“A new law has been passed today by the U.S. government. Hip hop has been abolished and is no longer to be heard. All claiming the title MC will be arrested, and given the worst penalty under the law. Hip hop is dead!”
Maybe such a law hasn’t been passed and hip hop isn’t dead, as rapper Nas suggested in the title track for his eighth studio album. It’s not dead yet, that is.
According to Dr. Jared Ball, lawmakers and music labels have made various efforts to control hip hop music, limiting the messages presented to the greater public to those consistent with the stereotypes of Black America. On Wednesday June 29, 2011 Dr. Ball gave a synopsis of his first book, I Mix What I like! A Mixtape Manifesto, which discusses the colonization and control of hip hop music.
The process of colonization as described by Ball is, “a predatory process that distorts communication, dislocates victims from their cultural origins, and creates an [environment] that inhibits the very establishment of ‘political vocabulary’ necessary for its identification.” The colonization of hip hop music has distorted, reduced and/or eliminated positive and political messages that many hip hop artists portray in their work.
The event began with a rap performed by a progressive hip hop artist, Head-Roc. The crowd of 60 people put their fists in the air as Head Roc raps, “You might hear some black power music tonight.”
At this book discussion — hosted by the Institute for Policy Studies, Teaching for Change, and World Beats & Life, Inc. — Ball discussed topics from his book. A few topics in the book include: the colonial music model, the politics of popular culture, the mixtape as emancipatory journalism, and “progressive” journalism. Ball asserts that the homemade hip hop mixtape can be used as an emancipatory tool for community resistance. As such, law enforcement often harassed people that sell mixtapes, claiming the unlicensed sale of music harms artists. However, Ball argues that the real issue isn’t the sale of music but the “regulation of communication of the management of populations who have been targeted for subservience.”
Did you know that only three companies control 95 percent of the music marketed in the Western world? I didn’t until Dr. Ball mentioned it. These companies are: Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, and EMI (the “Big Three”). Unless an artist is signed with one of these labels, chances are he or she will not be heard on the radio. Why is this? Radio airtime can cost as much as $5,000 per song. The average person trying to break in to the music industry can’t afford to pay this outrageous tariff.
By over-exposing artists such as Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, and Drake and suppressing the sale of mixtapes, the Big Three ensure that other artists don’t get an equal opportunity to reach a broad audience. The exposure of certain messages results in greater demand and other sounds are often ignored. Because the Big Three control the messages these artists produce, they also control the messages we hear. That explains why the same frivolous songs are in rotation thousands of times within a given week.
Large labels have a monopoly on airtime because they can afford it. Consequently, the larger audience isn’t exposed to quality music that discusses current issues and challenges political ideals. Instead, we hear music that revolves around money, women, and violence.
There are artists that have benefited from promoting and selling their own music underground, but these artists are the exception rather than the rule. The reality is that messages presented by many underground artists don’t reach a broad audience — and the government and the “Big Three” are working to keep it that way.
If you are even slightly interested in hip hop music or social justice issues you should definitely read this book. According to Frank B. Wilderson, III, “Dr.Jared Ball’s impressive book is a bold undertaking in which he critiques and ultimately distances himself from the prevailing assumptive logic found within pop academic circles. [The] revolutionary power of this book lies in its capacity to interrogate staid constructs of thought and re-pose vital questions pertaining to ‘emancipatory journalism.’ For the power to pose the question is the greatest power of all.”
All royalties from sales of I Mix What I like go to support political prisoners.
Timeka Smith is an intern at the Institute for Policy Studies.