Monday, July 30, 2007


this past saturday and sunday, new york city's dusty randall's island hosted hordes of hip hop fans at the ROCK THE BELLS North American music festival, sponsored by Guerilla Union.

ROCK THE BELLS has called itself a "world-class hip hop plaftorm" and features over twenty politically conscious and activist hip hop acts, including big names such as rage against the machine, wu-tang clan, cypress hill, mos def, talib kweli, nas, EPMD, the roots, and rakim.

amazingly, of the fourteen performances scheduled this weekend for the main stage, only one featured a woman performer - erykah badu played one set on early sunday evening, as the sole woman included amongst the festival's main attractions.

apparently, a fifty minute set is all the representation women of color get at this festival and by extension, hip hop and the revolution ROCK THE BELLS is intended to be a platform for.

gender diversity on the only other stage at the festival, the "paid dues" stage, was no better without fair and equal representation of women amongst the eight acts that played over the weekend. to boot, badu's name appears misspelled on the ROCK THE BELLS randall's island lineup.

"represent + respect + recognize".... black manhood?

for a political, musical event that claims to "capture and define a movement," the nearly exclusively male ROCK THE BELLS lineup denies both the existence of women and our centrality to hip hop. are there no women voices that shape urban culture and should therefore direct the discourse of the tour? is this our answer to backwards, misogyistic hip hop - more men holding mics and the erasure of women?

and for a tour that claims to be revolutionary in ideology and focus, the absence of women performers and a focus on issues of gender equality and women's rights, fits into the larger question raised by the pecularities of the festival: which revolution exactly is ROCK THE BELLS calling for?

i have no doubt that zack de la rocha kept it real and fresh and incendiary with all he communicated while on stage and that anyone who had not yet heard any tracks off of fear of a black planet was changed for the better after seeing public enemy. the new york city, los angeles, and san francisco dates on the tour also featured an Axis of Justice tent dedicated to local activism. the presence of groups such as Iraq Veterans Against the War, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Safe Space NYC, Immigrant Communities in Action, La Otra, and JUST US, is evidence of a commitment to immigrant rights, labor rights, economic justice, youth development, and anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-war, anti-homophobic activity.

hoowever, while the content of the art of the tour itself is bold and necessary, the marketing and audience of ROCK THE BELLS remain far less than revolutionary. ROCK THE BELLS is compromised by the corporate sponsorship that seems to be used across the board to finance and support other tours of this size and scope. the frontpage of the website encourages fledgling revolutionaries (i.e. fans) to "join the mobile hip-hop revolution" which entails having news sent to your phone about "music, lifestyle, fashion, and more" but nothing more discernibly substantive. in general, the ROCK THE BELLS website, unlike the Axis of Justice site and tent, is astonishingly apolitical and commercial - as SanDisk, Rockstar Energy Drink, and Heineken are sponsors.

the terrible irony of corporate backing for a hip-hop tour with mostly performers of color is intensified by the fact that the festival is orchestrated by an organization called Guerilla Union that sports a star logo that strongly echoes the flag of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional.

many of us here at the north star were excited at the prospect of being able to catch rare performances by rage, public enemy, and of course mighty mos, but were unable to afford the concert tickets. elizabeth, camille, and i were near the east 125th street train station on saturday morning and saw more white people than there ever are in harlem on line for buses to randall’s island. surely many other hip hop fans were unable to attend the show for financial reasons – particularly working class and poor kids and kids of color. the fact that most of the people on line for the festival were white men is a testament to the adverse effects of the cost and marketing of the festival and the fact that the buying and selling of the counterculture is still as profitable as ever.

my friend and soul-brother stanley attended ROCK THE BELLS and recounted to me his experience at the festival in the midst of a nearly all white crowd. he observed that when rage declared fox news was a fascist news station and that george w. bush should be tried as a war criminal, much of the crowd seemed to tune out.

brother stan remembers looking around in frustration at the other concertgoers, drunk and apparently oblivious to the immensity of what was unfolding on stage. he remembers wondering at the people surrounding him, “how are you going to wear a wu-tang shirt and not know the first four bars of ‘triumph?’”

for those uninterested/opposed to rage’s “political talk” or who do not know more than the chorus of “shimmy shimmy ya,” the allure of ROCK THE BELLS must be something other than the quality of the political discourse, the rhymes, the music. much of the allure surely resides in a covetous obsession with blackness as a commodity and hip hop as a fad.

the performers at ROCK THE BELLS were acutely aware of exactly who had come to see them and what the limitations and hypocrisies of the crowd were and their commentaries throughout the set were reflective of that, according to brother stan. the GZA knows white frat boys in the front row will not be at the forefront of a hip-hop revolution.

for artists as innovative and forward thinking as the roots to be included on a tour that includes more corporations than women constitutes an inconsistency of art, politics, and ethics. are we to join the men who will apparently be leading us to the future, toward change, toward... consumerism? looks like the hip hop revolution is committing the sins of white patriarchy.

these shortcomings of the festival are lost opportunities to further politicize the tour, to educate and organize with hip hop narratives. ROCK THE BELLS is an exciting congregation of some of the best talents and intellects in hip hop and music in general. the festival has the great potential to be a radicalizing experience for any true member of the hip hop generation who can afford to attend. the tour would broadcast a clearer political message with lineups, audiences, and sponsors that are more radically inclusive and representative.


Camille said...

Not only were the performances almost entirely male, but so was the audience. Groups of usually six or so guys with at most two women were getting off the train from Connecticut--Megan & I thought there was a Yankees game.

