Adam Mansbach 2008

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Art, Technology and Race at the Millennium:
an Interview with Professor Tricia Rose
by Adam Mansbach

When “Topics in American Studies: Hip Hop” convened at New York University in the fall of 1995, it was a watershed moment for most everyone crammed into the lecture hall. Finally, a class at a major university was devoted entirely to hip hop culture. Finally, the music a generation of Americans grew up on was being treated as a profound if problematic cultural trope worthy of debate and capable of shouldering intelligent criticism. Finally, hip hop was loading its own analytic canon, challenging academia to realize that urban America’s most vital organic discourse on race, class and gender was being spoken in rhyme and swathed in booming grimy drumsounds.

And finally, we had a bad mamajama like Tricia Rose, Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History and celebrated author of Black Noise, to slap hip hop onto the critical conveyor belt, past Theodore Adorno and Stuart Hall and LeRoi Jones, someone brilliant and down for the cause but unafraid to tear the culture apart and challenge our most basic assertions about its limits and possibilities.

I’d been waiting my whole life to take a class like this, and I wasn't alone. People came from all over New York City to sit in. There were future magazine moguls like Alan Ket from Stress, underground MCs like Fondle 'Em Records' Siah, a sprinkling of future journalists and record industry move-makers, plenty of regular hip hop heads, and a fair share of folks who’d just thought the course description sounded interesting. All of us were deeply excited, although more than a few were skeptical about the idea of the music we considered ours being caged in a classroom.

The course, like hip hop itself, was a fascinating blend of inspiration and confrontation, and what made it work was Tricia: not because she was fluent in the lore and semiotics of hip hop, but because she also understood so much of what lay outside. Tricia threw gender theory, history, musicology, even architecture into the mix and fused hip hop to scholarship in a way that made everybody who stayed in the class -- and a lot of cats broke out when they saw it wasn't going to be some kind of easy-A hip hop hooray thing -- reexamine their definitions of both.

In the five years since, Tricia has remained one of the sharpest minds in cultural criticism, a rare combination of compassion, insight and knowledge. As she wound up a hectic semester as the chair of NYU's American Studies Department, Tricia sat down with me to discuss the increasingly complex intersection of art, technology and community at the turn of the milennium.

Mansbach: It seems to me that Y2K tension and millennial angst are likely to ramify differently for black artists that for other folks, given that black artists in this country have always had good reason to indulge in a certain kind of paranoia. The questions of how to fight marginalization and stake out community, questions that technology is forcing artists and people everywhere to confront, are by no means new issues for black and other minority artists.

Rose: The ways technology is beginning to encroach on us -- the expansion of technological surveillance and the control of resources -- have so many ramifications in general on art. Probably the most significant, which doesn't relate only to black and Hispanic and other minority artists but which is relevant to them in general, is the loss of what you’d call a tactile or aural experience. With art, and even with music, the electronic context -- while it has been enormously valuable in expanding accessibility -- also produces comfort with mediation in the creative process. The experience of the artist himself or herself becomes less relevant and more distant as time goes by. And the level of mediation will have a huge impact on how artists will have to present themselves in this huge electronic environment.

In terms of controlling the resources to present themselves, however, I’m really ambivalent. All of the media reports, from super-pop media like Entertainment Tonight and Dateline all the way down to more grassroots media accounts, seem to suggest that theres an awful lot of domination of technology by corporations. Data control -- information surveillance on the Internet, for example -- is rather extraordinary. They can track you coming and going, and information about you can be gathered and sold for a great deal of money, and that doesnt go over well for anybody’s creative freedom, or freedom in general.

There are companies that download every single piece of information that you write, in a chat group or elsewhere, and file it. So if you write that you have syphilis or you’re dying of AIDS or you want to shoot the president or you hate the white man, even with an alias your identity is found. And thus everything you’ve said is public record although you didn’t know it when you said it, and it can be used against you if you choose to enter the public sphere later. That’s very scary, not only for artistic freedom but also for freedom of speech. Those things are closely linked. Surveillance of speech and action is even more dangerous for artists, because theyre the ones who are pushing the envelope of what’s acceptable. So that is very, very frightening.

