Nelson George's The Plot Against Hip Hop is a fictional novel that explores the possibility that there was an intentional scheme against drum-driven hip hop music and the culture that birthed it.
The origins of hip hop echo the history of the drum in African culture, and the drum was just as threatening to white America in the days of slavery, when it was banned, as it is today in the days when it is controlled. During slavery the drum was a spiritual instrument that united people to their various African religions, served as a means of preserving culture, and perhaps most petrifying, considered a method of messaging. The possibility of the drum being used as a means to organize for mutiny resulted in the prohibition of this form of musical expression and was part of the psychological warfare against black people that still exists today.
The effort to ban hip hop was less effective, but this lack of control resulted in a targeted investment strategy not only to profit from it, but also to regulate it. Before hip hop became big business it was a uniting force. At its inception hip hop was not at all about profit and pushing products, but expression, communication, and a connection. It was a call and response to black people across the country, letting them know that they are not alone in their struggles. Their experience is shared: the racism, the police brutality, the financial despair, the infiltration of drugs in their streets. The potent lyrics reminded white people that systemic oppression and blatant discrimination was still rampant, and a multi-racial culture of hip hop was launched with an undercurrent of consciousness, empowerment, and leadership. Yet the more money that came in, the more violence, competition, factions, and other problems arose. The east coast/west coast beef ensured that hip hop would never again have the same collective impact, and then it all became a question of the market, not the community.
George's book examines the commodity hip hop has become and is centered around a bodyguard named D. Hunter. When his best friend, an intellectual who was writing a controversial novel called The Plot Against Hip Hop, was viciously murdered, Hunter investigates and is sucked into a vortex of potential conspiracies and shocking truths that involve not only the political and policing systems, but also the upper echelons of the hip hop industry. George uses Hunter's quest for justice to take the reader into the dark transformation of hip hop while exposing many threads of narrative fabric from hip hop cops and their dossiers to MK ULTRA and mind control that will leave you wanting to investigate more.
George very masterfully has created a novel that informs as well as entertains. He leaves the door open for many unanswered questions, but the main point is that the reader starts asking them without expecting a definitive answer. The plot against hip hop is not an obvious diabolical plan but a nuanced psychological strategy. As with slavery, you want to blame the white man oppressor exclusively, but then you ignore the sad truth that some wealthy Africans sold their people for profit.
As Mos Def articulates in his song "The Rape Over," white men like Lyor Cohen mostly own and govern the hip hop music industry, but George's book honors the complexity that that there are many different agents involved in this heinous subjugation of hip hop. The enemies are less the individuals, but more the money that motivates them and the esoteric fear of what would happen if the original vision of hip hop were manifested. George touches on the most tragic -- and perhaps most true -- reason why hip hop is considered so intimidating to white America when he reminds his readers that Public Enemy's Chuck D said famously that his group's goal was to "create several thousand black leaders."
Interview with Nelson George
Toni Nagy: Your book touches on a lot of controversial issues. Did you use the format of fiction as a means of pushing the envelope in expressing your own personal beliefs regarding race relations in this country?
Nelson George: I'm known for writing non-fiction but I've done a few novels. So when I wanted to return to writing about hip hop I didn't want to repeat what I did with Hip Hop America back in the late '90s. Plus I'm a fan of fiction that uses true events and then creates a fictional backdrop. I'm thinking of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and the work of James Ellroy, like LA Confidential. So it felt fresh and fun to me, since I was looking at hip hop from the point of view of a character and not a critic. It felt very liberating. Plus, I believe, I have one of the first novels to tap into the mythology of hip hop as the backbone for a narrative.
TN: The main character, a strong, dominant, black man, is also HIV positive. What does the sub plot of his health mean to you?
NG: We always see these massive black bodyguards. They can be intimidating. But what is going on in their personal life? How are they vulnerable? I thought it would interesting to have this huge man have this dark, unspoken secret that makes him insecure. Plus HIV is a huge problem in black America and I wanted to connect D. Hunter to that.
TN: The narrative weaves in the psychological warfare of controlling the black population through various forms of manipulation. Who is your ideal audience for receiving this message?
NG: Black folks believe in various conspiracies because of everything that's been thrown at us -- from the Tuskegee experiments to COINTELPRO to the hip hop dossier created by NYPD. So I wanted to be in dialogue with all those real conspiracies, as well as things like the belief in the Illuminati that are prevalent now. I'm hoping I'll educate young people, while introducing older folks to some of the fears harbored by many young people.
TN: The big business of hip hop is the main theme of the book. Do you feel like the commodity hip hop has become is detrimental to the black community even though many black people have profited from it?
NG: While many black stars have benefited from the selling of hip hop, I don't think the culture of hip hop has profited from it. This was once black CNN. This was once a rebel culture that Congressional hearings were called to investigate. This was once a transgressive and aggressive culture. I don't feel it is any of that anymore. The brand endorsements that so many artists profit from, I believe, act as a chilling factor that restricts the content of many artist's lyrics.
TN: Conspiracy theories thread in and out of the story. Did you intentionally want to give credibility to some of these theories?
NG: As I said earlier, conspiracies are a huge part of the black psyche. So to mention them is not to endorse them, but to acknowledge them as part of the dialogue around the culture. In a novel I don't feel I have to condone them or not. They are just part of the on line narrative that is where so much conversation about the culture now takes place.