Realism: the politics of keeping it real: There has always been a tension between representing reality (realism) and fiction or fantasy-fiction in hip-hop music. The general public had always gotten some level of insight into urban, ghetto life in the videos of Grandmaster Flash (The Message) or breakdancing videos such as Beat Street (1984) or Breakdance (1984). That there was some intrinsic link between the ghetto streets and the raw sound of the music being produced there became apparent. The mid-nineties is often referred to as the pinnacle era of Hip Hop. What had come before this peek in music production were several hip-hop acts that were potentially real (e.g. Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One/BDP and N.W.A.) and then another set of more commercial hip hop acts that were clearly products of the music industry (e.g. Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer). At that time there was also a third trend of organic, “hippy” hip-hop acts, such as De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, PM Dawn.
Two things developed from this situation in the middle of the 1990s. Firstly, whole new generations of hip hop artists came out onto the mainstream whose aim was to “keep it real”. Nas’ debut LP Illmatic (1994) is the best example of this new, artistic realism. Both in terms of the lyrical content and the gritty sound of the musical production (including samples of subway train and groups of youngsters speaking on the street corners), the album attempted to represent urban street life in Queensbridge as best as possible. Nas took onboard the title of an urban poet in his special ability to accurately represent ghetto life to a much wider, mainstream audience. In his diss song directed at Nas, Jay Z claimed that: ‘It’s only so long fake thugs can pretend Nigga, you ain’t live it
. You witnessed it from your folks’ pad
. You scribbled it in your notepad and created your life’. Nevertheless, Nas was of a generation intent on representing the real. This trend took off and other acts such as The Wu Tang Clan and The Notorious BIG also had the aim of representing the hard realities of life in inner city New York. Being able to represent reality, or “keep it real”, became a big selling point.
A paradoxical turn came when artists who had set out to “keep it real” about street life became successful and financially prosperous in doing so. If these artists were to keep up the promise of “representing the real” then they could no longer write about backstreets and alleyways, drug addicts and dealers, when their social environments had changed so dramatically. In order to keep it authentic, rappers then had to represent their newly found cultural environments of prosperity, lavishness, security and comfort. Rap became bourgeoisie. Therefore, keeping it real or resenting the real became a success story of champagne and caviar, Rolls Royces, D&G and Armani. To keep it real, however, the narrators had to maintain some kind of ghetto mentality in these non-ghetto environments. Being a success, as might be a norm for any well-to-do white American, was only achieved as a result of a “gangster mentality” – “criminal minded” as KRS-One called it. White people were simply successful, black men and women were forced to become successful only by being dons, or ghetto-gangsters.
There was a whole backlash against black realist rappers who tried to remain authentic in their new, upper-middle-class or elitist cultural conditions. Those left grinding on the streets argued that they were “sell outs” and had become far removed from the essence that gave hip-hop music that raw, gritty edge. These rappers were so concerned about keeping it real, representing the real, or representing the people (community members in ghetto neighborhoods) that they swore never to sell out on the streets. This movement morphed into a new black “left-wing” mentality in hip-hop culture.
The most monuments political and ideological turn in the hip hop movement – I believe – was when Tupac Shakur announced his “Thug Life” legacy. This was the idea that as young, entrepreneurial black men, and gangsters, living in an oppressive, white capitalist social system, then power could be claimed and wielded to support black people and black communities. Being successful; being a success, meant empowering black people in an ongoing race war, this was the new ethos of “keeping it real”. This philosophy did not just mean: “to make a change, you need to get involved”, but rather do not just get involved but take power and dominate. “Get Money”.
This economic and cultural philosophy and set of values was where the white, “capitalist-carnivores” of Wall Street and the black drug dealers of US ghettos could – eventually – see eye to eye. This philosophy and ethos solidified even more when 50 Cent released his LP Get Rich of Die Trying after being shot nine times in a drug-related gang war. The obvious difference between white America and black America’s social Darwinism was that for the majority of white people the struggle for financial success and power would not include being shot or shooting at opposing gang rivals.
Networks and viruses: In the year of 1995 the Hip Hop Top 10 was dominated by a few groups: namely, Mobb Deep, KRS-One, Show & A.G. (D.I.T.C.), Wu Tang (Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Genius/GZA, Method Man, Chef Raekwon), Gangstarr (Guru and DJ Premier), 2Pac, Cypress Hill and Goodie Mob. With the slow rate of mastering, record pressing and vinyl distribution it was possible to count the successful artists in a year on two hands. It is much more apparent that in the age of the Internet and digital music production and consumption, newcomers spring onto the hip-hop seen and claim some level of success on an almost weekly basis. It is almost impossible to keep up with not only the amount of new artists in the US, but also now in local areas (e.g. East London, Toronto), and also the various sub-genres of Hip Hop (Trap, Southern, Crunk, etc.).