On the other hand, this kind of surveillance has always existed for people in the public sphere, meaning if you get up on a soapbox in Harlem and start lecturing about killing whitey or killing the president, a policeman might pull you over or arrest you or find out who you are. But you know that’s not always going to happen. There’s a kind of hide-and-seek that goes on for guerilla artists, meaning you say things in a certain way, under certain conditions, to a group that’s ready to look at you in a good way. You have a kind of secret code and that helps you stay afloat.

And you gain credibility from being able to evade authority and still deliver your message, whether you’re a graffiti artist or a soapbox politician.

Right, absolutely. The problem is that surveillance is going to get so sophisticated that minority communities which don’t have access to high level knowledge about these technologies will not be able to remain savvy in that way. So the main question, it seems to me, has to do with the democratization of access to knowledge about technology, not just access to technology itself. I’m sitting here in front of a several thousand dollar computer, and it doesn’t mean a thing if I’m trying to avoid surveillance on the Internet.

I don't know thing the first. And the very small number of people who have access to that level of information tend, unfortunately, to be another generation of white men. Whatever comes out, they seem to be on it first and they’re always really good at it. I’m sure they’re always the ones who invent it. Its the same thing with industrialization. It's the same thing with every major technological transformation. It didn’t used to be eggheads, but it's always been primarily white males who have both cultural and, then, other kinds of access to it. So that’s the fundamental problem to me for black and Hispanic artists gaining access to really sophisticated knowledge about the technology, both as an artistic medium, meaning as a way to produce and create artistically, and also as a way to avoid surveillance for the purposes of unpopular artistic expression.

Now, aesthetically I think there’s an awful lot of possibility. Aesthetically there’s more possibility than problem. There’s the possibility, for example, of relying on techniques that are frequently associated with what I call diasporic black cultural tradition: drawing on multiple sources, using certain kinds of accessible modernist narratives but transforming them in ways that are complicated and interesting and nonlinear. Obviously, technology makes that easier to do -- you can take a medium that already has visual and musical and narrative pieces built in and make it three dimensional, make it move. The problem is that most people would never have access to all that. But I think aesthetically there’s more promise than drama.

Is there a danger that technology may wind up limiting artistry, or circumscribe peoples desire to create by providing too much scaffolding? If I’m an aspiring musician and before I can be fully indoctrinated into the culture I discover there’s a make-rap-music program I can download on my computer where all I have to do is punch a few buttons…

I would say that technology won't automatically produce an overall decline, but it will shift where the creativity has to manifest itself. Just like the calculator means that we cant really do long division anymore, a particular kind of talent for artistic construction will be homogenized. In a sense, it will be like the way painters had to react when photographic technology developed. What happens is the terms of artistry have to shift. Those rap beats which used to take, I don’t know, two weeks to make using samples from four thousand old records, now they’re fully accessible. And once that happens, we will know it because those beats will be repeated so profoundly. The innovators will find something else to do, because the last thing they want is to look like everybody else. The question is, is everyone else going to have enough knowledge to appreciate that innovation? And there will always be a timeline in that.

The other trend I’m not too happy about, in terms of both studio-based musical technology and computer-based technology, is that I always understood black diasporic traditions to be a really wonderful combination of form and practice in motion at the same time. As its performed, the form takes shape and transforms itself as well as the audience. Most black diasporic musical practices, even many literary practices, are really dependent on a very immediate, visceral and tactile exchange with the audience. And that is impossible through the mediation of this new technology, so that could have some pretty extraordinary effects on how forms evolve. The eight bar blues comes out of a call-and-response conversation between musicians and people, and oratory traditions like the black preacher tradition also come out of the exchange between performer and audience; success and failure in the performance of all these forms comes partially from the mistakes you make in the moment and how the audience responds to you and how you respond back, which is something you cant really produce through collective computer use. Its not a collective experience, and you cant pretend that it is just because everyone is online at once. That’s not the same.

