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.
Commodification Effects: The Macro-Level
Although the appropriation and commodification of black music is nothing new, the nature of rap music creates a unique result. As Shocklee asserts (Samuels 1991), rap songs can create, through words, complete characters that R&B formulas can’t support. Through rap lyrics, images of black rap artists come alive. As rap has become more commodified, distinct shifts in themes can be observed. Although rap crossovers to mainstream audiences existed already, the introduction of the gangsta genre in late 1980s and early 1990s transformed rap into a mainstream staple, with the “gangsta” image representing the “real” black urban experience. Some rap artists highlight the music industry’s role in socializing rap artists into profitable “gangsta” or “Mafia” images. Chuck D of Public Enemy (1997) offers this insight:
Many in the world of hip hop believe that the only way to blow up and become mega-stars is by representing themselves in a negative light. The two recently slain hip hop artists Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. as well as other rap artists who have come under some criticism like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, or whoever you want to name, talk positivity in some of their records, but those records have to be picked by the industry executives and program directors to be magnified.
That’s what I feel happened with Tupac. Tupac had a loyalty to black people without a doubt. His early albums sound like a combination of Public Enemy and NWA. He was raw. Tupac found that when he said things that were pro-black and militant, people were not paying any attention to what he was saying so he decided to go more and more into the side of darkness, like Bishop the character he played in Juice.… The more he played the bad boy or rude boy image, the bigger and bigger he got.
A number of underground artists address the issue of rap’s commodification in their lyrics (Ogbar 1999). In an interview, Franti, a member of the underground group, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, addresses the image that young black rappers adopt to become commercially successful. He states:
Through the commercialization of today’s music, there is a lot of pressure for young black men to conform to very specific roles, and I try to just through my music let people know that those roles are not the only roles you have to play…. In order to be “real,” we don’t all have to be the same, and that there are as many black experiences as there are black people.
I gained insight into working in the industry from my interview with a radio personality who hosts an internationally syndicated hip hop program. Discussing the impact the music industry has on artists and others who work in it, he states:
You kind of like have to be a certain way to keep your job. You kind of got to act, walk, talk, and like the guys that hired you, and you kind of adapt their mentality. It’s a shame. I don’t blame them, but they feel they kind of have to do that; otherwise they might not be able to maintain this position that they established.
He sums up rap’s dilemma this way:
The rap game man is good and bad, it’s good and bad. It’s created a lot of jobs for a lot of people that otherwise probably wouldn’t have jobs, but at the same time, man, it’s like mo’ money, mo’ problems [referring to rap song by the late Notorious B.I.G.].
Rap’s commodification promotes some of its forms, while making other forms, which are often more “positive,” unprofitable. So although artists have a choice, if they want to experience commercial success, they must stick to industry-endorsed formulas.
The themes in rap songs are homogeneous because certain formulas have proven to be profitable, and are therefore imitated exhaustively. While rap images of black rage were controversial at one time, after twenty years, they are now normalized, validating mainstream stereotypes of young African Americans. In truth, hip-hop culture’s transition into mainstream America offers important insights on popular culture as mass culture, and popular culture as site of ideology construction and negotiation. Because they are socially constructed, popular culture and media representations are not independent of the power dynamics that inform popular culture’s production. We must not only examine the content of popular culture and media representations, we must also examine the media industry’s role in the creation process to better understand its influence.
The commodification of hip hop culture leaves the revolutionary aspect of the culture to be witnessed by only its most ardent supporters, once again, creating a “preaching to the choir” situation. As Gray asserts, cultural matters are, in fact, matters of power and politics. Through its commodification, hip hop culture’s political representative becomes the corporate controlled, almighty dollar.
