21 Aug How HIP-HOP can Save Us
…B-Boy Daydreams of a New Paideia
In my day-dreams the following is painted large on a wall, just inside the entrance to some old brick building, against which children are filing past…
7 Principles of The Cypher
1} Money buys nothing, & bosses are whack
2} Everyone gets to express themselves
3} Nobody is forced to do something they don’t want to do
4} YOU inspire the growth & morale of everyone else
5} You are responsible for deciding who you want to be
6} Together, we decide what we want to be
7} The Cypher is Family
If you agree to try and learn the above principles you may enter these doors
And may all those who have embodied these principals carry them far beyond the bounds of these walls. Hip-Hop will save the world.
Hip-Hop will save the world…?
I live just outside the city of Albany, NY; A beautiful-ugly-little city—which is also the seat of our state’s corruption-prone little capital, attendant with hideous, Rockefeller-mandated architecture. We have above average murder rates, solid public transportation, and a downright notable chicken joint at the top of South Pearl St. We also have plentiful abandoned buildings—the remnants of our bygone industrial glory and absconded working class—on which to project one’s daydreams. For instance, on 2nd & Thornton there is an old, public school with overgrown courtyards and boarded windows, which however—in my daydreams—has been resurrected. I see only a bustling silhouette, as shapes pass in and out of the doorway and shuffle around in the shaded courtyards. But as I listen to the unmistakable sound of two turntables and the unseen hands of a DJ, deftly recomposing the wreckage of the past, it seems apparent that a new curriculum is in effect. I listen as the sounds carry down to the sidewalk below, where some kids have gathered in a circle against the graffitied facade. Inside the swaying circle is a single girl. Caught in the rhythm she is everywhere at once, and indeed the rhythm seems to be coming straight from her soul. Because just as the beat cuts, her feet shoot up into the air, and for a moment, as all the world revolves in the palm of her hand, time stands still… I take a look down the sidewalk, and all down the tag-riddled concrete they are gathered in circles, as they study and share and build. And everywhere their projects of wood, cloth, clay, metal, and glass clutter the alleys, and spill out from the workshops and into the place where the street used to be, but where people now philosophize in the shade of chestnut trees—A place where work and art and play all run up against each other and become one, and where everything bears the imperfect beauty that is the mark of a human hand. Because, from their buildings and ships, down to the tops of the bottoms of their toilet lids, everything they lay their potent hands upon, they adorn with color, and virtue, and humanity. And when the sun sets, they leave their various instruments and tools laid neatly along the sidewalks and retire to their stoops where, above their heads, luxuriant gardens bathed in a numinous light, hang down over the roof-tops of the row houses, which are splashed with murals for as far as the eye can see, as the last resonance of their theories and dreams echo down the corridors, and carry off into the aether… And then I wake up.
Me? I mostly dig holes for a living. But, between my daydreams and the exigencies of life, I observe a culture known as Hip-Hop. Hip-hop is composed of four practices or “elements”: Graffiti Writing, DJing, MCing, and Breaking—the graphic, musical, verbal, and physical components of a unified cultural movement. For my part, I practice the element of breaking. I’m a b-boy. Along with my crew, I try my best to pass down this culture and this art as faithfully as I can. I teach at schools and community centers, in studios and on sidewalks. I get personal satisfaction… and not much else. In my daydreams, they don’t need much else. They come from far and wide to get down in ourcypher, and lay hands on the wall of the 7-Fold Principles, and they never doubt of what they do. In my daydreams, they are true believers.
