In 1980, then California Governor Ronald Reagan visited Charlotte Street in the South Bronx while campaigning for the presidency. As he surveyed the piles of rotting trash, the rubble of collapsed buildings, and the mangled terrain of disrepair, he likened the South Bronx to a war zone. And indeed, the Bronx sat on the precipice of collapse. Nearly a decade before, in 1972, city planners completed the Cross Bronx Expressway by carving its path right through the heart of the South Bronx. The rest of the 1970s were marked by blazing infernos, brutal gang violence, and the specter of creeping drug use. By 1980, the tension was palpable. It was out of this wreckage that hip-hop had emerged nearly 8 years earlier. When Jamaican immigrant Clive Campbell decided to mix records and throw bumping parties for his block on a hot summer night, DJ Kool Herc was born. Not long after his emergence, Afrika Bambaataa took up the hip-hop cause and used the pulses of addictive breakbeats and turntable cuts to sway former gang members towards hip-hop salvation. By 1980, a growing ecosystem of rap crews espoused the empowerment and excitement that fueled hip-hop’s nascent community.
Yet it was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 hit “The Message” that stood apart from the rest. Up until that point, hip-hop culture thrived on inter-borough feuds, high-profile rap battles, and relentless swaggering. Yet the Furious Five dropped a track that guided viewers through the urban blight that characterized their everyday existence. It was the first hip-hop song to openly address the living conditions of filth, violence, and pain that defined communities like the South Bronx. But it also resonated with down and out folks across the United States.
Broken glass everywhere
People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care
I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat
I tried to get away but I couldn’t get far
Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car
While hip-hop surely has many fathers, none is more significant than the struggle. Hip-hop’s foundation rests on the pillars of twilight DJ sessions at public basketball courts, b-boys breaking on cardboard mats, graffiti artists bombing subway cars, and emcees waxing poetic about survival. As an artistic expression, hip-hop acts as a catharsis that channels the confusion and danger of the world that surrounds it. Its messengers hail directly from the margins of America and the music exudes the isolation and rejection that persists in ghetto streets across the world. When I began listening to hip-hop, I was first introduced to Dead Prez and Immortal Technique, long known for their overtly political lyrics. In songs like “Police State”, “They Schools”, and the ever-popular “Hip Hop“, Dead Prez infused revolutionary activism into their lyrical prowess. But my appreciation for Illmatic and The Infamous reminded me that for many, the struggle can manifest through the subtler poetry of observation and documentation.
As Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone, aka KRS-One, once said, “Hip-hop is the consciousness of oppressed people.” True to form, KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions emerged out of the embers of homelessness and struggle. Scott La Rock discovered Lawrence Parker before he was KRS-One in a men’s shelter in the Bronx. After inviting him to a show at Latin Quarters, KRS-One snatched the microphone, delivered blistering bars, and the two joined forces soon after. KRS-One claims that the desperation and hunger of poverty led him to produce some of his hardest hitting tracks, which examine the violence and despair that wracked the Bronx in the late 80s. After Scott La Rock was gunned down outside of the Highbridge Home Projects in 1987, KRS-One helped found the Stop the Violence movement, which produced the well-known single “Self Destruction”. KRS-One is also credited with launching Hip Hop Appreciation Week, an annual event that demonstrates how hip-hop can be a force for global peace and social good.
Yet 2018 feels like a far cry from hip-hop’s golden era. Today, the modern internet spreads information like wildfire, social media connects people from all walks of life, and self-driving cars seem within reach. We have attained a higher standard of living, and rejoice in the milestone of electing our first African-American president. But behind the veneer of progress lurks a more ominous shadow. Righteous indignation has transformed the #Metoo movement into a global phenomenon. Hundreds of thousands of children and families who seek asylum languish at the southern border with Mexico. Brazen hate crimes have targeted both synagogues and mosques. And beyond anything, many Americans have retreated into their echo chambers, refusing to cross the divide to speak to one another. Despite the lowest unemployment rate in 49 years and a soaring Dow Jones Industrial average, optimism does not abound. Just like 1980, crisis looms large in our imaginations and cripples our idealism. While some would argue that behind the headlines the world has become less violent, data points have not erased our lingering sense of unease.
And with us always, has been hip-hop culture. But what role, if any, should hip-hop play in this escalating Age of Crisis?
