Brown & Black in Hip Hop

Brown and Black in Hip Hop: Tenuous-Solidarity

Robert Tinajero

As integral parts of Hip Hop culture, rap music lyrics, rap music videos and Hip Hop films are in many ways the rhetorical voice of that culture and can teach us much about racial interactions within and beyond that culture.  With its beginnings in New York African American communities in the 1970s, rap music and Hip Hop culture have catapulted into the American ethos and cannot be ignored when discussing the continual formation of an American identity.  More specifically, because of its popularity, Hip Hop has been incorporated by other racial groups and created opportunities for physical and rhetorical interaction between those groups and African Americans.  One of these groups is the Latino American community.

According to the 2000 Census, Hispanics and African Americans each comprised approximately 13% of the total U.S. population, and those numbers continue to grow.  As the two largest, and most culturally and politically influential, minority groups in the United States, it is important to analyze the rhetorical interactions between Latino Americans and African Americans and one important place to do this is in Hip Hop music lyrics (particularly rap), video and film which can be far reaching and highly influential.  Though academic writings influence youth and society at large (mainly indirectly), it is in music and film that much larger portions of the population rhetorically interact with the world on a regular basis.  Critically analyzing textual and visual rhetorical content from Hip Hop culture should be an important endeavor in our field.

I propose that Latino Americans and African Americans, as highlighted in specific rap lyrics, videos, and film, are in a constant state of tension and solidarity.  They interact in a physical, linguistic and rhetorical borderland (Anzaldua) and co-exist in what LuMing Mao might refer to as a state of “together-in-difference” (434).   They “meet, clash, and grapple with each other” (Pratt qtd. in Mao 434) in a brutally beautiful manner that is indicative of many racially (or otherwise) divided people throughout the world.  Here I offer a new term which I feel may capture best the relationship between Latino Americans and African Americans in Hip Hop culture—tenuous-solidarity.  Crucially, the interactions between these two populations in Hip Hop culture must be viewed in a parametric manner—they are reflections of interactions between these two groups in society at large.  It is in this tenuous-solidarity, I believe, that these two groups will continue to struggle within, under, and against hegemonic forces in the United States for years to come.

Tension and Solidarity

At the micro level there are certainly points of tension and outright hatred and violence between individuals in the Latino American and African American communities.  There is also growing tension between large sectors of those two communities.  A recent example of this are fights that broke out between Latino American and African American students in Los Angeles schools during the immigration reform protests of 2006 and continued brawls between Latino American and African American students throughout South Central Los Angeles and other cities in the United States (McGrath).  The tension is most clearly illustrated in gang activity and prison life, both influences on Hip Hop culture, and while all these manifestations of tension may not be simply and directly linked only to issues of race, I believe race is central to many of these interactions (class, gender, culture, and general situatedness must not be forgotten) and that both positive and negative individual acts and rhetoric aimed at the other group as well as social interactions between the two groups in general are indicative of both specific agents (the micro/individual) and systemic structures (the macro/community).  It would be near-sighted to focus only on individual rappers as autonomous agents and not members of racial and socioeconomic groups as well as it would be far-sighted not to consider specific rap lyrics and images that come from particularized contexts.

If we are to concede that many negative interactions between these two communities are race-based (racism) then it seems we must agree with Philomena Essed that racism is perpetuated “through multiple relations and situations…[within] the process of the system” at work (189).  Thus, I will argue the rhetoric coming from Hip Hop is indicative of what Essed defines as “everyday racism” in the fact that this textual and visual rhetoric coming from the Hip Hop community is both an expression and underlying catalyst of racist interactions between Latino Americans and African Americans in “everyday” realities—music, music videos and film.  Individual rhetorical moments (i.e. song lyrics, music videos, films) both create a system of racial interaction and are expressions of individual thoughts by persons within those communities.  If the everyday involves “the direct reproduction of the person embedded in social relations” and belongs to routine and repetitive practices which can be deemed “generalizable and taken for granted” (Essed 186-187), then rap artists and their product, if part of popular culture or the culture of large numbers of youth, are integral parts of the formation of racial identities in the minds of those that listen to the music and watch the video and films on a regular basis.  Otherwise said, the rap music being pumped into the ears of people and the visual rhetoric poured into their eyes can have a direct effect on their attitudes and interactions towards another racial group.  After all, rhetoric shapes attitude and “attitudes are not purely mental…[one] carries them in [their] interactions with others; actions are shaped and formed by attitudes” (Heldke 40).