Hip-Hop, they believe, will save the world…
Just what is hip-hop? It is many things to many people. But for now it’s sufficient to know this…
Hip-hop is something you live. —Krs ONE
Live? What a novelty, in this our age of mass shootings, impending ecological catastrophe, and the necrophilia that is our infatuation with Iphone. Smack in the middle of this culture of passive spectatorship, morbid consumption, and an ever-more suicidal nihilism—a culture all-but-conquered by the way of death—and here we got this thing you “live”?… In so many ways, it seems that all we any longer want is simply not to be. But the problem of nihilism is, in some ways, a very simple one; it is simply a matter of getting people to want to be alive again…
The foundation myth of Hip-Hop is simple enough. In the beginning, there is chaos—a state of ceaseless and inarticulate violence brought on by a policy of “benign neglect”, the active and state-sponsored obliteration of entire neighborhoods, and the merciless snuffing of every aspiration we once held dear. This is the South Bronx, c.1970… devastation, disunity, death. Yet, it is out of this—out of chaos, and nothingness—that peace, unity, and a culture of inexhaustible creativity suddenly burst into being. (The turning point can perhaps be isolated to the death of an individual known as “Black Benji” who is killed while attempting to arbitrate a gang dispute, the tragic circumstances of which—in conjunction with a generalized fatigue with violence—culminate in an event known as the Hoe Avenue Meeting, out of which a peace treaty is brokered, Dec, 8th 1971, reconciling the gangs of South Bronx. Forthwith a period of unprecedented cultural exchange ensues, as territorial barriers are lifted, which—in conjunction with a generalized mood of celebration—will manifest in some of the founding jams of hip-hop. Many once-violent gangs join in these celebrations, sublimating their aggressive and tribal energy into the new and peaceful forms, and subsequently reforming their gangs into hip-hop crews, which then proceed to spreading this new way—the way of life—to the rest of the world…). Life triumphs over death.
Living young and free in the Bronx was a revolutionary act of art. To unleash on a social level these vital urges was the surest way to ward off mass death. —Jeff Chang
We aught to celebrate this triumph—always, and in all ways. But there is a price. Because, even as we walk this lofty tight-wire that is human passion, venturing to be alive—sincerely, un-ironically, un-abashadly, all-the-way live!—we can never be permitted to delude ourselves in what lies beneath. We can never be permitted to forget what we came from. From our militant stance, down to the slant of our hats, the residue of our past is writ into our every gesture and word, forever to be exorcised, symbolically and ritualistically, in “battle.” Because violence (and, for that matter, injustice) is not defused by peace, but only by a tireless devotion to the enforcement of respect, caution, and the mutual preservation of dignity. This is what it means to be a B-boy. This is the vigil we maintain, lest we plunge backward into that barbarism and disunity from which we came, and which remains, ever-present, just beneath the surface of everyday civility. This is the price of life. And, Indeed, it is precisely this cosmologic-backdrop—what the Greek philosopher Castoriadis called the imaginary of chaos—which is the prerequisite of life.
…If we imagine that we originate from a universe where everything is already as it ought to be—i.e. where all is justly-ordered by some benevolent force (what is now our eminently logical state, and its sublimely efficient economy)—if we imagine this to be the case, then what need is there for us to get involved? Indeed, if we truly believe this, then there is nothing left for us to do but obey. But if, on the other hand, it is understood that the universe is perpetual chaos, and that life has no intrinsic order or meaning—other than what we give to it—then we might as well get-up and build something together, in this short time we are here. This, coincidentally, is the same imaginary which gave rise to the political form known as democracy. In both cases, what is understood here is that the “Gods” are not gonna be looking out for us mere mortals. It is left to us to make the world how we see fit…
In my daydream politics is something that happens afternoons on the stoop, between puffs of tobacco and sips of dandelion wine. Or, Sunday mornings, in the inner-blocks, as little kids chase hens around the meeting circle. Indeed, it is something deeply intimate; an occasion of ritual and ceremony—gifts are exchanged, feasts are planned, births announced, new people are initiated and welcomed into the community. It is something from which they derive a sense of potency, purpose and belonging, as they convene their neighborhood assemblies at the parks, and ratify their agreements under the hallowed rims of b-ball courts. Every voice is heard. Every thought valid. Everyone is, in some small way, a hero. They carve the doors with their triumphant mythologies, and glaze every vessel with the scenes of their everyday, heroic deeds. And as they deliberate atop their high places, looking out over their city like gods, their children sit atop their shoulders, watching as their mothers and fathers proceed to make of this world how they see fit.
Every Cook Can Govern as C.L.R James once put it. Here, in my daydreams, everyone is a cook. Everyone is a politician, custodian, musician, teacher, artist, agronomist, craftsman, and philosopher, all in the course of a day. In short, they are complete human beings. Because this is their measure of wealth. They believe in the development of every single person to their fullest human potential, and the first thing they teach their children is hip-hop…
Between my daydreams and the exigencies of life, I teach kids the art and culture of hip-hop. I love what I do. I try to believe in what I do. But there have been days where my faith runs up against an impasse… Because how do you teach the foot-slide to a kid with no shoes? How do you tell a girl who’s dad is locked-up and mom is working 3 jobs, to keep practicing her breath control? How do you ask a young man who has no certain future—indeed, a young man who is not even sure there will be dinner tonight—to do another windmill?