The Rumblings of Crisis
Hip-hop found its stride as a grassroots counter-culture that emerged from the ashes of crisis. It was hell-bent on avoiding the rules and it spoke to emcee and fan alike as an outlet to express pain and emotion. Hip-hop’s urgency to hold up a mirror to American neighborhoods revealed the shame and hidden ugliness of a country that rarely fulfilled its promise of equality, liberty, and justice for all. Hip-hop also provoked a blistering cultural backlash from the country’s status quo. From hard-hitting lawsuits over beat sampling in the early 1990s to pitting a nation’s offended morality against 2 Live Crew’s provocative content in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., hip-hop has always been ridiculed, smeared, and dismissed by a skeptical American mainstream. Groups like Public Enemy and Dead Prez have always used hip-hop as a soapbox to confront structural oppression through searing tracks about police states, white-dominated education, and black exploitation. Yet even non-political hip-hop groups have pushed the boundaries of hip-hop culture through bitter court battles or controversial performances. The struggle against America’s conservative gatekeepers are embedded in hip-hop’s DNA.
But with the advent of hip-hop’s normalization and wider acceptance in American culture, also came the almighty profit incentive. While acts like MC Hammer and Run DMC were some of the earliest examples of hip-hop’s commercial successes, for the most part, the underground remained at the fringe of American culture. Yet change was afoot. With the infectious popularity of albums like The Chronic, executives began to take notice. And then a legislative bomb dropped. The 1996 Telecommunications Act, which deregulated media ownership and consolidated smaller radio stations, is often referenced as the start of the end for hip-hop’s golden era. Countless local African-American-run radio shows were eliminated and emcees began watering down their content for wider airtime in bigger markets. Media mergers were the order of the day. The Stretch and Bobbito Show, long considered a mainstay of underground and unsigned hip-hop talent, went off the air in 1998. Despite hard-fought court battles for American acceptance, the accessibility of grassroots radio shows and community locales began to wither. The barriers to entry rose and rappers banked their hopes on chance encounters with A&R scouts at major record labels.
Outside of media deregulation, another more nefarious force was taking shape. The dawn of the post-9/11 era and the Bush years ignited the slow but steady militarization of police forces around American communities and the decline of community policing. While cities like Chicago had long been an epicenter of community policing strategies, that began to change. Although originally introduced in 1994 at the height of the American crimewave, by 2010 Mayor Daly transferred hundreds of officers from Chicago’s Community Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) to street patrols. By 2016, the city’s homicide rates had skyrocketed and community relations with police precincts had disintegrated. The disdain for over policing is also attributed to the militarization of law enforcement. Beginning with the adoption of Section 1033 in 1996, the Department of Defense has addressed its surplus military inventory by donating war-tested weaponry to police departments around the country. Reports of small towns receiving night vision goggles and humvees abound. The St. Louis County police department, right next to Ferguson County, according to the Congressional Research Service received twelve M16 rifles, three helicopters, and seven high mobility vehicles in 2013 alone.
As a militarized police force was broadcast on the nightly news, by 2014, the Black Lives Matter movement had fully taken shape. The hip-hop community took notice. Writers in Rolling Stone praised hip-hop’s grassroots activism on Twitter and by 2016, pieces from The Guardian to BET touted bylines discussing #BlackLivesMatter and hip-hop. But before Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly or D’Angelo returned with Black Messiah, I detected smaller blips of frustration. In early 2015, I wrote a brief post called “I Can’t Breathe” featuring the track “11” from Chicago’s introspective Mick Jenkins. Released on December 28, 2014, three months before Kendrick dropped To Pimp a Butterfly, the song was a moving eulogy to Eric Garner and a searing indictment of hip-hop’s complacency. Due to my own dismay, I highlighted Jenkins’ track as a personal tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement. I found Jenkins’ emotional delivery to capture the rage, the frustration, and the gnawing agony that defined the experience of being a black person in America. His haunting outro, repeating “I Can’t Breathe” eleven times, just as Eric Garner did before he suffocated, drew a line in the sand for hip-hop culture.
Jenkins had successfully underscored a growing sense of urgency among emcees who inhabit the very neighborhoods where daily violence bathes their living rooms in flashing red and blue light. It also illuminated another tragedy: even with a black president at the helm, a paroxysm of rage and frustration could still bubble up and seize a country. And while the surprise election of Donald Trump jolted Americans out of their progressive hubris, our Age of Crisis did not begin with Trump’s presidency. It has been slowly evolving ever since 2012 when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Florida. And for hip-hop’s most thoughtful messengers, regular violence and police brutality are inseparable from their daily lives.
