Monday, July 30, 2007
HIP HOP REVOLUTION: NO GIRLS ALLOWED
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.