But, I also argue, if we can suggest that rap lyrics, rap music videos and Hip Hop films at times create structures and moments of everyday racism we must also suggest that these lyrics also create structures and moments of everyday non-racism, or everyday solidarity.  As some of the lyrical and visual rhetoric creates and highlights tension it also creates and highlights understanding, empathy, and solidarity.  When Latino Americans and African Americans are expressing similar issues, struggles and rhetorics, these are the ever-important moments of understanding and union.  So in rap lyrics, music videos, and Hip Hop films there is a telling interplay between rhetoric that illustrates togetherness between Latino Americans and African Americans and rhetoric that illustrates difference and tension.  Thus the notion of tenuous-solidarity.

Solidarity: Illustrating and Perpetuating an Ethos of Struggle

You got to think like a soldier/

And we gonna organize a people army/

And we gonna get control over our own lives                                    -Dead Prez

People worldwide, mainly youth, continue to use rap music as the vehicle for voicing their struggles—something prevalent in African American rap music since its early beginnings.  From France and Latin America to Africa and Palestine, rap artists are expressing the frustration and angst of millions.  This is no different in the Latino American community.  To connect themselves with the notion of struggle, Latino American and African American rap artists continually incorporate the rhetorical metaphor of soldier in their lyrics which is indicative of, and perpetuates, a soldier ethos which is a strong metaphor of self-identity.  As with a soldier in a traditional army, many rappers and individuals that identify with the Hip Hop ethos, identify with the notion of meaningful struggle—struggle that is both for survival and purpose.

Growing up many times in poor and violent neighborhoods, the creators of rap music (and many in their audience) are keenly aware of struggle—struggle to survive physically, emotionally and rhetorically in a world that continually subjugates the poor (often minorities) to oppressive circumstances.  But it is important to highlight that one of the reigning metaphors in rap music and Hip Hop culture, the soldier metaphor, is a rhetorically powerful tool of identity and agency—not a metaphor of the weak.  This seems indicative of much of Hip Hop culture’s world view; the acceptance of the fact that there is struggle, that there is the presence of oppressive social forces but that something can be done to combat those forces like soldiers on the battlefield.  And like those soldiers, struggle is always both individualistic and group-based.  Individuals can battle politically racist and classist hegemonic forces, but that struggle is almost always within and for a group: Latino Americans, African Americans, a particular class, community, city, clique, etc.

It is no wonder that both Latino Americans and African Americans connect with the metaphor of purposeful struggle, come to life in the soldier.  The two groups are continually at the bottom of economic and educational achievement indicators and in many instances share a distinction as second-class citizens who have been born into the bottom ranks of the social and economic order.  Some examples help illustrate this point.  Linguistically, both groups battle against the delegitimization of “non-Standard” languages (African American vernacular/Ebonics, Spanish and Spanglish).  In health care, Latino Americans and African Americans continue to be victims of gaps in health insurance and access to the best medicines and doctors. In technology, these two populations lag behind in access to computers and Internet access and to the best education in turning those technologies into catalysts for social advancement.  Politically, Latino Americans and African Americans continue to battle for more representation at the local, state, and federal level.  Both are at the bottom of numbers indicating home ownership, wages, and net worth.  The two also account for the highest incarceration rates in the United States.  Once again, no surprise that struggle is a central theme in these communities and in Hip Hop rhetoric.

In their 2000 album Let’s Get Free, rap group Dead Prez incorporate soldier imagery throughout their album.  The track “We Want Freedom” alone states “we gonna organize a people army,” “would you be ready for civil war,” “train yourself, clean your shottie (shotgun)” and “ military formation, anyone’s participation is welcome.”  Continued imagery and direct pronouncements of organized, military-esque struggle are rampant in this album and in their other releases: Turn off the Radio Volume 1Turn off the Radio Volume 2: Get Free or Die Tryin’ and Revolutionary But Gangsta.  One of the group’s icons is the shi hexagram (from the I Ching) which symbolizes “The Army” and is part of their logo.  Rapper 50 Cent in Soldier claims “I’m a soldier” as fellow rapper Lloyd Banks expresses, “everyday’s war.”  In I’m a Soldier 50 Cent reclaims, as he does in numerous songs, “I’m a soldier” and ends the song with the marching commands of “left, right, left, right.”

