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Hip-hop, as a genre of music, has been a useful platform in highlighting political and social struggles. On one hand, some glorifies the genre for its lyricism and reflection of reality, while on the other, some view the genre as an ignorant depiction of black life and culture. Besides the arguments about the merits of hip hop, the genre is also different in its ability to transverse diverse markets and become mainstream. Similar to the black civil rights movement of the 1960s, many see hip-hop as a progressive movement that revives the fight for Black equality. Some scholars argue that hip-hop is a culture within the Black community that promotes solidarity and provides a space for them to criticize their social world (hooks, 1994; Rose 1994, 2008).
Whether considering hip-hop as a cultural movement, civil rights movement, lifestyle or just a music genre that depicts ignorance, many scholars would agree that, hip-hop incorporates the agitations of black people’s struggle to overcome their violent oppressive conditions created by capitalist and racism. In order for hip to recover from the damages done to it by capitalism and to strengthen black communities, one must examine how hip hop evolved within the context of a larger culture of violence; the ways in which capitalism shaped the genre; and the ways in which negative hip hop harms black communities through its negative portrayals of black men and women.
In order to contextualize the evolution of hip hop, one must first start with the development of black genres of music. Rap music, the precursor of hip hop, was itself preceded by the blues. The blues is genre of music communicates issues on love, homosexuality and heterosexuality, domestic violence, and infidelity among other topics surrounding relationships (Davis, 1999: 3). Blues originated as a female-dominated genre which stemmed from the abolition of slavery. However, despite being free, good economic prospects for African Americans were low and as Davis (1999) points out, “sexuality was one of the most tangible domains in which emancipation was acted upon and through which its meanings were expressed” (Davis, 1999: 4). In contrast to the blues women, middle-class club women were interested in rejecting narratives that were seen as perpetuating stereotypes. This rejection and avoidance of topics related to sexuality and domestic violence ignored sexual agency in favor of a more sex negative stance (Davis, 1999: 43-44).
The lyrics expressed by blues women was sexually explicit rather than sexually exploitative, whereas many hip hop songs contain derogatory lyrics that depicts women as sexual objects rather than as sexual agents. The stance of the club women, therefore, was in direct opposition to that of many hip hop artists and supporters. That is, the club women wanted to hide what they perceived to be sexual immorality, while hip hop artists and supports believe that it is important to depict all facets of black sexual and personal life despite the potential that the music may help to spread stereotypes.
Originating from New York’s South Bronx community, rap became a politicized tool for African Americans to voice their resistance to the state. The building of the Cross Bronx Expressway to facilitate traffic to and from the city led to white flight into suburbs and created what Hurt (2006) called “ghetto warzones” (Hurt, 2006) and racist estrangement from white society. The Cross Bronx Expressway displaced business owners and left impoverished communities to fend for themselves. These effects were largely and disproportionately experienced by Black and Latin Americans (Hurt, 2006). These black spaces overtime became increasingly segregated, mainly because of the departure of the black middle classes (Wilson, 1987). This type of environment bred an unprecedented amount of street gangs in the South Bronx.
The emergence of gang culture established rap has a cultural movement which became rooted in a struggle for territorial control. Shortly thereafter, rap started to reflect the violence and drugs in the streets and the lyrics started to turn their attention away from the State and towards other members of black communities. Therefore, as gang battles became popular, block parties became regular occurrences in some black communities of the South Bronx. Hence, rap, as a cultural movement, was connected to the development of gangs and ghettoized spaces and one can see the emergence of a generational shift of racial resistance. Rap was a way of alerting black communities and the government to respond to state violence and government neglect.
While it is a challenge to determine the exact origins of hip-hop, one can situate its emergence to the late 1970s. For Rose (1991) “The advent of the group Public Enemy marked the emergence of rap as a political cultural form” (Rose, 1991:276). Rap began transitioning into hip-hop during the structural and physical violence in the black communities and Presidents Reagan’s mass incarceration due to the illicit drug use. In his documentary, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes, Hurts (2006) highlighted that homicide was the leading cause of death among 15 – 34 year old males and African American men were 14 times more likely to be killed than their white counterparts.