While mainstream media and record companies promote hip hop that’s violent, misogynistic, materialistic, and individualistic, this depiction is really more of hip hop as commodity, a product of corporate America, and a reflection of mainstream America’s appetite for reified black images. Black rage is now entertainment. Unfortunately, the cost is more than the $17.99 price tag on a CD. The real cost is an innovative and multi-dimensional culture that becomes essentialized, a revolutionary culture that’s too often under-valued within its own community, and a collective identity that’s too easily prejudged and misrepresented… while the whole world watches.1
Commodification Effects: The Micro-Level
My analysis of micro-level commodification effects stems from experiences teaching in two very different environments: 1) a lower-income neighborhood in Compton, California that (dis)serves only African American and Latino students and 2) a university in an upper middle class suburb of Orange County, California, whose student population, although multicultural, includes almost no black and brown people. African Americans constitute less than 4% of the undergraduate population. One stark difference is that in the former setting, hip hop becomes an identity of necessity, whereas in the latter, it becomes an identity of choice.2
At this university, I teach a class that uses hip hop culture as a lens to view society, specifically social inequality. The course focuses on the racialized power structure of society, and the power of media framing and hegemony that in many ways shape our reality. We examine the institutional structures and racial politics that keep people of color in this country (and around the world) oppressed. We highlight how the structure of the hip hop industry parallels that of society in general. The game is the same as since the dawn of colonialism. Exploit people of color, their labor, and their culture while benefiting financially and gaining more power over them through hegemonic ideologies. As importantly, however, the course highlights how hip hop is also about resistance, protest, and perseverance¾in many ways the political voice of inner city youth.
Over the years, I have taught more than 700 students of various backgrounds (the majority of Asian descent), many of who embrace a hip hop identity. This experience has highlighted some micro-level repercussions of hip hop’s commodification and the racial politics behind it. In many ways, the micro-level effects of commodification are most difficult to recognize and, possibly, most dangerous to racial progress. It shows in a number of ways, from non-African Americans embracing the n-word as a part of their vernacular, to the latest racialized perspectives on ghettopoly.3
I find most students only identify black in terms of skin color, and not culture, and for that reason, take offense to my labeling hip hop black. We need to be re-taught what race in this country actually stands for, and that is power and privilege. Instead of race, many social theorists choose to discuss the idea of racialization and a racialized system to show how “race” has been used to determine one’s position in society. This understanding brings in the class aspect of racialization, showing it is no accident that the majority of black and brown citizens are socially and economically disadvantaged (Omi & Winant 1994).
When we look at the hip hop nation and the multiculturalism we find, we get a false understanding of racial solidarity. Hip Hop transcends racial barriers, if we define these in terms of ethnicity and skin tones. But that we are all dancing to the same beat does little to change the real social and economic conditions of those oppressed. The last twenty years offers substantial evidence for this. You need only do some research and look at the statistics, or better yet, visit your local hood. When a college student in my class claims to be hip hop and takes offense to hip hop as black, but does not recognize his/her privilege by looking around the class and seeing few to no African Americans or Latinos, racial inequality solidifies. Although my students in Compton were as bright as many I find at this high ranked public university, it is a fact that most will have fewer opportunities than their middle class hip hop counterparts. This is why I cannot join the club of hip hop started as a voice of oppressed black and brown youth but now it’s worldwide… because for these oppressed black and brown youth, little has changed and hip hop is still their voice. Hip Hop should be defined as black when we define it in terms of culture, oppression, racialization, victimization and, of course, resistance.
Most of my college students recognize the macro-level effects of commodification, whether it be the black stereotypes highlighted in music videos, or the corporate control of hip hop culture homogenizing its image. What many students do not recognize, however, is their roles in the process, constructing their hip hop identity via mass mediated imagery. Using the example of the n-word, many will defend their use of it by either claiming to be “hip hop” or indicting rappers for normalizing the word, thus claiming a “double standard” by African Americans. They ignore context in their analysis, where the word’s 400-year place in black vernacular becomes synonymous with the 10-year use by some that listen to rap records. They also ignore the consequences of hip hop that are often racialized. While non-blacks may embrace the n-word, their African American counterparts face the consequences of its use, within and outside of the community. For some, the word is just a word, but for others, it is a legacy of racism and, possibly, internalized oppression.
Another micro-level effect of hip hop’s commodification can be seen in the varying reactions to ghettopoly. The fact that there is a market for ghettopoly underlies the racial politics in hip hop. Reactions to the controversy over ghettopoly were highly racialized in my class, with the line drawn between African American students and the majority of non-black students in the class. African Americans students took great offense to their culture being equated to “gangster, criminal, and drugs.” They also took offense to seeing ghetto living and its structurally based miseries exploited in satire for profit (from game: “you get your whole neighborhood addicted to crack, collect $100”). For those that have lived ghetto experiences, crack is nothing to joke about.