Needless to say, these two forces are among many that have exacerbated inequality and sown mistrust. So even as hip-hop has achieved commercial success and become a global tour de force, its advancement has been sullied by the malicious rise of polarization in American society. This divisiveness, fueled in part by economic inequality, segregation, and the militarization of communities, has meant that criticism, dog whistles, and outright racism continue to rankle hip-hop culture. After Jay-Z and Beyonce dined at the White House in 2014 with Obama, conservatives like Mike Huckabee lambasted the meeting and condemned Jay-Z for promoting violence. The same happened after Kendrick Lamar’s visit in 2016. Of course, the irony is acute when conservatives praise Kanye West’s meeting at Trump Tower despite West’s own canon of lyrics, which discuss police brutality, Hollywood’s racism, and the struggles of poor black communities.
In this environment, discord flourishes. The commercialization of hip-hop culture under corporate America and the rampant violence experienced in black communities have both broadened the chasm. And in many ways, it has heightened the urgency of hip-hop’s importance. While the old guard of hip-hop’s Golden Age has quietly retreated from the public imagination, the last decade has witnessed the rise of a newer and younger generation of rappers. Like those that came before, plenty of emcees have found their comfort zone in carefree partying and superficial excess. But there are others that have tried to interrogate America’s social emergency through poetry, expression, and outrage.
The Struggle of the Newer Generation
While the early aughts were defined by gangsta hip-hop collectives like G-Unit and CashMoney, the rise of the Black Hippy Crew, Pro Era, Dreamville, and SaveMoney signaled a return to the conscious. Although the underground has long been a bastion of more substantive and creative voices, suddenly radio stations and cable TV featured videos from emcees that had something to say. Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar headlined festivals and many emcees began to wield their newfound power in not just the hip-hop community, but the United States at large.
As hip-hop’s de facto poet laureate, Kendrick Lamar has long carried the gauntlet of struggle and pain through his music. To Pimp a Butterfly was an artistic masterpiece that reverberated through the American public like an unfiltered stream of consciousness. From the haunting cover to the provocative title, the album received praise from music and social critics alike. Tracks like “Alright” and “King Kunta” spoke to struggles of black folk around the country, while poetic interludes constructed internal monologues that every black celebrity likely encounters. Shortly after its release, it was even integrated into an English curriculum that taught Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The blog post even made its way to Kendrick himself, and the subsequent visit to the High Tech High School in New Jersey resulted in the creation of a “Be Alright” scholarship in Philly. Kendrick has not abdicated his position as poet laureate as albums like Damn and Untitled Unmastered continued to channel the rage and dismay of black communities across America. Kendrick’s visceral 2016 Grammy performance interrogated the school to prison pipeline and the impunity of police brutality across the United States.
Others seem to have taken their social activism further. Joey Bada$$’s last album became a rallying cry for protests across the country and in 2016, he voiced his concerns about the U.S. government trying to spread fear to start a civil war between black and white people. For the promotion of ALL AMERIKKKAN BADASS, he attempted to pitch April 7 as Global Hip Hop Appreciation Day. The album carries on the hip-hop tradition of deriding the egregious gap between America’s written promise and its actual policies. While tracks like “Devastated” seems to appreciate the struggle as its form of liberation, other tracks like “Y U Don’t Love Me?” take a darker position. The latter laments the abusive and one-sided relationship that every person of color has with the United States. Perhaps the most direct affront to America’s blinding patriotism is “Land of the Free”. It’s chorus, listed below, describes Joey Bada$$ sense of despair in the face of America’s fervent racism.
We can’t change the world unless we change ourselves
Die from the sicknesses if we don’t seek the health
All eyes be my witness when I speak what’s felt
Full house on my hands, the cards I was dealt
Three K’s, two A’s in AmeriKKKa
I’m just a black spade spawned out the nebula
And everything I do or say today is worthwhile
Will for sure inspire action, hold up, yeah, uh
If Kendrick Lamar is hip-hop’s poet laureate and Joey Bada$$ the political activist, then J.Cole has become the disgruntled celebrity. In a recent interview with Billboard, Cole commented: “Even though I clearly am one, I don’t live my life like a celebrity.” With his beginnings in the pop space, Cole has recently made his mark for describing the lack of lyricism and reflection inside hip-hop culture. While he has advanced this mission by growing his Dreamville Records label, home to a roster of introspective rappers like Bas, Lute, and JID, he’s also been a prolific emcee. J.Cole’s most recent release, KOD, was hailed as “one of the most important rap albums ever” by HipHopDX. As a concept album that stands for “Kids on Drugs,” “King Overdosed” and “Kill Our Demons”, J. Cole’s struggle on KOD relates more to fighting against the hollowed rap lyrics and superficial excesses that permeate hip hop’s commercial landscape. Tracks like “ATM” and “KOD” scorn the pursuit of hip-hop riches as Cole ridicules the mindless obsession to flaunt wealth and embrace materialism. Cole does not spare himself either. Toward the end of his Billboard interview, he shrugs off praise and points out that “there’s a long history of activism and standing for something, and I haven’t done enough. I’m too selfish for that, and one day, I hope that I’m not.”
