Culture: The politics of hip hop

It took me a long time to prepare this – The Politics of Hip Hop- because it’s such a massive subject. I mean, where do you start? Everyone that I spoke to about it had a different angle or point of view about what this should be about. Every aspect of hip hop is political in one way or another. So in the short time that we’ve got I’m going to try and cover as much as I can. For those with a lot of knowledge on the subject bear with me for a while cos for now I guess the best place to start is the beginning…

Talk given in Preston, Melbourne in mid-2003. cwi online.

The politics of hip hop

The story starts somewhere between 1965 and 1979 where, in the United States of America, politically- there was a hell of a lot going on and the cultural landscape was again about to change dramatically. Martin Luther King had dreamed a dream for a truly equal society for blacks in America. Malcolm X had taken a militant stand for Black Nationalism. He had by then been to Mecca and expanded on his ideas for a revolution towards the emancipation for all. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale had 10 demands and their newly formed Black Panther Party had yet to take up arms in self defense, feed and clothe more children than the American Government at the time and subsequently be referred to as the U.S.A’s biggest internal threat by J Edgar Hoover. The head of the F.B.I responsible for the relentless investigations and in some cases demise of Black Leaders and revolutionaries. Young men of all races were being sent in droves to Vietnam, some never to return. Urban ghettos were ruled by gangs, heroin and crack were claiming the lives of America’s poorest.

However, during this same time in the South Bronx of New York, a different kind of insurrection was brewing, no one, not even those who were unwittingly spearheading it, anticipated.

The Black Spades were the governing body of the borough lead by Afrika Bambaata. A mail carrier, he decided to use his felt tip pen to "tag" every bus and subway car he rode to keep track of every route his travels took him on. Dewitt Clinton High students began using the out of service subway cars in a nearby transit authority retirement yard as canvases, decorating them with aerosol spray paint and markers. James Brown and a still Black Michael J’s dances on TV shows like Soul Train intrigued groups of Latino and black kids in LA and NY who began mixing those moves with moves from old Kung Fu flicks and slowly these Bboys developed breaking. DJ’S such as DJ Kool Herc moved from Jamaica to the Bronx. From Kingston parties, he brought the Jamaican style of DJing with huge sound systems, DJ battles and the practice of "boasting" or rhyming over the beat using catch phrases. Legendary crowd pleaser Lovebug Starski came up with a term: hip hop. Afrika Bambaata officially transformed the Black Spades into the Universal Zulu Nation in 1973 changing its goals to focusing more on peace, love, unity "so that people could get away from the negativity that was plaguing our streets," and began using the term hip hop to define the cultural movement. Across the bridge in Queens, Grandmaster Flash’s cousin Rahzel, and a number of others at the time were imitating the sounds of instruments with his mouth because he couldn’t afford actual instruments and beat boxing emerged.

And from such humble beginnings, it was the melding of these four basic elements: Graffiti art, Bboy dancing, DJing and Rapping that started hip hop culture in the ghettos and streets, block party’s and clubs.

As the 70’s drew to a close a group called The Sugar Hill Gang released a hit single Rappers Delight that was an instant commercial success. Hip hop had hit the mainstream.

In 1982, rap moved decisively from party-oriented themes to political issues with the release of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s "The Message" depicting the desperate conditions of life in the ghettos.

In the late eighties, more than any other group at that time, Public Enemy set the standard for progressive, socially conscious rap. With the release of Fear of a Black Planet and It takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back Public Enemy challenged the apathy that had settled over the mainstream with their strong anti establishment tendencies. Like the Panthers they again brought into focus police brutality against black youth and highlighted the role of the state as the protection of white America from black’s in 911’s a Joke. They attacked the media’s ills with Don’t Believe the Hype and took the ideas of militant black nationalism and self defense to a new level with Fight the Power.

Though not as commercially heralded as Public Enemy, the emergence of KRS One and his group Boogie Down Productions, also changed the content of rap albums, beginning with the 1987 album "Criminal Minded."

Other similar examples include: the 1989 release of "Daddy’s Little Girl" by MC Nikki D who was the first female rapper to rhyme about abortion from a young woman’s perspective; the emergence of the brilliant (and under appreciated) rapper Paris, the self-proclaimed "black panther of hip hop," who called for radical social change and incorporated the images of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party into his videos; the establishment by KRS One, also in 1989, of the "Stop the Violence Movement," and the release by Boogie Down Productions of "Self Destruction" to promote awareness against black-on-black violence, featuring legendary artists such as Public Enemy, MC Lyte, and Kool Moe Dee

It’s impossible to include all of the momentous contributions made by every artist involved and influenced by this period such as Clan X, The Coup, Dead Prez so you’ll all just have to give them shout outs at the end cos getting back to ‘88 when at the same time Public Enemy was vowing to be the model for 5,000 future leaders, NWA was asking, "Do I look like a mutha fucking role model to a kid lookin’ up to me?

