Not so long ago, my iPod was byte to byte hip hop, with a little R ‘n’ B, soul and jazz thrown in purely for triangulation purposes. Now, I can scroll through rock, pop and folk; even a little opera.
When I started researching ‘Where You’re At: Notes From The Frontline Of A Hip Hop Planet’ in 2001, I thought I’d be writing a love letter. Now, I realise it was more of a ‘Dear John’. Looking back, the evidence is on every page. There’s a lot of love, sure, but there’s a lot more veiled references to our different interests and the ways in which we were growing apart.
I guess the final break-up came on the night of the 2004 NBCC Awards in New York. My editor Sean and I skulked at the back of an auditorium full of middle-class, white literati and pretended we didn’t fit in. Then, a middle-class white lady (I forget her name), announced the winner of the prize for criticism. She did so in the form of a rap and I, a middle-class, white, literatus, made my way shyly to the stage. It was the most public of infidelities.
That moment was undoubtedly the culmination of a long process, but it’s no more forgivable for that. I was no longer a lover, nor even a fan: I was a critic. It said so on the plaque.
Of course, I could say that it was hip hop that betrayed me first. I could recount how hip hop introduced me to radical politics, revolutionary history and the great pantheon of black music, and then abandoned such interests for a life of fast cars, beautiful women and shiny shiny objects. But that misses the point. The point is that I’d crossed the line and there was no going back.
I’m cool with it. I still love hip hop, I’m just not in love with hip hop any more (and there’s an Oprahism if ever I heard one).
I still get a lot of correspondence about ‘Where You’re At’. Most of it’s from people a bit like me. Some of them agree with every word I wrote and their letters are like Dear Johns of their own. Some of them rage about how I don’t get it, that I’ve sold out, that I’m not authetic/ down/ real.
This latter group think they’re still in love with hip hop. But they’re not; they’re just scared of the impending break up. Soon, I reckon they’ll feel just like me. Why do I think that? Because the people who are really in love with hip hop – blindly, breathlessly, hopelessly; they don’t read books about it. Or, if they do, they know that the books are irrelevant to them by their very existence – dancing about architecture and all that.
Since we split, hip hop’s gone the way I warned in the book. This is hardly a claim of great foresight: it’s just gone the way it was going. And I guess I’ve gone the way I was going too.
I still write about hip hop occasionally. Once, I used to write about it in small independent magazines for love and armfuls of free vinyl. Now, I write about it for broadsheet newspapers for money. I don’t feel great about this. These newspapers aren’t actually interested in hip hop culture, they just want to be authentic/ down/ real and the fact that I’m as authentic/ down/ real as they dare to trust tells you all you need to know.
Once, one of these newspapers asked me to write an op-ed about ‘black on black gun crime’ in Birmingham. I told them that as a white Londoner I hardly felt qualified. ‘Yeah, but …’ they stammered. ‘Yeah, but you write about hip hop.’ Wow.
One piece I do still write regularly is the ‘response to the establishment’ piece. It’s more join the dots writing and I wheel it out whenever Hilary Clinton, David Cameron or anyone else tries to blame hip hop for all society’s ills. As far as I can see, politicians like these were elected on the basis they’d make society better, so moaning about hip hop is buck passing of the laziest and most cynical kind.
So far, no-one’s pointed out that highlighting the hypocrisy of politicians and trotting out the line that ‘music reflects society’ hardly amounts to a broadsword defence of the genre.
1. At the end of 2005, I went back to Rio de Janeiro for the first time since researching ‘Where You’re At’. In that book, I wrote about a rock-rap-funk band/ cultural group called AfroReggae who use their music and other artistic forms to try and keep favela youth out of the all-pervasive drug factions that dominate the city.
On this occasion, I travelled with Damian Platt, former campaigner on Brazil at Amnesty International. We researched and wrote a more detailed study, both of AfroReggae’s work and the structure and influence of the factions. It’s called ‘Culture Is Our Weapon’ and was published by the Latin America Bureau in 2006.
When you enter any favela, the factions are visible everywhere. You may not see a soldado with a gun, but you’re sure to see the colours. In an area controlled by the Comando Vermelho faction, for example, you’ll see CV scribbled in red on almost every available wall.
Whether involved with the factions or not, these colours dominate the favela residents’ lives. There is, for instance, a public swimming pool in the district of Ramos, right on the frontline between the Comando Vermelho and their sworn enemies, the Terceiro Comando. If you want to visit this pool, what colour swimsuit will you wear? To ensure your neutrality, you’d be well-advised to avoid CV red or TC green.
In the favelas where AfroReggae work, however, you’ll see loads of kids wearing AfroReggae T-shirts. Wearing one doesn’t just say you belong to the group, it says you don’t belong to the factions. One kid told us that an AfroReggae T-shirt was ‘like a bullet-proof vest’. The T-shirts have enabled AfroReggae to wrest a small piece of the favelas’ visual grammar from the factions’ control.
2. A couple of months ago, a 16 year-old boy was murdered on my London doorstep. He was walking home with his dog, mid-afternoon, when he was set upon by a gang of other boys. One of them drove a knife into his chest.
He was, by all accounts, a good kid, well liked and an excellent student. He was also a wannabe rapper. You can still see his page on Bebo.
Apparently, the murder was the culmination of a ‘beef’ that had blown up at some local youth nightclub. He’d been with his ‘crew’ when they were confronted by some other ‘crew’. It was all about ‘ends’ (local street slang for whatever square mile of the city they all came from). The soon-to-be victim backed down, but he was claimed to have ‘disrespected’ one of the other crew’s girls. A couple of weeks later he was killed for it.