Rap label No Limit Soldiers is an example of an independent recording label that saw huge success in the late 1990s while making explicit connections to soldier life and the soldier ethos.  Born from the rugged streets of New Orleans, No Limit Soldiers produced numerous albums that were sold on the streets to thousands of youth who connected with the soldier ethos.  No Limit artist Master P made numerous references to the “soldier life” in song’s such as “Soulja,” “No Limit Soldiers II,” and “Is There a Heaven for a Gangsta?”

Tupac Shakur, one of Hip Hop’s icons, makes several references to living as a soldier.  In “Soulja’s Story,” he raps:

They cuttin’ off welfare..
They think crime is risin’ now
You got whites killin’ blacks,
cops killin’ blacks, and blacks killin’ blacks
Shit just gon’ get worse
They just gon’ become souljas
Straight souljas

In “Soulja’s Revenge:

Real niggaz don’t fold, straight souljah!
Can’t find peace on the streets

In “Ballad of a Dead Soulja”:

If you play the game, you play to win..
(this is the ballad of a dead soldier)…

…The situation’s critical
Nothin’ is colder – than to hear the ballad of a dead soldier…

…[to]All the niggaz that put it down, all the soldiers
All the niggaz that go through that day to day struggle
This is the ballad of a dead soldier!…

In “Soldier (Return of the Souldja)”:

Tryin’ to keep a nigga down, but ya failed
Before I let ya take me, I told ya
Fuck being trapped, I’m a soulja

These few examples are reminiscent of countless references in rap music to the notion that one’s identity is analogous to the life of a soldier, who is in a situation of purposeful struggle.  As can be seen by these examples, rap music is a vehicle for the telling of these critical stories of perseverance in the face of crime and social warfare.

Among Latino rap artists, Cypress Hill in “Worldwide” claims “Remember me now, Cypress Hill soldier” and in “Tu No Ajuanta (You Can’t Last)” they rap “listo, preparado, como un soldado” (ready, prepared, like a soldier) and on their official Website, the group calls their latest tour biography “Soldier Stories.”  In “You Don’t Want to F**k With Us,” Latino American rapper Silencer refers to himself as “the one of a kind soldado.”  Houston’s South Park Mexican (SPM), one of the most popular Latino rap artists, in “Who’s Over There,” states “soldier, I sleep with one eye open” and in “Suckaz N Hataz” makes reference to his rap label by calling himself a “Dopehouse soldier.”  These references continue in Spanish as well, as in “Illegal Amigos” where SPM refers to one of his friends in stating “You always have my back, my number one soldado.”  In “I Wanna Know Her Name,” he makes reference to his identity as an immigrant and a soldier: “I swam across the bayou/ a mojado (wetback)/…a soldado.”

Beyond rap artists there is the hugely popular R&B trio, Destiny’s Child, who scored a hit with their 2005 song “Soldier” in which they state that they need a “soldier” to take care of them: “I need a soldier who’ll stand up for me.”  While they are not a rap group, their music video for the song integrates Hip Hop culture as it involves rapper Lil’ Wayne and several young men dressed in Hip Hop attire.

While some rap artists use surface level analogies to soldier life, and others incorporate deep levels of the soldier ethos (i.e. Dead Prez, No Limit Soldiers and Public Enemy), both are clear indications that the purposeful struggle of the soldier and the soldier mentality are central to much of rap music and the overall Hip Hop culture, both in the African American community and Latino American community.  It is worth noting that rap artist 4th25, made up of soldiers who served in the Iraqi war (2003) and who recorded their debut album Live From Iraq in a makeshift studio in Iraq, lashed out against rap artists who use the soldier metaphor to describe themselves.  On “Reality Check” the group directs rap artists to stop using the soldier metaphor because they are disillusioned to believe that their struggles are comparable to the struggles of “real” soldiers in the Iraqi conflict.  And while much could be debated and analyzed in this context, the main point to take from this is an admittance by these rap artists that the soldier imagery is so prevalent in rap music that they felt they had to address it.  So much so that 4th25 focuses much of their debut album in confronting the oft-used metaphor and rapping about the realities of warfare and the realities of American soldiers in the Iraqi conflict.