The question becomes when you get to the point where a live performance is totally irrelevant, and everything is composition-based, which to me is a literary gesture already. The notation system and composition as primary sources for music is a very Western form of creativity. Music is about a certain kind of openness and a non-linear progression, at least to me. Not all music does that, but I think that’s what a lot of the best music does, and that open freewheeling space is just hard for me to see in this medium. I can see reproducing it, and the distribution could be incredible and potentially disempowering to the record industry, but the creative part and the visual part are not looking good. I think its great in terms of all the color and the graphics, but visual art is not the same thing as graphics.

You mean the power of actually seeing .That reminds me of something [Columbia 's Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English Robert] O’Meally was saying when I spoke to him a while ago. He said the power of seeing ten MCs on stage handing off the microphone and flowing together seamlessly was actually more powerful than anything that came out of their mouths, and I think that’s what we stand to lose in these new mediums.

Right, absolutely, and you stand to lose not only what happens in that electric moment, but what happens the next night when it happens differently and what happens the next night. I mean its all about those open possibilities, and those open possibilities are nowhere near as open in that collective, spontaneous, innovative sense when they’re mediated.

A risk is that people growing up in this era wont even know to bemoan the loss of venues, or of spontaneous performances.

That’s true, but that’s what was said to you and me about hip hop. Not that I don’t think were partially right, and they may also have been right when they told us that. Young people, hip hoppers, don’t bemoan not learning the trombone, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a loss. And of course there are gains; the question is always what you’re gaining and what you’re losing: what ultimately is most important to you about artistic expression and about human exchange?

This is where I grow most anxious about world and global transformation as we have this discussion and develop this language about globalization, what it really is is a language about corporate domination of the nation state. Its international global capitalism that amounts to a larger world community. I have no more access to people in Nepal than I did fifty years ago. I mean personally. But it seems to me what technology really does produce is such profound normalization of mediated intimacy that I get concerned about the notion of compassion and the ways in which human community get fostered. Human community is a fiction, but its a fiction that is created by action and possibility and a tactile environment to some degree. Some of it is imagined, at the largest level, but it acts itself out on the ground by activities.

The institutions that forge day to day contact with people are definitely becoming less and less valuable in sustaining communities, and forms of mediation -- TV, computers -- are becoming more and more valuable as means of gathering information. Before, you’d go to a library, you’d go to school, and you’d run into people. Now you can go to college on the Internet. You would do things and see people and you would have exchanges and thereby social intimacy, which is something that not only has an impact on you but shapes your notion of what you need to do in the world.

When you hide certain kinds of information from people, its very easy to not only be incredibly brutal, but to be unintentionally hegemonic and violent and dominant -- its much easier. For example, if every time you had to leave your house you had to go walk through a slaughterhouse, you’d probably stop eating meat. I have no idea what happens to these poor cows, but if I had to pass through that everyday, had to look at the repercussions of that, not even see them getting slaughtered but maybe see blood running through the streets, it would transform things. It forces you to at least develop a language of justification, and then there invariably develops a language of opposition, and then you have a conversation.

That’s a dramatic example but I think on the ground that’s quite relevant, in terms of what we understand where everybody is and what we are really experiencing. I don’t just mean that in terms of economic pain and suffering, or a racial agenda, or a kinetic end. I also mean it in terms of emotional and psychological trauma, because my sense is that all of the world changes that have happened within the last 150 years have produced an enormous level of alienation, which we deal with the best we can, as creatively as we can. But that alienation’s not going to be abated by this; it will be exacerbated by it. Humans are fundamentally social animals, and if that social space isnt preserved in some way and taken seriously, I think that is going to be the most significant downside of all this fabulous technology.

