Internal Empire

Blackness is an idea that to quote Jared Sexton, touches on the concepts of “lack and surplus, negation and affirmation, transcendence and immanence.” To delve deeper, black life is a form of social death, as it is a walking cache of all that its social opposite, whiteness, has constructed the world to avoid, and historically whiteness has recalibrated and retooled itself in order to maintain these efforts. The idea of blackness and whether it can find true liberation is not just a question for the black subject, but it raises the question as to whether liberation is possible for any of us. Blackness, that is the aggregate ontology of black people, is a highly profitable machinic unconscious, producing the social, economic, and technical infrastructure of modernity. Even the verbiage of black studies–’blackness’, ‘black bodies’, ‘the black’–isn’t immune to this fungible continuum of profitable bare life. It is a subject that raises the uncomfortable relationship between slavery and freedom and hones in on that which is not limited to the political or economic, but also extends to the libidinal. 

While the spirit of blackness has a resilience and foreign quality to it that I think can and should end the World as we now conceptually know it, I should note that all people are affected by the libidinal economy amidst the American simulation and are at any time privy to flows of desire and the economy of their exchange. While America’s foundational doctrines are predicated around the idea of negative rights and freedom–as in rights the government can’t infringe upon, it still produces individuals who believe in a particular kind of freedom for the individual, one that when attached to certain nodes, in fact, leads to the restriction of freedom itself. This is because the liberal subject is an atomized one that is encouraged to see the world in terms of binaries. These binaries, typically thought of as opposites in terms of social value, are fashioned as poles on opposite ends of a line, the markers of which are “epidermally transcribed.” This, along with the idea that the ownership of private property is an extension of personal freedom, can give way to the notion that businesses should possess this ultimate freedom of expression, and if we then conceptualize the state as a firm and a firm as having the rights of the individual (even to say discriminate against others) then we end up at the helm of authoritarianism.

One way to outline libidinal lines of flight in regards to race is through a thorough analysis of culture, particularly music. If you conceive of black life as lived in a space away from the one the world lives in, then you must place it somewhere else, outside, underground, in space…and it is this idea of a black subject as an alien subject that artists like Juan Atkins have articulated, though more so towards the end of afrofuturism, as they explore the overlap between black bodies and technology. Though other genres like hip hop contain and use the human voice, rather than submerge or reject it, I would argue that though hip hop and its subgenres, drill in particular, contains a voice, it is a voice that is not human. At least, not by the World’s standards. Though it’s well known that Chicago, drill’s birthplace, and much of the Midwest was deeply affected by the Energy crisis in the late 70s, and the neoliberal regime of austerity and globalization that defined the 80s and beyond. The violence that symptomizes these communities whether its structural negligence, street violence, or death by cop, is a lingering effect of this crisis. This violence sept in and undoubtedly permeated drill’s thematic domain, enveloping the content of these rappers, many of whom were 18, 19, or in their early twenties. I remember the first time I heard something from a drill artist and it felt like I was seeing something authentic, something I hadn’t felt for a while. In fact, their music really differed from other artists that came from Chicago before them, like Lupe Fiasco, Rhymefest, or even Twista, who were more Spin magazine friendly and able to cross over to some extent with indie culture. 

What makes drill interesting because of its violent content, because, for one, hip hop has never shied away from touching on topics that make us uneasy, and, second, there is nothing inherently interesting to me about songs that talk about violent acts in and of themselves. But, what seemed really prolific about someone like Chief Keef at the dawn of drill’s heyday was the delivery that he and other drill artists used. On songs like “Don’t Like” or “John Madden” Keef mentions all events and things, even violent ones, in the same monotonous tone. In this way, everything that happens gets flatlined out as things that just “are.” Female drillers like Katie Got Bandz and Sasha Go Hard often alternate between delivering lines with a similar lack of affective tone and an air of playfulness, as if to say that when it comes to navigating a world this enmeshed with violence, performing a drill, or doing a hit becomes just another thing on your “to-do” list before you pick up groceries.

A lot of drill comes to us by way of trap (though it must be mentioned that “trap” is a complicated and often overused phrase) many beats sound similar to those most associated with trap, but the beats are usually more sparse and tend to loop endlessly over a verse without a “break. This forces the listener to become caught between a claustrophobic beat and lyrics awash with a sort of “moral bankruptcy.” Such jovial nihilism as Jared Sexton would say, “is a willing or willingness…to pay whatever social costs accrue to being black, to inhabiting blackness, to living a black social life under the shadow of social death.” What he means by the black subject being one that takes on a certain amount of social death, is that the very existence of blackness as an idea, in and of itself, challenges thinking about being as we currently think of it. It is, as he says, “a human being whose being human raises the question of being human at all.” It conditions the possibility for revolutionary subjectivity.

Drill even differs and departs from a certain kind of self-aware opulence that bled into hip hop in the 90s under Diddy and became the more pervasive norm during the ‘00s. Yet, this decadence should not be confused with affluence, as the black subject’s relegated to an expression of wealth that, as David Mariott says, “is the very experience of a life whose bling involves the exhaustion and degeneration of life itself, and one that necessarily involves a gradual separation of blackness and being.  And this is why black life paradoxically coincides with a decadence that can only enrich itself as absolute privation, and an enjoyment that can only enslave itself as a discredited imposture of working capital.” A quick glance at something like the “Crush On You” video simultaneously shows a wealth that is knowingly excessive to the point of absurdity, yet purposefully does not resemble the posh, sanctioned expression of wealth of, say, Warren Buffett. 

Hip hop marks an important point in the history for the black subject because ultimately,  the historic migration of black people north to Harlem, set to the tune of jazz, which later become the sounds of hip hop, created amongst the rubble of divestment and white flight from the city. Rap also substantiates Hortense Spiller’s analysis of “black culture as a critical culture in conversation with everyone.” Now, I want to preemptively address a common critique made about some forms of black music in general, but especially hip hop, that says that this is a kind of music that celebrates and glorifies the worst parts of society, that it is laden with misogyny, homophobia, and is endlessly materialistic. While I personally envision a time and place devoid of these things, I do think hip hop functions as a mirror image of the World sans moral and aesthetic pretenses–and whether or not the artists themselves intend or realize this, is unimportant. The transgressive element of the genre preemptively critiques the larger culture that it’s a part of by virtue of parody and exaggeration effectively shocking the listener out of passive consumption. Really, if we look at particular tropes, hip hop rightly compares the life of a hustler to that of an entrepreneur and exposes the entangled relationship between profit and exploitation. Violent tropes are modeled after mafioso themes and are symmetrical to politicians waging war over turf. The misogynist tropes are a more honest reflection of how women are viewed socially because the World is misogynistic and we should never forget this nor should we avoid this. In fact, all of these things are actively challenged by the genre itself.

We should remember that over moralizing about where hip hop sometimes ends up content-wise has sometimes been used as a mechanism to diminish the art form as a whole, or, even worse, create a dichotomy between ‘acceptable’ rap and its low-brow opposite. Ultimately, hip hop forces us to ask ourselves, which is worse, the unflinching paradigmatic analysis of the situation of working-class, marginal people, or polite corporate-approved virtue signaling which is only better at hiding its pathologies?

2 thoughts on “Internal Empire

  1. ‘While America’s foundational doctrines are predicated around the idea of negative rights and freedom–as in rights the government can’t infringe upon, it still produces individuals who believe in a particular kind of freedom for the individual, one that when attached to certain nodes, in fact, leads to the restriction of freedom itself. ‘
    im too out of touch to comment on most of this without doing some research (though i was excited to see Twista referenced in 2021 lol), but this paragraph is such a good way of putting the concept.


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