Book Review - Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip Hop and Black Politic
Lester K. Spence's 2011 book Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip Hop and Black Politics takes a long, hard look at the current state of African-Americans in the predominant political discourse. In essence, Spence explores through this book and its scholarship the idea that rap and hip-hop culture may actually be bad for black politics; "this work represents an attempt to examine the core questions of black politics as well as the politics of the present using rap and hip-hop as the vehicle" (Spence 157). Despite galvanizing many African-Americans and creating a unique subculture, it is claimed that the perceived immaturity and limiting nature of the organization of hip-hop hampers black politicians and the public from achieving legitimacy. This book is a searing and up-to-date discourse on the nature of black politics and how African-American culture as a whole is shaping the effectiveness of said politics, with clear-cut information and objective assessments of the state of American politics today.
In the first section of the book, Spence discusses in depth the amount of change that hip hop has had toward the political system. Barack Obama, during his campaign trail, actively adopted mannerisms and affectations of rapper Jay-Z in order to appeal to younger black voters. Despite the difficulty in quantifying the influence that hip-hop culture has had on politics, Spence does a very good job in separating out the different factors of the culture that can be found on the political trail, noting a distinct neoliberal turn in hip hop culture that echoes the same sense of modern conservatism in American politics.
Spence's methods of examining hip hop's influence are many; looking at song lyrics and survey data, as well as experiments and his own research, he attempts to figure out just what it is about rap music and hip hop culture that have resonated with those who are politically active. Spence's conclusions are fairly clear: rap actually does influence the political attitudes of politically active African-Americans, by providing a somewhat exclusive and definitive method of providing social commentary on the black experience. However, instead of actually challenging neoliberal ideologies that keep blacks disenfranchised and prevent them from being taken seriously in politics, modern hiphop embraces and reproduces those ideologies. This prevents the African-American community from truly changing their status in political discourse, as the current status of hiphop just embraces what small portion of political power that they have.
The power and status (or lack thereof) of hip hop culture noted in Spence's book follows along with (and adds substantially to) the relevant discourse on this field of study. Spence's study of figures like Kwame Kilpatrick, the corrupt former mayor of Detroit, and current president Barack Obama provide a juxtaposition of what aspects of hip-hop culture do and don't work in American politics. After Kilpatrick's 2010 sentencing to prison for violating probation on his previous sentence for obstruction of justice, perjury and other felonies set back black politicians substantially. Kilpatrick in particular had fully embraced the hip-hop party lifestyle that is a staple of that culture, having elaborate parties at his city-owned mansion, complete with strippers and lavish cars; "Kilpatrick quickly became known as the hip-hop mayor because of his age and personal style" (Spence 131). As a result, when his own administration came crashing down, the image of black politicians suffered substantially. He became the poster boy for why young black men were seen to be ineffective and poor politicians; from his example, the hip hop culture and lifestyle was seen to breed corruption and violence.
Spence uses this example to juxtapose the bad precedents of black politicians with figures such as Barack Obama, who despite reaching out to the youth vote with mild affectations of hip-hop figures, still managed to maintain an air of dignity and scholarship due to the way he ran his campaign and his life. Appearing as a relatively stable family man with two young daughters, as opposed to the wild and frivolous Kilpatrick, he was not cut as deeply when he was seen giving a Jay-Z-like shrug of the shoulders in response to a question from the media (Spence 159). This singular gesture was seen as a bit of an appropriation, a singular movement that cemented that black politicians could affect hip hop mannerisms and still maintain their positive attributes.
The influence of hip hop is said by Spence to be improving, however; with Nas' reappropriation of some of 2Pac's song lyrics to advocate for Obama's presidency, Spence argues that Obama himself is allowing hip hop culture to elevate itself beyond its often violent, immature current status. In many ways, Obama's legitimacy reflects upon hip hop's legitimacy, creating a distinctive and inescapable connection that elevates it into the level of political discourse without shame or recrimination in its tone (Spence 161). Spence, through this conclusion, notes the potential advancement of hip hop culture to a level of seriousness and positive impact in the political spectrum.
Spence's perspective follows along with the overall discourse on gangsta rap and modern hip hop culture being a somewhat regressive system of politics. In fact, many of the lyrics and subjects of hip hop songs and culture follow neoliberal, traditionalist attitudes that keep minorities from achieving respect and enfranchisement in today's elitist culture. Becoming a part of hip hop culture that was difficult to ignore, misogyny and violence became the topics of the day for hip hop music with the commercialization of hip hop in the 1990s. After this happened, hip hop albums suddenly became mainstream and part of the collective American culture. Instead of the audience being relegated just to disenfranchised blacks in the South Bronx, hip hop reached a large diverse audience. Sociopolitical issues about getting out of the poor black neighborhoods in New York City, and learning how to survive, were now being exposed to bigger audiences though the mainstream American audience tends to prefer less socially aware subgenres of hip hop, preferring the neoliberal-advocating misogynism and entitlement of gangsta rap (Hess, 2010).
The neoliberal politics of the right soon became embraced in hip hop music and culture, creating a subculture that grew more insular and uninvolved in the political spectrum. Instead of challenging rightist political stances that saw black poverty as a sign of weakness, and the importance of finding ownership and belonging in the comfort of gangs and materialsim, the hip hop genre is seen by many to personify a faux toughness by those with disposable income. In essence, the genre has been appropriated by many who do not actually observe a 'hip hop' lifestyle (Diawara, 1998). This is also noted by some to diminish the overall message that even the most progressive hip-hop music can have; when the message is diluted or misunderstood, a culture can become a product as opposed to an ideology - which is effectively what Spence argues happened to hip hop in his book.
In conclusion, Spence's book is a worthy entry into the discourse of African-American culture and its influence on American governmental politics. Examining the sociopolitical effects of a counterculture that at once rebels against and follows along with neopolitical ideologies that continue to marginalize African-Americans, it is evident through Spence's work that hip hop culture, as of right now, has a net negative effect on black political power and influence. By creating a subculture that the rest of the nation finds more difficult to take seriously as a means to deliver and educate its audience on political issues, stereotypes about African-Americans becoming less politically aware flourish and become less easy to debunk. While figures like Obama have convinced many that black politicians have the ability to speak on a universal level to their constituents, the specter of Kilpatrick and others remain - examples of what happens when hip hop culture is dragged too far into the realm of American government.
Diawara, Manthia. In Search of Africa. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press,
Hess, Mickey, ed. Hip Hop In America: A Regional Guide. Santa Barbara, California:
Greenwood Press, 2010. Print.
Perry, I. Prophets of the hood: politics and poetics in hip hop, Duke University Press. 2004.
Spence, Lester K. Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip Hop and Black Politics. University of
Minnesota Press, 2011. Print.