Why is the soldier/struggle ethos such a major part of rap music?  The answer is both simple and complex.  Minorities in the United States, Latino Americans and African Americans, especially those among the poor, are living within and under hegemonic forces.  We must not forget that these underlying, systematic forces were not too long ago openly direct forces that constituted periods of racial dictatorship and racial democracy, from slavery to Jim Crow (Omi and Winant).  And while strong arguments can be made to categorize the contemporary United States as still being in a state of racial democracy (in which one racial group dominates and oppresses through semi-democratic processes) there is no doubt that openly racist notions and laws have been supplanted by a more vague system of structures and ideology that indirectly places white middle and upper class notions as the “norm.” This normative gaze of middle-class whiteness is placed upon these communities as they are labeled inferior, a phenomena that has roots in the genealogical history of racism (West).  But this normative gaze and the conditions which create an oppressive system for Latino Americans and African Americans is steeped in issues of history, economics, politics, and ideology (among others).  This is indicative of what Stuart Hall refers to as “articulation,” or the joining up of complex forces which attempt to explain social structures of oppression and racism.  The complex realities which are detrimental to Latino American and African American quasi-citizens are not always easily seen because hegemony creates a cloak of the possibility for upward mobility when in fact that mobility is many times more illusory than truly accessible. The lives and lyrics of rap artists illustrate the angst against larger, complex social forces that seem to provide an illusory hope of success but which hold down those that are, in the words of Homi Bhabha, “almost the same but not white” (118).

As is indicative of this angst and soldier ethos, rap lyrics attempt to work as a disruptive force against the oppressive social system.  Though many rap artists are partially controlled by white record label executives, given un-critical consent by some artists to exploit their talents (hegemony at work), they continue to work as social and rhetorical spearheads against the status quo.  Rap music, particularly that brand which is labeled “gangsta,” unapologetically expresses notions of struggle, rage, Blackness, Brownness, poverty, etc. in exploiting and mocking the dominant culture.  This is indicative of Bhabha’s notion of menace in which subaltern groups move beyond stages of mimicry and mockery to a state where they are capable of challenging the dominant culture and system.  And while Hip Hop has been appropriated by many in mainstream society, the hard truths and lives of the poor minorities expressed in much rap music and Hip Hop film continue to be wake-up calls to middle-class, white America.  As stated by rapper Ice-Cube, “Rap is the CNN of the ‘hood.”  We should listen more closely.

Tension: An Extension of Historical Conflict

While there are strong points of solidarity among Latino American and African American citizens, illustrated in the struggle ethos of rap artists, there is no doubt tension as well.  As I began working on this essay I considered focusing only on points of solidarity between these two groups, as union seems more productive than distance, but that would only be half the story.  Just as rap music continually points to similar realities in the lives of Latino Americans and African Americans, setting up solidarity between these two non-dominant groups—which I refer to as everyday solidarity—there is no doubt an on-going struggle between the two as well.

It is important to put tensions between Latino Americans and African Americans within a historical context, for the tension between these two populations certainly did not begin with the emergence of rap music and Hip Hop culture; though rap music and Hip Hop culture certainly play their part in illustrating and perpetuating these tensions.  A quick look at this relationship shows strong points of division.  In the 1800s, “Negro soldiers were used as a battering ram against Native Americans”—direct ancestors of many Latino Americans.  In 1916, African American soldiers were even sent into Mexico in search of Pancho Villa, an act which was disliked by many Mexicans (Horne viii-ix).  In 1968, as Martin Luther King, Jr. was formulating plans for the Poor People’s March, he was approached by Reies Lopez Tijerina, a Latino American land grant and farmworker activist, to join in the March and Civil Rights struggle.  While King demanded that Latino Americans “play a top role in the March” and walk in lockstep with African Americans, he was “virtually a lone voice calling for such an alliance.”  The message from King’s inner circle was that “Latinos and other ethnic groups were at best subservient partners that were welcome as long as they knew their place” which led to divisions among the two groups and race isolation (Hutchinson).

