Photo Credit: Dave Lichterman via Flickr, Creative Commons License
First Place, Seattle University
Arts & Sciences Scholastic Competition 2012
No Rest for the Weary:
Finding a Space for Resistance in Seattle’s Hip-Hop Scene
In postcolonial studies, the notion of resistance is a contentious one. The questions abound: Is resistance even possible? In what way and in what space can colonized and formerly colonized individuals and groups resist? Who becomes the face of this resistance? Edward Said, with his publication of Orientalism in 1978 brought this conversation to the fore. Building upon the work of Foucault and his definition of discourse, Said laid out a thesis about the construction of the Orient that suggested a power differential between colonizer and colonized so pervasive that it left little room for resistance. This idea has been contested by a variety of scholars, from Homi Bhabha to Gayatri Spivak, who see much more potential for subversion, setting off a debate within academic circles that still persists today: Is resistance possible? Or is colonial/postcolonial discourse as static and all consuming as Said describes?
This paper seeks to enter into this conversation about resistance and turns to one of the unlikeliest of places for answers: the rap scene of the Pacific Northwest. Specifically, the music of Seattle-based duo Blue Scholars, when analyzed through a postcolonial lens, suggests that hip-hop can be a powerful form of resistance, a means by which marginalized groups can respond to the epistemic violence against the formerly colonized by subverting longstanding dominant narratives. While previous academic scholarship on rap as resistance has focused on the genre as a response to the oppression of urban African American youth, today, the realm of hip-hip cannot be so narrowly defined. Blue Scholars’ “No Rest for the Weary,” by rewriting colonial narratives, presenting a Marxist counter ideology and affirming hybrid identities, presents a new and salient vision of resistance for hybridized individuals in a postcolonial world.
Edward Said’s Orientalism was not published with the intent of transforming the discussion around colonial resistance, but his application of Foucault’s understanding of discourse certainly established a polarizing view of the colonized’s ability to resist. Said’s argument about the construction of the Orient is inextricably tied to the relationship between knowledge and power. In Said’s eyes the construction of knowledge (in this case of the Orient) by the West becomes an insidious method by which power is both expressed and maintained. Said’s position relies on an understanding of power relations modeled after Foucault’s notion of discourse. A set-up, which as Ania Loomba points out in her book Colonialism/Postcolonialism, “argues that power does not manifest itself in a downward flow from the top of the social hierarchy to those below but extends itself laterally in a capillary fashion—it is part of daily action, speech and everyday life” (47). It is this decentralized structure of power that opens Orientalism to criticisms that it leaves little room for resistance, and ushers in the question of the efficacy of resistance as a whole. If the disparity of power is as deeply embedded as Foucault would suggest, if the colonizer controls every facet of life from speech to thought, then resistance is futile; it is always trapped within the confined boundaries of discourse set by the colonizer or the dominant group.
Within the context of Foucault’s understanding of power, hip-hop and rap emerge as mediums through which the imbalance in the construction of knowledge—ideological domination—can be redressed. According to James Scott, in Domination and The Arts of Resistance, “Resistance to ideological domination requires a counter ideology—a negation—that will effectively provide a general normative form…” (118). From the spirituals sung by slaves in the fields to the modern day protest song, music has existed as a tool used by marginalized populations to assert such a counter ideology and resist oppressive forces.
Rap, as a genre of music, is no different. Emerging out of the 1970s New York hip-hop scene, rap has fulfilled the role both of a countercultural movement as well as a representation of a specific segment of black culture. As Cheryl Keyes explains in Rap Music and Street Consciousness, rap is understood as part of the “continuum of black expressive forms…grounded in the aesthetic and ideology of urban street culture” (xii). More importantly, in a society that marginalizes African Americans and particularly African American males, rap becomes a potent method of resistance, a way in which to respond to the identities ascribed by society. In “Metal Faces, Rap Masks” Mickey Hess, citing Scott, describes the way in which rap music assumed a “ ‘hidden transcript’ of resistance, which allowed a segment of the population, normally marginalized to engage in ‘symbolic and ideological warfare with institutions and groups that symbolically, ideologically, and materially oppress African Americans’” (298).
