Last year I attended the Modernist Studies Association Conference in Las Vegas. I saw a lot of great panels and presentations, but one in particular got my attention. On a panel entitled “Zombie Modernism” two separate presentations made me think about some of my old ideas in new ways. One paper argued that rap music, and Kanye West in particular, engaged with the zombie tradition (dating back through Haitian culture and up into the present). The other paper was not quite as central to my own ideas/interests, but mentioned object oriented ontology. The confluence of rap, zombies, and object oriented ontology got me thinking.
I would like to think I’m a serious fan of rap and so I am eager to connect that discourse to my other interests, but I have never been able to access the concepts or vocabulary that are necessary to stage any kind of nuanced argument. It had occurred to me that ideas about the “monstrous” presented some ways to approach the material and are everywhere in the music (Lil’ Wayne and his references to himself as a goblin, alien, and monster, Kanye and Jay Z discussing themselves as monsters, and Nicki Minaj as a perverse Barbie and the monstrous feminine). I found the connection between the zombie (as an abstract idea) with rap music particularly interesting because if we examine the lyrics (where rappers literally say they inhabit various kinds of monstrous identities of which zombies are just one kind) rappers are continually embracing these monstrous identities. In addition, and this idea I owe in part to one of the presentations at MSA, is that the idea of reanimation and recontextualization is a hallmark of zombie theory and makes it possible to take rap music’s form into account and provide an explanation of sampling and redeploying/zombifying pieces of other music.
For a while now, I have been toying with the idea that there is something important and interesting about rap’s excessive materialism. Rap’s obsession with luxury goods is one of the chief reasons it is excluded from the category of serious art. In other words, and if I’m permitted to unfairly and reductively ventriloquize a bit, “How serious of an artist can Kanye West be if all he raps about are luxury cars, jewelry, and designer labels? He is shallow.” My argument would be that rap not only reappropriates and zombifies elements of culture, but in doing so also rejects the liberal humanist value system that has historically marginalized and degraded African and African American culture. Their hyper-materialism is a direct reaction to these values: as Kanye said in “All Falls Down,” “We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us.” As an aside I’ll add, my feeling is that this extends beyond strict materialism and extends into the rap’s rhetoric as well. Jay Z refers to his own way of expressing himself often, but seldom as clearly as here in “What More Can I Say?”: “God forgive me for my brash delivery/ I remember vividly what these streets did to me.” I may be overstating the case that people make against rappers a bit; especially more lately, major news outlets and even the academy have been pretty willing to acknowledge Kanye and other rappers as artists, but I’m being hyperbolic to make my argument.
I also can’t avoid admitting that this is a fairly straightforward argument about rap’s materialism–they literally say these things in the lyrics. On the other hand, I think it’s interesting that there is a sub-genre conveniently called “conscious” rap. This term is obviously short for “socially conscious,” but it’s interesting that the conscious/unconscious binary is one by which zombies and objects are separated from human subjects. Especially in texts like the “Zombie Manifesto,” the zombie represents a human form without that consciousness, or a human object rather than a human subject. (This seems to tie in with the idea of object oriented ontology to an extent, though the more I read about OOO’s critique of correlationism, the less I like OOO as a theory). At any rate, a year or so ago it occurred to me that “unconscious” rap of the kind that Kanye, Jay Z, Lil’ Wayne, and Nicki Minaj produce might actually perform a more radical critique of society than “conscious” rap does. “Conscious” rap embraces liberal humanist values such as education, self-improvement, subjectivity, and social responsibility all with the goal of creating a more peaceful and equal society, and because of this is often more readily accepted by “educated” people (which is, of course, a gross generalization). In other words, having a consciousness, being a human, means embracing this cluster of social and cultural values. If someone rejects them, they are somehow not conscious.
Not that this is evidence of anything, but I have had many conversations in which people say they don’t like Jay Z or Lil’ Wayne because they’re superficial, but do like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Lupe Fiasco because there’s a positive message in their music and they propose solutions to the problems they identify. “Unconscious” (if I’m allowed to coin a truly ridiculous term) rap is more difficult for mainstream discourses to embrace because it doesn’t emphasize the same values. If the “unconscious” rapper’s goal is a Ferrari, there really isn’t much social programs and education can do to help them. In other words, it’s a kind of cynical or nihilistic materialism that holds the accumulation of wealth above self-improvement or racial equality, albeit ironically (an ironic object oriented ontology). In my mind, “unconscious” rap’s rejection of realistic and sustainable improvement for African Americans (e.g. better schools rather than haute couture) isn’t as much the shallowness of the artists that express those values, but a rejection of the opportunity for integration into a social value system that has repeatedly devalued their own cultural values. As Jay Z is fond of quoting Goodfellas several times throughout his corpus, “F$%k you, pay me.”
This is not to say that I’m seeking to augment a binary between conscious and “unconscious” rap. Many of the rappers, Kanye, Nas, and Jay Z in particular, have elements of conscious rap and, if forced to be sincere, would say they want the world to be less violent, more equal, and better for everyone, and they often say as much in their lyrics. What remains interesting, however, is that they also resist wholly embracing liberal humanist values. To me, this resistance stands as a critique of the value system that holds human subjective growth and development above the acquisition of material wealth, a value system which has also continually devalued African Americans and their culture. By destabilizing the subject/object hierarchy, it seems to me there’s an argument to be made that rap is, on its own terms, critically entering into this traditional discourse as a sophisticated critique of humanism. Perhaps, in certain cases, participating in attempts to imagine the posthuman.
There is another aspect to this that I plan to explore further. In many instances in which “unconscious” rappers talk about the acquisition of luxury goods or appreciation for high art, they also celebrate their lack of formal and social education that is accepted as a prerequisite for appreciating these goods. It is particularly interesting when Jay Z mentions “graduating to the MOMA” and boasts not having gone to college or had any kind of education in high art, despite being able to not only appreciate it, but also because of his business and artistic acumen, was able to forego the cultural gatekeepers in achieving access to it: “Far from a Harvard student. Just had the balls to do it.” This is all in addition to Kanye’s pointed and ongoing critique of higher education, which he says, steals your “streetness.”
In the meantime here is the video for “Monster” from Kanye’s most recent solo album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.