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Race and Constructed Identity: Tools of Power

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N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton, 1988

This anonymous letter claims that the direction hip hop took in the early 1990s was implemented to promote a violent identity in Black communities. The underlying subject of this constructed identity is echoed in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in which White institutions work to shape Black identity for their own ends.

The author of the anonymous letter claims to have been an executive with an established corporation of the music industry in the U.S. from the late 80s to early 90s. The author explains that because technology was much more limited than it is today, it was easier to influence the public—people can only be influenced by what that they can access.

According to the letter, a private meeting occurred in Los Angeles in 1991 in which “music business insiders” secretly met “to discuss rap music’s new direction.” The anonymous author was present at this meeting, yet did not realize that “we would be asked to participate in one of the most unethical and destructive business practice I’ve ever seen.”

Basically, these employees were instructed to market music that endorsed criminal behavior in order to keep privately owned prisons filled; the employees’ companies had invested in building these prisons. As the private prisons became publicly traded, these employees could buy shares, and thus, make a profit for themselves. Months after the meeting, rap music began to take a distinctively different direction, which became the genre of gangsta rap, in which urban violence was the central theme.

Despite grammatical errors and complete anonymity, the letter does provide interesting commentary on the music industry and the shift of content in hip hop/rap music of the early 90s—that shift did indeed occur, beginning with groups such as N.W.A, pictured above. The underlying argument of this letter is that the collaboration between the music industry and privately owned prisons used Black people as mere tools and shaped an identity for them so as to sustain power and gain money.

In a manner similar to the anonymous letter, the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man becomes affiliated with the “Brotherhood,” a political group supposedly working toward equality and social justice. The climax of the novel—the death of Brother Clifton and his subsequent funeral—allow the protagonist to see that the Brotherhood has been using him for their own ends; they have shaped him into a Black symbol for their organization.

The protagonist then realizes his invisibility within society; people see whatever they want to see in him. In the midst of the race riot in Harlem, the narrator reflects, “I could see it now, see it clearly and in growing magnitude… The committee had planned it. And I had helped, had been a tool” (Ellison 553). This echoes the gangsta rap conspiracy theory—that White institutions are to blame for shaping a particular kind of Blackness and for using that constructed identity to gain power and money.

Both the anonymous letter and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man demonstrate how Black individuals can be used as tools in constructing Black identity, which is then used to sustain privilege and power over the race as a whole.

Source:

“The Secret Meeting That Changed Rap Music and Destroyed a Generation.” Hip Hop Is Read. Web. 25 Feb 2013.

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