Feeling So Real: Suburbanizing Hip-Hop and Empowering the Streets

Hip-hop music, like jazz or punk or grunge, had its beginnings firmly rooted in rebellion.  And in the past 30 years, its emphasis on highlighting social issues has not slowed.  Chuck D (of Naughty by Nature) once famously referred to hip-hop as the “‘Black CNN’ [where] prisons, the perils of the drug trade, unplanned pregnancies, police problems, stacks of green minted paper, and neighbourhood violence are all addressed.”[i]    By and large, hip-hop is still regarded as the music of the American slums.  But this phenomenon is changing rapidly.  Youth from almost every country have discovered the use of electronic beats, samples of speeches, and creative hyperbole to underscore their brash calls for justice.  The spread of hip-hop is not only geographical in dimension; different genres and genders are affecting the movement as well.  Just as black responses through the arts impacted the momentum of the U.S. civil rights movement, hip-hop is the global soundtrack to modern struggles.  Though joyous to the ears of dedicated fans around the world, “to the uninitiated, hip-hop… is like a sonic jackhammer, a visual eyesore, and a conceptual nuisance”.[ii]    However, if politicians have their ear to the ground, they will have to get over their usual distaste for hip-hop and realize its transformative energy.

In the beginning, groups like Public Enemy, and N.W.A. (and, later, Jay-Z) recorded albums to protest police brutality against black populations.  Still others accused high political powers of subjugating ghettoes with addictive crack cocaine and of orchestrating an African-American genocide through its enforcement of reproductive rights.  Faced with pervasive hindrances to rise above their designed social status, hip-hop artists, like those who wrote songs giving hope to slaves, used their skills of language to confront the system.  The rise of Public Enemy “convinced many skeptics that hip-hop could be a lasting, potentially lucrative, even socially important art form.”[iii]  As a genre, hip-hop lent a voice to disenchanted black populations in their ongoing struggle for equality and security, and perpetuated African traditions of storytelling.[iv]  DJ Afrika Bambaataa, a pioneering figure in the street parties of the Bronx in the early 1970s, spoke of Zulu empowerment and re-reenergized the streets after the assassinations of Dr. King and Malcolm X.  His contributions “updated African-American poetic traditions, and bore witness to the joyful, soulful, and sometimes angry stories of life in their forgotten America”.[v]  Hip-hop’s poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, bridges the gap between the written word and street sentiments when he proclaimed that, “we want poems that kill.  Assassin poems.  Poems that shoot guns.  Poems that wrestle cops into alleys and take their weapons, leaving them dead.”[vi] As harsh as his words sound to the sensitive status quo, they illuminate the anger that must be voiced in literature.  Three-quarters of a century after Billie Holliday’s haunting “Strange Fruit” was recorded, the spirit of African-American populations expressing their rage at the white-dominated systems of the world is manifested in less-nuanced, more violently charged songs such as N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” or Immortal Techniques’ “Creation & Destruction”.  Topics, styles, and audience change according to politics, technology, and trends, but the core essence of so-called “black” music remains unchanged; it is where genuine hip-hop, jazz, blues, and rock are bred.  True hip-hop holds a “vital progressive agenda that challenges the status quo”.[vii]  Everything else is just industry fodder, designed to make money.

 In modern American hip-hop, fewer prominent artists carry this tradition, as there is a general feeling that black rights have reached their pinnacle in the U.S.  The anger left is charged at the fact that all too often, American hip-hop is co-opted by the greedy.  Despite the overwhelming tendency for rappers to use the style of hip-hop to merely become superstars (see Tupac Shakur), one shining renegade still spits the nectar of true hip-hop: Immortal Technique.  And, in his track “Freedom of Speech”, he offers to speak for the voiceless because “speaking is hard when you got strings attached so [he’s] gonna say it for you cause [he] ain’t got none of that”.  Continuing the black tradition of artists being the spokespeople for their plight, he is willing to put himself on the proverbial line because the oppressed cannot. 

The evolution of females in hip-hop is also taking interesting turns.  As Castleton State College gender studies professor Anne O’Connell champions, female hip-hoppers “use language and images which allow women to lessen their sexual insecurities and inhibitions.”[viii]  Salt-n-Pepa, the most direct and successful female hip-hop duo of the ‘90s, subverted traditional male sentiments that subjugated women in music videos with their hits “Shoop” and “Let’s Talk About Sex”.  The latter song – which, by decrying the American tendency to censor sex – also confronted the silence surrounding the late ‘80s AIDS epidemic.  Hip-hop (and Madonna) was topical when no one else wanted to approach the issue in any positive form.