Where are the major sites of contestation? Where can we look for or how can we create spaces in which to discuss things like patriarchy and race, and really grapple with them, as you say, on the ground?

If you look at the earliest years of hip hop, what made it work, what made it so powerful in the first four or five years not to be overly romantic -- was the way in which it took over the street. It was a public space, a semi-spontaneous party of people on the block. This is very important. It wasn’t a private experience that you listened to in your headphones. It was were gonna go outside, in an abandoned lot or in the middle of the boulevard, and have a party. It was about seizing public space for the purposes of community experience.

And hip hop used technologies in ways that were interesting and new; it took the materials that were available and used them to make community. That effort to make community is what underwrote the practice. I would say the way to get around this alienation now is to make public community, however we can.

For someone not terribly innovative, that might mean simply preserving existing institutions. Someone who is a preservationist has to figure out how to get people out of their houses and into public spaces that they feel good about, and they cant just be expos at the goddarn civic center looking at cars and whatnot. It has to be non-commodity based. You cant just be buying shit. That is not going to do it. There have to be places for large numbers of people, hundreds at least, to feel free to gather and feel that they can enjoy the process of gathering and exchanging.

It's interesting that you bring up hip hop, because the other thing that underwrites hip hop is the subversion of existing technologies and notions. DJs in the park were plugging into lamposts and stealing electricity from the city, rerigging turntables and electronic equipment in order to amplify their voices literally and figuratively. And were not even gonna get into the genius involved in creating moving art galleries by spraypainting murals on subway trains. I wonder if there’s some parallel way to take the technology were talking about and twist it in on itself to forge some sense of community.

I think the question is how do you do both simultaneously, because doing one or the other is quite easy. But how do you mess with technology and build community in the messing with? The first thing that comes to mind is something like -- this is going to sound really hokey, but something like mass-karaoke, where everybody has their own mic and they collectively sing songs, or collectively make beats, and everybody gets to keep a tape of what happened to listen to later. But you have to preserve the idea of interaction doing it at the same time and in the same space.

For reasons of accountability as well as community. The karaoke idea reminds me of all these sites on the web where MCs battle each other . But there’s not that feeling of spontaneity, and the concept of responsibility for your words, your identity, doesn’t exist. In real life, battling is one of the cornerstones of hip hop culture, but internet rhyme battles are the most pathetic shit you’ll ever read, really.

Right, I’m sure, because its not in the physical domain. The technology has to be brought out of peoples houses; we cant succumb to the individuation that it produces. I recently got a Palm Five, one of these electronic date books. It has a hot synch base, which is a module that you stick your Palm Five into. You can write things and do things on your computer and then download it into your Palm Pilot by pressing one button, which is called hot synching. Now, I think hot synching is an enormously important concept, because what it means first of all is that its immediate, thats the hot part, and it updates both mechanisms, meaning your Palm Five and your computer both have identical information. But I can also beam information from my Palm Five to yours. I can send you whatever I want.

That might be a way to take these individuated technologies and create collectivity, because the synch is the notion that these things are matched up, they’re in the same space, in real time, and always moving. If I get into conversation then everybody’s updated; we move forward, were all hot synched, and it keeps moving. Then we hot synch again. I like the notion of using these new technologies in those kinds of ways, but the most important thing to me is to sustain the notion of both intimacy and public sphere simultaneously. Intimacy and public sphere as concepts may have to be revised, but what’s fundamental about them should remain.

And the way in which the technology is best used is often distant from the way it was intended. That almost goes without saying.

Of course. The only point of using a Palm Five at a concert would be to use it in a way that it wasn’t intended to be used. But we have to find ways that don’t just use the technology to do things that are lucrative like stealing someone’s credit card information, but things that create pleasure, possibility, intimacy, power, vulnerability, or vent anger if its helpful, offer ways to deal with the world that encourage development and growth for all of us. If it cant be used for that, then what are we moving towards? I don’t see the point.

