In this short piece, writer Amar Mehta takes us through a short summary of Hip-Hop’s history in the U.S, and tells us more about its relationship within Black culture and American politics.
Born in the Bronx in the 70s, hip-hop has been extremely significant to the context of Black society in America, and still is to this day. Back then, both the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement had come to an end, leaving a generation voiceless, and without the attachment that had dominated Black culture for so long.
As a genre, hip-hop can be described as a mix of 70s disco and funk, from which hip-hop took the percussions and beats for people to dance to, over which artists quickly started to rap. The birth place of hip-hop has been placed exactly at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, an apartment building located in The Bronx. The building, known for the parties hosted by DJ Kool Herc in the recreation room, said to have been the foundation for hip-hop culture.
With the emergence of hip-hop and its expansion throughout America during the 80s, certain themes within the music became apparent. Some rappers began to use their popularity to create songs that were socially conscious, to expose certain issues to the masses, or to inspire Black communities about their own culture.
Artists such as Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets used spoken word to display a social commentary: Heron gained popularity in post-civil rights America with songs such as The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1971), which was popular within the Black Power Movement of the early 70s. This style of spoken word music would go on to influence rap.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were the first group to release a socially conscious track that gained widespread popularity. The Message (1982) explained the vicious circle of urban life and poverty that many poor black Americans were faced with. The track’s popularity went on to inspire other artists and groups to use their platform to spread awareness of issues within American society think- Public Enemy and Tupac.
While Tupac’s colourful life was at odds (at times) with his sociallly driven self, Public Enemy became a powerful driving force within the culture. Anthems such as Fight the Power (1990), as well as acclaimed albums such as Fear of a Black Planet (1989) ensuring their legendary status. That ninth album’s impact was formally recognised when it was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry on the count of it being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or able to inform or reflect life in the United States.’ Public Enemy were pioneers of making hip-hop matter in society and encouraging people to think critically about the problems within it.
Even though hip-hop has been classified as more of a cultural force, it has also been brought into American politics. The 1992 Los Angeles Riots, sparked by the outcome of the case involving four police officers beating and arresting Rodney King, provided a prime time for hip-hop activists to voice their opinions on race relations in the U.S. Sister Souljah made a variety of comments to the media regarding violence, but she gave one speech in particular at Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in 1992 that became incredibly controversial. She stated:
“I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I’m saying? In other words, white people, this government and that mayor were aware of the fact that black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence”.
So, if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person? Do you think that somebody thinks that white people are better, or above dying, when they would kill their own kind?’
1987-1993 is said to have been the Golden Age of Hip-Hop due to the commercial success of hip-hop that swept over America. Within this period, sub-genres such as Gangsta Rap gained massive popularity, creating a negative stereotype of hip-hop culture that still exists today. Gangsta Rap, which started in the mid-80s, was pioneered by artists like Ice-T and Schoolly D and accelerated by the emergence of groups such as N.W.A. and Compton’s Most Wanted. Groups at the forefront of the sub-genre such as N.W.A were hugely criticized by the media for their violent and often misogynist lyrics, with many of their tracks being banned from radio stations.
The golden age of hip-hop began to fade out at the turn of the 20th century as the genre began to evolve very quickly, resulting in a loss of its founding roots, or as some might say ‘core values’. The period that followed the golden age is known as the ‘Platinum Present’, marking the years from 1994 up to present times, with the emergence of artists such as Eminem.
The impact that hip-hop has had and still has on America did not come without negative stereotyping and stigmatizing, of the genre and the message it was trying to send. One might say themes of violence and misogyny need to be addressed in order to better understand the meaning that was often hidden behind those stereotypes. Importantly despuet all those peioneers of culturally positive messages the powers that be (and the buying public) seemed to have settled on the negativity as the most appealing aspects of hip-hop.
Featured image by Jonny Silvercloud
First image by Marnice Joyce
Second image unknown
Third image by Southbank Centre