More recently, discussions over illegal immigration (particularly from Mexico) have re-illustrated tensions between African American and recent legal and illegal immigrants from Mexico.  As a number of African American saw (see) it, illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans, particularly poor African Americans.  It didn’t help matters when in 2005 President Vicente Fox of Mexico stated that Mexicans were going to the United States to do jobs that “not even Blacks want to do,” which drew ire from many including African American leader Jesse Jackson (CNN).  There has also been growing tension between Latino American and African American high school students in a number of states, most noticeably in South Central Los Angeles (one of rap music’s meccas) where the racial makeup shifted from a majority African American population to a majority Latino American population during the 1990s.  Numerous small and large scale riots have broken out at schools between these two populations (McGrath). If high school students are our future, these tensions are certainly part of that future.

Specific examples from Hip Hop culture illustrate this tension.  In his music video Just A Lil Bit, rapper 50 Cent employs visual rhetoric that illustrates the tension between African Americans and Latino Americans.  Though the lyrics to the song have nothing to do with these tensions, the storyline of the video is indicative of the separation and ongoing feud between these two groups.  In two different scenes, 50 Cent uses African American females to seduce and incapacitate two rich Latino characters, one by tying to the posts of a bed and the other by drugging.  It is alluded to in the video that the rapper is robbing (and probably killing) the two Latino characters and taking over their money and “space.”  50 Cent calmly smokes a cigar as the two men become aware of the fact that they have been duped and that they will soon meet their demise.

In the popular Hip Hop movie Next Friday (2000), a comedy written by rap icon Ice-Cube, African Americans and Latino Americans are pitted against one another in the suburbs.  Young Craig, played by Ice-Cube, has moved to the suburbs to live with his Uncle Elroy and cousin Day-Day, who became rich through lottery winnings.  While moving to the suburbs to escape problems, conflict ensues between the African American characters and their young drug-dealing Latino American neighbors.  These neighbors are clearly essentialized as they are portrayed as young “gangstas” with thick accents.  They are even referred to as the ese’s, a Spanish slang term used by young African Americans in a number of films to refer to Latino characters.  Throughout the film, there are run-ins between the Latino American and African American characters, even between Craig and the neighbor’s dog, Chico, and the film ends with a violent struggle between Craig, his uncle and father, and the Latino “gangstas.”  While the movie is intended as a comedy, the distinction and tension between Latino Americans and African Americans in this movie is telling, especially considering the movie was written by one of the most influential voices of the Hip Hop community, Ice Cube.  This movie is a comedic, hyper-stereotyped illustration of the tenuous relationship between these two groups, but it points to a serious and very real situation in the United States.

These two examples are indicative of numerous instances in rap videos and Hip Hop films (i.e. Menace II Society, Blood In Blood Out, Boyz N The Hood, American Me, Get Rich or Die Trying) where there are obvious divisions between African Americans and Latino Americans.  And if it is in the “everyday” that divisive and racist notions are conveyed (Essed), then the visual rhetoric coming from these Hip Hop videos and films illustrates and perpetuates underlying tensions between these two groups.  By becoming part of the fabric that is Hip Hop culture, these images affect the relations between these two groups and feed the essentialzed images of each group.  They affect attitudes, and thus actions, of those whose identity is strongly linked to the Hip Hop ethos.

It is not surprising to see these two racial minorities in conflict considering that both are economically, rhetorically, and ideologically battling under racially hegemonic circumstances.  From struggling against historical forces, economic oppression, a gap in health services (Stein), the digital divide (Banks), and violence, Latino Americans and African Americans are pitted against one another as they grasp for the next rung on the ladder of social equity.  While white upper and middle class Americans continue to hold a strong grip on the social order of the United States, those with fewer opportunities will continue to struggle vertically (against the dominant culture) and horizontally (against other minorities).  And while many tensions between the two groups are because of their coexisting status at the economic margins of society, racial and ethnic identity also serve as a strong catalyst for division.  Even if every person in the United States were a millionaire, there would continue to be division and struggle between racial groups, including Latino Americans and African Americans.  Battles over whose cultural capital is most important and prestigious would continue, and issues of language and cultural literacy would take center stage.  Questions of whether the peoples of Africa or the peoples of Mexico should call the shots (as in the Poor People’s March) would ensue.

