Hip-Hop is Not There

What does it take to turn culture to myth? How do we in 2016 enshrine a way of living, speaking, being? This year, The Get Down, on Netflix, and Atlanta, on FX, took on the ancient project of mythologizing, both looking at hip-hop episodically, through the lens of a television camera. But though the center of their focus is the same, their approaches are remarkable in their nearly diametric opposition to one another.

The Baz Luhrman produced Netflix series “The Get Down” went first, airing this summer, and sporting a who’s-who of legendary collaborators, including Nas and Grandmaster Flash, along with Catherine Martin, Steven Adley Guirgis and Nelson George. They plant their project in naturally fertile ground–the musical hotbed of New York in the late seventies–drawing on strands of gospel, soul, disco and rumba influence in another of Luhrman’s signature cine-musical experiences. The question remains though: is what comes out hip-hop?

It’s a stupid question. Or rather, it’s not worded to account for the nuance of representing one expressive medium through another. Of course The Get Down is hip-hop. Nas and Grandmaster Flash helped write it. If those guys don’t make hip-hop, then who does? But then you run into a wall: a tv show can’t be a rap song. What it can be, though, is a musical, which is where Baz comes in. It’s a logical direction to go in, the inclusion of musical numbers in a show about musicians, but The Get Down’s task then becomes one of balancing the tropes of musical theater with the tropes of hip-hop, synthesizing them into something that is at once both and neither. The show actually does a pretty good job of it, but when it falters, it’s along this divide.

The thing about musicals is that they tend to have a self-consciously performative quality that functions to underscore the message, which for TGD could be roughly summarized as follows: This is the history of rap and love and life and good versus evil. The show casts the purity of the spiritual against the sacrilege of it’s drum break being repurposed for use in street gang dj battles. It places the biblically-named young rapper Ezekiel in the middle of the conflict, forcing him and his beloved disco superstar in the making, Mylene, to choose between what is expedient and what is right as they struggle to navigate the world with the weight of the future of expression on their shoulders. It’s an epic love story whose stakes are nothing less than the birth of modern music, and because it gestures so broadly, it ends up at times stuck still at center stage, half-blinded in the lights.

Ironically, the problem is the music. And it’s not even that it’s bad, it’s just that the way the show is written seems to give the songs more weight than the people singing them. The characters become vehicles for the musico-cultural narrative, rather than the other way around, and the artifice of theatrical convention only draws more attention to the moments when it happens.

The thing The Get Down sometimes misses is that Rap, like all good writing, operates most convincingly in the minutia. Meaning is an emergent phenomenon, expanding outward from the details of life lived, those seemingly inconsequential moments that turn out to be the substance of all of it.  

As a potentially relevant aside, this is one of my issues with a lot of Nas’s later work–his broad-stroke motivational tone on “I Can,” for instance, is infinitely less powerful for me than the heartfelt epistolary voice from “One Love.” It’s the details that sell the story, and in setting the scope of his verses too large, he ends up losing sight of that, eclipsing himself as the speaker of the verses and effectively dehumanizing the message.

Donald Glover understands the importance of such minutia. It undoubtedly comes from his background in comedy, an art that lives and breathes the observation of life’s universal ideosynchrasies. Glover’s take on hip-hop sits opposite Luhrman’s, circling the same mercurial center, though he knows better than to approach directly. Atlanta happens in the peripheries. It’s a show about stuff at the edge of vision, stuff we could see if only we knew where to look. Glover plays Ern, our eyes and ears as he navigates life as a young black father who’s also trying to manage his cousin’s rap career in the titular city of Southern rap legends.

It’s telling that even though Glover has released three studio albums and a handful of mixtapes under his moniker Childish Gambino, he doesn’t play the rapper. It’s also telling that Bryan Tyree Henry, who does, never really raps on camera. In fact, his character, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles seems to distance himself from his own persona at every turn. When he does get recognized, it usually doesn’t end well. Recognition in Atlanta is a burden, and expectations weigh heavy on everybody. The show’s dark comedy is born from those expectations, specifically from the absurdities of the expectations surrounding the quintessential rapper persona, and the accompanying self-consciousness, or lack thereof, which sells such a rapper to the world.

The man behind Paper Boi, Alfred Miles, is an unflappable realist. He doesn’t talk more than he has to, he’s more than a little cynical, and way smarter than he usually lets on, but what makes him really interesting is the way he approaches music, or rather, doesn’t. Rap is a way of getting paid. He’s all about that paper, boy. There’s no waxing poetic about black expression and art and love. That kind of cultural fetishization is left to Craig, the rich white guy hosting the excruciatingly awkward juneteenth party in the penultimate episode.

On the surface level, the name Paper Boi is about money, but on a deeper level it’s about the persona as a blank page, something across which we can scrawl our assumptions, our prejudices, our fears and our desires. As much as he hates it, Alfred Miles understands this dynamic, and his struggle throughout the show centers around resisting the objectifying lens of celebrity, becoming a successful rapper without sacrificing his reality.

Ern has a similarly charged name, one that’s just an “a” away from the verb which is his struggle, most likely used here in the imperative, as in: earn!  It’s also short for E(a)rnest, which he is to a fault, and which tends to undermine his attempts at being a good capitalist. He’s just too self-consciously honest to make money, and that tension packed into his name is indicative of the show’s whole project, a Wildean exploration of the farcical meta-comedy of American pop culture as it stands today.

Perhaps that’s the most obvious difference between The Get Down and Atlanta–the temporal framing of each show, the former historicizing the birth of an era and the latter examining what it has become after almost forty years, bloating and ballooning into something too vast to consider–but this temporal difference is reflected as well in the narrative framing of the two shows, with The Get Down attempting to define a culture by encapsulating the entire thing in a grand narrative, while Atlanta simply sketches out its current limits through a series of short vignettes following various characters, tracing their paths along the lines where things come together and fall apart.

This, as it always turns out, is where the stories become most interesting, where their stakes are most vital, and where we stand to learn the most about ourselves through experiencing them.  Atlanta’s indirect approach works better in large part due to its more effective execution, but that’s because The Get Down’s holistic ambitions set it up with an impossible task from the get go. To try and say everything, to show all of it, to sing every song and speak every word, this is a fool’s errand. Better simply to be, truly and earnestly, there in the day to day, leaving just enough empty space that we might gradually feel it filling in, resonating with the great and unspeakable essence of something which it is not.

Henry Whittier-Ferguson