As with all arts, the concentration of American-saturated views regarding female hip-hoppers has shifted.  White rappers such as Sirrah are gaining more import in North America.  Suheir Hammad, a spoken-word artist highlights the humanity of the occupied Palestinians; Diam’s, in gritty French, questions the European old boys club’s values regarding minorities; and the Cape Town trio of Godessa (along with male rappers from Switzerland) perform multi-language tracks encouraging the masses to critically approach suffering, to name only a few current contributions from women in hip-hop.  Issues that require concerted, intelligent discussion can easily be relegated to the underground entirely by the right-wing, paranoid powers that be unless an army of intelligentsia (which, I argue, prominently features music artists) remain determined to create. 

That is exactly what is happening, mostly outside of North America.  France is the second-largest rap market and scores of other countries are airing their grievances through hip-hop, “replete with percussive beats and social messages”.[ix]  Those concerned with any number of studies, from economics to politics to anthropology, should embrace the truth that “from Shanghai to Nairobi to Sao Paulo, hip-hop is evolving into a truly global art of communication”.[x]  The prominence of rhyme in hip-hop allows a fluid translation of how a track is laid across languages.  I dare say it is easier to surrender to another language’s music in rap than any other genre.  From China to Peru, Palestine to Australia, places as disparate as Chile, Indonesia, New Zealand, and Norway, the streets are robust with youth using hip-hop “to push their generation’s views into the local conversation”.[xi]  The evidence of poverty-stricken Africans mixing storytelling Afro roots with contemporary hip-hop is abundant; for example, in Senegal, contends James McBride, every kid is “a microphone and turntable away from squalor”.[xii]  Poignant documentaries abound – Hip-Hop Colony, about hip-hop in Kenya, and Sling-Shot Hip-Hop, about Palestinian rappers being the two biggest so far – and youth are filling the Internet with blogs, retailers, and forums showcasing the work of non-American hip hoppers.  The extent to which hip-hop is a global commodity is illustrated in the “perfect brew” of the following example, appearing in Jeff Chang’s Winter 2007 contribution to the seminal Foreign Policy: the event:  Wyborowa vodka campaign across China, the process: “an African-American entrepreneur promoting a Polish vodka owned by a French corporation using Chinese performers practicing an Afro-Latin-influenced art form that originated in the inner cities of the United States.”[xiii]  Such exercises in multiculturalism are not lost on dynamic organizations.  Many NGOs use elements of hip-hop culture to reach young populations and create interest in their mandates.  Incorporating hip-hop in any activity ensures participation and community; participants are able to contribute via dance, rapping, turn tabling, graffiti-painting, or lending cheers and support, and able to compete for louder cheers.  More interactive and inclusive than any other genre, the essence of hip-hop is the cipher, the physical gathering of people, circling and cheering around battling artists, “where competition and community feed each other.”[xiv]  Hip-hop has become a lingua franca, which “binds young people all around the world, all while giving them the chance to alter it with their own national flavor.”  [xv] 

From its beginnings 40 years ago, hip-hop has proven over and over a simple truth to America: the only direction for it is up.  Now, the rest of the world from Canada to Cambodia is proving another truth; hip-hop is spreading like a disease, not stopping to discriminate against colour, creed, gender, country, socio-economic status.  Unlike a disease, however, there is no reason to stem its tide.  Rather, artists and enlightened politicians have a great opportunity to bridge connections and apply the energy of art to disenchanted youth everywhere.  It’s time to get into the cipher, and dance to the beat of the world.



[i] iTunes Essentials Hip-hop: Word on the Street.

[ii] Jeff Chang.  “It’s a Hip-Hop World”.  In Foreign Policy.  November/December 2007.  58-65, 59. 

[iii] Ibid., 62

[iv]O’Connell,Anne.  “A Feminist Approach to Female Rap Music.” http://www.csc.vsc.edu/Com.web/femalerap.html

[v] Chang, 62)                                                                      

[vi]  Jeff Chang.  Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation.  NY: Picador, 2005.

[vii] Chang, 60

[viii] O’Connell 

[ix] Craig Watkins, “Why Hip-hop Is Like No Other”.  In Foreign Policy.  November/December 2007.  65

[x] Chang,  58

[xi] Chang, 60

[xii] James McBride.  “Hip- Hop Planet”.  In National Geographic.  April 2007

[xiii] Chang, 59

[xiv] Chang, 65

[xv] Chang, 60


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