Punk Rock & Hip-Hop
by Sarah "Ketchup" of the Misled Youth Network
What comes to mind when I say “punk rock?” Snotty, spoiled, rainbow-haired freaks? Weird British kids with safety pins in their faces, phlegm in their throats, and needles in their arms? Whiny, baby-faced Blink-182 clones with chain wallets so long they catch on their Vans and trip? What about when I say “hip-hop”? Iced-out pimps? Thong-clad hoes who can only use their brains for scheming and seducing? Gang violence? Incarceration? Super-predators?
These are our youth cultures. Where do these images come from? Do they offend you? Do they hit home? Is this how we look?
A Bigger Picture
Why, out of all the youth cultures and music styles out there, did I choose to write about punk rock and hip-hop? There are a couple of reasons. They are two of the most controversial, most-hyped and least understood youth cultures in the country and in the world. They started around the same time, have rich histories, draw on many other styles, are raw, innovative, and inventive. They both have enormous potential to motivate and inspire youth, to provide an understanding community, and to encourage kids to come together, have fun, and create change. And they don’t talk to each other at all.
Now back to the original question. Where do we draw the line between ourselves and the stereotypes of ourselves? What role does the media play in these youth cultures? Look to the origins. True punk has traditionally rejected commercialization by definition, while hip-hop as a whole never claimed allegiance to the Do-It-Yourself ethic. Allowing the mainstream music industry and media to affect our youth cultures has many implications, advantages and drawbacks. Punk’s strength lies in its abilities to create DIY channels and networks outside of the mainstream, while its refusal to “buy in” is partially responsible for its relative isolation and insularity. Hip-hop has exploded in popularity and influence because of media exposure, but of course, playing with the big corporations also means compromise, pigeonholing, and lack of self-determination. Big media is the source of many of the stereotypical images I presented in the beginning. But there must be more to these two influential youth cultures.
A Closer Look
If you take a closer look at punk rock and hip-hop, their shiny surface appearances start to disintegrate, revealing countless colorful variations squirming below. Remember when you learned about the Earth’s layers in geology class? It’s like that - our worlds have a thin outer crust, but the underground is far deeper and is where most of activity takes place. Once in a while there’s a cultural earthquake or volcano, and new molten energy is brought to the surface. Once it’s out there, it hardens into lifeless stereotypes. We know that our music, lives and cultures are not that simple. We bring the heat -- otherwise nothing would change. The media would rather make us look stupid to dismiss the threat we pose to their controlled way of doing things. Without dismissing the extreme materialism, misogyny, discrimination, hypocrisy, and disunity that taint our music and cultures, we have to look at the long line of creative visions, resourcefulness, and political consciousness that winds through punk rock and hip-hop. I’m talking about ingenious young people who set up shows, performances, and events without any reliance on the mainstream music industry. I’m talking about the power of hip-hop to mobilize communities in the fight against the prison industrial complex. I’m talking about punks who grow organic food and defend old-growth forest. I’m talking about zines, squatting, MC battles, and young women educating each other about AIDS. I’m talking about entire subway trains covered with graffiti with such brilliant use of color, perspective, and composition that it would make most artists piss their pants. I’m talking about music that draws from everything but sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before.
Posers, Frontin’, Selling Out, and Keepin’ It Real
So if both of these youth cultures are so great, how come they know nothing about each other? Why are kids into one culture or the other more likely to call each other derogatory names or beat the crap out of each other that to realize the common bonds they all have as youth. One obvious reason is that punk and hip-hop have different ideals and cater to different demographics, although artists like Eminem and the Bad Brains have crossed the race line. Hip-hop is based on the idea of poor, urban Black and Latino youth trying to gain status and success making money by doing something outside a 9 to 5, whether it’s MCing or producing, or selling drugs, pimping, or playing basketball. There’s an irony when people break or subvert society’s laws so that they can obtain its most revered status symbols - Bentleys and high-class whores - but that’s what happens when the rich and powerful hype the music of the poor and oppressed. Punk rockers carry on the Beatnik and hippie idea of rejecting the materialism and conformity of their parents to instead either become artists, drug addicts, or try to save the world through activism. Of course, these are simplifications too, but at least they talk more about reasons and ideas. One common theme is dropping out of society to do things your own way. That’s why when the mainstream music industry and media play music that advocates resisting the status quo when they are the status quo, the message is neutralized, or worse, becomes a cute trend. The what and how of this is more similar when you look at people in either hip-hop or punk who have the common goals of independent artistic-expression, fighting injustices, and creating alternatives to those injustices. This is where there’s potential for communication and the two cultures complementing each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Don’t Ride the Fence, Tear it Down
Now I’m not saying that kids in the ghetto should start wearing patched up Carhartts, or that squatter punks oughtta rock G-Unit. Aesthetics are not the point. But what if the two groups could find a way to develop a more intimate understanding of each other's demographics? There's a strength in the competitive nature of hip-hop leading to more daring dance moves, wilder wildstyles, and trickier verbal acrobatics. There's another strength in the egalitarian nature of punk rock creating an inclusive environment where everyone can express themselves in a band, zine or on the dance floor, with the emphasis not on perfection of skill, but on being bold enough to do your own thing. Let's look at what each side has to offer. What if punk rock activists were able to use some of the connections that hip-hop activists had made in the worlds of big music, education, and electoral politics? Because hip-hop has a far more widespread reach amongst youth all over the world, it's a more effective tool for educators who want to relate to their students. Hip-hop activists could learn some lessons from the intricate music, traveling, and self-publishing networks that punks have set up. And punk has traditionally been a more welcoming place for all sorts of nerds, freaks and queers. Shouldn’t hip-hop be the same way? Despite intergenerational misunderstandings, hip-hop has been a very effective tool for organizing communities on a family basis, that is not isolated to unmarried youth with time on their hands. Punks could impart some knowledge on various forms of direct action such as lockdowns and blockades, not to mention resourceful methods of living and traveling for almost free, such as reclaiming discarded food and buildings. Both do a lot of prisoner support work, yet they’re not comparing notes.
An example of this kind of collaboration that I witnessed took place in the community gardens of the South Bronx. Here strategies drawn from environmental activism, traditionally practiced by the white and middle class, were applied to grassroots community organizing and the environmental movement rooted in communities of color. When profit-driven development plans threatened the community gardens, which were created by the residents of the Melrose neighborhood as spaces that beautified the area, united families, and created a safe learning environment for children, a group of mostly white activists ranging from hippies to punks assisted with legal defense and direct action.
These types of relationships call for an open mind - it’s always easier to stick with your own. While simultaneously encouraging cross-pollination between cultures, we as youth need to hold ourselves to the standards of ideals, creativity, and respect in our own youth cultures. That way we’ll be sharing the best aspects of our cultures rather than replicating hypocrisy and unoriginal thinking. I don’t want to imply that punk rock and hip-hop fit together perfectly, that there aren’t discrepancies with race, ideologies, styles, and ways of doing things. I also don’t want to imply that punk rock and hip-hop are the only two youth cultures out there with potential - they’re just the two most prominent examples in my life. My point is that as youth we’re all getting screwed and we all have enormous potential to do something about it. I’m not suggesting that we put all our differences aside, I’m suggesting that we take advantage of them to provide the most opportunities for ourselves and the most diverse movement against anyone who tries to take those opportunities away.
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