A post about the Los Angeles riots, hip-hop and race in America.
Today is the 20th Anniversary of the Rodney King riots, which happened in a number of cities, but was most intense in the Los Angeles area. Over the last week, the media has been looking back at hip-hop of that era, interviewing people who were affected by the events or seeing what has changed since then (however superficial this assessment is). Underlying this anniversary and media attention is the current economic crisis, which has hit communities of color the hardest, and the Trayvon Martin case, which itself shows how little things have changed in some aspects, while revealing how much things differ, in other aspects.
My Relation to the Riots and Riot-era Hip Hop
Firstly, as a little biracial 8 year old in small town Iowa, I remember being vaguely aware of the riots. Similar to the first Gulf War, it was something out of the adult world that was a bit confusing. I knew that the police did something that made people mad, but I couldn't comprehend much beyond that.
Around 4-5 years later, as I started to become obsessed with hip-hop at the same time I picked up an interest in 1960s black and Latino radical groups, the riots became something that interested me quite a bit. I spent hours looking over discarded U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek and Time magazines from the library, learning as much as I could about the violent and chaotic images of 1992.
But my main source of journalism1 was the hip-hop that came out in that period (roughly 1991-1994). As a young teenager with an interest in revolutionary politics, but at the same time falling into trouble with the law over petty crime, my barely working tapeplayer kept those songs and albums on repeat (through the rewind button, of course).
The riot era Ice Cube, 2Pac, Dr. Dre, NWA, etc. spoke to me and others I grew up with. But why was that? Most of the music was done by black males in their early twenties from depressed urban ghettos, infested with gangs, drugs and brutal police. Pretty far from small town Iowa.
Exasperated parents, school authorities and police would say it was all about a tough guy image, acting the part and media glorification having a negative impact on impressionable youth. To them, we had no reason to act out, no reason to sympathize with the brothers and sisters in California.
To a certain extent, they were right. The take-no-shit image and attitude that these rappers portrayed was very appealing on a machismo level. But there was more to it than that. We were of a generation that were growing up in meth ravaged rural America. Many of our parents were routinely unemployed or laid off. Welfare, SSI, subsidized housing, rent assistance, WIC or food stamps were a part of our lives. School seemed like a dead end. A place where, as a mostly poor and multiracial crew, we had to fight racist white students and deal with a nearly hostile school system that showed little understanding or sympathy of our experiences or the conditions we found ourselves in.
In some ways, we followed the same path as those stuck in the huge urban slums. Almost all of us have spent some time in jail or prison. Some of us were heavy into selling or using drugs. A few have died or had their kids taken away by the state due to drug or alcohol issues. A few of us flirted with gang involvement.
In addition to the similarities between our experiences, there was the rage. The rage and the experiences are tied, of course, but merely identifying with someone's experience as similar to your own wasn't the whole picture. There was a certain type of don't-give-a-fuck rage that was expressed in this music that we felt as well. During the recent UK riots I wrote a short post on what I saw as the motivations of a rioter. Another piece I wrote about precarious employment, in my opinion, also somewhat reflects this rage. I mention these, not out of some desire to promote my own writing, but that they are reflections of the rage of someone who has no hope for the future and nothing to lose, a feeling I've kept with me since my teenage years, and still see underneath the smiles and alcohol fueled jokes of the people I grew up with. It's the same rage that caused the riots and produced the music around them.
But behind the conditions and rage, there's what race is in America.
What's changed, what's the same...
After the riots, police brutality within communities of color could no longer be seriously denied. Hip-hop was looked at as not just some form of music, but a potentially dangerous expression made by people who were a legitimate threat to the status quo.
