Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Leave Me Here, I'll Save Myself: Hellfyre Club and Rhyming in the Present Tense

(This article cites a bunch of lyrics- it is important that these are heard in their original context. I linked to the songs the lyrics are culled from and, where possible, the specific point in the song where the lyrics occur. The title comes from milo's song Karl Drogo Sighs)

 “'Maintain'- not a claim but an action word”- Open Mike Eagle from Self Medication Chant

I’ve been following LA-based rap collective Hellfyre Club with quasi-religious devotion for the past year or so- since my friend Rory Ferreira (rap moniker milo) joined it. The primary members besides milo are Nocando, Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle. I wrote a response to one of milo’s essays in September. Part of Hellfyre’s appeal is that despite having very different styles, the emcees possess a shared conviction regarding the value of their work and their collaboration. While bold rap crews have been around for a long time, there is something unmistakably new about Hellfyre. They don't all hail from one locale or have similar back-stories, but their cohesion and sense of purpose comes through nonetheless. In this post I will foolishly attempt to comment on the cultural significance of Hellfyre- Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle in particular.

Busdriver (Regan Farquhar)
Busdriver often voices bitterness and/or ambivalence about how his work is received. He complains that his place in society is to "entertain yuppies as they buy tight jeans and Thai cuisine". His music, like an ethnic food, is used as a symbol of discerning taste by a class of consumers who judge everything by how well it contributes to their own feeling of cultural distinction rather than how it relates to their own experience. Furthermore, Busdriver realizes how much he fails to fit into this role, saying "my raps don’t sell vitamin water". So, Busdriver doesn’t derive his conviction from without- from the hype-machine network that his music is circulated within. It also doesn’t seem to be derived from some place of inner peace- his delivery is so emblematic of agitation. Busdriver’s lyrics don’t beckon us to the vegan utopia predicted by brazenly politically-correct twitter poets like Steve Roggenbuck- he mocks the idea, saying "we can go to the hip hop show and join arms in unison at the soy farm". Trying to incorporate his music into any narrative of cultural or multicultural unity and the notions of progress implicit in those narratives violates it; his lyrics at times reflect the existential horror that comes along with the sense of being assimilated into a culture of compulsive mediocrity. The traditional sources of artistic conviction that I outlined above- positive reception by a trustworthy audience or the steadfast sense of articulating one’s authentic self- fail to account for Busdriver’s work.

In his book “The Location of Culture”, post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha posits that the “self” in a modern context (i.e. a world defined by western ideology, where competing ideologies or even the notion of a ‘competing ideology’ are unimaginable) isn’t a sovereign entity with a fixed identity. He writes, "Being… postcolonial is a way of… surviving modernity, without the myth of individual or cultural sovereignty". For Bhabha, slippage of identity is the very condition of human agency in a post-colonial context, and art in this context reflects the vicissitudes of this condition. The adversity of modern life is something to survive, not overcome; and in Bhabha’s view, communities are not pre-ordained (the black community, the gay community etc.), community itself is articulated from a space in-between identities or estranged from identity: 

Homi Bhabha
"Political empowerment…comes from posing questions of solidarity and community from the interstitial perspective. Social differences are not simply given to experience through an already authenticated cultural tradition; they are the signs of the emergence of community envisaged as a project - at once a vision and a construction - that takes you 'beyond' yourself in order to return, in a spirit of revision and reconstruction, to the political conditions of the present."  

We are not historically located in an interregnum from where the past can be seen nostalgically and the future can be seen as a liberal utopia we are modestly doing our part in creating or, alternatively, a sci-fi dystopia we are careening towards with a tragically hip lack of agency. Because the struggle with identity is part and parcel with survival itself, art, rather than being a venue for emancipation or overcoming, invites the audience to bear witness to the artist’s mortal struggle between herself and what Foucault calls “the heterogenous systems that inhibit the formation of any identity”.

Open Mike Eagle’s lyrics attempt to construct a community in the present- "I thought I had a home/ but I was told that we were stolen/ now I have no land of my own and so I live right/ I live right next to you". This line exhibits how the disappearance of identity implicit in modernity coexists with the ability to envisage a community, and that this phenomenon allows the “political conditions of the present” to be brought into relief. The importance of new conceptions of collectivity is also impressed upon me by many of Busdriver’s songs, which express the fact that (for instance) love and happiness are antithetical to the self-help calculus of middle-class communities. Some acerbic examples: "this freedom it tastes funny/ I am a case study/ dealing with utilitarian uses of love" and "I’ve got a point system that determines my happiness/ its unit of measurement is your interest in my crappy shit".

Open Mike dedicates his song "Self Medication Chant" to "my friends that are slowly losing their minds". The artistic dedication that Hellfyre brings to the table is, I think, inextricable from a sense of slippage and empathy; their conviction about the aesthetic merit of their work is a far cry from traditional hip-hop posturing. In an interview, Busdriver says "I am a failed venture, and I’m only tenacious enough to keep it going… in no way should anyone think that there's a blow-up factor on the horizon or even present currently...it's rooted in something else that I'm not really at liberty to even touch on". Busdriver’s music creates the present, it illuminates reality, but this radical quality doesn’t offer a route to escapism or transcendence because it is itself an effect of the daylong sense of loss and failure that accompanies ‘modern life’. Hellfyre’s relentless work ethic (Busdriver, Nocando, milo and Open Mike Eagle all have full-lengths coming out this year) and expanding roster ensures that they will be a crucially important collective for years to come.

Hellfyre Club members (r-l Busdriver, Open Mike Eagle, Nocando, Rheteric Ramirez and milo)

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