The Influence of Gandhi and King on Hip-Hop Culture
Jan 13 at 7
1533 Sul Ross St.
Of all the scholars, activists, artists, and curators who have participated this fall in events related to the Menil’s landmark exhibition Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence, it’s fair to guess that none have expressed the following sentiments: “B***h n***s die for me / Just for getting too close to me / So kiss your rosary beads and say a silent one cause / I promise if you get it it’s gonna be a violent one.” ("Stick 'Em Up," Ludacris featuring UGK).
The lyrics, of course, are by Bun B—the Port Arthur–born rapper who helped put Houston on the hip-hop map in the 1990s as one half of UGK. Following the death of his UGK partner Pimp C in 2007, Bun has reinvented himself as a sort of civic mascot—a ubiquitous presence at arts events, concerts, restaurant openings, award ceremonies. He’s collaborated with Uchi chef Philip Speer, performed with the Houston Symphony, co-written a children’s coloring book, and co-taught a course on hip-hop and religion with Rice professor Anthony Pinn. He even shot a public service announcement with Mayor Parker.
So it really isn’t all that strange that Bun will participate Tuesday in a panel discussion at the Menil entitled “The Influence of Gandhi and King on Hip-Hop Culture.” His fellow panelists will be Pinn and Monica Miller, a professor of religion and Africana studies at Lehigh University. Then again, it is a bit hard to see the voice of Mahatma Gandhi in lyrics bragging about keeping one’s gat “right on the side of me.”
Of course, it’s not just Bun B—the entire genre of hip-hop has been criticized, often unfairly, for endorsing violence. The way Pinn sees it, though, rappers are just like other artists—they represent the world they know. “If we want hip-hop artists to describe the world in different ways, then we have to give them a different world,” Pinn recently told me. “Rather than being angry or annoyed or frustrated at rappers, we ought to be angry and annoyed and frustrated at our broken democratic process. Yes, there are some problematic elements in hip-hop culture, but the culture is expansive.”
Hip-hop has a long tradition of social protest, and many of our era’s most trenchant social critics have been rappers, from Chuck D to Tupac Shakur to Common. Still, the civil rights leader most often invoked by these rappers isn’t Martin Luther King, Jr. but Malcolm X, who found fault with many of the nonviolent tactics that King—and the Menil exhibition—champion.
Pinn admitted that Malcolm X gets more attention from most rappers than MLK, but downplays the difference between their approaches, arguing that it’s more a matter of style. “Malcolm X’s rhetoric demands attention. He provides soundbites in a way that’s comforting to folks. But MLK has not been lost to the hip-hop community either. Malcolm X does a great job of pointing out a problem. MLK points out a solution.”
For Bun B’s take on these matters, you’ll have to attend the panel. Pinn said that it was important to have an actual rapper on the panel, even one whose own lyrics can hardly be said to always endorse nonviolence. “It’s one thing for two academics to talk about hip-hop from the perspective of fans. It’s another to have someone from inside that culture, someone who helped grow that culture, talk.”