Hip and its hipsters

It seems like everyone knows what hip is. Or at least, everyone seems to pick it when they see it. And yet, no one is quite clear about what hip is. Even the Tower of Power tried a song on it. They called it ‘What hip is?’ But landed quite like many would. ‘Hipness is — what it is! And sometimes hipness is — what it ain’t!’

A way to understand hip is to look back at its origins. The word hip comes from hepi, which means ‘to open one’s eyes.’ And the one who has his eyes open is called a hepicat. Or, as we’ve come to call, a hipster. Hepi and hepicat are from the West African language of Wolof.

Hip meant enlightenment. More so to those West Africans taken to America as slaves. Being hip to them was about being aware. Sort of an understanding to help negotiate the new world. The only way to negotiate was to be smarter. They had to find a way to outwit their powerful oppressors. They had to become tricksters. They became hipsters. Hip has stood for rebellion ever since. One that values autonomy over wealth. With freedom from the demands of money. A system devoid of hierarchies. An alternative system. A culture.

The culture of hip has consistently rediscovered autonomy. To create circumstances that spark changes in society. And, as as explained by John Leland in Hip: The History, has converged six times so far. During these convergences, a criteria for what’s cool and what’s not emerged. The first foundations of hip were set by great thinkers like Walt Whitman, Ralph Melville and Henry Thoreau in the 19th Century. Their philosophy on autonomy preached nonconformism, civil disobedience, homoeroticism and the sensuality of new. It set the tone for today’s hipsters — from skaters and ravers to indie-rockers and tech-geeks. The second convergence of hip happened during the 1920s population movement into cities. The third happened during the the bebop and Beat Generation post-World War 2. These intellectual movements rejected mainstream in favour of love and happiness. The fourth happened during the 1970s fall of urban neighbourhoods. The fifth happened during the rise of the silicon valley and the Internet. These movements brought about new forms of creative media like graffiti, skateboarding, breakdancing, punk and hip-hop music, and geeky exploration into a virtual bohemia. The sixth is now.

In all these convergences, hip remained the darling of outcasts, outlaws and outsiders. Whose smartness hip relied on to save the mainstream of its own limits. Its ever-reliable crew included the likes of artists, poets, gamers, geeks, gangsters, gays, rebels and dropouts. They fed each other and formed inner circles of hipness. These are the hipsters who sell the next new to the world. All whilst pushing the hip to move on beyond the new.

By keeping change constant, hip creates ever-new needs to buy. Therefore what’s hip today will be mass tomorrow. Much to the pleasure of corporations. That have made it their most desirable proposition. To the point of being glued to anything even remotely hip. Hip sells cars, soft drinks, clothes, computers, gadgets, skateboards, booze, drugs, shoes and shades. Hip shapes how we drive, whom we admire, and whose love we yearn for. Like the adland that grew alongside it, hip creates value through image and style. In its emphasis on being watched, it predicts the modern mediascape, and values people not for what they have, but for what they stand as images.

Once just opposed to mainstream values, hip today is a step ahead. Living by creativity, putting off marriage, travelling between countries and continents, and seeking sensory euphoria is how everyone lives today. For all its professed disregard for wealth, rules and hierarchies, hip wouldn’t have thrived unless it was turning a profit. Because movements that don’t turn profit have short lives. Even institutions such as religion aren’t exempt from the rule. For it’s by preaching obedience and delayed gratification that religion churned out a productive workforce to stay on. Similarly, although hip seems to encourage idleness and underachievement, it has always helped when the economy needed something to boost consumption. The hip convergences, particularly during the manufacturing and technology booms, appealed to the bohemian rallying cry — out with the old, in with the new — and introduced radicalised consumerism. Where religion created workers, hip created consumers.

Hip today is what it’s always been. It’s still an alternative system. It’s still about enlightenment, based on contradictions and anxieties. It’s trendiness is still a by-product, not a goal. And it’s still not simply the sum of what’s hip now. However, the cultural anxieties that produce it have moved, if not faded. The syntheses now are global, rather than local. And the information is overwhelming rather than pinched.
Hipi or hepi — to see or open one’s eyes — is essential for negotiating modern life. The shelf life of trends may have reduced, but the premium of knowledge is greater than ever. In a society run on information, hip is all there is.

Although, after three centuries of hipi and hepi, the old binaries of black and white, alternative and mainstream, no longer go very far. Even businesses have come to sell themselves in just two strengths: hip and hipper. When hip itself has reached a new meaning. Moving from hip to ‘hip’. The inverted commas, as put by Leland, mean, ‘We’re too hip to care about this hip stuff, but, you know, isn’t that pretty hip?’

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