Many of the non-black students found the game funny and “just entertainment.” And those that were non-black but saw the game as offensive, were quick to defend its creator because “black rap artists do the same every day in song and video.” A recurring claim was an indictment of the African American community for “protesting David Chang (the game’s creator), but not black rappers as vehemently.” The problem with this argument is that many who indict African Americans are not in tune with the black community, black media and black activism for many of the same reasons that residential segregation did not end with civil rights legislation. Those who are in tune, know that black media and thinkers often criticize African Americans’ roles in the racial degradation process, while highlighting the larger social context that limits options.4
A final micro-level effect that becomes racialized is the growing divide between mainstream rap and its counterparts (read black and lower class) and the underground scene and its followers (read white and middle class). The hip hop underground movement must be applauded for its preservation of hip hop’s original elements and its revolutionary spirit. Unfortunately in this movement, the debate over what is “real” hip hop has become racialized. Hip Hop literature often highlights hip hop’s appropriation by corporate America, but is only beginning to examine how middle class hip hop followers appropriate hip hop, and possible repercussions in the racial politics debate. To say that mainstream music, especially from African Americans, is not “real” hip hop is a lie and elitist, and it misrepresents hip hop, which they often indict mainstream media outlets for doing. At its essence, hip hop is making a way from no way, and in the case of mainstream hip hop, it has been a legal hustle for many youth from ghettos who would not have had many other opportunities.
Underground “conscious” hip hop is not any more real if only privileged persons hear it. Having access to underground websites and buying every CD that drops implies some level of middle class. Those on a college campus are better off than 90% of the world’s population; this needs to be recognized in order to justly analyze one’s context in hip hop.
The underground scene often romanticizes revolution, but rarely reaches out to those most oppressed. Revolutions may start in lyrics but they must end in action. It’s bigger than hip hop,5 and it should be. Although I’ve noticed more hip hop activism, I’m fearful that the growing division in hip hop will undermine progress. It is like the activists are underground but those that need it are the mainstream masses. No progress can come from this equation; so systemically, little has changed. Without the masses, there can be no movement.6 People of color are still victims of oppressive social systems that lock us up and out of self-determination, the only real solution. To achieve self-determination, we need a catalyst. The Civil Rights movement had the church as its catalyst. We now have hip hop.
Realizing Our Power
Given these micro and macro-level processes, we face deep institutional warfare to overcome, and our understanding of these processes offers a starting point for building solutions. When imperialist ideas and individualistic philosophies oppress the world as they do today, we often lose sight of the power we possess; we lose sight of where real power comes from. Real power comes from us…the people. As a collective, we are power.
It is easy to doubt our power when white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist ideologies (bell hooks) seem to have a stranglehold on the world. We see it in the peaking statistics of African Americans living in extreme poverty. We see it in famine and AIDS epidemics in Africa. We see it in the invasion of Iraq and the hawkish warmongers in the white house and department of defense who would like to export war to a long list of other countries. We see it in the education and social program cuts in states across the country. We see it in the incarceration of our youth of color courtesy of our so-called judicial system. We see it in the Patriot Act. We see it in the blacklisting of anti-war, peace proponents. We see it in water cooler French-bashing. We see it in the ever-increasing polarization of global resources. We see it in corporate greed. We see it in a patriotism that never questions but proudly displays the U.S. flag in cars as a symbol of superiority. We see it in the popularity of Bill O’Reilly. We see it in racial profiling of people of color, including now Arab Americans. We see it in the framing and minstrelsy of media and its increasing corporate concentration thanks now to the FCC. And yes, we see it in hip hop.
In many ways, hip hop may try to keep it real, but that voice is often silenced because oppressors control hip hop’s image. Those in power get to reap the larger benefits of artists’ labor, while simultaneously controlling their image and teaching the youth values that reinforce the same old nihilism. They get to make money, villainize the black man, and prostitute the black woman all at the same time. For them, it’s a win-win situation. For the hip hop community, it becomes a trap we fall into because we believe money gets us power. Right now what money gets us is bought.