What started out as a musical platform of oppressive resistance was gradually altered as white capitalist started to see hip-hop as a genre for opportunity. White capitalists, who owned record labels, commodified and capitalized from the intensified violence on black lives and bodies during the Reagan and Bush Presidency. This commodification of the genre allowed white music executives to determine the type of messages and representations of black people and black communities were accessible to consumers. Therefore, as hip-hop became more popular and was seen as a significant revenue generator for white executives, both the music and culture were commodified and the message of hip-hop was thus corrupted (Rose, 2008).
Given the measly opportunities and poverty levels in black communities, many young African American men saw and continue to see music as a way out of the “ghetto warzones” (Hurt, 2006). While some hip hop artists are able to write lyrics about social justice and the struggle of poverty, most of them resort to singing lyrics that perpetuate stereotypes because lyrics portraying violence are be more profitable than conscious ones. Rose (2008) claims that, musicians were not only getting attention, but were also acquiring fame, accumulating wealth, and most importantly, leaving the ghettos. However, in order to achieve these levels of success, hip hop artists radically strengthened their representations of urban life for the sake of authenticity; where artists once showed the occurrence of violence or street gangs, they were now publicizing themselves as murderers and gang leaders (Rose, 2008). Thus, portraying what Du Bois (1980) describes as a double consciousness.
In the chapter “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” from The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois (1980) alludes to African- Americans having a “double-consciousness … [where] two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” This theory can be used to describe the contradictory stands of many contemporary African American hip hop artists within dominant social order of White America’s music industry. On the one hand, one sees where capitalism promotes economic prosperity and material satisfaction and the artists takes on the violent stereotypical persona in the studio or that public space. While on the other, the artist is a completely different person outside that space and is among the “ordinary people” in the black communities.
Additionally, white capitalists have created an acceptable space for violence through racism from the period of slavery and colonialism which explains why seventy percent (a majority) of the people who purchase hip hop were white males (Hurts, 2006). This can be interpreted as, the white communities perception of Black America is based from the messages communicated from the genre. In other words, white America’s perception of Black America is shaped by hip hop. For Rose (2008), music executives supported the production of negatively stereotypical images because the violence, criminality, and sexually driven music is far more profitable than political criticisms.
Irritated by the imagery of Black America in the media, Chuck D (1998) critics “Hollywood’s dishonesty, distortions, myths, and misconceptions about black people as nothing but watermelon stealin’, chicken eatin’, knee knockin’, eye poppin’, lazy, crazy, dancin’, submissive,… Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks…ever since D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), all the way up to the 1950s—which is a forty-year period of straight up lies, propaganda, derogatory images, and bullshit—have been spread across not only the United States, but the entire world. That has had a major effect, not only on how society looks at us, but how we look at ourselves” (Ridenhour, 1998:52). Further, Chuck D alludes that African Americans should understand how they are being portrayed by white America so as to avoid perpetuating these stereotypes.
Similar to Chuck D, Spike Lee’s (1989) film Do the Right thing calls attention to all African Americans to rise up and fight against white oppression. This is depicted in the character Radio Raheem, from Lee (1989) Do the Right Thing, Radio Raheem and Public Enemy’s song Fight the Power, epitomizes two sides of the same coin. As illustrated by his love and hate rings, Radio Raheem stands for racial equality, however, we saw in the film where hate overpowered love and caused him his life because of racial and social politics of White America (Lee, 1989).
Currently, Hip hop, through the functions of racism and capitalism also relegate black people into a “box,” or as Tricia Rose (2008) calls it the “tragic trinity of hip hop.” This box contains images of “the black gangsta, the pimp and ho” (Rose 2008: 4). This narrow depiction of what it means to be black is not isolated to white media outlets and interpretations. An interviewee, for instance, in Hurt (2006) documentary called Black Entertainment Television (BET), a network aimed at targeting black audiences, is “the cancer of black men in the world” (Hurts, 2006). He goes on to say that BET is not innocent when it comes to presenting a one-dimensional and commodified “one-trick” image of black men. Black women, due to the racist and sexist foundations of the country, find it difficult to break free from the negative perceptions of them created by black and white media.
