colours’ using and performing black language, literature and music, therein satisfying all of the necessary conditions for a Marcusian genuinely revolutionary art form.
Contra Marcuse’s revolutionary Hip Hop
In spite of the aforementioned commendable aspects in Hip Hop culture, which corroborate its status as a potentially revolutionary aesthetic medium, there are also some problems with this reading. For example, much of the music is perpetually infused with misogyny to a more explicit degree than commercial culture, which let’s face it is also fundamentally misogynistic. As African-American author and social activist bell hooks argues,
‘‘Hip Hop music is often a black male expression of feelings of powerlessness in the system at large taken out on the ‘fairer sex.’
She adds that “the openness of black males about rage and hatred towards females” is “at times conveyed by worryingly bragging in misogynistic rap about how they see sexuality as a war zone where they must assert their dominance.” To illustrate this, whilst Hip Hop is a male-centred, and very ego-driven arena, African-American females tend to dominate in the genre of pop/RnB, in which their lyrical range very infrequently extends to discussing anything beyond love songs about the men in their lives. What is apparent is that women artists understand their lyrical content to be acceptable only insofar as it allows ‘strong black men to be men.’ Conversely, many male Hip Hop artists either do not discuss women explicitly in their songs, or if they do, it is in a patronizing manner that, if not born out of overt misogyny, is at least tacitly in step with the patriarchy encapsulated in the status quo.
As a result, to expect unique and rebellious insight about entitlement and revolution from Marcuse’s archetypal marginalized black ghetto women, for example, is to fall prey to what contemporary political philosopher Saul Newman qualifies as an ‘essentialist assumption.’ Newman asks why should we assume “that being black or gay or female is necessarily an identity of resistance.” For Newman, this assumption is based on reductive binary thinking, which will inevitably reproduce structures of oppression. In similar vein, contemporary feminist philosopher Jennifer Saul argues that “we are not always enlightened about what is just by asking persons who seem to be suffering injustices what they want.” This is because “oppressed people have often internalized their oppression so well that they have no sense of what they are justly entitled to as human beings” (of which the barometer in academic circles has historically been a white, male, cisgender, middle class individual!). This counters Marcuse’s assertion that those marginalized in the ghettos are always a genuinely revolutionary opposition, even if their consciousness is not.
Furthermore, in light of the critiques provided by Newman and Saul, many of Marcuse’s ‘outsiders’ and the ‘substratum’ have become incorporated into the all engulfing ‘incestuous discourse,’ or into what his Adorno called the ‘totally administered society.’ By extension, following from Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of contemporary dynamic capitalism, in Hip Hop there appears to be what Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism (2009) calls a “hard-headed embracing of a brutally reductive version of reality”, which has displaced any naive Marcusian hope that marginal culture could revolutionarily change anything. This is best illustrated by the ubiquity in contemporary Hip Hop entrepreneurship which seeks to ‘get rich or die tryin’ in the words of the aptly named ’50 cent’ — a long cry from Afrika Bambaata no doubt! In this way then, many of those enmeshed in contemporary Hip Hop believe themselves to be revolutionary to some extent by way of their financial gain. For example, Sean Carter, aka Jay-Z, aka Mr Beyonce, once referred to himself as ‘Che Guevara with bling on’, and claimed that he was an unequivocal success simply because he had accumulated huge wealth as a black man in the US, not taking into account the Caucasian record execs earning huge profit margins over and above his. This modern day quasi-minstrel culture deeply problematizes the notion of whether there is a genuinely revolutionary consciousness at work in the Marcusian understanding, or merely a derivative one which has consciously embraced a ‘brutally reductive version of reality’.
There is no doubt that Hip Hop culture, since the early 1990s, has become increasingly heavily corporatized, with a lot of its early dynamism and revolutionary zeal replaced with hyper-masculinity, extreme misogyny and crude materialism. With more than a nod to Adorno’s critique of the culture industry, and its inextricable link to capitalism, the corporate appropriation of Hip Hop resulted in a re-branding and marketing which involved, more often than not, an unnerving glorification of the most negative aspects of marginal black ghetto culture. As such, the vast majority of Hip Hop in the contemporary mainstream is full of dross lyrical content and formulaic beat structures, rendering it defunct in terms of its revolutionary potential to be the voice of the ‘other.’
Moreover, problematically in relation to Marcuse’s thesis, a majority of the artists in the contemporary Hip Hop milieu seem interested solely in ‘performing’ in the manner of merely rebellious white rock acts, but not necessarily open to unrehearsed expressions of truly revolutionary aesthetic abandonment in the mode that the ‘father of the New Left’ calls for in the spirit of early blues and jazz. One need only consider that the aforementioned ‘successful’ Hip Hop icon Jay-Z headlined Glastonbury in 2008, much to the chagrin of traditionalists who opposed it on the grounds of genre. There, you had a glut of, in the main, the largest consumers of commercial hip hop in both the USA and the UK, which are middle class, white youngsters, filling in the gaps to ‘I got 99 problems and a bitch ain’t one’. Needless to say Marcuse would be turning in his Sheol!
In the harrowing words of Adorno, “what slips through the net is filtered by the net”. Thus, in addition to the Newmanian risk of making an ‘essentialist assumption,’ it is imperative that any revolutionary zeal from African-American ghetto music must necessarily be through the unique insights of the margins of the margins, in terms of a social ideology critique against the status quo, as opposed to on crude geographical, economical, or racial terms. For example, Marcuse himself was a Caucasian, middle-class male of Jewish descent, albeit in exile. Therefore, taking into consideration the Adornian caveat above, as well as Newman’s and Saul’s critiques, Marcuse’s arguments become somewhat crude, and history has not necessarily vindicated them.
That said, it is clear that the margins are unquestionably able to see things afresh — no matter
how little — and to create ruptures that the mainstream, by definition, cannot. They still possess a novel — if not necessarily revolutionary — way of seeing the world. In this way, contemporary social anthropologist and social activist David Graeber argues that “what revolutionaries do is to break existing frames to create new horizons of possibility, an act that then allows a radical restructuring of the social imagination. This is perhaps the one form of action that cannot, by definition, be institutionalized.” By extension, this is where there is evidence in the genre of Marcuse’s hope being kept alive; there is enough incredible contemporary Hip Hop provided by artists the world over — and primarily from economically poorer nations such as Cuba for example — which demonstrates the politically charged consciousness of many auto-didacts, which to a large extent vindicate Marcuse’s claims.
Hence, all things considered, the value of Hip Hop is that it can still challenge and have an emancipatory — perhaps leading onto a revolutionary — effect. I ask, what has Springsteen said in recent times contra the power structure, what has Dylan said? The Stones? Have I missed something? On the other hand, you have artists in the United States like Dead Prez, Immortal Technique, and in the UK, Lowkey and Akala, who are constantly raising socio-political questions which hold a mirror up to the power structure to question and criticize in a thought-provoking manner. Significantly, all of these aforementioned artists are on their own independent labels, and have become recognized primarily because they exist in an age of social media. To end, I would like to signpost readers to Akala’s ‘Fire in the Booth’, which was basically an incredible 8-minute-long verbal essay recorded in 2011.