What do Ira Glass and Jean-Marie Le Pen have in common? To follow the argument of Jared Ball’s recent book I Mix What I Like, they both represent a counter-insurgency against colonized populations. The allegedly progressive NPR, writes Ball, is the contemporary equivalent of Radio-Alger, operated by the colonial French government in Algeria. From post-war Algeria to the ghettos of the United States, colonial power requires propaganda in order to function. As Frantz Fanon put it, Radio-Alger’s mix of news, music and commentary from the metropole “constitute[s] a coherent background from which colonial society draws its density and justification” and “sustains the occupant’s culture, marks it off from the non-culture, from the nature of the occupied.” For Ball, NPR serves the same function, as an echo chamber for white elite chit-chat, which erases the perspective of people of color while masquerading as important national discussion. NPR’s milquetoast monotony notwithstanding, Ball presents startling demographics for a radio station that positions itself as representing the nation’s public: 64% of NPR’s guests are CEOs and technocrats, 80% are men, and 61% identify as Republican. Naturally, the audience maps on to this: listeners are older, richer, and much whiter than the national average. In this light, NPR is little more than an engine to reproduce the white upper-middle class, complete with its condescending concern for the less fortunate. Even the more “progressive” Democracy Now! comes in for a bit of kicking as part of the “White Left media establishment” – 88% of programs have no black guests. After reading Ball’s account, it’s clear why the streets have tuned out.
This antagonism between the radio and the streets frames Ball’s book, at once a passionate polemic and a stab at revolutionary practice. Ball is a professor of communications at Morgan State University, and a contributor at Black Agenda Report, home of some of the most unsparing criticism of the Obama administration you’ll find on the net. I Mix What I Like, with its relentless attacks on contemporary colonialism, is certainly at home with the scathing news at BAR, but Ball also throws in an innovative twist: he attempts to theorize how existing niche forms of media can be part of an anti-capitalist movement. By his own admission, he’s not entirely successful, but his work presents much that is useful to those probing the intersection of media and radical politics.
In spite of the title, I Mix What I Like has considerably more to say about the relationship between American empire and mass media than it does about mixtapes. Theoretically, Ball’s endeavor is a brush-clearing one, diverging radically from communication studies’ fascination with liberal democracy. For Ball, the most relevant analytic framework for discussing media power is colonialism, a theoretical move which is “meant to draw focus away from foolishly, even dangerously, insufficient descriptions of ‘failed democracy’ or ‘an imperfect America’” that characterizes discussion of media as a public sphere. The American experiment is not in need of reform or amending; it is a racist empire which requires condemnation in the hopes of its collapse. Any appeals to “public spheres,” any theories that rely on “citizens” are, in Ball’s words, “inherently doomed.”
To describe the condition of black people within the U.S. Ball resurrects internal colonialism theory (ICT), which argues that African Americans (along with other communities of color) are subject populations akin to colonized peoples in the Global South. ICT emerged from the fruitful engagement between Black Power activists in the U.S. with anti-colonial theory emerging from decolonization struggles in Africa and their attendant nationalist strategies of liberation. Ball argues forcefully and persuasively for putting colonialism back on the table. “Colonialism as a model of analysis remains as imperfect today as when it was more in vogue,” he writes. “But even in imperfection it reveals more accuracy and honesty about that relationship and what is needed to improve it than more traditional notions of pluralism, democracy, and ‘progress.’”
Ball’s own appeal to national liberation takes the form of the “hip-hop nation,” a term he deploys with some discomfort, as it’s a “politically safer and less racially-specific” term that itself is “a colonized extension of a predating and continuing colonialism.” These ambiguities are also its strengths: it represents a diverse group of people with “certain shared tenets of nationhood”: a culture, a shared set of meanings and traditions, forged in the crucible of empire. However, this culture is also embedded in the global capitalist media, as a “mined cultural good” extracted from the colonies. Commodified hip-hop trafficks in stereotypes designed to justify domination of black people and secure cultural hegemony: “the culture of the colonized must continue to appear in some form to create appearance of authenticity and validity,” a point borrowed, refreshingly, from Fanon rather than Gramsci.