Then we were taking the train back to New Haven at the same time that the Hip Hop Revolution was taking the train back to Milford (93.5% white, watch out for that revolution). What's unique about the Hip Hop Revolution, according to what I saw on the train, is it is fueled by overpriced alcohol, snatches seats from little kids who get up to stretch their legs, and is intensely patriotic.

A Latino woman who got on at Grand Central was sitting in one of those groups of four seats facing each other, trying to sleep (reasonable, since it was 11 p.m.). At 125th when the train transformed into a frat party ("whoooo beer yeah!"), three large white men sat down in the seats around her, so that one of them could preach, loud enough for our half of the train car to hear, about how America is awesome and "anyone who doesn't like it is stupid. If you hate America so much, go back to your own country and then tell me you don't like America, stupid." Plenty of research could have been done right there in Harlem.

No one even talked about the show on the train. I expected to be hearing "That was so sick when Mr. Lif said blah blah" enough to get jealous that I didn't have a spare $50 to drop on the show. But it was the same thing you hear outside of Toad's, just how funny it is that they're so drunk.

Damn hip hop has changed.

Anonymous said...

Naima, I wholeheartedly agree with the irony of having a revolutionary hip hop concert, but since when has exclusion of women been a new idea? This festival, while good intentions were at heart, seems to be a microcosm of the black struggle for liberation in this country. A struggle which has been built upon myths of strong black men, with the support of strong black women. What will continue to happen is a continuing cycle of unstable equilibrium. Sure the festival ruffled feathers, threw out a few insults; but at the end of the day, it's exclusion of women will ultimately cripple any ideas of true liberty.

I'm sure you have heard the saying, "behind every strong black man, there's a strong black woman." I take exception to that, as I think that was the biggest pitfall of the Civil Rights Movement. The culturally accepted norm of the woman merely in a support role in the black community only reinforces white hegemony in this country. If black Americans are to ever achieve true liberty, it is imperative that black men include and value black women as part of the freedom process. It is not done with black men leading black women, and neither is it done with black women leading black men. Rather, it is done side by side.

Anonymous said...

as you have stated, this movement/revolution they speak of is nowhere to be found. when the terms of revolution and guerrilla have been quickly trademarked by t shirt companies and urban outfitters, who can we really trust? it was a let down, but what can you expect in this day and age when living "urban" in new york requires a 4000 dollar a month pay check to throw down.
this was a cleverly disguised hip hop version of warped tour. promising something fresh, and out of the box, and revolutionary. just because the people in the show may believe one thing doesnt mean that the people hosting the show agree. they agree on one thing, gotta make some dollas.and its no crime, its what we need to survive.

as for the females in the show, it could have been a number of things, for one it was a high profile concert and due to the patriarchal dominating nature of hip hop, its not easy to get a high profile female artist. its not impossible though. *where is jean grea when you need her?*

do your thing naima. but isnt it a bit suspect when these concerts pop up, not in a grass roots manner but in a l@rgely publicized *expen$ive* manner. It was pretty obvious from the jump

this aint no revolution,

Anonymous said...

Yes, and mos def has spent the last decade shilling for Reebok and other sweatshop apparel and substituting reactionary homophobic moralism (The Rapeover) for his earlier, more radical insights a la "Mathematics," "Respiration," etc., so clearly the revolution wasn't coming from that direction either.

Given how many corporate sponsors this thing had, one would hope that they could have at least made admission free or something. It seems like the prohibitive cost as much as the racial politics of "cosncious rap" fandom predetermines who could haul their ass out to Randall's Island. But the larger point about the inherent venality of corporate sponsorship of ostensibly revolutionary cultural production is well taken.

Andom said...

from one nigga to anotha, i think ur title should read "HIP HOP REVOLUTION: NO BITCHES ALLOWED." just keepin real! straight hip hop

Some of the comments here remind me of a hilarious Onion-type headline done by the Yale Record (gasp!):
"Record Sales of Che Guevara T-shirts Mysteriously Fail to Topple Capitalism"

rafi said...

Was this really the moment of your disillusionment? If so, wow. What on earth were you expecting and why?

If not, then like the artists who speak the same ol' revolution as messiah rhetoric (when it comes, all us good ones will be saved!) - you might just be going through the motions.

Naima said...

oh word, this post was definitely not the first time in my life i've tried to negotiate my troubled relationship with hip hop. try birth.

yes, this post was close to my moment of disillusionment with the ROCK THE BELLS festival - i was so excited by rage against the machine reuniting and mos def is one of my favorite rappers. yes, i was disappointed. however, i am not ashamed that i approached the festival with some semblance of hope and of dreaming.

i think that acknowledging the realities of hip hop does not have to be disengaged from nonetheless having expectations for it. i've got dreams and expectations for hip hop and for my people.

as for me being someone just "going through the motions," i imagine, as malcolm said, only "time will tell."

and samo, thank you for your comment - i appreciated it. i think the warped tour comparison is particularly right on. tents for cell phones and sports drinks and then the tent where you can get your anti-facism patch.

rafi said...

You may be interested in this related im convo I posted two nights ago.

It touches on some of the same themes: rock the bells, the idea of the musician as vague/dishonest revolutionary, the days before hip-hop felt impotent.

XambedkarX said...

The music industry is an industry like any other. Mos Def and the Waltons play for the same team. Music and revolution may be inseparable, but the music business and the revolution are insoluble.

Was RATM good anyway?

(this is Rob by the way, Naima)

Naima said...

hi rob! i heard rage was great.

Elizabeth said...

i didn't say this before but:
right on! let's break down them gendered doors.