Did Hip Hop Fail Black America?: The War on Drugs, Hip Hop, and the (New) Black CNN

Posted on September 18, 2012


“’Cuz everyday on the street, the black man’s getting’ beat, police line us up on the concrete. Now people look at me and always see wrong. A new problem everyday—I’m trying to be strong. Now how strong can a nigga be when the blacks is locked down and the white man’s got the key?” – Mr. Cheeks, “Channel Zero” (1996)

Did hip hop fail black America by evading a direct confrontation with the War on Drugs?

Last month, cultural critic Touré published an illuminating and provocative article arguing that hip hop culture turned its back on black America because its artists failed to confront the injustices of the U.S.’s drug war.[1] He advanced a declension narrative about one of hip hop’s lyrical traditions—social commentary about drug trafficking, drug use, and the overall terrible conditions that urban blacks have faced in the last fifty years. According to Touré, hip hop’s first generation of artists like Melle Mel, KRS One, and Public Enemy embraced the role of the observer and critic of perilous inner city life. They did not glorify drug dealing as many black and white conservative and liberal critics of hip hop would charge. Instead, they served as mere reporters for the hood—hip hop represented the ‘channel’ that Public Enemy’s Chuck D famously called the “Black CNN.” Eventually, as “gangsta” rap became more popular among young white male suburbanites, the “Black CNN” gave way to the “Black MTV.” Nihilistic “coke” rappers and hustlers like Raekwon, Notorious BIG, and Jay-Z supplanted the tradition of the critical and detached observer of black urban life. And Rick Ross has emerged out of this cultural milieu to become hip hop’s latest and most popular personification of this masculine and lyrical form. These rappers appeared to glorify the drug dealing lifestyle more than critique it.[2] They “acquiesced” to the War on Drugs instead of fighting it. They chose to profit instead of resist.

Unfortunately, Touré’s larger argument about hip hop is not new. Conservatives have often lambasted hip hop artists for their nihilism. Even Cornel West, in his seminal book, Race Matters, used the label to describe black urban youth in the early-1990s, at the moment when drug rap started to take off.[3] What seems redeeming about Touré’s, and even West’s, argument is that they try connect this heightened sense of collective fatalism (in the case of Touré and West) and “coke” rap (in the case of Touré) to public policy and devastating transformations of U.S. cities in the 1970s.

Troubled cities where hip hop developed and thrived like New York City, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, Oakland, and Los Angeles are historically marked by intense racial and class segregation and deindustrialization and job flight. These circumstances left little-to-no options to earn a living and resulted in depressing tax bases and inadequate social services. The replacement of positive and effective (black) communal institutions and economic entities with the drug market and mechanisms of state control such as police forces resembling paramilitary units fortified the boundaries of the post-1965 ghetto. The combination of intense ghettoization, public policy, and the ever-growing public-private mass incarceration state comprises what scholar Michelle Alexander deems as the “New Jim Crow,” where very few social and economic opportunities exist for able-bodied men and women of color.[4] Touré and other scholars writing about hip hop are correct, hip hop is as much of a product of large scale structural forces as local cultural practices.

Touré highlights another important issue—plenty of hip hop artists, especially its biggest names, have emphasized drug dealer over radical chic. Touré also correctly points to hip hop’s big sellers as a barometer for the type of content many casual hip hop fans’ prefer. Yet, looking to hip hop’s most visible (male) artists to draw conclusions about a whole genre’s political potential is problematic. In doing so, Touré overlooks artists who have critically spoken out about the dire circumstances black youth face in our inner-cities.