Performers say can I get a witness, can I get a ho from the left side; that’s about making people feel included, that’s about having a good time. That’s hip hops most powerful historical aspect for me, its desire to take circumstances that were fundamentally unpleasant, fundamentally dehumanizing, and to make people feel good about themselves and about communicating and articulating their experiences and appreciating other people in the midst of a dehumanizing circumstance. And that’s why it took off. It didn’t take off just because it was technology, or because it was funky. It was a way of saying you know what, this is about pleasure not in the hedonistic sense, but about expression and freedom and possibility under enormous structures of duress, so that’s what I would want to see new technology be able to facilitate.

Do you think hip hop is up to the challenge?

I think it could be, but just like hip hop took disco, took r&b, and said I like it, I grew up with it, and I’m going to do something different with it, my sense is that it wont be hip hop when it happens. It’ll be based on hip hop. But it’ll be something else. Looking at the history of cultural production, I don’t see how it could still be hip hop and do what were saying, because new generations just don’t hear the same way.

Some people are very good at seeing what’s not yet here and really anticipating it. I’m not sure I’m all that good at that, but I definitely think that these forms of technology will be part of it. And I also think there’ll be a retro move, a totally anti-technology move, which will be something that technology will try to take up. Just like in the midst of hip hop, what emerges is the spoken word movement. How much more basic can you get? And how much less mediated can you get? I’m going to stand up here and tell you some things in a language we happen to share. I don’t need anything but a non-windy corner. I don’t need any paper, I don’t need any technology. That move in the mid-Nineties seems to me to be the kind of thing that will likely happen at the same time as more technologically-mediated expressions emerge.

You and I have been talking for years about hip hops political potential: what the cultures contributions to political and social struggle have been, could be, will be, cant be. As hip hop nears thirty and 1999 gives way to two grand, where does that discussion stand? Has the real moment of transformative potential come and gone?

Hip hop was incredibly useful for creating a venue that was enjoyable and fun and playful and valuable for offering what Id call alternative political narratives. But it didn’t necessarily deliver on galvanizing a generation for what I would consider to be more intensive political actions. Even in a disorganized way I don’t really see a lot of activism. I do see what Id call underground resistance on a disorganized level -- work stoppages, mess ups, sabotage, there’s certainly a lot of that, but that was going on anyway. I don’t think hip hop increased that, per se. But it did create a collective base for a certain kind of political narrative. Its a social and cultural and political narrative, a narrative that is counter-dominant; that, I think, is very productive. And it celebrates some of the things I'd want to celebrate. Not all of them.

But hip hop unfortunately is not informed enough by things going on outside of it. The thing that I found most disturbing about the evolution of hip hop is its insularity. The very form that bases itself fundamentally on pastiche, borrowing and exchange, is one of the most self-referential and completely closed discursive bases in black culture. Its like it eats itself, so that if you come up with an idea that doesn’t follow a basic range of musical narratives you’re not even in hip hop. That’s not too enlightened. I’m not too happy about that. Because thinking beyond historical categories which confine the form is what both energizes it and gives it real political possibilities.

But that kind of closed-mindedness, that defense of the culture at the expense of expansion, is nothing new, is it? I think its something that’s been a consistent tension in black music, whether its the older generation refusing to accept bebop or boppers refusing to accept Cecil Taylor.

Well, that’s among the musicians but not necessarily among the fans. If you listen to r&b, if you listen to soul music, you realize it was connected to a larger, generational, social movement. There was a larger cultural context of okay, these narratives can be used because of the way they’re constructed, they speak to a larger zeitgeist, they can be connected to political activism. Even early Motown; Dancing in the Streets was considered a radical political statement, especially in Europe. Which was an amazing thing for Martha Vandrell -- she was like what are you talking about?

