Monday, April 6, 2009

Coolio's drug possession charge and the cultural politics of memory

Coolio made a name for himself in 1995 when he released Gangsta's Paradise (featuring L.V.), released on an album of the same name and on the Dangerous Minds soundtrack. Although his success was largely confined to this one song, Coolio continued to produce music through the 90s and early 2000s. He also made a largely unsuccessful transition to acting (bonus points if you can name 3 Coolio movies and don't pick the easy one, Leprauchan: In the Hood).

On April 3, he pleased not guilty to felony drug charges stemming from an arrest at Los Angeles International Airport. Coolio arrived late with his typically rambunctious hair style and after the judge finished berating him for his tardiness, cautioned Coolio to be on time for his April 20 court date.

Coolio faces felony cocaine position charges and two misdemeanors, battery and position of drug paraphernalia. He faces up to three years in prison.

What affect do incidents like this that would seem to uphold stereotypes all too often used to malign hip hop have on hip hop music and perceptions? No one's perfect, of course, and I'm sure that Coolio does not speak for or represent the entirety of the hip-hop community. But, one must wonder how the cycle of stereotyping is furthered every time a hip-hop artist is arrested or releases a misogynistic song. Is not this fuel for the fires of critics? Will not critics point to Coolio's incident (insert DMX, Lil' Wayne, or whomever here) and say, "We're right, hip-hop is about drug users talking about using drugs and encouraging our youth to use drugs."

One of the dangers for maligned groups or disempowered communities is that every mistake, poor judgement, silly action, dangerous deed, becomes representative of the entire community in the popular imagination. The politics of memory are very powerful and as each individual of a supposed group acts so is that group changed in the imagination. Unfortunately, it is often easier to remember the bad.

When asked about German history, people inevitable talk of the Holocaust and not of Richard Wagner (yes, I am aware that he wrote the anti-Semitic Judaism in Music and these views should not be condoned) operas or the remarkable Hans Fallada's Kleinner Mann, Was Nun? (Little Man, What Now?), or even Formula One seven-time champion Michael Shumacher. It is vitally important to any group's political practice to understand and work with memory. We must not overlook the bad, in fact we must engage it and criticize it intently. Problems arise when we assume the bad is the real and before we know it we become locked in a normative politics of memory that favors only one moder of remembering.

Of course we must remember the good with the bad, but hip-hop endangers itself when it loses control of memory's politics. Let us not deny the drug charges, misogyny, and other ills that happen in hip-hop (and in other communities). We must however shape remembering to better fit our vision of where hip-hop's progressive politics can take us. There are artists doing good out in the community, founding non-profits, building schools, creating after school programs, and helping families in need.

It may be argued that hip-hop attempts to publicize these actions, but that a non-hip-hop media chooses not to run these stories. Bad news sells better. Those arguments are probably true, but to stop fighting and promoting the benefits of hip-hop is to disavow a relationship with hip-hop's imagine.

What then are we to do when hip-hop artists go astray? Is there a politics of memory that we can overcome and shape to fit a progressive politics of hip-hop? Hip-hop must use the politics of memory to its advantage. It must stake a claim to perceptions of hip-hop in the popular media and make the memory it hopes others see. We cannot let the misfortunes, blunders, and disgraces build a mountain of distrust and disaster mongering (C. Delores Tucker anyone) to slow or reverse our journey.

- Nick J. Sciullo

(Photo of Coolio by Task Force Eagle, United States Army)

1 comment:

  1. nick:

    you raise interesting points. perhaps this blog space can be one outlet that focuses honestly on hip hop at its best. we should also, as you do, call out the hip hop nation and its artists for breaking the law and perpetuating negative stereotypes.

    cornel west has long maintained that hip hop "at its best" is a powerful tool for social commentary and perhaps social change. however, hip hop "at its worst" can be debilitating and injure the communities that embrace it. we should celebrate and simultaneously hold accountable, in my view.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.