Today, rap music is no longer solely the domain of African American males representing urban street culture. Different people all across the world have appropriated the genre, drawn by the potential of the music; the state of hip-hop is in flux. As George Quibuyen, a.k.a. Geologic, MC of Blue Scholars and the child of Filipino immigrants notes, “it’s still strange to people. On one hand, it’s like a novelty. On the other hand, you genuinely see in their eyes…. You know, I’ll even just playfully on stage, while we’re doing a show, say, ‘Put your hands in the air if this is the first time you’ve seen an Asian dude rap.’” (Matson, SeattleTimes.com). Symbolized in the emergence of groups like Blue Scholars, rap music is slowly becoming decoupled from its connection to black culture and history. Rap has been picked up by a wide range of voices, but retains the identity of a cultural response and resistance to oppression.
This idea is demonstrated nowhere better than in Seattle where the burgeoning diversity of the city’s minority residents is represented in the diversity of artists signed to the major record label, MassLine Records. The label produces hip-hop from Iranian American, East-African American, Asian American, and white American artists (Mudede, The Stranger), including the duo of Blue Scholars. Though no longer rooted in the African American experience, music by artists like the Blue Scholars (whose members are Filipino American and Iranian American) nonetheless continues to communicate the “hidden transcript of resistance” that Scott describes. Blue Scholars rap about the social conditions of Seattle, of growing up non-white in a white majority city, of their second-generation immigrant heritage, all in a powerful expression of resistance against forces—globalization, capitalism, and racism—that the artists see as oppressing.
Here, resistance continues to follow in the form of Scott’s transcript of resistance, sketching out a common counter ideology to dominant narratives. While Said’s treatment of resistance was grounded in colonial discourse, groups like Blue Scholars are not necessarily responding to a strictly colonial world. However, the framework and power dynamic still apply. It may be more appropriate to think of resistance as Helen Tiffin does when she describes the process as an “ongoing dialectic between hegemonic centrist systems and peripheral subversion of them” (99). This notion more accurately captures the idiosyncrasies of Blue Scholars’ music as responding to hegemonic systems generally, rather than specific colonial authorities. Ultimately, the power of this new emerging hip-hop lies in its ability to give voice to the marginalized, to allow them to engage in the dialectic that Tiffin describes and craft a convincing counter ideology.
This power does not go unnoticed by Blue Scholars’ MC, Geologic. In an interview with TheMusiqBox when asked about the cultural relevance of music he answered:
“Two things. I believe music is a mirror and a hammer. It’s a mirror that reflects what is going on…if you just express yourself it is somehow in someway a reflection of the times and conditions that you live in. And people in the future are going to look back and hear the music that was played at that time. It’s basically going to be a documentary. And so I approach it that way too. Music has to reflect what is going on, and then when the timing is right, understand that it is also a hammer that can shape the way people think and see things.”
Geologic’s education (as a former student of history at the University of Washington) is betrayed in his response. He places his music in a historical sense, as a marker to future generations—to scholars—of what the experience was for a large portion of people. This in part explains the motivation for the type of music Geologic creates. He highlights the struggles of immigrants, of the poor, minorities, etc. understanding his music as crafting a historical narrative that counters the traditional one overlooked in textbooks. He recognizes music as a mirror, but he also recognizes music as a tool, a hammer by which the world can be shaped and seen. His words articulate the specific space in which music operates as resistance: at the nexus of knowledge and power. In shaping how his listeners see the world, Geologic’s raps resist the system by reconfiguring the distribution and dissemination of power. In this case, Geo articulates the truly subversive power of music as a whole, but of hip-hop in particular: that it can shape knowledge; it can counteract narratives set by the majority and actively engage in dialogue with “hegemonic centrist systems.” It is a reality that Geologic acknowledges occurred in his own lifetime. “I had history teachers who would do shit like show us The Birth of a Nation and make us write about it—then I’d go home and listen to Ice Cube” (Zwickel, The Stranger). As the lyrics of rapper Ice Cube challenged his notions of racial history in the United States, so too do Geologic’s lyrics challenge listeners today.
In particular, the lyrics of the song “No Rest for the Weary” become the landscape in which a new counter ideology is constructed to contest the battle over knowledge and power in the 21st century. The question then becomes what is being said? What is articulated? “No Rest for the Weary” not only rewrites traditional colonial narratives, but also draws attention to the fact that colonialism still exists for many in a different form: globalized capitalism. The song’s Marxist overtones suggest a concrete counter ideology to capitalism and the hybridity presented within the song further legitimizes the claim that resistance is possible.