Nowadays, what's remembered about the riots, at least within the mainstream media and white America (although not limited to these groups) is Reginald Deny having his skull fractured, the seemingly targeted arson and looting of Korean owned shops and the subsequent armed exchanges or black people 'burning down their own neighborhoods'. What's forgotten is the level of police repression that the Reagen era unleashed with his 'War on Drugs', which saw itself manifest publicly through anti-police hip-hop songs, the Rodney King tape and later, the Rampart scandal. Also forgotten are the pre-riot demonstrations and the gang truce between the Bloods, Crips and many Mexican gangs which seemed to indicate a politicization of the marginalized of poor blacks and Latinos2 .
Of course, now, while police brutality is no longer denied, it is downplayed by 'humanzing' the police by playing to vague sympathies about 'how hard their job is'. If that doesn't work its followed by a question to the black community (even repeated by some white radicals) that can be summed up by "Why no protests when you kill each other?".
The other commonly repeated cause of the riots, lack of job prospects and potential for future mobility is also no longer denied, but now is attributed to by the now more easily identified black middle class as some sort of cultural inferiority. The common response from white America is along similar lines, but peppered with code words and phrases that reveal that 'cultural' really means 'racial'.
But underneath these, frankly, offensive reasons for where many people of color find themselves, there is a very real fear of things kicking off again. Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima and Sean Bell, among others, are not easily forgotten. And despite relatively minor3 flareups in Cincinnati and Oakland, there hasn't been anything approaching the response seen in 1992. But then comes an economic downturn, a housing crisis and rising unemployment. And then, the Trayvon Martin incident.
Without getting too much into the specifics of the incident, what happened reveals a number of things about race in the United States right now. The self-appointed neighborhood watch captain coming from a Latino background says something about the increasing amount of access to whiteness that some Latinos now receive, particularly if its expressed in hostility towards black people. Secondandily, unlike various other instances of police, security guard or vigilante brutality...this hasn't gone away. A movement of sorts sprung up soon after it became clear that Zimmerman was not going to be charged for murdering Martin. Thirdly, while white right wing and fascist groups engaged in public character assassination attempts of Trayvon, another response was one of condemning the protests and media attention for stirring up racial tension and possibly being responsible for future riots. That many black people on the streets protesting scares White America and causes gun sales to rise.
Getting back to hip-hop, it has also changed in many ways. It eventually became the top selling genre of music. But before that, as the events of the riots became more distant and the gang truces became a thing of the past, hip-hop became more negative, eschewing much of the political commentary that got some artists (and by extension, record labels) in hot water. Instead, the more negative gangsta aspect of the music arose, until it spiraled out of control and resulted in the death of two of its major artists. Since then, while it still reflects many of the aspirations of the poor, of the ghettos, of the slums, it doesn't necessarily always reflect the harsh reality, nor the social commentary that it did to the extent that it used to. And where it does exist it is more diffuse, hidden within a couple lyrics on a album track of a popular MC, or the topic of a whole album of a group that will never be played on the radio, MTV or BET.
Lastly, I'm not going to pretend that what I've written here isn't a bit scattered or rambling. The LA riots, hip-hop, your own personal experiences and race in America are all complicated subjects that very easily bring up seemingly unrelated thoughts and opinions. What I think is most interesting thinking about this is reflecting on the riots and the music that came out of it. These reflections make me realize how similar those around a decade later experienced life. Now, 20 years later, we discover how little has changed and how likely the possibility of another explosion of class and racial anger is.
Here are some Youtube links of various riot era hip-hop songs that I always thought related to what happen or the general background. Some of them I still listen to quite a bit, others, only every so often, and some (like 'Black Korea') I find embarrassing to hear now.
- 1Hip-hop was still occasionally being called the 'Black CNN' or the 'Ghetto's CNN'.
- 2Let's not forget that the Black Panthers, the Young Lords and even hip-hop itself has roots in the gang truces and/or the politicization of gang members.
- 3I say 'relatively minor' with the type of intense, almost urban warfare uprings that have happened in the United States, such as Watts '65, Detroit '67 and the MLK riots of '68, not to mention the Rodeney King riots themselves.