You can’t eat windmills.
I suppose this is the part where I swat away the fog of my daydreams and start being realistic. Hip-hop alone cannot save the world.
Also, to be clear, I am not much of a B-boy. I do not do this for any obvious reason. I do not do this under the sanction of local authority, or on the advice of my high-school career counselor. I don’t even do this because I’m particularly good at it! Nah. The reason I do it is because I’d lose my damn mind if I didn’t do it. That is, because I need to… And because fuck you if you don’t like it! Self-expression is not something reserved for professionals. It is not the province of the talented, or the cultured. It is not an aptitude, or a privilege, or an innate gift. It is a universal right. Human beings MUST express themselves. Everyone has the right to be an artist, and to exercise their creative agency within the space of their community. This is the achieved reality of Hip-Hop. The gallery is now antiquated; the stage, obsolete… Hip-Hop has democratized art.
Why do I do it? I do it because the greatest feeling I know, is the moment when a kid sees me do it and suddenly believes that they can do it too. And, though it may never put cereal in their bowls, or shoes on their feet, yet this has not seemed to stop the countless little b-boys and girls who, on empty stomachs and with feet bared, light up the dim corners of this world with a passion for this culture, and a will-to-life, too pure for any of my words to ever express. Indeed, if you were not aware, this is the largest art movement the world has ever seen. By far. It has spread to nearly every corner of the globe, and syncretized with all the cultures of the world so as to become a sort of global indigenous culture—weaving us together under a common rhythm, as it daily brings the most diverse and disparate of peoples into a commerce once unfathomable. It is a language which precedes words. A language, without which, for me at least, words have no meaning. And, without such a language there is no hope of engaging the world in any meaningful way. So, if you’ll permit me, I will press on in this attempt to put into these lifeless words what can only be lived…
I write the following not as an academic, or anthropologist, but as someone who participates in this culture, and has felt the stir of this language, however faintly, from the inside. If b-boying has taught me anything, it is that a whole universe of possibility is opened, if only you renounce the arrogance of being upright—if only you embrace the quadruped we all once were. But, by the same token, the limitless potential of second nature can only be unlocked by facing the limits of our first nature… Human beings are aggressive, egotistical and tribalistic. Hip-hop neither runs from it, nor submits to it. Rather, it sublimates this vital energy into a peaceful and creative mode of expression, which is both cooperative and competitive, without being violent or hierarchical. This presents an evolutionary development in modern human culture; here is a mode of culture where the rules adhere to us, instead of the other way around. In hip-hop, any given battle is but a skirmish in the larger style war, and style is less about being “the best” as it is about scouting your niche, and displacing the center of what is “hip.” Strength, speed, intelligence and technical ability are not the ultimate assurance of success here. In the end it is the one who is able to get open—to connect with the rhythm, and themselves, in the most uninhibited and creative manner—who ultimately triumphs. And, indeed, here is where the divide between mind and body begins to dissolve…
In hip-hop “Knowledge” is not strictly cerebral. Hipness is knowledge which is carried in the body, itself. Therefore, the “hop” here is not simply denoting movement, but a particular mode of movement. It is, manifestly, a leap. And, indeed, in so many ways, it is a leap of faith. Because, whenever we muster the courage to get open—to reach out and mark a wall, or lay hands on a moving record, or touch hand to the ground, or otherwise let the rhythm take hold as words and movements flow freely from somewhere we can never be sure—whenever we enact one of these metaphysical gestures we affirm a sort of militant optimism, which is at once a faith in our-self, as it is an act of profound solidarity. “I rebel, therefore we are” as Camus stated it. And everywhere that true hip-hop is practiced, it is predicated on that idea—on the conviction that there exists a larger community, whose existence we may indeed never be certain of, but which our active belief in actually has the affect of willing into existence! This is the faith of every kid who ever ventured out, anonymously into the night to throw his tag on a wall. This is the beginning of all community.
