Notes Information Apocalypse

Youth Gangs and Assumptions About Culture

There’s been a lot of talk in local media about the intersection between exploding urban situations in France and some of the serious problems in South Auckland at the moment. One thing I'm noticing is that a lot of people are holding widely mistaken assumptions about the connection between youth gangs and hip hop culture, a point that seems as if it can only be addressed properly with adequate historical perspective.

The first significant assumption is that hip hop is a homogenous fashion aesthetic, representing a particular American gangsta lifestyle, and that this fashion is a significant influence on the actions of urban youth. While it might be true that the gangsta aesthetic influences the manner of dress and certain attitudes, it makes little sense to argue that social disintegration and anarchic reactions can be traced to a multi-cultural embrace of gangsta rap. This assumption also illustrates a common misconception that popular hip hop culture endorses the cynical capitalist excesses of gangsta rap in the first place, that hip hop is an American fashion, not a universal urban culture. There's actually a big difference.

In it's most pure form, hip hop is a philosophy, an approach to life and community that promotes love and inclusion. The pioneers of hip hop culture in the 1970's promoted this philosophy as an alternative to the gang lifestyle, and it was so successful in large part because it provided a support network for disenfranchised youths living in housing estates that had been shunned and abandoned by municipal authorities. Even so, the solidarity promoted by Bambaata's Zulu Nation, and the positive energy of block party pioneers like Kool Herc was not nearly enough to contain the situation which exploded in the Bronx in 1977 as whole city blocks went up in flames and riot.

Let's not confuse fashion with the actions of hoodlums. There's no historical doubt that rampaging youth gangs, brutal violence, riots and anarchy in dense urban areas predates the emergence of hip hop. In this context, hip hop has provided an ongoing movement for positive social change in the face of a relentless cycle of violence and rioting that to this day continues, as it has for centuries amongst poverty stricken urban populations.

As rapping evolved into more sophisticated forms and became increasingly entangled with the music industry, the core values of hip hop leadership and positive inclusion became more eroded. The lyrical innovations of Ice T, NWA, and others in the late 80's and early 90's laid the foundations for a much more confrontational and aggressive form of rap, exposing the tensions between black solidarity and individual greed in a dystopian urban reality dominated by brutal police regimes and a flux of cheap crack cocaine and military grade weaponry that flowed through American cities during the Reagan era. This view positions gangsta rap as a response to specific historical conditions, one that of course has been cynically manipulated and commercially exploited in recent years as the situation in American cities cooled from near breaking point during George Bush Senior's term of presidency. As hard as it is for some middle class intellectuals to accept, it's arguable that the "don't give a fuck" aesthetic of gangsta rap has always been a reflection of real attitudes on the street, not the other way round. The stereotype of the criminal minded psychotic individual is just one aspect of stories about struggle, injustice and power versus powerlessness.

The second assumption I'm seeing is perhaps more relevant to the South Auckland situation - that the kids who refuse to listen to authority will listen and respond to the messages from prominent people in the hip hop community. On the face of it, this call for leadership makes a lot of sense, but unfortunately the real situation is a lot more complex and messy. Hip hop has now become a commercial culture revolving around the interconnection of art, industry, and media. How can we assume that the poorest and most underprivileged urban kids automatically have autonomous access to messages being promoted by hip hop artists? I don't think this is at all clear.

To youths, the influence of ones immediate peer group is far more powerful than the influence of a media spokesperson, whether on TV or CD. Hip hop is about participation, the development of craft and knowledge. It's hard work to become a good graffiti artist, dancer, or DJ and not everyone is capable of mastering the synthesis of spontaneous lyricism, rhythm, and poetry required to be a good rapper. Hip hop is there to help these kids, not through a single artist "standing up", but through many artists and teachers "getting down" - encouraging musical participation in schools, providing activities and opportunities outside of school hours, and most importantly, promoting values of community participation, self motivation, and constructive communication.

Characters like Afrika Bambaata may have had the status of community leaders, and thus would be in a position to speak out to the youth, but that status doesn't necessarily apply to everyone in the hip hop spotlight. Rappers are first and foremost poets, not necessarily leaders, not necessarily able or even desiring to take on the role of community prophet. Those who are calling the rappers to stand up are possibly unaware that this same argument is a difficult and unresolved problem that can be traced right back to the roots of hip hop activism in the 1980s:

(M)any elders insisted that rappers, who clearly had the ability to move the media like no one since the Panthers, take their place in the community as leaders. At Howard University in 1987, Bill Stephney found himself on a panel discussion with Amiri Baraka, dub poet Mutabaruka, and musician James Mtume. The three asserted that rappers should be held to revolutionary standards of leadership. Stephney was aghast.

He argued, "Woe be it unto a community that has to reply on rappers for political leadership. Because that doesn't signify progress, that signifies default. Now that our community leaders cannot take up their responsibility, you're gonna leave it up to an eighteen-year-old kid who has mad flow? What is the criteria by which he has risen to his leadership? He can flow? That's the extent of it? If our leadership is to be determined by an eighteen-year-old without a plan, then we're in trouble. We're fucked."

- Jeff Chang, Can't Stop Won't Stop

That's not to say that there isn't a significant role for the spirit of hip hop leadership and transformation in this situation, just that it's important to understand the separation between stories from the ghetto and the economic and social reasons for the existence of the ghetto in the first place. This is a political struggle. We need to accept that the fundamental forces of family and community are shaped by the spaces we live in, and the ways in which we manage and control these spaces. In a sense, we are not looking at "social", "racial" or "cultural" problems, but at more base problems with the architecture and design of Western urban centers. It only takes a low level flight over the sprawling suburbs of Manakau City to see that the future for this area isn't pretty unless it sees major investment in infrastructure. It's easy to blame Rogernomics as a root cause of Manakau's youth problems, but the ultimate responsibility surely lies in the hands of investors and developers who are not prepared to construct anything more than the bare minimum required to pass building code standards, especially in terms of green parks and provision for shared public spaces.

To put it simply - those who are responsible for shaping the built environment are shaping the structure and conditions of the lives in which people will live inside these spaces. The static equilibrium of a building's force held together by concrete and steel, plaster and gib-board, holds a different kind of power than a bunch of words encoded on a plastic disc.