by Roopah Singh
Hip hop and yoga are iconic American success stories.
Both forms started out as warrior arts, were narrowed in the name of profit, are now American cash cows, largely white owned, and powerful vehicles for the message that capitalism and its spoils are to be coveted. Both yoga and hip hop are more ubiquitous, and more missed than ever.
One of my favorite translations of the Bhagavad Gita is by Gandhi himself. He wrote his Gita commentary while on lock-down, in prison as a result of his cultural defense of the sovereignty of India. His notes often focus on the laws of the science called yoga. Laws like not stealing, non-attachment, and freedom from the pair of opposites, the pair Radio Raheem knew as love and hate.
Gandhi understands these codes to be pre-requisites for the true yogi. He cautions, “Men versed in these practices are rare these days, and few of them come to any good account.”
Quite a modern sentiment, to express general wariness of the growing hordes of so-called yogis, sharing borrowed knowledge while modeling attachment to capitalism iconography; the body, the status, the wealth, the fashion, the fans.
Kendrick Lamar, the west coast rapper whose recently released “Control” verse set Twitter and the rap game afire, seems to feel a similar weariness about his fellow players on the field of successful MCs. The song was released by Big Sean on August 12, and also features Jay Electronica. But it was Lamar’s bars that echoed like a Hip Hop State of the Union Address.
He invokes a litany of names, calling out his peers in the rap game for failing to keep their eyes on prize. Most responses are fixated on the potential beef, saying that it is a diss of epic proportions. Others like Ice T and P. Diddy seem sated with the fact that Lamar uttered the one verse that “woke hip hop up.”
Like Tupac, Lamar flows fluently from both a deeply politicized perspective and a thug life identity. With his tidy derision for hip hop’s morph into a capitalist mouthpiece, Lamar’s verse has earned him the label of cultural defender. According to Lamar, hip hop has been co-opted into promoting capitalist values at the expense of its core constituency—and itself.
Lamar rages at seeing “niggas transform like villain Decepticons,” tracing hip hop’s seedy change through the white lines of capitalism’s prized ephemera—high fashion, freshly branded drugs, Instagram ready lives. He posits the issue of how far hip hop has strayed, questioning MC’s who live and rhyme in neglect of the narrative arc of their generation; a deteriorating democracy, a prison industrial complex functioning as the new Jim Crow, extra-judicial war and surveillance.
He distinguishes himself from the new rat pack with, “I ain’t rockin’ no more designer shit,” “your Instagram can gobble these nuts,” and “[I] don’t pop me no fucking pill.” Such statements are rebellious even among rebels. For example, with, “I ain’t rockin’ no more designer shit,” Lamar eschews the power of association with high end designers. Instead, he indicates a boycott of the fashion industry, which is notoriously segregated.
The fashion industry, in many ways, is a model for the development of the yoga industrial complex—same ostentatious cultural gleaning, same segregation, similar body aspirations.
Perhaps this is the role of any cultural defender, to escape the opiate of hollow power in order to make moves that protect and strengthen on a civic level.
In fact, hip hop began as an expression of cultural defense, narrating the neglect and resiliency of whole communities. Hip hop can be viewed as one fruit of the civil rights movement, a movement fueled in part by India’s liberation from British occupation.
How sovereign, to have young black and brown leaders moving bodies across the nation, while speaking truth to power. Recall that young founders of the Hip Hop movement laid siege to an entire hospital in New York City, to secure health care for their communities, by any means necessary.
In its inception in South Asia and within Hinduism, yoga, like hip hop, existed as a warrior art. A true yogi, according to the Gita, is not unlike a monk of the martial arts. Accounts of early diplomatic exchange between the yoga saint Patanjali and the monks of Shaolin, for example, align yoga within the martial arts. But in America, yoga has been groomed to be popular, pop for profit. In this quest, yoga, like hip hop, is getting lost in translation in ways that are destructive to it.
A look at recent New York Times coverage of yoga gives a sense of how yoga is also in need of cultural defenders. There was the much talked about piece on “yoga injuries,” a phrase antithetical to all codes of yoga, which is now a rising phenomenon because of an erroneous emphasis on poses over mindfulness.
Or what about the Thursday Style Section article on rock star yoga instructors, coveted by disciples of extreme or insanity poses, spawning high end yoga PR agencies. The piece stunned for its wholesale promotion of pop yoga’s gleeful attachment to social and monetary capital.
Then there was another Style Section article on “Instragram yogis.” Generally, “Instagram yogis” are beautiful women in barely there clothes taking gorgeous pictures of how a hegemonic, able-bodied, “yoga body” looks. There are many ways this troubles the waters of yoga. While beautiful, they also promote the external over the internal. The article advised would-be Instagram yogis on how to attract the most followers.
What the article didn’t say, was that the word yogi should not be used lightly, and certainly included no perspective similar to Lamar’s take on Instagram rappers.
I taught an undergraduate course called Hip Hop Politics. In it, students debated the civic implications of the word “choice.” As in, radio plays these songs because we choose them. Or, we hear the same ten songs all day because there is an interest in shaping our choices. Inevitably, the class would arrive at the question:
Do we know anymore what it means to choose?
This mainstream hip hop, with content that encourages decimated communities to idolize systems that brutalize them, is this the hip hop we chose? This yoga industrial complex, wrought with exclusion and injury, is this the yoga we choose? Is this yogic at all, this massive gleaning of Hindu theological production right on the heels of colonization, partition, and economic sanctions?
So many of us say no.
Gandhi writes, “It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow beings.”
These gleanings, at the expense of inclusion and even human rights, are a continued humiliation. Colonization and enslavement, big wheels that keep crushing as they roll, for better and worse. We will always love hip hop, we will always love yoga, and part of this love is critiquing the systems that run them now.
Kendrick Lamar speaks deftly to his loving yet take no prisoner style of cultural defense: “Judgment to the monarchy, blessings to Paul McCartney.”
Roopa Singh, Esq. is the founder of South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA) and a business owner of Brooklyn based health and wellness center, Third Root. SAAPYA provides a platform for South Asian American voices in yoga, cultural awareness in yoga trainings and a network of South Asian American practitioners of yoga.