…[O]ne must project an absolute certainty that, if one does something valuable, no matter how subtle, it will be appreciated. —Schloss
A leap can never be assured. And yet, everywhere you will find that this leap of hip-hop is intended to look effortless—a mere hop. It is confident, but a sort of confidence which is pulled straight out of air. What is understood here, is that you must provisionally fake it, in order to make it. But the miraculous thing about this dialogic of hip and hop, is that the further it carries, the further it confirms that boundless potentiality which was, at first, posited merely as an article of faith. This is how we realize our greatest selves. This is self-creation.
Knowledge here is inseparable from the body; it is confidence, it is self-respect, and, indeed, it is the ability to determine and even create oneself out of thin air! I call this peculiar sort of knowledge bodily wisdom, and it seems to me that it is the necessary foundation for any other sort of wisdom that we hope to follow. For it may well be easy to imagine a good life, and to sight the path that might take us there. But what good is knowing even the best of paths if we do not have the confidence to walk it? What good is knowing even the best sort of life, if there is not-yet a people capable of living it? I believe that HIP-HOP can make such a people.
Equality is not given, nor is it claimed; it is practiced, it is verified
In Hip-Hop culture, the place where this occurs is the cypher. It is simply a circle, composed of people, who have gathered, spontaneously, to dance or rhyme. The participants of the cypher take turns, in random order, freestyling to the music, playing off of, and responding to whoever preceded them. The free entry into the cypher is inhibited only by one’s courage and preparedness to participate, and if one cypher does not suit you, you can make your own! Ultimately, the cypher is a space of play, but the virtues of this play are profound. Once again, there is a sort of wisdom at work here which is baked into the very structure and functioning of this culture, and which finds its essence in the virtue of a circle. The cypher begins with something held in common: when something is held in common, there is community, and in community there is communication, and with this arises participation. Because without participation there can be no equality, and without the unqualified equality of all, there is no freedom for anyone. In one sweeping motion, the cypher realizes all of this. It instills democracy at the most fundamental and organic level—the level of interpersonal relationships—and it imbues this wisdom in the body, as a lived practice… cultural democracy.
And there it is again; that d word. Could it be that there is some invisible thread across the ages, binding Ancient Greece to the South Bronx? As it was with Athenian democracy, the chief fault of hip-hop lies not in hip-hop itself, but has only ever been in how we define a legitimate participant. Simply stated, we must cease to qualify participation… It is my conviction that the only way to circumvent the ceaseless antagonism and inevitable violence which identity politics has conjured, is to establish a common identity around that which is inessential, i.e. that which can be universalized. Only culture can do this. In the end, only an identity rooted in culture holds the promise of overcoming, if not our differences themselves, then the inevitable antagonism that must come of founding identify on that which cannot, and can never be universalized.
At its essence Hip-Hop is the art of aligning rhythms, and nothing achieves this more ecstatically than the cypher. It is one of the only spaces in which culture supersedes identity without destroying it. In the heat of a freestyle, one must let the subconscious take hold; it cannot help but tell the truth of that person. The cypher is uniquely, perhaps solely, suited to deal, in a democratic venue, with man on his interior level—as opposed to the exterior, which is what political artifice deals in. It is in this fashion, by way of countless battles, and small victories that are no less glorious for their being small, that culture can succeed in transcending ethnicity, race, gender and class as the basis of identity. Here is a space that operates on our scale—a human scale. Here is the potential for all of us to make ourselves felt in the world.
Can hip-hop save the world?
No. Only we can do that. The question is, can hip-hop create a we? More precisely, can cultural democracy prefigure political democracy? For Joe Schloss, the promise of hip-hop, is that we might “exercise control over the meaning, value, and direction of [our] lives.” If this is true, then the promise of hip-hop is politics.
Outside my daydreams politics is self-abasement. It consists of the convoluted and humiliating process of surrendering power every 4 years—the only true power we have being to willfully dis-empower ourselves. This we are told is “democracy”. True democracy is the very inverse of this, our top-down system. Indeed it is so opposite anything you and I have ever known that few, outside my daydreams, would recognize it. It has nothing to do with representatives, or parties, or campaigns, or ossified ideologies, or anything that takes place under the columns of some lobbyist-infested senate. Real democracy comes from the stoop. It was born on the streets and in the courtyards, at the workshops and in the fields, in the kitchens and in the classrooms. It sprang up in countless places, at countless times all though history. And why? Because nothing was there to stop it. And though it has gone by many names throughout history, it is always the same; a mass of people coming together as equals to determine their own destiny. As it currently stands, this project has poked its head back up under the name of Municipalism.