The child of Filipino immigrants, Geologic is acutely aware of the painful legacies of colonialism and seeks to combat them by addressing history in song. In his lyrics, he does not shy away from ascribing current social ills to colonial history. In the opening verse of “No Rest for the Weary” he writes: “It’s tough times in the rough / Diamonds ain’t enough / To cover up a corrupted and fucked up legacy of strange food, bloody whips, and small pox; / Trigger happy cops, barbed wire, and fire water y’all it don’t stop” (LyricWiki) In this verse he establishes a continuum, starting with colonialism and preceding up into the current day. The mixing of past and present imagery of trigger-happy cops and firewater collapses the chronological boundaries of where colonialism began and ended. The lyrics suggest a timeless solidarity among marginalized people in the United States, one that stretches from the Native Americans being taken advantage of with “fire water” to those who are victims of police brutality. Roping together such diverse histories is in itself problematic, but Geologic sees such solidarity as necessary to resistance, particularly when the living legacy of colonialism is often covered up. Diamonds, representing monetary wealth achieved by some in minority communities (particularly black rappers) is not enough to mitigate the painful history that still exists. Geo again challenges the listener to reconsider their understandings of the limits of colonialism when he speaks of himself in the historical colonial context. He writes, “When the colonizer came with the cross and the sword, / I threw the first spear and said, ‘I declare war’ / I’m a battle scar wearin’ heir apparent, / Descendant of a long lineage of proletariat peasants” (LyricWiki). If the dominant narrative is that colonialism is a relic of the past, then Geologic’s raps serve as a critical response. He argues that his personal narrative and history have been, and continue to be, directly affected by colonialism. Geologic notes this clash of competing narratives within the song, as well as acknowledging that the narrative he embodies is not the dominant one taught in the classroom. As he puts it in an interview, he started writing when he realized the contradiction between the “idea of America that I was given with the America I was actually living in” (Zwickel, The Stanger).
Given this disconnect, Geologic proposes a simple, yet effective, response. He writes, “The lessons might change, / But the essence of the message is the same. / So when they say anything, say, “Why is it?” (LyricWiki) In a manifesto of resistance, he offers a radically simple course of action: question traditionally accepted knowledge. “No Rest for the Weary,” strikes at the heart of the knowledge and power divide of Foucault and encourages listeners to break down the hierarchy. It is the structure of this discourse, so inclined to marginalize and silence the subaltern, which calls Geologic to write. Rap is the medium by which to counteract enforced silence. By providing such a space, the music transcends mere entertainment. For Geologic, it is a method by which he proclaims he will “repossess my name, face, and history y’all” (LyricWiki).
In the context of the song, questioning narratives means to not only consider the legacy of colonialism that informs the present, but also to consider the way in which colonialism has morphed and been reshaped in the modern era. While Geologic may symbolically associate himself with a colonial past, the challenges he faces today are described in more material, Marxist terms. Thus, while presenting a counter narrative to colonial history in his opening verses, as the song progresses, Geologic proceeds to provide a counter ideology to the destructive forces of global capitalism. He writes, “Pages, torn out the memories of those who remain / Shackled by the chains of international capital gain / I can’t knock it if you find it entertaining, / I rep’ those whose labor ain’t compensated” (LyricWiki). While older generations of artists wrote as resistance to oppressions felt by the urban African American youth community, in this verse Geologic places his struggle within a Marxist framework, as a battle between labor and capital. Violence against the marginalized is both epistemic and material. Geologic raps about how his “Crazy landlady tried to switch up on the lease” and “If she raises up the rent again it’s time to say peace,” as well as how his father is “working overtime and he got a broken back” (LyricWiki) These descriptions are more than just filler. At the same time that narratives of oppression are being ignored in the classroom, the lyrics suggest that the economic reality that faces minority and impoverished populations in urban centers is similarly being glossed over. Geologic’s presentation of a Marxist position (further espoused in other songs on the album) is an important aspect of hip-hop as resistance. Not only does it distinguish Blue Scholars’ music as a medium of resistance for people in a postcolonial world, it also continues to articulate the counter ideology essential to resisting Foucauldian notions of power.
