Taking Notes From Hip-Hop: Why The Left Should Have More Beef

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Beanie Sigel

In the early 2000s, Beanie Sigel and Jadakiss engaged in one of the most legendary rap beefs of all time. In hip hop, beef is when rappers engage in a series of “diss tracks” where they insult each other lyrically. It’s a sort of musical sparring match where the rappers demonstrate their prowess through direct competition. In an art form fixated on braggadocio and being the best, it’s a space for rappers to prove themselves and build up hype.

Although rap beef can occasionally get very personal and possibly violent, in this case it wasn’t. Beanie Sigel, in an interview with DJ Vlad, explained that he engaged in the beef specifically to “make his bones” and create a name for himself in the hip hop game. He met with Jadakiss personally in the midst of the beef, who told him they should try to extend the beef as long as possible to make as much money as possible. He understood the arrangement was beneficial for both parties because it attracts so much attention in the community and gives both of them an opportunity to hone their craft.

The most recent major example of this for me was the 2020 Eminem and Machine Gun Kelly beef. At this point, Eminem felt somewhat irrelevant for me as an artist whereas I didn’t even know who Machine Gun Kelly was. Even as disengaged with hip hop as I was at the time, I started hearing about the beef immediately through social media. People were having conversations about the two artists and they both flourished as not only their fanbases mobilized, but people on the sidelines got sucked in too.

There’s been a lot of disagreement on the left over whether or not to debate white supremacists and other extremists. While it’s clearly important to debunk dangerous ideas and pull people away from extreme ideologies, debate in a sense legitimizes viewpoints as worthy of discussion while also spreading those ideas to a wider audience. It’s very attractive for creators to make debate and debunking style videos because it consolidates the identity of their audience and arouses their passions. It also provides a convenient structure for them to format their essay around, so they just have to go point by point tearing down a specific set of arguments rather than contriving their own.

I think the solution to this tension is fairly simple. Leftists need to debate other leftists. Leftists need to start having beef. Beef means internally promoting creators that are ideologically aligned and profiting off of the attention it generates. It means that our ideas are tested and legitimized. It means pulling attention away from extreme views. It means we can stop constantly being on the defense and focus on actually generating our own plans and alternative modes of thought to inject into the political discourse. It means mainstreaming the left.

My favorite example of this right now is Unlearning Economic’s series of critiques of “Breadtube” economic theory, which is often lacking at best. This is great; we need to point out weaknesses in our theories and attack intellectual laziness. More importantly, we need to expound on our ideas and build plans of action that go beyond pointing out how the systems that currently exist are bad. Anybody can take anything and point out all of its flaws, what actually matters to people is if you can do better, and Unlearning Economics is doing great work taking the extra step to explore alternative systems.

Vaush and Destiny are also seeming to transition from debating right-wing crackpots to having those debates between liberal and left-wing schools of thought. Although there are some problems I have with “debate” as opposed to having mutually beneficial discussions, these livestreams still have the benefits of mainstreaming, building hype, and promoting the exchange of ideas. These debates get discussed by the community at large and help to make the ideology a lot less insular, which I think is good for everyone. I even saw Zizek responding to Chomsky recently, which is great because Chomsky is really bad at being self-critical or putting in the bare minimum work to ensure he is being intellectually honest (yes, this is linguistics beef now).

Honestly, this is what I would really like as a creator. A major reason why I make stuff is obviously because I want people to be engaged, and I would love it if I received more constructive criticism. As in, please, I want you to give me constructive criticism. On everything I do. I need it.

There’s more to be said about how constructive debates are, the ethics of trying to “win” discussions, and so on, but I hope the basic premise of this has been made clear. Regardless of what side of the political aisle you’re on, everyone benefits from the transfer of information between ideological camps and understanding each other’s arguments in good faith means having a clearer understanding of your own beliefs.

We are experiencing a period of great transition and transformation, and I believe that very good ideas for how to deal with our current problems exist but are not being disseminated effectively. We are experiencing a period of calm after the Trump years, which means we have the opportunity to consolidate and congeal our own ideas and put forward concrete plans of action. We need methods to show the general public that what we have developed is different from what has come before and we need to get people engaged. We also need to stop being intellectually lazy. We need to stop being the movement associated with stifled thought. Let’s have more discussions. Let’s stretch out our abilities. Let’s have beef.

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