The larger point of his piece is that hip hop has somehow lost its way—it has gone from serving as the Black CNN to the Black MTV. Social commentary about the urban condition is no longer the primary focus for rappers, glorification of the excesses of drug dealing (and materialism) is the preferred use for rap artistry. However, I argue the opposite—Touré has been looking for critical social commentary about the urban condition in the wrong places. We have seen a persistence of a critique of the issues related to the drug war and the crisis of American cities in the last decade—a decade where many of hip hop’s most popular artists like Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Lil’ Wayne took hip hop to new heights in  American and global popular culture.[5]

While Touré talks about how rap artists embraced the negative stereotype of the black man as criminal, rapperJadakiss was questioning drug trafficking instead of merely describing or bragging about it. He asked in 2004, “Why would niggas push pounds of powder? Why did Bush knock down the towers?”  And as if you were too distracted by his conspiracy theory-laden question about Bush, Jadakiss inquired later, “Why did crack have to hit so hard? Why can’t we get any jobs?” Jadakiss’s “Why” is significant because it represented one of the few hit protest songs released by a mainstream artist and self-proclaimed hustler. Jadakiss, just like Touré in his article, also linked his questions about drug trafficking to the rampant joblessness in inner-city communities of color. Jadakiss reminds us of the multi-dimensionality of rappers as well.

Touré concludes his essay by asserting that rap artists could use their artistry to point out “the drug war’s hypocrisies instead of acquiesing to them.” Dead Prez’s 1998 track, “Sellin’ D.O.P.E.” (Drugs Oppress People Everyday), fits Touré’s call for rap artists to highlight the “drug war’s hypocrisies.” Rappers M-1 and stic.man rap about the struggles of drug dealing from the first person, however they refrain from glorifying trafficking. MI raps about how depressed urban areas leave young black men and women with few options to survive, let alone ink out a sustainable living. He declares, “Ain’t no hope in the streets, you broke, you sell dope…I ain’t plan to get rich from sellin’ that shit. It was survival…”

The song takes a political turn when stic.man offers his perspective on who he think is really benefiting from the drug game, and by extension, the War on Drugs:  “The one thing bigger than dope games is prisons. One million niggas inside, over three million is tied plus the president lied. Because the white house is the rock house, Uncle Sam is the pusha man. This is for my people on the island.” Of course, stic.man does not specifically refer to any sort of hard evidence that the federal government facilitated the rise of the drug trade in America’s inner cities, but he identifies the growing for-profit prison industry as a main beneficiary of the drug war. The private prison industry boom came on the heels of the resurgence of the drug war under the Reagan administration during mid-1980s when the Corrections Corporation of America was allowed to take over a prison located in Tennessee. And as of 2010, according to the criminal justice advocacy group, The Sentencing Project, thirty states now boast private prisons and the number of prisoners housed in these facilities has grown 80 percent between 1999 and 2010.[6] Highlighting the intersections between the War on Drugs, drug dealing, the market, and the evolution of the prison-industrial complex represents one of hip hop’s major cultural contributions in the last thirty years. Dead Prez is not simply a throwback to a bygone era nor are they an obscure hip hop group. They have released critically-acclaimed albums (Let’s Get Free and Revolutionary But Gangsta), garnered endorsements from the likes of Jay-Z, and recorded and released this track years after the “turn” towards “coke” rap.

X-Clan released an excellent comeback album (Return from Mecca) in 2007 featuring a track detailing the centrality of incarceration in poor blacks’ lives. Members of X-Clan were part cohort of black nationalist and Afrocentric rappers that enjoyed prominence during the early-1990s. Their track—“Prison”—begins with a sample of the late Howard Zinn discussing how Section 1 of the 13th Amendment did not necessarily abolish involuntary servitude for those incarcerated. Then, which is a similar point that Michelle Alexander makes in her insightful book, Zinn predicts that the majority of black men will be incarcerated with their “state as their captor.”

Rapper Brother J’s subtle and nuanced lyricism distinguishes itself from Dead Prez’s in “Selling D.O.P.E.” In “Prison,” the ghetto, the underground economy, the schools (the school-to-prison pipeline), and the prison are all tentacles of an omniscient and oppressive state aimed to consume and regulate bodies in its efforts to sustain itself:

 “Guilty or innocent agents of government treat our hoods like picking grounds (schools to tenements), all sag in uniform as thugs they represent racial stereotypes for the oppressed. When you witness genocide every day, you get the hint, that the ghettos are cold like a lab experiment.”