In addition to challenging traditional narratives and recasting discourse in terms of a Marxist struggle, “No Rest for the Weary” further functions as resistance by representing hybrid identities. Hybridity presents itself both in the form and function of the song. Geologic writes, “I’m deciphering life, / and blending both theory into practice / I write vernacular and actual fact, got no posturing / A thousand pointed fingers, I defied every one of them” (LyricWiki). Geologic’s insistence on writing vernacular is both an important facet of this new wave of resistance and an expression of hybridity. For Geologic, the vernacular functions in two senses. The lingo and words he uses in his songs are immediately identified as American slang English, suggesting the appropriation of the language by an immigrant son. Indeed, his mastery of the language and his ability to play with its rhyme and rhythm in itself can be considered resistance to strict notions of cultural difference. It is an idea articulated by Homi K. Bhabha in his article, “Cultural Diversity and Cultural Difference” where he writes of the revolutionary power of hybridity. According to Bhabha, those who successfully navigate more than one culture (i.e. Geologic’s repurposing of the English language to express Filipino culture and history), open a pathway to “conceptualizing an international culture, based not on the exoticism or multiculturalism of the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity” (157). Thus, Geologic’s ability to mediate between the American culture he was born into and the culture of his ancestors, forces the listener to reconsider the strict boundaries that underlie the knowledge and power framework. “Vernacular” could also be in reference to the numerous times (in songs besides “No Rest for The Weary”) in which Geologic includes Tagalog or Llocano words in his songs. As argued by Rachel Devitt in “Filipino Diaspora(s), Postcolonial Hip Hop, and the Problems of Keeping It Real for the ‘Contentless’ Black Eyed Peas,”
MCs who rhyme in languages other than English practice what hip hop scholar Tony Mitchell (2003) has called ‘resistance vernaculars’…Resistance vernaculars are multivalent: They are tactics of poetics that builds on the argot of American hip hop, long a language of struggle itself, but then replace its linguistic markers with locally or culturally meaningful verbiage and vocabulary to create a new expressive dialect (Devitt, 113).
Such is the process with Blue Scholars’ music. Their songs combine local Seattle cultural references with ideas, themes, and words from Filipino culture to craft a unique expression of self. For Geologic and his producer, Sabzi, this combination is a natural extension of their identities as children of immigrants. As Geologic notes,
“That means we were like the first generation out of a long list of generations to not share the same living conditions as our parents…So there’s things like language barriers…cultural differences…I think it informs a lot of the music we make…I mean Bayani, the last album we dropped, is like a big up to our heritages, our backgrounds…it’s a word that you find in Farsi and in Tagalog. So it plays a big role. And not just for us. We actually live in a community in South Seattle where there’s people of all types, all types of third world people…who have similar experiences.” (Grounded Media)
Blue Scholars’ music actively engages with notions of hybridity, not only for the artists themselves but for their entire community as well. Their songs express a strong connection to the places from which they have come, combined with a declaration of their identity and presence in an American society that tends to marginalize immigrant and minority communities. Occupying this middle ground, Blue Scholars and their music are constant reminders that a space for resistance is opened by hybridity. The song ends on this theme: “Peace, peace, and that’s my piece / It’s still all about the bullet in the belly of the beast /From the east my brother, we came” (LyricsWiki). The song closes with a reminder of from where “we came,” a recurring theme in “No Rest for the Weary” as well as other Blue Scholars songs. Though Geologic has clearly assimilated into American life, there is nonetheless nostalgia for the heritage and homeland of his ancestors. The song speaks to the angst of hybridity caused by a legacy of colonialism. The lyrics suggest that Geologic’s presence in the country is not by choice, but a something forced upon his father and mother because of a colonial past. Whether or not such an identity came about by choice, it still serves as a reminder of the motivation that drives the artists forward to bring to the fore the hybridized identity in America and dismantle the power structures that enable oppression.
If there is one overarching message throughout the work of Blue Scholars it is that notions of discourse, of power, and of the colonizer and the colonized continue to hold relevance, even for peoples no longer under direct colonial subjugation. Said was correct; the battle over control over the construction of knowledge continues, but it is no longer being waged solely in the academic realms of literature, anthropology, or cultural studies. A song like “No Rest for the Weary” indicates a shift in the battleground, as the formerly colonized and currently marginalized take up other methods of crafting resistance than strictly political means. The vision of power dynamics presented in Orientalism was daunting because of the ability of the colonizer to control the production of knowledge. In an increasingly globalized and hybridized world, hip-hop becomes this new medium of resistance directly challenging this control of knowledge, a means by which to enunciate a counter ideology to dominant narratives and craft a hybrid identity to push back against a history of oppression.