But it's an important idea that the music could be, if nothing else, a soundtrack for other parts of the community’s already existing activisms. There just appears to be a bigger gap right now, both generational and political: the people who are doing a lot of political activism -- that we hear about at least -- are not really tied to hip hop narratives. And then there are young people doing the hip hop activism thing, I’m not saying they’re not doing that, but I cant say its galvanizing a whole generation. Its not galvanizing the whole generation the way hip hop is, to be politically active. Even to fight local things; forget protesting Reebok, I’m just saying, you know, jobs in my neighborhood or better clothes in my stores. Even if its just commodities -- get the supermarket to get better pork rinds. But there’s not even self-serving commodity-oriented activism.

Maybe people know something that I don’t -- that ultimately its not going to make a difference soon enough for them to waste their time doing it. Maybe they’ll do it some other way if the value of some other way emerges. Part of it, Adam, comes down to whether you want to assume that people know better, or that people don’t know better.

In other words, are people passive because they’ve given up on activism or are the passive just because….

…because they’re looking for another way to be active, and thus they’re not really passive. So do you start with what people are doing and then figure out what’s useful about it, or do you start with what you think would really help and what everybody ought to be doing?

The last time we spoke, I was telling you about the work I’m doing with Upski and the Active Element foundation around hip hop activism. In his new book, No More Prisons, he discusses something he calls the ‘ cool rich kids movement.’ The idea is that there’s a generation of hip hop-influenced people who are going to come into all this money, and we can talk to them through the common language of hip hop and hip hop-based resistance and convince them to give us some dough to go do something philanthropic or resistant. I think taking a wide angle on hip hop makes a lot of sense; if nothing else, whoever is president in thirty years is gonna have owned Straight Out of Compton.

Yeah, its the same thing with soul music and r&b. Clinton certainly has an enormous appreciation for black culture, probably the most of any American president in history, and certainly the most explicit appreciation. And his generation -- the r&b, soul, rock’n’roll generation -- and its cross-racial experiences is reflected in a lot his approach to speaking to the nation. But I’m not necessarily sure how that benefits us any more than say Bill Bradley, who probably doesn’t listen to r&b or soul or hip hop and is not likely to, and whose policies may help people just as much. So I’m not as convinced with that argument; the question becomes, how are these cross cultural experiences really being understood?

And is there any real depth to them.

Yeah. Is experiencing culture the same thing as knowing all kinds of things about its political implications? If you have a 35-year-old who loves July fourth and has a big barbecue is it because he’s a Colonial pig or is it because its a holiday he likes in the summertime? And maybe if you break down what it stands for hell say yeah well its a bad day but that’s not why I’m celebrating.
When white kids loved soul and funk and, you know, Jimi Hendrix, twenty years ago, were they thinking about the legacy of exploitation of black artists, or the suffering and pain of black people that the music is expressing? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe they’ll be more comfortable around black people because of it but maybe not. You know, I don’t see Michael Jordan helping us out with that. Everybody loves Michael Jordan, but that don’t mean they want his cousin living next door. That’s still a reality. Housing segregation is still as significant as it was twenty-five years ago.

That’s why I stress this notion of the public sphere. This is where technology has to be pressed into political service for the production of public space intimacy, because people are not sharing public space in a way that fosters cross-racial, cross-class, cross-gender community on terms of equality, and if that doesn’t get addressed all the new technologies in the world aren’t going to change that. All the artistic expressions in the world, although they might make us feel good along the way and offer some valuable cultural critique, and that’s important, believe me, just so you don’t kill yourself, but that other matter has to be addressed. There needs to be a kind of permanent spatial reorientation. So I don’t see hip hop doing more to address these things than any other cross-racial music of the past.

At the same time, I'd say that younger whites are a whole different ball game. My 18- and 19-year-old students are very different now than they were twenty years ago. They’re much more influenced by everyday black popular culture in their speech. Even the non-hip hop heads, the regular white kids. I’ve never seen anything like their level of cultural symbolic integration. Some of them know that its black and some of them don’t. But they’re signifying black and they’ll eventually find that out when someone tells them.

And when someone does tell them, ninety percent of them will probably retreat from it.


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