Rise Up Hip Hop Nation: From Deconstructing Racial Politics to Building Positive Solutions
Posted on April 16, 2011 by sdonline
Life is your right, so we can’t give up the fight.
Defining Hip Hop
From society’s periphery, a generation created a cultural medium, hip hop, that served as both an expression of and an alternative to urban woes plaguing their lives, namely underemployment, poverty, and racial discrimination. Rap music and the associated fashion, language, and dance styles became hip hop’s modes of expression. For many African American youth, hip hop has been a part of their cultural identity since the 1970s (Rose 1994; George 1998). Today, hip hop’s influence on popular culture is undeniable. From its inception three decades ago, hip hop has grown from an urban, predominantly black and Latino youth culture into an international youth phenomenon transcending racial and ethnic lines.
The term hip hop describes urban youth culture in America (Smitherman 1997). Hazzard-Donald (1996) defines hip hop as an expressive cultural genre originating among marginalized African American youth. Forms of hip hop expression include rapping and rap music, graffiti writing, dance styles (originating with break-dancing), specific attire, and a specialized language and vocabulary. According to Smitherman, hip hop grew out of African oral tradition and other forms of black culture, as well as a long history of interaction between black and Latino urban culture, originating in the Bronx, New York (Guevara 1996). George (1998) offers this succinct description:
At its most elemental level hip hop is a product of post-civil rights era America, a set of cultural forms originally nurtured by African American, Caribbean-American, and Latin American youth in and around New York in the ’70s. Its most popular vehicle of expression has been music, though dance, painting, fashion, video, crime, and commerce are also its playing fields (viii).
Hip hop culture transcends the commercialized product sold to mainstream America through commercials and music videos. It is more than the music, fashion, and style that is now so popular among youth everywhere. Although these are its modes of expression, hip hop as a culture is rooted in the day-to-day experiences of millions of inner city teens. As Spiegler (1996) describes it, hip hop is based on real life experiences, giving it more permanence than earlier teen trends.
In the beginning, the expression of hip hop culture known as rap was the voice of the urban youth underclass. According to Smitherman, rap music was a response to conditions of poverty, joblessness, and disempowerment, which still deeply affect the lives of the majority of African American urban youth today. Not only was rap music a black expressive cultural phenomenon, it was also a discourse of resistance, a set of communicative practices that constitute a text of resistance against white America’s racism, and its Euro-centric cultural dominance. “This music has become a—or, perhaps the—principal medium for Black youth to express their views of the world and to create a sense of order out of the turbulence and chaos of their own, and our, lives” (Smitherman 1997: 6). In other words, rap was the political voice of this sector of society.
Old barriers faced by previous generations were knocked down during the Civil Rights movement, leading to a significant growth in the black middle class. At the same time, hardships associated with postindustrial society like unemployment, poverty, crime, and drugs dramatically increased in the predominantly African American urban centers around the country, creating an even larger black lower class. Rap thus began as a cultural response by black and Latino youth to the “miseries of postindustrial urban America” (Baker 1995: 671). Rose (1994) writes:
In the postindustrial urban context of dwindling low-income housing, a trickle of meaningless jobs for young people, mounting police brutality, and increasingly draconian depictions of young inner city resident, hip hop is black urban renewal (61).
Commodifying Black Rage
Over the last twenty years, aspects of hip hop culture have been commodified, creating a multi-billion dollar culture industry (Holsendolph 1999). The most commodified aspect of hip hop culture is its music, rap. While African Americans constitute the majority of hip hop artists (rappers, DJs, dancers), and a significant proportion of its producers, white-dominated corporate America is now its primary distributor, with white-dominated mainstream media outlets its primary marketer (Neal, 1999).
Beginning as a cultural expression created to provide an outlet for youth from destitute urban living, hip hop is now also the extremely profitable packaging, marketing, and distributing (commodification) of “black rage” for mainstream consumption and enjoyment. Lusane (1993) offers a succinct description of rap music’s duality:
On the one hand, rap is the voice of alienated, frustrated, and rebellious black youth who recognize their vulnerability and marginality in post-industrial America. On the other hand, rap is the packaging and marketing of social discontent by some of the most skilled ad agencies and largest record producers in the world. It’s this duality that has made rap and rappers an explosive issue in the politics of power (381).
By participating in hip hop’s commodification, young African Americans receive jobs, financial stability, and a medium to express themselves to an ever-growing audience. However, corporate America’s control of hip hop’s production, marketing and distribution, subsequently translates into control of its image and voice.
With its commodification, the social structure that produced black rage, namely the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (hooks 1994: 115), became its chief controller and profiteer. Once seen as a threat to the status quo, black rage is now ironically appropriated and controlled by the very power structure that produced it. In an industry in which African Americans are well represented, racial inequality exists because of society’s (and congruently the music industry’s) racially defined infrastructure. So, also, perceptions of race persist through media-manipulated imagery. In this social climate, even a “black” cultural expression can reinforce the racialized power structure.
Gray (1995) argues that cultural matters are matters of power and politics. Cultural practices are significant only in relation to “the political power, economic positions, social conditions, and lived experiences of people” (6). He adds that culture is “deeply contradictory”(7), possessing both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic potentials. I contend that black culture in mainstream white America suffers the same paradoxical fate. This essay hopes to provide necessary support for this argument as well as offer possible mechanisms to overcome this paradox.