The overriding problem is to change the structure of society so that people gain power. The best arena to do that is the municipality—the city, town, and village—where we have an opportunity to create face-to-face democracy. —Bookchin
States can never be democratic. They are inhuman, distant things, held together by force and cynicism. It can never be known except by the vapidness of its symbols or the sting of its rod. Cities are different. We can know our city. We can know its streets and neighborhoods. We can know its people, and name its problems from personal experience. And because we can know it, we can govern it. This is the original meaning of Politics, which, for the Greeks, meant the affairs of the cities. To believe in the city is to believe in the potential of human-beings to achieve something together. It is the place of possibility…
Up to now, libertarian municipalism is a politics without a culture. For a long while, Hip-hop has been a culture searching for a politics. The definitive urban culture, and the superlative urban politics; if either of them is to succeed, it is here in the city where they must meet. With this union we can begin to envision a society where hip-hop takes on a vital portion of the task of reforming our passive citizenship into one that is actively participatory. Which is to say, a society where hip-hop forms the basis of a new paideia… Another one of those dusty Greek words. What it means is an education intended to create engaged citizens. What the Greeks understood was that there was no political democracy without a people capable of participating in it, and for them, curiously enough, citizenship began in the gymnasium. Under Athenian democracy all education began with the training and articulation of the body and the senses so as to appreciate rhythm, harmony and form. Only then did it expand out into intellectual and political fields. If it is true that there is no political democracy which is not first prefigured by cultural democracy, then paideia is the bridge which spans them. What gymnastics and poetry were to ancient education, DJing, B-Girling, MCing and Graffiti Writing can be today.
Politics, like hip-hop, is a discipline. It takes practice and active acculturation. If we are not capable of it, as of now—capable of its practice or etiquette, or of making informed decisions—it is only because we have been deliberately stunted and stultified. But, though we cannot see it from this shore, and indeed may not even know what it looks like, I believe that if we build this bridge from the right spot, it can make the place we wish to reach. Hip-hop can give our children the confidence to cross this bridge, but we have to find within ourselves the will to build it. It’s left to us.
I suppose we—and by we, I mean of course my imaginary constituency, which is growing larger by the moment—will inevitably face the charge of indoctrinating the youth, or some other such unsavory business! But I charge that this charge is dishonest. We are already indoctrinating the youth. From the earliest age we steep them in the pathologies of shame, deferral and escape. We teach them that common people aren’t capable of thinking for themselves; that you shouldn’t bother with something unless you can get paid; unless you’re a professional; unless you can be “the best.” We train them to eternally defer their life to some later date—which never quite arrives—and to willingly forfeit their labour to some dream—which is not quite their own—scratching furiously at lottery-ticket hopes, as the seeds of tomorrow go unplanted. Worst of all!? We teach them to be ashamed of where it is they come from. We tell them not to bother with their cities and neighborhoods—that their slums and ghettos are not worth fixing. That all we can hope to do is get away.
It is left to us to decide… Do we want to continue to tell our children to keep their heads down and plod on, watching as they slowly drown their hopes in the shallow pool of “realism”? Are we content to hand them down an ever-more narrow future? Watching, in turn, as they hand down even less, until one day there is simply not much left to hand down? Or, do we want to make a break? Because what if I said I don’t want to get away? Indeed, what if I said I loved my slum?
What if I said I wanted to make of this place a paradise?
Last month a man by the name of Elijah Cancer was shot and killed while attempting to break up a fight in Albany’s South End. He too was a peace keeper. A former drug dealer and ex-con, he had decided to turn from the way of death, and, with naked hands, he died shielding us from it. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Thinking about myths, and martyrs; about the angels of history, and the endless heap of trauma from which we must go on building this world. Thinking about how, just as it was the immense destruction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, forever cutting a jagged scar down the middle of that place, giving birth to this myth of hip-hop—giving birth to the thing I so love—so too, we have our own scars.
…The City of Albany is a system that operates within a hierarchy of systems […] Your City, Your Future!