Brother J’s track also critiques prison culture and other negative aspects of hip hop. He declares that “the prison state of mind will have you dead in the street yelling ‘P.I.M.P’” (“P.I.M.P.” is the name of a popular 50 Cent song.). Interestingly enough, the idea that all of these structures, and the culture, are linked is a point that scholars like Loïc Wacquant, William Julius Wilson, and Michelle Alexander articulate about urban poverty and mass incarceration.[7]

Killer Mike’s “Reagan,” from his 2012 album, R.A.P. Music, may exemplify the most explicit and scathing critique of the War on Drugs and President Ronald Reagan. The track begins with Reagan’s own words—his denial of the federal government’s role in seeking a guns-for-hostages swap with Iran in the Iran-Contra affair in 1986. The use of Reagan’s seemingly clueless denial of his administration’s role in gun trafficking illustrates the hypocrisy of U.S. participation in illegal activities abroad (circumventing an arms embargo) with the prosecution of ghettoized people of color at home.[8]

Killer Mike points out how the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, the domestic and the foreign policy, both speak the same language of violent oppression aimed at particular racialized groups.[9] At home, the War on Drugs “let the police terrorize whoever, but mostly black boys…lay us on our belly, while they fingers on they triggers…” Mike describes police brutality further:  “And they would beat us up as if we had diamonds on our watches, and they would take our drugs and money, as they pick our pockets. I guess that’s the privilege of policing for some profit.” He, like Dead Prez, also cites the profit motive and the logic of privatization that has become so central in the prison-industrial complex and its role in depressing the value of labor:  “But thanks to Reaganomics, prisons turned to profits cause free labor is the cornerstone of US economics.” Killer Mike punctuates his verse by connecting police brutality and mass incarceration at home with U.S. military intervention abroad during the Bush and Obama administrations.

So, has hip hop failed black America?[10]

Well, Toure is correct if we only look to rappers like T.I., Rick Ross, Jay-Z, and Lil’ Wayne. However, I have demonstrated that not every rapper—even mainstream artists—has acquiesced to the War on Drugs or the urban condition. Some artists, like the ones I mentioned, have levied critiques roughly corresponding to scholarly analysis. Asking why are not the most popular speaking out misses the point. The question is, in my best Jadakiss impersonation:  Why are we not exposed to the viewpoints of the (new) Black CNN? Why is not the multitude of hip hop artists represented in U.S. popular culture?

Of course, I am all for using art, or hip hop, protest, and organizing to resist, confront, and overturn the War on Drugs is a worthy endeavor for everyone who cares about justice. I also support challenging hip hop artists to expand their content to include critiques of the drug war and mass incarceration. Yet, believing that Rick Ross, someone profiting from peddling extravagant kingpin tales, should speak out against the War on Drugs is also like wishing that Democrats and Republicans would radically alter our wretched two-party electoral system–unfortunately, it may not be in his best interest financially. Now, I am not saying that Ross is not interested in speaking out on this particular topic—I cannot speak for him—but I am not willing bet any of my graduate student stipend on it.

It is unfortunate that Touré has let a particular narrative about the development of hip hop culture overshadow the work of those artists who record and release songs worthy enough to air on Black CNN. I hope hip hop did not stop being political for anyone after Public Enemy released Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black in 1991. Anyone who thinks this is living in the past and is letting nostalgia obscure hip hop’s current political potential. Hip hop artists are still using rap as a “tool of resistance” and as a means of survival, even while rappers like Rick Ross are enjoying incredible success. Yet, it seems that too many of us either are concerned with the rappers who parade in all of their glitz and glory on the Black MTV or we have tuned out political hip hop altogether. But, like the Lost Boyz’s Mr. Cheeks said in 1996, in the midst of the rise of the “coke” rap that Touré deplores:  rappers still got the “411 on the ghetto, tune into channel zero.