Of course, the most recent instance of advancing the conversation on race relations and hip-hop culture in the United States came with the release of “This is America”. The video thrives in its violent and unhinged chaos that quickly shocked many in the mainstream. Childish Gambino, Donald Glover’s once satirical rap persona, has since transformed into a respected and perceptive voice in the mainstream hip-hop canon. “This is America” closely examines the challenges of being a black person with fame and the pervasiveness of stereotypes and racial tropes in the American imagination. As the video opens, Childish Gambino dons a minstrel-level smile and dances gleefully to a South African harmony strummed by an acoustic guitar player. And almost instantly all pretense fades when he pulls out a pistol and shoots the guitarist in the head. While he swaggers through most the video, showcasing viral dances and smoking a joint, the video ends with Glover running in terror from a horde of white people chasing him. With this lynch mob in tow, Glover leaves the audience with a clear message: white supremacy is still the dominant cultural force that shapes the black experience in America. In the white imagination, as NPR hip-hop journalist Rodney Carmichael points out, the success of celebrities like Childish Gambino negate the spasm of violence coursing through black communities.
Despite this resurgence of the conscious, blind spots persist. While social movements like Black Lives Matter have been lifted up by the culture, others are quietly sidelined. The #metoo movement is the most glaring example of hip-hop’s shortcomings, especially given its fraught relationship with misogyny and machismo. Although hip-hop’s rise was always abetted by strong female emcees, from Queen Latifah to MC Lyte to Lauryn Hill, their visibility was soon eclipsed by an industry that chose to reward submissiveness over intelligence. After the LA Times revealed that several women had accused Def Jam Co-Founder Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct, several commentators assumed that hip-hop would finally turn inward and examine its objectification of women. Yet what happened was far more unsettling. Simmons vehemently denied the accusations and others followed suit, including Nas who denied beating his ex-wife Kelis. Rappers like Rick Ross contributed to the furor by claiming that he wouldn’t want to sign a female rap artist because he’d want to have sex with her a few times.
Apart from the outright denials, several small reckonings have taken place on the periphery of the culture. In the 2015 documentary “Radio That Changed Lives”, Bobbito asks both female fans and employees on the DJ Stretch Armstrong Show whether the recurring bravado and male posturing in the studio made them feel uncomfortable. One female intern recalled that many women who sat in to watch performances were the subjects of unwanted advances and lewd comments. In another instance, on the 2018 podcast “Mogul”, host Reggie Ossé uncovers a damning police report detailing the domestic violence perpetrated by rap manager Chris Lighty towards his wife. Ossé spends nearly five minutes detailing the personal confliction he feels separating the public contributions of Lighty’s professional career from the manager’s personal sins and private shortcomings.
In her Longreads piece “When Will Hip-Hop Have Its #MeToo Reckoning?“, Danielle Jackson writes “Hip-hop isn’t a uniquely misogynistic subculture and rap isn’t a uniquely misogynistic musical medium. Its excesses mirror those of the entire music industry and the whole of American life.” This is precisely the challenge that hip-hop faces today. As it has shifted from a grassroots movement that thrived at the edges of American culture to a commercial force, broad-based market demand have driven its subject matter. With its absorption into America’s corporate behemoth, hip-hop faces its greatest struggle in regaining the democratic inclusiveness and penchant for resistance that marked its beginnings. As the urgency of abuse, exploitation, and racism becomes more pronounced, hip-hop has a moral duty to respond. But as the Age of Crisis pushes humanity further behind walls of fear and uncertainty, where will hip-hop go?
Returning to Hip-Hop’s Roots
Much like increased democratic involvement across the United States, Trump’s accession to the White House has triggered a remarkable resurgence of political activism in hip-hop culture. Small, viral sensations abound, from Eminem’s Freestyle in a parking garage in downtown Detroit to Chuck D shouting “Fuck Donald Trump! Black Lives Matter!” at SXSW in 2016. But the commercialization of hip-hop has also allowed the culture’s elder statesmen to target the powerful from highly publicized forums with a wide reach. Busta Rhymes’ and Tribe Called Quest’s 2017 Grammy’s Performance lambasted “Agent Orange” in front of millions while Beyonce’s provocative 2016 Superbowl performance subtly nodded to the Black Panther Party. In some ways, this would not be possible had hip-hop not grown into the corporate juggernaut and international sensation that it is today.