Ball places his work in a “tradition of aggressive reclamation of space for oppositional thought, education, or organization” which he labels “emancipatory journalism.” Emancipatory journalism is the pedagogical work of cultivating an “ability to resist” the colonized and colonizing culture of the powerful, and many have argued that hip-hop is – or was – an example. But the task has been made all the more difficult by the concentration of media ownership. Rather than some inexorable economic drive of the concentration of capital, Ball argues that it is also part of a deliberate political strategy of population management, which he connects to the Rockefeller Foundation’s funding of anti-communist propaganda during the Cold War. Ball’s most persuasive research makes the case that such corporate conglomeration is of particular concern to the black community. As independent media outlets, such as black-owned radio, television, and newspapers have closed up shop, the internet, in spite of the decentralization hype, has served as a tool of further concentration of audiences, squeezing alternative messages out. Distinct black audiences still exist – for example, urban radio penetrates 80-90% of black households – but only for corporate-controlled outlets, which present manipulated images of blackness: in Ball’s estimation, little more than a minstrel show.
But the streets have their own distribution mechanisms. Ball, who sees no potential in any corporate media, puts a great deal of faith in street vending, a crucial and oft-overlooked element in the black media landscape. Bootlegging is an art of insurrection, distinct from Sisyphean efforts at media reform: a gesture whose “violence” stems from “the suggestion that oppressed people take to producing their own journalism and media based on their own experiences.” This media could come in the form of copyright-flaunting mixtapes, the production of which is “an anti-authoritarian act, one that recalls the act of newly ‘freed’ nations developing their own presses and traditions of journalism more suited to their national development.” Ball attempted to put his theory into practice by producing political mixtapes; like a Public Enemy track, they would contain radical speeches, interviews, music, and snippets from other media. However, bereft of political and cultural organizations, his efforts were, by his own admission, “an absolute failure.” He simply couldn’t find outlets for his mixes.
The main theme of Ball’s text – the relationship between power and media – holds a privileged place in my home discipline of cultural studies, where we continue to weigh the merits of the pessimists of the Frankfurt School against the more populist take of British cultural studies, with tangents into Foucault, deconstruction, and sundry other cultural theory. With a reading list so long and difficult, it’s easy to lose sight of the political stakes in such an endeavor – death by a thousand nuances – which is why I find Ball’s take envigorating in its pointedness. His relentless foregrounding of liberatory politics leads him to construct an alternative critical media studies canon drawn from the rich tradition of radical black thought. I found myself constantly flipping to the bibliography, just as I check the tracklist of a mixtape when a hot song comes on.
The urgent political task at hand leads Ball to a kind of hard-nosed polemicism in tone. At times this is illuminating, such as Ball’s reintroduction of ICT. ICT fell out of favor in academic circles with the rise of postmodern and postcolonial theory, which greeted any talk of “nation” with suspicion. But postmodernism and postcolonialism have their own political liabilities, such as their failure to mount coherent challenges to the deepening exploitation and repression of people of color at home and abroad. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah goes as far as to argue that postmodernism primarily served as ideological cover for the black bourgeoisie’s detachment from the fates of the rest of black America. As part of an ongoing reevaluation of these bodies of thought, Ball makes a strong case that anticolonial texts still have much to teach us.
However, sometimes the polemical edge needs to be balanced with the nuances of cultural studies. Ball’s treatment of the hip-hop industry as a colonial mining operation certainly scalds, but it strikes me less as a theorization of hip-hop than an extended metaphor. Hip-hop is a complex object, impossible to place on a straightforward spectrum of militancy. For instance, Ball’s claim that the hip-hop industry “has not done away with a single project or ghetto, and has done nothing to correct a system of education or expand the political strength of its progenitors” is as incomplete as it is compellingly overstated.
Abolishing ghettos is a great deal to ask of a cultural movement alone, and numerous writers on the “hip-hop generation,” including Jeff Chang and Bakari Kitwana, have credited hip-hop culture with major improvements in American race relations. This isn’t liberation, but it isn’t insignificant either. Chang’s work in particular forces us to reconsider how hip-hop relates to the politics of gang culture – gangs have been a locus of political organizing in urban communities for generations – as well as other forms of association developed by the urban poor. The foundations of hip hop emerge from former gang members creating an organization they named the Universal Zulu Nation, a label at once nationalist, internationalist, and Third-Worldist.
