“I know abuela’s never really gonna win the lottery/ So it’s up to me to draw blood with this pen, hit an artery/ This Puerto Rican’s brains are leakin through the speakers and if he can be the shining beacon this side of the GWB and shine a light when it’s grey out…”
For some people being able to write is passport out of poverty and omnipresent alienation. This is one of my favorite tracks from Miranda’s “Hamilton Mixtape” (The other one being Immigrants), and I wanted to share it with you because writing and the circulation of ideas plays a central role in Hamilton, and it’s just interesting to see this awareness of what role communication plays in organizing people in societies across a broad array of artistic and academic fronts (including this class).
I for one am glad we are having this conversation.
“GWSI helps to mask the role of social selection in the US” (Russel 22).
We’re aiming for this^, so wish me luck.
I was in this class that was taking a close look at American poetry over the course of a semester. The prof. made a statement like, “Poetry isn’t insanely productive, and it’s kind of an obscure field, and you can’t really make a living in poetry anyway…” He’s a good guy. He often plays devils advocate, or takes it upon himself to voice some of society’s harsher critiques of the things that interest us because he wants us to realize that we will run into people who will ask us to justify our fascination with something who’s (← weird linguistic thing. Must ask Saundra about the use of who’s in this case unless one of you can tell me why this sounds so strange) value is ambiguous and subjective. But I’ll admit it does feel like bullying in the moment.
I was perplexed though. His position ignored hip hop and rap. He’s a fan of jazz and says things like, “jazz is dead.” But there is insane amounts of improvisation and expression in freestyle rap, and battle rap is defined by not only collaboration but also competition, and I think those are qualities a jazz musician would love to play with in his or her own art. This prof. thinks poetry is dead, dying, and highly undervalued too, but poetry is flourishing in rap and spoken word forms.
When I voiced these objections he asked me, “is rap bigger than ever?”
I’ll admit there’s almost no rap or hip hop on the radio in Chico, but Sacramento is a different story, and DMX had a sound cameo that made Deadpool friken awesome, and more than that Hamilton is still a Broadway phenomenon that shares all the qualities we prize in the most mythologized works of theater past. The Broadway employs epic history like in Shakespeare (think Julius Caesar) when it re-creates the world of Alexander Hamilton and distills it into a sequence of 50-ish songs, and each of those songs is at least the equal of the most subtle and complex Restoration era stage drama. In Hamilton we see meaning rapped in meaning, and just like “The Way of the World” (← this dude loves this shit!) or “School for Scoundrels” (←more of the same) you have to have some awareness of culture to even begin to appreciate all the levels Hamilton is playing on. All this to say the language is acrobatic and dexterous which is a description I’ve heard applied to the great stage champions of the Victorian theater.
So why are some of us hesitant to recognize Hamilton, Hip hop, and rap for the role it’s playing in society right now?
In mapping out some of the foundational tenants of Activity Theory for us David Russel has this to say about the historical and dialectical nature of how we as a culture make certain judgments (sometimes without even being aware of it).
“…activity systems have histories essential to their workings. For human beings, these histories are predominantly cultural (though phylogenic change may also play a role). New interactions with the present environment arise from a dialog with the cultural past, preserved in meditational means (artifacts, texts, etc.). Meditational means (tools) may consist not only of tools in the usual sense (hammers, computers) but also semiotic tools: speaking and writing, as well as gestures, music, architecture, physical position, naturally occurring objects…” (Russel 5).
When he talks about historical he means that what we perceive around us, the world, is the result of a complex system of happenings that we now get to be a part of, and all of it continues to culminate in what we call, now. When he talks about a dialectical nature (or dialog with the past) he’s talking about how a conversation between two people (or a group of people) exerts influence on each other to navigate and interpret the present.