So the tension is not merely economic, but also social and cultural, and seems destined to continue for years to come.  Listening to the voices of rap and Hip Hop will allow us to understand the climate of some of these tensions and get the feel for the rhetoric and attitudes that are coming “from the streets”—the heartbeat of any nation.

Towards a Conclusion

The textual (particularly rap lyrics) and visual (music videos and film) rhetorics of Hip Hop culture illustrate and perpetuate the tenuous-solidarity between Latino Americans and African Americans.  They are indicative of the everyday tension and everyday solidarity between these two populations.  While they cannot account for the attitudes and actions of every single individual, I believe they are indicative of the overriding ethos of this relationship, especially among those that strongly identify with Hip Hop culture.  We must not only focus on the relations between national leaders from these two groups (many of which are of a generation too old to have been highly influenced by Hip Hop culture) but must begin to look at those members of these generations that were/are.  Beyond that, having our eyes and ears tuned in only to those with political power is only getting at the tip of the iceberg.  We need to listen to the rhetoric coming from everyday situations and conversations because rarely will we find direct commentary made on or about another race in published form from “everyday” people (though the Internet is changing this and is a ripe field for study).  Rap lyrics and visual rhetoric coming from Hip Hop culture are one of our best avenues to plug in to the tensions and solidarity within racial groups in our country.

Because of its roots in the African American community and its continued presence within, under, and against hegemonic forces, Hip Hop culture—particularly rap lyrics, music videos, and Hip Hop films—constitutes a “racial project” in which Latino Americans and African Americans express relational attitudes towards each other and the dominant culture.  Michael Omi and Howard Winant describe a racial project as “simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics…” (125).  Rap music constitutes one of these projects as it not only interprets and illustrates racial dynamics but also represents complex social structures and influences relations among racial groups.  The historical realities that are linked to the contemporary situation of Latino Americans and African Americans as oppressed groups come alive in Hip Hop culture as this culture, to a large extent, was born out of systemic structures that created the need for a new voice among the economically and rhetorically oppressed.

This racial project known as Hip Hop brings to life the situatedness of many Latino American and African American quasi-citizens and continues to develop in a racially influenced atmosphere.  Within Hip Hop, there is the struggling, tugging and pulling between Latino American and African American forces.  But as these two elements work against one another, they also form part of a complexly unified force that constantly interacts and pushes up against dominating cultural and economic forces. They constitute a cultural hurricane of sorts, whose identity is created mostly in opposition to white, middle-class America and which works under, within, and through the overriding atmosphere of historical whiteness.  And while they continue to challenge some of the dominant modes of being, in uses of language, appearance, attitude, etc. and “rearticulate…notion[s] of identity” and “reverse ‘in part’ colonial appropriation” they continue to exist as “almost the same but not white” (Bhabha 117-118).

Hip Hop is a culture born of the margins that exists as a “community of resistance” which readily identifies with the empowering image of the soldier and which is not a “site of deprivation…[but] a central location for the production of counter-hegemonic discourse” (hooks 149).  Hip Hop culture, come to life in rap lyrics, music videos and film, “offers to one the possibility of radical perspective” (hooks 149) and reminds us that the margins do continue to exist, and, though pieces of that culture are absorbed into the dominant culture, a characteristic of hegemony,  it remains a site of resistance, education and hope.  Furthermore, the tenuous-solidarity between Latino Americans and African Americans is not merely contained in Hip Hop culture but is indicative of the relationship between these two groups in the United States at large.

The margin is never a simple, monolithic reality.  The margin is created through complex forces and is made up of different groups that interact with the dominant group and each other.  As members of the margin, Latino Americans and African Americans continually exist as a united force against hegemony but at the same time as competing entities.  This reality is an integral part to the development of this nation, and by continuing to study the rhetorical output of Hip Hop culture, we can come to some understanding of the tenuous-solidarity that will influence, enhance and mar this continuing project which is the United States of America.

Black love, Brown Pride/

We might fight against each other/

But I promise you this/

We’ll burn this [city] down—just get us pissed

-Tupac Shakur-

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Brown and Black in Hip Hop: Tenuous-Solidarity

Robert Tinajero

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