—Albany 2030 Executive Summary
In the city of Albany, we have the Empire State Plaza. From its sun-blotting-scale, to it fortress-like walls and elevated detachment from surrounding neighborhoods, the Plaza represents everything about the state that is antithetical to democracy. A meticulously manicured parkway leads directly into the structure, giving a cozy, sanitized commute to its favored population of incoming bureaucrats and tourists, who snap selfies against the middle-finger-esque architecture for which 8,000 locals were evicted and their homes obliterated to make way. This massive and sublimely alienating structure sports—among other things—vast empty spaces, a McDonalds, and a collection of supremely uninspiring art. But at its very center—effectively obstructing any public gatherings—is a vast pool of dark, depth-less water, which yet perfectly clarifies, to crystalline opaqueness, the central statement of this place… This is not our city. And yet for all that is wrong with it, there is but one thing absent to keep this plaza from being the hill of our future democracy… Us.
It is futile to search for an absolute to break the vicious cycle in which all beginning is inevitably caught, because this ‘absolute’ lies in the very act of beginning itself. —Arendt
For the Greeks, the original meaning of the word “idiot” was a person who did not participate in politics. As it is, we are all vapid idiots. But, maybe, somewhere along the line, we start teaching our kids to dream. Maybe we put pens in their hands, and begin inspiring each other to imagine not just a better neighborhood, but the best of all possible neighborhoods… That is, maybe we propose the utility of eutopia(1)—the utility of imaging a better way of life. Maybe we decide that a democratically engaged citizenry necessitates not only being well informed, but participating in the processing and production of information. And because learning to articulate oneself is part and parcel of a civic education, maybe we decide to establish publications produced by our youth, in which they contribute. Maybe we call one of these publications Cypher Blossoms—maybe this becomes the platform for our ideas and dreams. Maybe we put out a call for everyone to contribute, and to bring their own personal eutopias (written or spoken) to be workshopped in cyphers—drafting the pieces not as fiction, but as blueprints for a possible society (coincidentally, maybe this is the pretext by which we implement face-to-face democratic decision making in our communities). Maybe we begin trying to synthesis our eutopias into a collective charter (maybe this becomes the pretext by which we federate our neighborhoods). Maybe, with charter in hand, we begin to seize upon our symbolic spaces and lay our rightful claim to the high grounds, rededicating them to the city, instead of the empire. Appropriating the empty concourses and podiums for our jams, and festivals, and general assemblies. Overwhelming the lifeless documents of their planing committees with the brilliance of our own, collective, vision, as we declare, once and for all,
“OUR City! OUR Future!…”
Maybe then! Maybe. Because when the necessary elements are established—when a new rhythm animates our streets, and the art of our children covers our sidewalks and walls—it is then that the cyphers will blossom, and the renaissance may begin! And as it spreads forth, the ways of death will retreat in proportion, and give way to new life. Because, once we have a culture which prefigures the sort of politics in which we determine our own fate—in which we can choose to municipalize our economy and guarantee food, clothing and education to our children—maybe I wont have this little problem anymore. And then, just maybe, I can tell my students to do another windmill.
(1) I distinguish here between Utopia (“No-place”) and its original Greek, Eutopia (“Good-place”). That said, their status as interchangeable homophones says something essential about eutopia: for it exists only in our perpetual pursuit of it.
Works Cited/Further Material…
Arendt, Hannah. “On Revolution”
Berman, Marshall. “All That is Solid Melts Into Air”
Bookchin, Murray. “The Next Revolution”
Camus, Albert. “The Rebel”
Castoridis, Cornelius. “Imaginary Institution of Society”
Chang, Jeff. “Cant Stop, Wont Stop”
James, CLR. “Every Cook Can Govern”
Lefebvre, Henri. “the Production of Space” & “Rhythmanalysis”
Marx, Karl. “Manuscripts of 1844”
Mōdus. “DESTROY ALL LINES”
Morris, William. “News from Nowhere”
Rancier, Jacques “the Ignorant Schoolmaster”
Schloss, Joseph. “Foundation”
Ain’t Gonna Eat My Mind
Freestyle: the Art of Rhyme
From Mambo to Hip-Hop
The Neighborhood that Disapeared
Cover art by PichiAvo