Hip Hop has always been viewed as a rebellious form of expression, a music and culture that defied boundaries, labels, and popular trends. It took what already existed and appropriated it for its use and outward message to the world. If you have any question about this, cue up any of the several documentaries on Netflix chronicling Hip Hop’s stylistic display and it’s evident from the innovative fashion to the slick talk to the rare breaks being spun from all genres the world over. Hip Hop took what it wanted, regardless of origin and made it better, or at the very least, its own.
Lately, however, Hip Hop has us re-evaluating its role as the social commentator on, well, society at large. As the music and culture have progressed, ultimately hitting an activism peak in the 90’s as “black America’s TV station,” the vital role of watchdog has been eschewed. Where the artists rapped what they saw, incorporating an author’s penchant for describing their story and making relevant and searingly poignant so the listener experienced the adventure, irrespective of ethnicity, background, age, etc, now that’s become less of honored commodity.
Ice Cube’s “We Had to Tear This Mothafucka Up” transports the listener to Los Angeles after the “not guilty” verdict of the four officers responsible for the beating Rodney King after a traffic stop in 1992. You feel the vitriol in his lyrics and the all-out pain of hearing about another injustice within the criminal justice system by those whose job is to “protect and serve.” Cube nailed it and his status as one of the all-time griots of the culture was further cemented with that DJ Muggs-produced scorcher.
But this song was not an anomaly at the time. Artists like Public Enemy and N.W.A., as just two examples, had been putting it down on vinyl for several years, describing the corporate greed, socioeconomic disparities, police brutality, and a host of relevant topics that plagued black and brown communities. KRS-ONE, as another exemplar of conscious Hip Hop, brought together a literal “who’s who” of artists from the East Coast for “Self Destruction,” part of the Stop The Violence movement in that helped raise over $100,000 for the National Urban League. They didn’t need corporations to help fund them or market their music, refusing to be conduits of the “machine,’ and this was 1989! They also didn’t wait for a perfect time to drop the perfectly crafted song. They moved with purpose -their community being ripped apart by violence. Rap with a message that still sounded dope without a celebrity endorsement or a deceptively clever promotional scheme.
Fast forward to the current era of music being just that: a disposable marketing tool to promote the artist and the corporation’s agenda. We have artists that are using their music much in the same manner as ad agencies use billboards or point of purchase displays at the grocery store: to create a surge or awareness that creates a buying urge at the moment or the near future. Similar to the shelf life for a specific consumable product having an expiration date, Hip Hop music suffers much the same fate. As time advances, the music loses its “taste,” being crowded out by similarly sounding newcomers using the same formula of the artist they just usurped. We, the consumer, have been conditioned to accept and we willingly -with varying degrees- go along. The artist and consumer are complicit in a mutual journey toward mediocrity less impactful music overall.
With that said, can we really blame Hip Hop for not being a voice of the streets, a lens to expose injustice anymore? This isn’t the late 80’s with PE’s “Fight The Power” blaring from Radio Raheem’s ever-present boombox in the Do The Right Thing, or is it? Thirty years later we’re in much the same boat, no better off as “Raheems” all over the country are still being asphyxiated by someone charged to protect a citizen’s life. In much the same way, he was unarmed, just equipped with an anthem that made you want to challenge the powers that be. Can the victims of these senseless, brutal acts by law enforcement, at the base level, even claim to have that?
On the streets of Spike Lee’s quasi-but-no-much Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, things were tense. It’s exceedingly hot, according to both the mercury and people’s charged emotions. At the time, one of the few outlets was Hip Hop, a beacon for the oppressed and the marginalized. Not too far from modern day Brooklyn, just to the west, is a symbol of all things “American,” juxtaposed with that of Spike’s, where a plaque reads: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
People are suffering, literally dying, and Hip Hop is needed now more than ever. Will it respond to this proverbial Bat signal, a cry for help? One can only hope because it has saved so many lives and influenced so many change agents over the years that no amount of marketing dollars could ever match. With that said, it’s time to change the narrative and make music that is undeniably powerful and moving again -driving the trends, influencing new leaders, and making it so being black and breathing is no longer against the “law.”