Hip hop today seems to be searching for meaning, while simultaneously spinning its wheels in battles and beefs; formulas and stereotypes. In a system that gives us so few options, we have made choices that have benefited us while hurting us simultaneously. For example, artists find they can sell more records by degrading life, others, and themselves. And for that realization, they have achieved unparalleled monetary gains. But these gains have come with a high cost. One cost has been progress. The very things helping some are hurting many others. Our youth learn that the gangsta, pimp, and drug dealer lifestyles will help them make the money they so desperately need to survive this cold system, but it is these same elements that kill our youth before they have even lived. Our seeds have learned from society that they are not valued. Then through choices we’ve made as a culture, we reinforce the lie by becoming a part of the problem through flip lyrics and risky behavior.
The power of hip hop is not in record deals or celebrity. It is not in money or world hype, and it is definitely not in its hypocrisy. Hip Hop must decide now whether it wants to make the same mistakes others before it have made… by gaining the world (at least as its audience)… but losing its soul. So where does hip hop’s power come from, if not the world stage and bottomless money pits?
Hip Hop’s power is realized in truth and self-determination through community activism. Community activism in inner cities across the country is taking on a hip hop sensibility and offering real alternatives for youth at community levels. This activism has recently experienced national level successes, with Russell Simmons’s Hip Hop Action Network (HHAN). It has been responsible for organizing hip hop summits bringing artists, activists, spiritual leaders, and politicians to the same table for change. Most recently, the HHAN joined forces with New York educators and students to protest budget cuts in education, and, due in part to these efforts, achieved retribution. The HHAN is also organizing a major voter drive targeting voters of the hip hop generation. Hip Hop’s power is realized simply in its ability to move the crowd7 as a collective, challenging hegemonic power and building solutions as a community. Power to the People!
Chuck D. 1997. Fight the Power: Rap, Race, and Reality.New York: Delacorte Press.
George, N. 1998. Hip Hop America. New York: Viking Penguin.
Gray, H. 1995. Watching Race. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Guevara, N. 1996. “Women Writin’ Rappin’ Breakin’.” In Dropping Science: Critical
Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture. E. Perkins, ed. Philadelphia: Temple
Hazzard-Donald, K. 1996. “Dance in Hip Hop Culture.” In Dropping Science: Critical
Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture. E. Perkins, ed. Philadelphia: Temple
Holsendolph, E. 1999. “Out of the Streets and into the Boardroom, Hip Hop has Become
Big Business.” Emerge Magazine.
Hooks, B. 1994. Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. New York: Routledge.
Lusane, C. 1993. “Rap, Race, and Politics.” In Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology. 2nd edition. Andersen & Collins, eds. Belmont: Wadsworth.
Neal, M. 1999. What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture. New York: Routledge.
Ogbar, J. 1999. ” The Culture Wars and Self-Criticism in Hip Hop Music.” Journal of Black Studies.
Omi, Michael, & Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formations in the United States. New York: Routledge
Rose, T. 1994. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover: University Press of New England.
Samuels, D. 1995. ” The Rap on Rap: The Black Music that Isn’t Either.” In Rap on Rap:
Straight up Talk on Hip Hop Culture. A. Sexton, ed. New York: Delta, 1995.
Smitherman, G. 1997. “‘The Chain Remain the Same’: Communicative Practices in the
Hip Hop Nation.” Journal of Black Studies 29.
Spiegler, M. 1996. “Marketing Street Culture: Bringing Hip Hop Style to the Mainstream.” American Demographics 18.
Stapleton, K. 1998. “From the Margins to Mainstream: The Political Power of Hip Hop.” Media, Culture, and Society 20.
1. Outkast, from their CD Big Boi & Dre Present…
2. See Mary Waters, Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America, for theoretical background (1990).
3. Ghettopoly, created by Taiwanese-American David Chang. The following sources provide more detail on the game:
4. Spike Lee’s Bamboozled provides a critical analysis of the macro and micro processes in media.
5. Dead Prez, from CD Let’s Get Free.
6. See the insightful piece by Adamma Ince, No Masses, No Movement: Black Boomers Shout Reparations in the Court—But Go Silent in the ‘Hood,
7. Eric B. and Rakim, from their CD Paid in Full.