The perceptions of black masculinity in white America is that black men are overtly dominant and violent. What is neglected in these perceptions is that these are characteristics of hegemonic masculinity that are stamped on to black men are because of the way that dominance and violence is portrayed within black communities. As stated in the film Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, “violence is at the heart of hegemonic masculinity” (Hurts, 2006). Violence within American culture can be viewed in a positive or negative light based on the context and the individual perpetuating the violence. For example, in the past when riots have occurred by angry white sports fans due to their team losing a game, they have not been described by the news as thugs or policed in the same way that black people have been when a civil rights violation has occurred. This is as a result of racism but more specifically due to the fear of black people by white America. This fear of black people, black men in particular, also has roots that go back to slavery. Black men have always been seen as dangerous and needing to be controlled. This idea dates back to the “great” 19th century philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrcih Hegel who stated “ Negroes will only come to understand freedom by serving as slaves to Europeans” (Wright, 2005).
Negative hip hop has a propensity to focus on violence, especially as an indicator of masculinity. The image of the gun in particular has come to be associated with true masculinity. This imagery is not unique to nor did it originate in black communities and media; westerns such as Bonanza, and the very fact that gun rights are written into the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution, indicate a larger culture of violence beyond black communities. The gun may be seen as an outlet for young black men to release their anger and rage against the conditions in the inner cities (Hurt, 2006). In addition, hip hop helps to foster a culture in which the idea of black men surviving violence inflicted upon them by members of black communities has come to be associated with black masculinity as well. Although other communities use guns as outlets, they are associated with black communities due to racism. Hence, racism creates a monolithic view of black people, in which there is little to no diversity in the experiences, behaviors, and emotions of members of the black community. The association of black men with guns and violence makes one think of older racist stereotypes that were used to justify lynching and the beginnings of mass incarceration. These tropes are especially noticeable in the film, The Birth of a Nation, where black men are depicted as simple, violent, and predatory.
The notion that women are nothing more than their bodies and their sexuality has been a concept that has flowed through Western society for centuries. The Hottentot Venus, Sara Baartman, was reduced to her physical features which “becomes clear that the practice [objectifying women’s body] poses an insidious threat to black women’s humanity and worth” (Melancon & Braxton, 2015: 96). Moreover, when Black women are demeaned and demoralized in songs and participate in the proliferation of such songs, they participate in dehumanizing themselves. Hip hop also nurtures images of black women as “hoes”, “bitches” and “sluts” and objectifies them, thus making them expendable. In other words, as purported by Hill Collins (2008) “The women in these videos typically share two attributes – they are rarely acknowledged as individuals and they are scantily clad. One Black female body can easily replace another, as all are reduced to their bodies” (Hill Collins, 2004: 128). This is typified in Nelly’s music video Tip Drill in a scene where he slides a credit card down a woman’s backside and is complimented with sexually exploitative lyrics. bell hooks, warns “Black females must not be duped into supporting shit that hurts us…If black men are betraying us through acts of male violence, we save ourselves and the race by resisting” (Rose, 2008: 127).
Black communities and the artists they produce must confront the ways in which negative hip hop normalizes violence and sexism. One way to confront these issues is to be more conscious of the language that is being used within black communities. Mahaliah Ayana Little, in Black Female Sexualities, notes that when black women use terms such as “hoe” to refer to each other, they are serving to normalize patriarchal views (Melancon & Braxton 2015: 90). Using this language also pathologizes black female sexuality in ways that are consistent with racist tropes such as that of the ‘jezebel.’ Similarly, using the word ‘nigga’ as a term of endearment can normalize racism and racist ideals. By acknowledging that one is a “real nigga”, ones identity is not only linked to his skin color but also to the ghetto. It is also an acknowledgement to the limitations of racial politics (Kurbin, 2005). Rejecting these terms in favor of positive words can allow us to see the ways in which sexism, racism, and violence has become normalized.
To conclude, the profanity, misogyny, and violence are problematic for the hip hop genre. The commodification of hip-hop for the advantage of capitalists created a weakened hip-hop in terms of its capabilities to resist and influence society. Many hip hop artists began to bask in the rewards of what 1990s commercialized hip hop offered them, although some artists stayed true to their resolve. Wright (2012) posits, “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” (Wright, 2012:1). The damages created by hip hop can only be repaired when one acknowledges the good and bad in the genre. Awareness of the ways in which racism has informed black media is crucial to the empowerment of black communities and can help to usher in a new era of progressive rap. By continuing to educate ourselves about the history of the United States, one will understand how to avoid falling into the traps of capitalism and following the path that racism wants us to take. Wright (2012) articulates, “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” (Wright, 2012:518).
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