Ball’s critical analysis of hip-hop’s destructiveness aligns with those of hip-hop’s liberal critics such as Tricia Rose, and even cultural conservatives such as Stanley Crouch. While the popular culture of the poor has always been denigrated as obscene, vulgar and ignorant, that such criticisms continue to emanate from all corners of the black community (including rappers themselves) gives someone like me, inclined to include all manner of trickster and badman characters in the hip-hop nation, pause. From a strictly political point of view, it’s hard not to see a decline for a form that once launched Pan-African anti-imperialist manifestos and critiques of the police brutality that presaged the L.A. riots into homes and businesses across the U.S.
Nevertheless, I am not as quick as Ball to write off cultural forms as irrevocably co-opted. As the political situation changes, we may find new uses for older weapons. A few observations on these potentials: first, a successful underground media must be attached to other successful forms of political organizing, which will create the audiences for more radical media. It is insufficient, and impossible, to merely craft evangelical appeals to radical action; historical conditions must favor these messages.
The example of the May 1968 uprisings in France serve as a case in point. As Eric Drott details in Music and the Elusive Revolution, as radical agitation shook the nation, audiences sought out more adventurous, experimental, and revolutionary music. Avant-garde composers such as Iannis Xenakis and Pierre Henry suddenly performed their difficult compositions to packed concert halls. The blistering free jazz of Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp was more popular in France than in the artists’ home country, due to the (misperceived) connection between the artists and black radicalism. Cultural institutions, themselves plagued by worker agitation, witnessed the demolition of elitist canons and the inclusion of marginalized forms of expression, from rock music to Indonesian gamelan. As the U.S. rediscovers and reinvents its own radical traditions, we should expect to see the flourishing of politicized art, music, and journalism. I, for one, would be curious to know if Black Agenda Report saw any upsurges in traffic since the Occupy movement – it was during this time I became a regular visitor.
We will see this flourishing on the internet before we hear it on local radio. Ball’s skepticism of the potentials of the internet is a useful corrective to techno-utopians and media populists, but nonetheless overlooks important potentials. The media creates all manner of unintended effects: as Ball notes, airing the anti-Nation-of-Islam documentary The Hate That Hate Produced served to popularize Malcolm X, not marginalize him. Even in today’s conditions, oppressed people produce their own media true to their experiences, albeit not often explicitly radical. DatPiff streams mixtapes from both unknown independent artists and major label stars. YouTube is filled with videos documenting police brutality, and songs by radical anti-imperialist rapper Immortal Technique boast millions of views. Black-owned web portals such as the shock site WorldStarHipHop and gossip site MediaTakeOut are certainly not radical, but does their crassness possess a kernel of “the irreverence of anti-colonial struggle” that could be turned to new ends in a different political climate? Ball could benefit from broadening his mixtape outreach into existing alternative channels of distribution: creating a radical infrastructure from the ground up is a task which quickly exhausts even the most impassioned activists.
Still, we should not write off Ball’s attachment to face-to-face distribution methods. My own field research suggests that working-class flea markets and street vending create spaces of community feeling. Their offerings can’t be found in mainstream commercial venues because they are considered niche “ethnic” goods (scented oils, black nationalist literature, Nigerian movies) or they are illegal or unsanctioned (counterfeit clothing, stolen or expired goods, and yes, bootleg mixtapes). Such markets are opportunities for working people to meet their needs at a lower cost, while supplementing their income. There is no strong delineation between buyers and sellers (identities which interpenetrate), and business is conducted in a casual and personal manner. They are not spaces of consumerism, but rather spaces for performance, where oppressed people can demonstrate technical ability, connoisseurship, and independence that they are denied in many other areas of life. These are relatively egalitarian spaces in which people are open to talking and to listening, and the music stands feature some of the liveliest conversations. In such markets, Sharon Zukin’s observation that “shopping is how we socialize” gets a dialectical makeover: socializing is how people shop. In short, they are spaces where Ball’s experiments in radical pedagogy could potentially take hold.