I was an enlisted Airman studying Korean at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California on September 11, 2001. When the first two planes struck, none of us had any idea whether it was a high-profile accident or an attack. It was only when a third plane flew into the Pentagon that we put 2 and 2 together.
I remember feeling confused, and a bit queasy after going out to the “Day Room” to check out the news, but I had a milestone language test that morning and was trying to focus. After the test, I went outside to a smoke pit to wait for the others in my cohort to finish. I didn’t smoke but I wanted to talk to someone about what was happening and there were a couple Marines from my class already there. They were rabid. It was the first time I’d heard anti-Arab epithets (I won’t bother repeating them, but they were guttural, and very, very racist). I was still bewildered. “I just can’t believe this is happening. Who did it? Think we’re at war?” I asked. At first, both Marines sat there for a moment, as if deaf, before the first one blurted out, “Doesn’t matter. We’re gonna find out and f–k ’em up. Chop their f–king heads off.”
The 9/11 terrorist attacks marked an instant shift in what it meant to be in the military, and at DLI. Overnight, the almost college-like campus transformed from an open one that anyone could pass through to a locked down army post with check points and concertina wire everywhere. The culture shifted too. Soon, it seemed like everybody was talking and acting like those Marines. Eventually, I was sharing in the righteous anger too.
There was a lot of peer pressure to embrace a patriotism that required performative militarism and masculinity (at least for those of us in uniform). It was our job to protect the nation, and we were just attacked. And our Commander-in-Chief had promised we’d be getting our revenge, in so many words.We were feeding off of each others’ manic energy in a way that mirrored some accounts I’ve read of the mania of the Cultural Revolution in China.
It’s embarrassing but essential to acknowledge that the soundtrack of my final months at DLI was the song “Draft Me!” by Canibus, which dropped maybe a month after 9/11. In fact, I didn’t catch up to the psychology of my emotional peers until that song. Canibus had been one of my favorite lyricists in high school, partly because he rapped about ideas, partly because he lit up LL Cool J in one of the best diss tracks of all time. For me, Canibus was the ultimate validation that the War on Terror must be righteous. The song was a hyper-patriotic, racist ode to murder on behalf of nationalism. The hook went:
Draft me! I wanna fight for my country, jump in a humvee and murder those monkeys! Draft me! I’m too dedicated to fail. Justice must prevail.
It gets even more contemptible than that, but you get the flavor of the cultural moment we were living through. Looking back, the obvious problem wasn’t just that dissent was deemed unpatriotic, which is easy enough to acknowledge. It was the unique way that nationalist militarism appeared to be the golden ticket for escaping minority oppression.
Suge Knight, founder of Death Row records, spoke to the zeitgeist, noting the following year, “we’re supporting the USA…there’s no such thing as ghetto, middle class, or rich. There’s only the United States.” Of course, the ghetto remained. The middle class was reserved for people who owned real estate or worked for the rapidly expanding national security state. And the rich got richer. But supporting the War on Terror — and more importantly being seen to support the War on Terror — gave you access to American identity, community. The “hegemony of nationhood” was constructed with the bribery of social inclusion after centuries of ostracism and persecution.
Hip-hop had always been the music of the oppressed, bearing witness to the parts of the American story that were too incongruous for polite society to acknowledge. In the ’90s though, the genre gradually hollowed out its spiritual radicalism as dissent music in favor of greed-is-good individualism. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Can’t knock the hustle. All of that.
The neoliberal evolution of hip-hop before 9/11 defanged its critique of power, drew attention away from injustice. There were “conscious” rappers like Talib Kweli and Mos Def, but the industry as a whole had become nihilistic. That meant rappers were largely freed from the possibility of contradiction when 9/11 struck. In a previous era, it would’ve been criminal to side with the state, especially one waging global war. Now it was the surest path to mainstream acceptance.
Like most of us, hip-hop hasn’t reckoned with its quiescence in the consolidation and expansion of state power after 9/11. Unlike most of us though, hip-hop was uniquely the voice of the voiceless. It nurtured the dissent culture that, thankfully, has started making a comeback. But by joining the War on Terror, even if only for a brief time, it utterly neutered dissent in America. Never again.