Postindustrial Soul

Neal’s chapters 5-6 focus on recent innovations, and class divisions, within African American communities and their musics.


  • Neal, “Postindustrial Soul: Black Popular Music at the Crossroads”
  • Neal, “Postindustrial Postscript: The Digitized Aural Urban Landscape”

(Because we cover them in later assignments, the information on Public Enemy, NWA, and Dr. Dre are not included in this assignment’s quiz.)

Listening (on YouTube)


Reading/Viewing Guide

Note that this guide is not meant to replace careful study of the assigned texts. Instead, this guide highlights some of the important ideas and information found in these chapters, songs, and videos. To do well on our tests, quizzes, and class discussions, you will need a thorough knowledge of all assigned texts.

Neal argues that mainstream culture did find a use those left behind in the inner cities after deindustrialization and Black/White Flight: “By the late 1970s, the commodification of the black poor or underclass as human spectacle became a standard trope of mass culture, parlaying a clear sense of social difference from ‘blackness’ for many mainstream consumers, including an emerging black middle class” (131).
To commodify something is to transform it into an object that can be sold for profit. In Hollywood films like Fort Apache, TV serials like Starsky and Hutch, in TV news programming, and, later, in Hip Hop music videos, the culture industries discovered that many audiences were ready to pay good money for images (“spectacles”) of Black dysfunction.
Neal argues that Hip Hop emerged from the abused and abandoned neighborhoods of the inner cities as “a distinct African-American youth culture whose basic sentiments were often incompatible with mainstream African-American leadership and mainstream culture in general” (134). Later Neal cites Micheal Eric Dyson to underscore that, “At base, the perception of the aesthetic alienation of hip-hop culture is linked to a perception that black youth are moral strangers” (169).
Two skits from Steve Harvey’s performance in The Original Kings of Comedy (Spike Lee, 2000) reflect the distance that has opened between the middle-class, church-going community that celebrates “old school” R&B and the poorer, younger generations that embrace Hip Hop. A 2012 clip from Trisha Rose emphasizes that critiques like Harvey’s often treat all of Hip Hop as if it were a single thing. Instead, critics should recognize that they are talking only about commercial, mainstream, American Hip Hop.
As part of the first generation to be socialized by television, African-American youth faced an avalanche of images which taught them that a person’s value is defined by her or his ability to consume (Neal 134). This echoes the point we heard earlier in Ta-Nehisi Coates, who recounts the frustration, anger, and depression he felt while growing up, confronted by TV images of the white “Dream” that saturated his consciousness.
Coates reacted by becoming critical and politically conscious, while Trinidad James represents an alternative response. His All Gold Everything music video locates the rapper within an multi-generational community that refuses to be ashamed of its distance  from the (white) mainstream. But it also celebrates criminal behavior as a means “to escape poverty and to consume as a measurement of self-worth” (Neal 134).
Like Hip Hop forty years later, African American youth in the 1940s embraced a music and a style “as a form of transcendence/resistance from the everyday drudgery of their existence” (135). Neal discusses the zoot suit and the Lindy Hop in his introduction (22) as well as in this chapter (134-35), and the Black Public Sphere lecture slides include an example from the film Hellzapoppin (H.C. Potter 1941).
The Lindy Hop scene from Malcolm X (Spike Lee 1992) offers a modern recreation of these 1940s subcultural styles. The scene’s origins can be found in Malcolm X’s autobiography, where he recounts dancing the Lindy as the Duke Ellington band plays at the Roseland Ballroom in Boston:

“Partly it was my reputation, and partly Laura’s ballet style of dancing that helped to turn the spotlight—and the crowd’s attention—to us. They never had seen the feather-lightness that she gave to lindying, a completely fresh style—and they were connoisseurs of styles. I turned up the steam, Laura’s feet were flying: I had her in the air, down, sideways, around: backwards, up again, down, whirling… Laura inspired me to drive to new heights. Her hair was all over her face, it was running sweat, and I couldn’t believe her strength. The crowd was shouting and stomping” (Autobiography of Malcolm X 21).

Neal identifies “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five as the first significant example of a politically conscious Hip Hop track. The song prefigures an important genre within Hip Hop, which will be our focus in the coming weeks. In Chapter 6 Neal argues that such “conscious” music (like that of Public Enemy, for example) reflects the fact that the Hip Hop community has always been “continuously engaged in forms of communal critique, some of which is self-critical of the genre itself…” (163). His example is the 1996 “Ya Playin’ Yaself” by Jeru the Damaja, which is a direct and critical response to “Player’s Anthem” by Junior M.A.F.I.A.
Neal harshly criticizes what he calls “ghetto pop” labels with celebrity “leaders” like Sean Combs and Antonio Reid. Running boutique labels that are actually owned by corporate monoliths like Arista/BMG, these men, Neal writes, are far removed from the real seats of power. Rather than business moguls, they are more like glorified overseers on “a twenty-first century plantation…” (149).
As Neal writes, “The Arsenio Hall Show was crucial to the hip hop community because Hall allowed his show to be a forum for their concerns, not just as performers, but as public spokespersons and critics for their communities” (151). The KRS One on Arsenio Hall clip includes both a performance by and an interview with the rapper.
This final section of the chapter is titled “Postindustrial Nostalgia: Mass Media, Memory, and Community.” In it, Neal highlights the efforts of Hip Hop artists to unearth and reconnect with the cultures and communities of previous generations. The paragraph that begins at the bottom of 153 offers a nice summary of these efforts, and it introduces Notorious B.I.G.’s “Things Done Changed” as a prime example of the felt distance and sense of loss experienced by the Hip Hop generation. The examples that follow offer what Neal sees as more successful efforts to span the chasm underscored by “Things Done Changed.”


  • Postindustrial Soul