Hip Hop and Rap as Art, and as an Agent of Change for Social Justice and Political Reform

A Closer Look at a New Hip Hop Movement

“Rap,” a voice of the disenfranchised raises concerns and asks an important question: “how do you undo 500 years of indoctrination?” While “rap” is defined as a spoken word art form of usually rhyming poetry over beats and hip hop is a music genre, it’s also a movement calling for revolution and crying out for reform. The request is not for anarchy but for social justice. 

Rap and Hip Hop has been criticized because of the misogyny, violence and homophobia. Not all hip hop fits that category. In fact, the commercial rappers and hip hop artists constitute less than 1% of the genre. Hip Hop that began as party music in the black culture in South Bronx, New York around 1973 has been co-opted by corporate music producers, kept dumbed down and offensive because it sells to the lowest common denominator. It’s supposedly cool to be “gangtsa” in that sub-genre and the music industry capitalizes on that vibe reinforcing justifiable anger because it’s easier to sell it back to the streets. The new trend in hip hop or “Indie Hip Hop,” as it’s known, is a different kind of artistry that invites another look at a culture trying to highlight and hopefully reverse the indoctrination that has been wrong headed for so long.

Indie Rappers and Hip Hop artists are local independent artists who uphold the tradition of hip hop as a movement and call for social reform. The elements that sprang from a disenfranchised culture building community through its common concerns, are preserved in the local hip hop culture that spans the globe and millions of followers. Local artists try to “keep it real” by keeping out the commercial qualities that might overtake the social value of a community coming together in the quest to end disenfranchisement and push forward justice and social change.

History

Hip-hop finds its ethnic origins in Jamaican music and DJs in the seventies who used two turntables to create longer drum breaks in records for dance parties giving rise to “breakdancing” and “break-dancers” now known as b-boys and b-girls.  DJs and MCs popularized the technique of speaking over beats and the culture expanded to include street dance and graffiti art. Embraced by working-class urban and young African-Americans, the music stems from African-American forms of music--including jazz, soul, gospel, and reggae.

To find the true birth of spoken word, drums and music we have to go back much further in history to the Dogon people of Mali and their cosmology where “Nommo,” the first human and a creation of the supreme deity Amma, is created by the power of spoken word. West Africa’s oral tradition of chant, lyrical fetishism and political advocacy are considered to have a generative property whereby spoken word can animate or bring life to objects. 

The modern rapper, spoken word or hip hop artist might be considered the keepers of contemporary African-American working-class social justice, issues and history just as the respected African Griots—historians, praise-singers, and wisdom-keepers of tribal history, family lineage with its births and deaths and wars. Griots travelled from village to village bringing knowledge in an accessible form—the spoken word.

In the Streets

Many in the urban black culture embrace the oral traditions of poetry slam, rap, hip hop and street dance similarly to preserve tradition, spread concerns, examine their daily lives, convey discontent and share dreams just as their ancestors did on the African continent. Viewed as the voice of the poor, misrepresented, disenfranchised and dismissed, black urban youth find in hip hop culture, the “voice” they are often denied in mainstream media where racism can be so institutionalized as to be invisible.

Rap and reggae have an intertwined path that gives voice to similar circumstances that compel criticism for rap and reggae’s tradition of advocacy of violence in solving social, economic and political problems. In fact, rap and by association hip hop has become a scapegoat in the musical tapestry of America.

As the genre became popular and commercialized, consumerism threatened the identity and power that hip hop once enjoyed as the voice of community. Just as those outside the Rastafarian culture capitalized on reggae, rap and hip hop now struggle to survive adoption, commodification and commercialization by big labels and producers. Commoditized and packaged hip hop erases its historic function and disenfranchises its voice as a form of resistance reducing it to little more than a repackaged commodity by “big business” with consolidated power held, not by blacks, but by mostly by white upper class corporate financiers.

The shiny packaging of co-opted and commercialized rap, the platinum records, huge paychecks and the implied opulence effectively decontextualizes and bastardizes the message inherent in rap and minimizes the oppression out of which the culture emerged and against which it still continues to battle.

Hip Hop is steeped in the fight against political, economic, social oppression and a history of slavery. The history follows beginnings in West Africa, kidnapping and enslavement, prejudice, and segregation through faux emancipation and continues to try to surmount the obstacles of de facto economic segregation while still longing to reclaim a respected cultural identity of African Americans.

By comparison pop music and country may seem less violent and milder because it has not had to fight that history nor does it deal with the social, economic, political disenfranchisement and violent ecosystem with the pressures of daily life in an urban economic and racially stratified culture of the inner city and housing projects. Violence in rap is not a call to arms or to violence but an outcry from what is an already existing world view with little hope and the nihilism that arises from long time deep inequities divided mostly along racial (and therefore, economic) lines. It comes from subjugation and socially produced irrational hate—hate projected toward blacks and self-hatred by blacks themselves taught to them by a culture that always reduced them to less than fully capacitated humans.

Many of the voices that denounce hip hop as corrupting youth come from the same people in power who undercut funding for education and social programs or perpetuate the prison industrial complex or fund the military one that embraces and fiscally supports the use of drone warfare. America was built on conquest, rebellion, and bloodshed beginning with the genocide of the Indigenous Indians and the capture, kidnapping, selling and slavery of peoples involuntarily imported from another world.

Hip Hop is an educational tool when explored and listened to in that context. It’s part of black history and should be studied within that framework and included in educational programs. It is another kind of language and voice for the voiceless. Indie Hip Hop in particular may warrant another look by those initially turned off to the glam celebrity rappers and hip hop culture. It’s a language and voice that raises consciousness and elevates awareness which is the first step on the path to change and a new paradigm. It’s a way for black folk nearly always silenced, rudely interrupted or vocally overrun by those privileged only by the paler color of their skin to finally and emphatically be heard.

~Rev. B. Kaufmann