But that’s not to say that there isn’t a mounting concern when it comes to the state of hip-hop culture itself. A year ago, Black Thought’s Hot 97 Freestyle with Funkmaster Flex not only took aim at political topics like American war crimes or moral sins but also attacked the rise of mumble rap and stereotypical depictions of wealth. Nearly halfway through the 10-minute freestyle, Black Thought spits:
I strike fear in the hearts of rap figures
who mind being a stigmas of time no black privilege.
From boom black ni***s to trap ni***s.
You in a trap with us.
When their lines is ass.
Vivid as the walls on a graph.
Autograph bought a lot of wrath.
I reside between the seconds on a chronograph.
How much more CB4 can we afford.
After Black Thought’s release of “Streams of Thought, Volume 2”, these pointed criticisms have continued. On one hand, Black Thought is merely carrying forward a time-honored hip-hop tradition: exercising superior rhyme abilities to take out sucka emcees. But there’s something else going on here. With many Americans still distracted by the dumpster fires of rap’s most controversial acts, cultural critics have sounded the alarm bells on hip-hop’s growing void. While I have always looked to the XXL Freshmen for new talent or dove into the depths of SoundCloud for pioneering new voices, lately the landscape has seemed bleak. Black Thought himself noted that he spent a considerable amount of time preparing for his Hot 97 appearance and humbly remarked that he opted for a 10-minute freestyle because he “had something to say.”
While both the older generation or hip-hop’s current torchbearers might critique the absent-mindedness of hip-hop’s latest batch of emcees, there are signs of hope. I was and continue to be impressed by the reception of Joey Bada$$’s album All Amerikkkan Bada$$ and from street corner to classroom, Kendrick Lamar has achieved a reverence that most rappers can only dream of. As I dived deeper, I realized that the seed of hope may lie within the complicated and painful relationship between an America that is true to its promise and an America characterized by white supremacy. Joey Bada$$ waxes resentful on his song “Y U DON’T LOVE ME? (MISS AMERIKKKA)”, with his chorus:
Tell me why you don’t love me
Why you always misjudge me?
Why you always put so many things above me?
Why you lead me to believe that I’m ugly?
Why you never trust me?
While Joey Bada$$ detests an America that doesn’t love him, the Cunninlynguists also describe a deeply flawed and ungrateful America that they have every reason not to love. And yet, surprisingly, they do. As the opening track from their newest album Rose Azura Njano, “Red, White, and Blues” serves as a powerful yet painful homage to the complicated relationship that so many in the African American community feel towards the United States. Much like W.E.B. Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Cunninlynguists are uncertain how to navigate their dual identities of being black in America and being an American. This is the same difficult reality that elevates To Pimp a Butterfly and “This is America” into the hip-hop consciousness. The chorus speaks to this complex relationship of love and resentment, one in which every African American should feel a burning rage towards the red, white, and blue flag that has enslaved their people and decimated their communities. And yet, the Cunninlynguists return to something far more optimistic: a hopeful feeling that America can be true to her purported values. The outro to the song suggests innocence over malice, and forgives America’s ignorance: I don’t know what to do//And she don’t either
So what can we hope for hip-hop in 2019? The popularity of shows like Hip-Hop Evolution on Netflix and the release of hip-hop films have reminded Americans that protest is embedded in hip-hop’s DNA. But perhaps the better answer is that hip-hop often hits its stride when it shines a light on the chasm between America’s values and her de facto actions. From its birth in the slums of the 1970s Bronx, to its uneven growth during the Reagan years, through its maturation as a commercial force around the world, hip-hop has ebbed and flowed. As the deafening cries of protests from Black Lives Matter to the #MeToo movement rise out of communities across the United States, many emcees, producers, and managers will encourage the next generation to return hip-hop to its roots. They will cite songs like “The Message” and “Hip Hop” for inspiration.
Whether this new generation scribbles verses into notepads that disparage the violence and drugs that plague their crumbling neighborhoods or these emcees directly confront the structural racism of America, I believe they will answer the call. The hard-fought battles in courtrooms across America and slow acceptance of hip-hop as a legitimate form of art helped push it into the mainstream. But these actions did not happen in vain. Regardless of how you approach the struggle, hip-hop will rarely thrive as a docile and sluggish vestige of the music industry. Just as U.S. GDP rates and unemployment figures rarely capture how Americans feel, the glitz and the glam of hip-hop’s successes should never overshadow the persistent sense of struggle that defines America. And she needs hip-hop now more than ever.