The Bobby Shmurda Case:
Sociologically, the recent arrest of overnight musical sensation Bobby Shmurda highlights a whole new set of interrelated social issues caused by social networking media, whilst also drawing our attention to a more historical set of race and class issues that stem as far back as the British Empire and Industrial Revolution – there is nothing new here so to speak. Most of all, the issue of realism or ‘keeping it real’.
The opening lyric of Shmurda’s viral hit Hot Nigga (2014) kept things so real that Shmurder actually confessed to committing murder (an act called ‘self-snitching’). On the track, he announced that:
|In Chewy, I’m some hot nigga||Like I talk to Shyste when I shot niggas||Like you seen em twirl then he drop, nigga||And We Keep them 9 milli’s on my block, nigga||And Monte Keep it on him, he done dropped niggas||And Trigger he be wilding, he some hot nigga
Tones known to get busy with them Glocks, nigga
The song made him famous; a smash hit. These were the lyrics that fans sang out all across the US and around the world. Within a matter of month he appeared on stage with Drake, had his dance performed by Jay-Z and Beyonce Knowles, Rihanna and Justin Bieber. What more could a young teenage from Brooklyn wish for?
Some translation work needs to be done here. At that time nobody actually knew who these people, “Shyste”, “Monte”, “Trigger” or “Tones” were. What we did know, if we were to accept that nineteen-year old Shmurda was telling the truth and ‘keeping it real’, was that these youngsters had guns, had shot people and were prepared and threatening to shoot more people. It should not have come as much a surprise then when the police eventually arrested Shmurda’s gang with twenty handguns between them. What is strange, and what is peculiar, is that the news did come as a shock to the Hip Hop, urban and popular music communities around the world. Why does his arrest come as such a shock to us all when he was so openly real and transparent about his background and criminal activities?
Bobby Shmurda burst onto the hip-hop scene, literally spreading his video, song and dance like wildfire. He went viral. In the following six months of his YouTube video, fans and industry celebrities produced vine videos in homage to his success. The way in which his video was produced – low cost production with the instrumental downloaded from YouTube – and consumed – by consumers on the Internet or using mobile phones – and the viral nature of its distribution was entirely symptomatic of computerised society or The Network Society. In such a vertically organised market supply and demand are almost real time phenomena. It was clear to everyone that Shmurda, with his distinctive Shmoney Dance, was exactly what the music industry wanted and needed. He was immediately made “hot on the block”. The most interesting sociological question, I feel, is what made him so hot in the first place?
Charisma, bureaucracy and The Golden Ticket(s): One way to understand Bobby Shmurda’s hotness is in terms of the sociological concept of ‘charisma’. This was an idea and framework developed by German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) in trying to distinguish different ‘factor’ that exist between ‘specialized types’ on the one hand, and ‘neutral undifferentiated species-type’ on the other hand (1964: 105). Shmurda stood out as a charismatic, “special type”.
Before trying to understand his charismatic qualities, lets understand first the music scene that he appeared onto in terms of bureaucracy. Many have complained that fake gangsters and frauds have saturated the hip-hop scene. These are people who have appropriated the symbols and actions of non-bureaucratic, charismatic leaders of the past (N.W.A., Biggie Smalls, 2Pac, 50 Cent, Diplomats, etc.) but do so only to formally replicate the rules set in place by their charismatic authority and leadership. However, it is not so much the “fake rappers” themselves as the record industry, which has its own rules, conventions, norms and procedures, that have extended different levels of bureaucratic control over the artists that the industry has recently been signing and promoting. What these bureaucrats desire is artist that can enact the different rules set in place by former charismatic leaders, but without the radicalism. In terms of fake gangsters then Rick Ross was exposed by 50 Cent as an ex-correctional officer. Radio DJs complained the Canadian rapper Drake was representing a thug-life but at the same time producing smooth R&B songs for the radio. More recently the controversy turned to a white, female and Australian rapper Iggy Azalea or white, lower middle-class rapper Riff Raff’s appropriate of ghetto-fabulous or ghetto-flamboyance in the construction of his postmodern identity and pursuit of money and “fun”. The sentiment put about by mainly radio DJs on the radio in the US is that while these rappers are entertaining, the original black hip-hop culture has lost its substance, depth, direction and purpose. There are implications here in terms of class struggle also. There is a threat that these “well-to-do” artists might extinguish the voices of ghetto America in expressing the deplorable living conditions of urban, ghettoized America. These different sociological factors set the background and conditions for Shmurda’s eventual emergence.