Over the following month, the side wall of my building became a de facto shrine. All the local kids left flowers and wrote tributes. Every few days, the local council would whitewash the wall, but then it would start all over again. In the end, they gave up.
Most of these messages referred to the boy by his MC name. Most were simple and touching. One, however, described him as a ‘fallen soulja’, another as an ‘OG’ (‘Original Gangster’). Someone wrote, ‘Only God can judge you now’, referencing, I assume, the Tupac tune.
Hip hop isn’t responsible for killing this kid any more than it’s responsible for rescuing the kids in the Rio favelas. It’s people who are responsible for both. Nonetheless, as someone who’s long defended the genre, I know that I’ve written about AfroReggae ‘using hip hop to save lives’ and that I’d never write about London kids ‘using hip hop to murder’. But now I have to ask myself if there’s any substantive difference between those two statements.
I’ve had three key fascinations since I started writing books. I’m not sure they can be contained by single words but, for the purposes of brevity, I’ll say they are these: ‘authenticity’, ‘stories’ and ‘symbolism’. To be honest, I rather hoped my interests would have moved on by now, but that isn’t the case. Then again, another way of describing my fascinations – ‘who we really are’, ‘who we say we are’, ‘how we say it’ – suggests that there’s quite enough in each subject to keep me busy.
Whether as a novelist writing about New Orleans jazz (in ‘Twelve Bar Blues’) or as a lover/ fan/ critic writing about hip hop (in ‘Where You’re At’), I’ve copped my fair share of flak for writing beyond my experience, being inauthentic.
I’m not going to defend myself here (though I can’t resist imagining a UK tabloid-style headline – ‘Novelist in ‘made it up’ shocker’). Instead, I would rather talk about the direction in which, I admit, such criticism seems to have nudged me.
I am currently immersed in a new novel, which is, for the most part, set in England among the white middle-classes. A significant thread of it, however, is also about being authentic/ down/ real. The only difference is that this time I’m not talking about jazz or hip hop. Instead, this story is about Morris dancing.
Did you know that the beginning of the 20th Century saw an ideological battle for the soul of Englishness? Queen Vic was dead and, shocked by the bloody disaster of the Boer War (and other colonial misadventures), the English ruling classes began to worry about who they were, where they came from and what made them so damn special.
One branch of this debate involved a music teacher from South London called Cecil Sharp. Sharp believed that the English essence was preserved in folk music and dance, so he set about notating it, interviewing its practitioners and mythologizing its roots.
Sharp undoubtedly performed a great historical service; his legacy, a musical record without compare. However, he also undoubtedly delved a little too deeply into the misguided theories of the great proto-anthropologist J. G. Frazer. Within 20 years, you see, English folk music was no longer about participation, sharing a few ales or even, having a good time; but ‘cultural survivals’, fertility rites and pagan gods – inventions all.
With hindsight, Sharp’s essentialism seems every bit as ridiculous as his dedication looks impressive. Nonetheless, it’s a great setting for a story, isn’t it? I wonder if I’m English enough to do it justice.
I also wonder if, 100 years from now, a rapper like, say, 50 Cent will look to the historian’s eye like an authentic manifestation of the African American experience. I fear it’s more likely he’ll be regarded as a ridiculous mannequin who was happy to have his strings pulled for the (albeit plentiful) chump change of the powerful. Cultural veracity? There is, you see, no such thing. It is culture, after all, and therefore all made up.
My last novel, ‘City Of Tiny Lights’, is a detective story. My ‘Marlowe’, Tommy Akhtar, is a London-based, one-time-Mujahideen, Ugandan-Indian-English private eye who, fresh from hunting down lost cats, runaways and errant husbands, stumbles into the midst of a conspiracy.
At the heart of the conspiracy is a plot to blow up various targets around London, including the tube network. It was published in the UK in 2005 in the week before a bunch of disaffected young Englishmen did just that.
I love Tommy. He constructs a bizarre and counter-intuitive, but nonetheless heroic, patriotic and successful English story for himself out of the manifold imaginative tools at his disposal. If only, dare I say, the tube bombers had been able to do the same. If only, dare I push it further, the boys who committed murder in my street had been able to do so as well.
Lastly, I am fascinated by symbolism. At what point do the Rio drug factions’ graffiti stop representing the problem and become the problem itself? I recently went to Belfast for the first time since childhood and saw the exact same thing. The murals, the peace wall … such things no longer signified divisions but made them true. And I can analyse the London kids’ use of hip hop language in precisely the same way.
Increasingly I understand that where hip hop was once used in my home city to describe a reality, it is now used to create one – and that reality is divisive and violent. It is also, of course, a fictional, inauthentic story; because that’s what stories are. It might be funny if people weren’t dying for its meanings.
I still listen to hip hop. But now I’m done with it. And the truth is that I’m done with it because of what hip hop itself taught me. These days, hip hop is the received wisdom and, on my own doorstep, that wisdom keeps people stunted and trapped. Nonetheless, once upon a time, it was hip hop that gave me the symbolic language to question received wisdoms, grow intellectually and think beyond myself. I will always thank it for that.
—Patrick Neate won the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award in the criticism category for “Where You're At: Notes from the Frontline of a Hip Hop Planet.” His other books include the Whitbread Prize winning“Twelve Bar Blues,” “City of Tiny Lights,” which was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize in Mystery and an Edgar Award, and, most recently, “Culture is Our Weapon.”