The Black CNN still airs on channel zero. You just have to look for it.

*Originally posted on my Facebook page Monday, August 13, 2012


[1] Touré, “How America and Hip Hop Failed Each Other,” The Washington Post, 13 July 2012. Touré adequately contextualizes his argument. He reminds us how the U.S. achieved the highest incarceration rate in the world by the 1990s when the U.S. contained more than 1.5 million prisoners. Of course, many of those familiar with the issue of mass incarceration know that 1 in 3 black men are expected to serve time in jail in their lifetime. Michelle Alexander has also claimed that there are more black men in prison than there were enslaved in 1850. See, “Michelle Alexander:  More Black Men Are in Prison Today Than Were Enslaved in 1850,” The Huffington Post, 12, October 2011.

[2] I have not listened to much Rick Ross, but I would argue that Jay-Z’s, Raekwon’s, Notorious BIG’s, and the others that Touré listed like Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan’s hustler tales are more morally ambiguous.

[3] See Cornel West’s chapter, “Nihlism in Black America,” in Race Matters. I should credit West for trying to connect a cultural with a structural analysis. However, the problem with cultural analyses of poverty and inequality is they usually bend conversations towards lamentations about bad and/or “anti-social” behavior. West’s focus on nihilism leaves little space for the discussion of structural reform because his proposals are amorphous at best. Advocating for a vague “politics of conversion” and “love ethic” sounds good rhetorically, but West’s appeals are too therapeutic and they do little to appeal to either policy and/or organizing strategy.

[4] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York:  The New Press, 2010).

[5] I would also argue that many hip hop artists recorded scores of political/protest songs during the Bush Era (2000-2008). Rap artists like Dead Prez, Nas, Jadakiss, Boston’s The Perceptionists (Mr. Lif and Akrobatik), Gang Starr, Big Boi, Pharoahe Monch, Talib Kweli, Paris, Oakland’s The Coup,  Immortal Technique, Mos Def, and even Jay-Z and Kanye West have recorded songs documenting their views about the Bush Administration, racism, Hurricane Katrina, and the Iraq War to name a few topics. I would also add Erykah Badu to the list even if she does not fit comfortably in any boundaries. My very short list of artists illustrates how both marginal and mainstream artists used their music to comment on explicit political topics.

[6] Mason, Cody. Too Good to Be True:  Private Prisons in America (Washington, D.C.:  The Sentencing Project, 2012). For profit prison corporations like the CCA have also benefitted greatly from detaining ‘illegal’ immigrants as well. See Mason, Cody, Dollars and Detainees:  The Growth For-Profit Detention (Washington, D.C.:  The Sentencing Project, 2012).

[7] Loïc Wacquant argues that the ‘ghetto’ and the prison are locked in a “deadly symbiosis” where each ‘peculiar institution’ overlap one another in their function as a mechanism to contain and control lower-class black Americans. Alexander builds upon Wacquant’s concept in The New Jim Crow. See Loïc  Wacquant, “Deadly Symbiosis:  When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh,” Punishment & Society, Vol. 3, Issue 1. Also see, William Julius Wilson, More than Just Race:  Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2010).

[8] The use of Reagan’s voice also points to the implicit argument that the U.S. state—the CIA—participated in the federal government’s web of deceit by supporting Nicaraguan guerillas distributing narcotics in U.S. cities. See Alexander, 6.

[9] Scholar Jonathan Simon makes the point that the logic of the War on Terror stemmed from the drug war in his book,Governing Through Crime:  How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear.

[10] Nope. Shit, I could make a better argument that black politics has failed black America, but that may be for another article. Yep, shots fired.

Posted in: Hip Hop