“Charisma”, as a term, is defined by Weber as ‘a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at lease specifically exceptional powers or qualities’. Charisma is ‘sharply opposed both to rational, and particularly bureaucratic, authority’. There were several factors that set Shmurda apart from other hip hop acts on the scene when his video Hot Nigga went viral. Firstly, his age and youthfulness gave him enough energy and vitality to appear as fresh and vibrant as he actually was. Secondly, his multi-cultural background gave him the hip-hop knowledge requires to enter the game legitimately as a legitimate, street-wise, black American teenage. However, his family roots in Miami and Jamaica not only gave him appeal in Southern and Caribbean markets, but also added to his charisma within the cultural environment of New York. Elephant Man’s reggae-dancehall remix of the Shmoney dance helped to leak the immerging trend to foreign, non-US markets. Although comparisons have been made between his Shmoney dance and Puff Daddy’s dance in the 1990s, many have overlooked the fact that it is also based around a Jamaican wine and skank developed in the 1980s – as still occasionally performed by English reggae DJ, David Rodigan. Then, there is his expression of frustration; this was most apparent in his aggressive facial expressions in the Hot Nigga video; what Shmurda possessed and expressed was the same level of rage that 2Pac expressed in the mainstream media limelight. Lastly, and more sadly, the main distinguishing factor in his charisma and appeal was his unique quality of “realness”. In reference to Iggy Azalea, Power FM’s DJ Charlamagne made the claim that: ‘when you talk about people that are fake, and are not representing the culture, this is how you know that 95% of rappers aren’t doing any of the tings they say they do in their raps. Because if they were, they would be in the same situation that Bobby Shmurda is in now: prison!’ What contributed to his charisma, what mad him stand out from the fake rappers (the bureaucrats), was his conviction, his honesty, and his realness. When he said: “Monte Keep it on him, he done dropped niggas”, his audience – and the police – were convinced that he was keeping it so real that this meant that his friend had actually murdered someone. In an interview Shmurda was asked: “Now a days rap is like the WWF, people throw up gang signs was mention a whole lot of other stuff, but there is a lot of truth to your raps… what’s probably the realest lyric you’ve said?” To which he smiled into the camera and answered: “Like I talk to Shyste when I shot niggas” (4:13). It is difficult not to make judgments on this, but the aim of the sociologist for Weber is to ‘abstain from value judgments’ but recognise that ‘according to conventional judgments’ of whatever community this charismatic leader is recognised as ‘the ‘greatest’ heroes’ (1964: 358; 361; 359).
Conclusion: This blog in no way presents a formal analysis of the Bobby Shmurda case. Many have expressed their sorrow about the situation concerning Shmurda. It is an unfortunate case because it highlights several problems with the current hip-hop scene in American popular culture and subcultures. Firstly, the politics of realism has been shifting between “art representing life” and “life imitating art”. The benefits of realism in hip hop has been that it has given a platform to socially and economically deprived classes to speak directly to general audiences in American about class and racial tensions. In turn, the power struggle for fame and prosperity has managed to economically empower black Americans from impoverished backgrounds so that they can help to reinvest into America providing a proactive and capitalist form of charitable aid. However, realism has pushed its limits and there is now a fundamental difference between rapping about killers and rapping about killing. The problem is that the last, more direct form of realism has gained greater value as a form of legitimacy and cultural capital on the market.
When asked: “What’s a typical day like in New York?” Shmurda responded: “(It’s) a jungle man! (I’m) a lion in the jungle; king of the jungle baby”. This is the sad state of affairs. While developmental issues such as social welfare, social and food security, are discussed by the power elites of societies around the world, we are constantly reminded about the underprivileged underbelly of modern society. While it has often be considered the case that giving underprovided a platform to express the unfairness of this situation, the only way for them to take the stand and speak to the majority by proving – beyond all reasonable doubt – that they are legitimate enough to represent the hood, the ghetto, or the crime-world. To access this cultural capital, proving their “realness” as authentic, charismatic leaders, then these young, black, gang-members are already guilty by association.
Weber M. (1964) The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, New York: The Free Press.