Hip Hop and the American Divide on The Get Down

(Episodes 1.05, “You Have Wings, Learn to Fly" and 1.06, "Raise Your Words, Not Your Voice”)

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Hip Hop and the American Divide on <i>The Get Down</i>

“Just go with it.”

Maybe The Get Down should have led off its pilot with this line. It’s a warning by way of invitation, as perfect an introduction to the series’ exhilarating storytelling modus. The Get Down is giddy and buoyant, a narrative centrifuge; set foot in its vibrant bounds, and your whole world will set to spinning. It’s an experience that you have to willingly surrender to. Thus, “just go with it,” an incantation for encouraging our participation alongside our observation. The show affects us as its music affects its characters, and in the first half of its first season we see no better example of that than in “You Have Wings, Learn to Fly” and “Raise Your Words, Not Your Voice,” which bookend one another with scenes of pure aural elation.

That’s what a good musical series should do, of course, and saying so in writing feels close to embarrassing. Who wants the obvious pointed out to them? But The Get Down succeeds so thoroughly where its peers fail due in large part to its unabashed love for its music. Suggesting that the music is as much a character here as Zeke, Shao, Mylene, Francisco, the Kipling family, Ramon, Lydia, or hell, even Ed “How am I doin’?” Koch, isn’t off the mark: The Get Down sees its soundtrack as vital to its health as a narrative, and this is explicitly because that soundtrack is a necessary tool for the development of that narrative. Could a show about hip hop’s inception manage to not incorporate the music of the movement, and of the era, in the mechanics of its drama?

The answer to that is “probably, yes,” but the implications of ignoring the music in your musical fable are pretty unflattering. Just ask Vinyl, or Roadies, two other series set in the music world, which both fail to be about music on any meaningful plane. They’re concerned with other things, as is The Get Down, from young love, to social politics, to industry politics, to murder most foul. The difference is that The Get Down is divorced of pretension and makes no affectations, either. As Zeke struggles to balance himself between two worlds, one shared with Shao, Ra-Ra, Boo-Boo, and Dizzee, the other controlled by powerful white men like Koch (played by Frank Wood) and Mr. Gunns (Michael Gill), and as Mylene’s star continues its meteoric rise on the back of Jackie Moreno’s magical coke habit, The Get Down keeps its focus foremost on its music.

Music binds all together. It’s the show’s unifying force. One moment, Jackie is caught in a Cruz brothers sandwich after Francisco spills the beans on Ramon’s past, and the two siblings get in each other’s faces. The next, Jackie appeals to Ramon’s clerical instinct for forgiveness, gets his piano on, and transports everybody in the room, audience included, to the church in a flight of fancy that can only be qualified as “worshipful.” Cue Regina, speaking the four quoted words of wisdom and triggering the suspension of our disbelief. As moments go, it’s damn near operatic, and it reinforces The Get Down’s preference to advance story through musicality, while at the same time delighting us with some damn fine tunes. Now jump ahead to the climactic DJ battle of “Raise Your Words, Not Your Voice,” a raucous, electric homage to rap’s old school that quite frankly packs more fun in a handful of minutes than most feature movies released in the summer of 2016 do in two hours. You’ll probably want to get up and dance yourself. More likely you’ll want to throw a block party and dance with your fellow man. It’s a righteous sequence.

The Get Down isn’t all joy and reverie, though: It’s about America, and racism, and economic chasms, and cultural misunderstanding, and yes, crime, each theme a thread in the show’s cultural patchwork. This, understandably, sounds pretty grandiose, especially in a review praising The Get Down’s absence of pretension, but again, hip hop is the key: It’s the lens that these motifs and ideas are filtered through, and the apparatus that Zeke and Shao use to grapple with the world around them. “This isn’t about hip hop; it’s about America” is about as laughably overblown as synopses get, but The Get Down presents that synopsis in earnest because it can, because the story of hip hop is an American story, and so stories about hip hop are inherently stories about America. And The Get Down specifically is about an America divided, the Kochs and Gunns on one side, the Mylenes and Shaos on the other, and Zeke in the middle, unsure of where he belongs until the very end.

Belonging—the need to fit in, the need for your own identity—is a major factor here. The Get Down practically aches with the search for it, as in “You Have Wings, Learn to Fly,” when Zeke marches through Gunns’ office to the tune of Michael Kiwanuka’s “Black Man In a White World,” cross-cut with shots of Shao scoping out their new recording space. (By far this beat is one of the series’ most effective and most powerful.) You feel that ache, too, as DJ Kool Herc lectures the boys on the merits of settling disputes not with fists but with soul, and especially in “Raise Your Words, Not Your Voice,” as we build up to the big showdown between The Get Down Boys and the Notorious Three, and Zeke remains stuck on the fence, wondering whether he should join his friends or speak his mind as Koch’s newly minted “voice of the ghetto.”

He chooses both, and necessarily so. He’s the voice his community needs. People like Koch see the problem and misdiagnose the causes; they’re too busy fussing over graffiti and turntables to realize that graffiti and turntables represent means for rising above. The Get Down teaches lessons in power to everyone: To Zeke, to Mylene, to Jackie, and most of all to Shao, made into a killer by Annie (though you can hardly judge him alone as guilty when she’s got her hands on the gun, too), and in these lessons we learn that power comes in many forms, notably perception. When Koch sees tags on subway cars and hears records scratching, he sees crime and hears disorder. He doesn’t catch on to what the sights and sounds signify to the people who look at them, listen to them, and create them, and thus he misses out on the ultimate power of hip hop itself. The Get Down, six episodes under its belt, understands that better than anything, and it translates its understanding with energizing clarity.

Bonus Observations & Quotes From “Darkness is Your Candle” & “Forget Safety, Be Notorious”:

All you’ve ever wanted in life is to see Shameik Moore stalk through a dilapidated, abandoned building, checking and clearing each empty room with cane sword in hand. You just didn’t know it until now.

So maybe we were wrong: Maybe Annie and Cadillac do serve a higher purpose in The Get Down’s plot. Still, it feels like the show has gone the long way around the barn to distinguish their necessity.

Once again, the degree to which The Get Down invests itself in the science of DJing and MCing is impressive. It probably does not hurt to have the real Grandmaster Flash and Nas on board as producers, but the show grasps the techniques and artistry that are essential to both, and articulates that essence effortlessly for its audience.

On the subject of belonging: Dizzee. Jaden Smith doesn’t get a ton to do through most of these six episodes, outside of dropping a few amusing space-case one-liners, but his moment in the club with Thor in “Raise Your Words, Not Your Voice” hopefully means bigger things for him once we get into the next six.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.