A History of Conflict: Entry #1
by Dax-Devlon Ross
Entry #1: An Overview
For the last five months I’ve been working on a book that I’ve tentatively titled A History of Conflict. In it I have been tracing and tracking the Zeitgeist within African-American social/political and cultural thought from Emancipation to the present day through an analysis of the nationalist vs. integrationist dialectic. I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on from biography to scholarly work in the social sciences to general historical studies, all in order to support my thesis and explore the often-confusing and intersecting paths these competing aspirations have followed. I’m particularly focusing on the historical figures that have come to define, in our collective consciousness, the parallel struggles for freedom in order to uncover their specific ideas. My underlying belief is that these figures were defined by the times and by their articulation of certain longings within the collective psyche.
Ultimately, the reason I’m writing/re-capping/ analyzing/synthesizing these movements is in order to support my notion that within hip-hop culture and music those same ideas are still competing for dominance and that the dominant figures within hip-hop culture, like the dominant figures of old, represent the spirit of this age. Through those dominant figures we understand ourselves, our frustrations and aspirations, etc. I’ve chosen to focus on two hip-hop artists, Nas and Jay-Z, as the modern manifestation of the age-old discourse. I’ve chosen these two artists because of their body of work, their longevity, their cultural impact, the complexity of their thought, and, perhaps most importantly, their ideological frameworks. My argument is that until recently they effectively represented two opposing schools of thought: For more than a decade (since Tupac’s death) Nas has appropriated the language and ideology of the intellectually oriented cultural nationalist and even openly and repeatedly associated himself militancy and anti-Americanism. In the same span of time Jay-Z (since Notorious BIG’s death) has utilized the tools of the economic nationalist/cultural assimilationist (ala Booker T. Washington and others) to amass tremendous wealth and influence as a spokesman and cultural salesman for and of young black America.
At this writing I’m about 100 pages into my first draft. I have a long way to go still. At the moment I’m sloshing through the World War II era in hopes of gaining a firmer grasp on the tenor of the times and tracing the nationalist/integrationist line through the permutations of war abroad and the rising tide of resentment at home. After the World War II period I intend to delve into the Cold War period. My aim with each of these stages is to identify the “spirit of the age” by pin-pointing the social/political and cultural situations facing black folks, plus the popular cultural production of the period.
In the end, as a product of and participant in hip-hop culture I’m concerned with developing a more comprehensive historical understanding of the ideas that have passed down from generation to generation and how they continue to manifest themselves through oppositional (on the surface at least) aims. I feel as though several questions are missing from the dialogues surrounding hip-hop: how did we get here, what connection do present day artists have with their intellectual forbearers, how are they carrying on traditions such as the nationalist vs. integrationist discourse, how have they appropriated that discourse, carried it forward, exploited it, distorted it, watered it down, moved beyond it, etc. Again, despite all of the cultural production around hip-hop very few people have bothered to study the ideas of certain prominent artists with any seriousness and rigor. The tendency is to conflate the culture and the content, to label artists one thing or another, to talk about their lifestyles rather than their art, to criticize them for being contradictory, but few people have attempted place them in a tradition by thoroughly exploring their work itself. Not the record sales. Not the mass popularity. Not the car they drive or the girl they date. But the words, the ideas and how they reflect the predominant thoughts of the day. All of my historical research and writing is an effort to build a case for studying those ideas seriously in the same way we study the ideas of Douglass, Delaney, Washington, Garvey, Du Bois, X, King and the like. Having said all of this, from now on I will be posting chapters as works-in-progress in hopes of eliciting feedback from readers of this blog.