If one person speaks and has a message they are trying to communicate, even it the other person ignores the message and doesn’t respond the other person or group of people are making statements about how they are judging the situation, and that will have some effect upon the future and the individual actors who simultaneously navigate their awareness of the past and present to try and achieve (and even define) their goals on a day to day (maybe second to second) basis. I know this sounds crazy… It’s hard to articulate man. It really is.
When he talks about mediation (as in the Meditational means) he’s talking about the “tools” we use as a society to aid ourselves in forming our understanding of the past and present, the complex and ongoing relationship that exists between the two, and what directions we think we want to go having been exposed to the discourse between those two points. Remember in our last reading that writing is a relationship between the writer, the reader, and the text… so the lines that separate things and people from each other start to get a little blurry when we start to imagine history, the world, and roles we play in our world as a dialog, and not something that is more deterministically set in notions of complete autonomy, and free will.
In this case individualism, independence, and the meanings we attach to said words are cultural constructs that arise from a history we had no control of and have played at least some role in shaping our current world-views, who we where when we believed in those words inherently, and who we became when we realized maybe the world could be a little stranger. It seems this line of inquiry is designed to avoid reduction.
Anyway to bring it back to hamilton, hip hop, and rap later on David Russell starts to talk about the ways writing and displaying “competence” in writing (often as defined by an a series of encountered individuals who may not always agree and what constitutes competence with regards to writing) starts to inform the way individuals are selected to fill certain roles in our society (which doors we open for them, and which doors we hold closed for them).
“To successfully work, for example, as an editor for the New York Times or as a top congressional aid, one must be able to appropriate tools from various “educated” activity systems, including aspects of their genres. And people in these activity systems tend to be recruited from certain institutions of higher education that provide exposure to these activity systems” (Russell 16).
We have not been trained to appreciate forms of art and expression arising from things that might be considered counter culture. It’s a little pessimistic, but the fact that Hamilton is a Broadway musical has been the warrant for huge demographics of people to even begin recognizing rap and hip hop as the versatile art form it truly is (it can compete with the best of them in my opinion). But this highlights the fact that until someone made an effort to assimilate “rap/hip hop” into a genre and art form culturally and historically accepted as a “place where ‘high art’ that is worthy to be regarded happens’ rap was still viewed as a place and a genre worthy of “Othering” and maybe ignoring to the point that in 2016 when I took this class a highly intelligent individual could not recognize rap or hip hop as one major refuge of the qualities he so admired in poetry and jazz.
So if we pair this with previous reading about literacy, and the ways in which we ignore the potential literatures of other non-mainstream demographics then for me at least it becomes a little more clear that some of the preliminary comp courses might actually be agents of assimilation. You can have your culture, and we’ll encourage it, but this culture we’re teaching you here is your passport to some culturally defined notion of success and, more honestly, financial and economic security (hopefully) so if that’s something you want you’re going to have to become fluent in this culture too… but once again we do encourage you to hang on to any artifacts you deem valuable from your culture of origin (this too was pessimistic as hell. I apologize, but I feel this kind of thinking moving in the world sometimes). Russell perhaps says it best when he writes, “GWSI helps to mask the role of social selection in the US” (Russel 22). You can’t write for the New York Times, or be that top tier congressional aid unless you learn the culture we’re peddling and are savvy enough to prove yourself should certain opportunities come your way. And you can’t expect Rap and hip hop to be heralded as a modern day Renaissance of art and expression that is highly democratic and so in tuned with topical interests that it’s hard no to see it functioning the way pamphlets did in the days of John Locke and Erasmus and Martin Luther (the monk) unless you are purposefully ignoring it (or if the historical dialog that has shaped your understanding of the present is steeped in the ignoring of works produced largely by certain demographics of people as well). Rap had to had a Hamilton, a beastie boys, or a Love Below first before the mainstream would begin to examine it, and that is an act of assimilation disguised as an olive branch from a certain perspective… and from my perspective innovation.
Maybe sometimes innovation and compromise are synonyms, or at the very least functions of each other.