The statement gangsta rap made to the American public was as significant as any made by any political figure at the time. Not too long ago, Gangsta and conscious rap really were not the two completely separate entities people think they were.

Though gangsta rap was certainly crude, violent, and misogynistic, in it’s infancy it was a significant revolution in rap music. The gritty images painted by pioneers like Ice-T and N.W.A., provided an unflinching look at painful urban life for Black and Hispanic youth, while simultaneously raising a defiant fist in the face of the establishment that allowed these conditions to persist.

Unfortunately, one of the most common byproducts of challenging the establishment is censorship, and gangsta rap certainly got more than its fair share of that. From bans to public protests to arrests, rappers caught hell for their music from all angles, surprisingly even renewing zeal in elder African-American leaders such as the renowned Civil Rights veteran C. Dolores Tucker. The argument given by these established Black leaders was that their youth should find a more positive way to channel their frustrations and effect change, and they certainly had a valid point. However, ultimately, your voice has to be your voice, not the voice of your parents. For gangsta rappers, creating gritty and offensive music was the only method appropriate for describing a gritty and offensive existence.

So gangsta rap fought back. Waging war against the "lyric vigilantes" in the studios and the courts, the rappers fought to allow their words to be heard seemingly in almost every venue they played in. Though there were no announcements or landmark court cases that signified that gangsta rap had won the struggle for its existence, the sheer fact that it even still exists today is a testament to the victory.

Around this same time frame, the infamous quasi-pornographic rap group 2 Live Crew (headed by Luther Campbell) underwent a series of First Amendment battles as well. For the first time in History 2 Live Crew’s 1989 album As Nasty As They Wanna Be was deemed legally obscene. It should be noted that the 87 references to oral sex may have swayed the judge. Anyhow, the group quickly found themselves mixed up in censorship and freedom of speech battles with politicians, police, and the notorious Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC).

Luther Campbell’s ulterior motive in this entire process may have only been to bring first-class media attention and marketing to his rap group, but the effects of his never-ending legal battles were long reaching. With the support of other big-name artists like Bruce Springsteen and Sinead O’Connor, Luther Campbell succeeded in protecting artists’ right to free speech and tying the hands of the Parents Resource Music Centre whose original plans for censoring music were far, far more extreme than a few black and white stickers on album covers.

Now I’m not sitting here necessarily defending the undeniable misogynistic and homophobic themes that are present in hip hop. However these themes are present across the board in all genres of music. Is the media’s long standing campaign to highlight this in hip hop another racist attack on music that has in its history represented black issues. Well I think so. However this discussion will get taken up more thoroughly by an emcee here tonight Little Gee who’s going to come in on what this has meant for women and their role in hip hop today.

During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was easy to tell the conscious rappers from the anti-conscious. Now it’s a more complicated affair with long standing debates on which type of music best describes hip hop- underground, commercial or conscious. These lines have become blurred mainly due to the commercialisation of hip hop- now one of the biggest growth industries around. Hip Hops Culture’s ability to sell became clear in the case of Def Jams RUN DMC. After hearing about the group’s song "my adidas", adidas sent one of their representatives down to check out a show. To their amazement when RUN DMC played the track everyone took their shell toes off and held them up in the air. Unsurprisingly adidas struck up a deal with the rising stars. In 1999 Emerging Adult Research reported that the Hip Hop generation spent more than $150 billion dollars a year on items such as clothing, footwear, music and technology. Rap Artists such as Sean Combs or Puff Daddy typify the lifestyle of a commercially successful rapper: The House in the Hamptons, the gleaming luxury car in the garage. Rappers such as Puff Daddy get served, not because they made it big but for forgetting about the fact that his life is a fantasy for most people still struggling in the streets where he came from. Blackaliscious makes this exact point about Puff Daddy in his song "don’t let money change ya". There’s so much frustration, particularly in the black community, that rap artists who wield so much power in the media do little to put forward the message of the common people like their predecessors.

This leads me on to my final point which is the political power of figureheads in the scene. A lot of people feel that Rappers propelled to realms of stardom that talk about political issues such the widening gap between rich and poor, racism and exploitation in their lyrics have a responsibility to lead the movement. Are rappers and other artists in the hip hop community in a position to do that?

Two of the most powerful emcees that spring to mind in terms of influence over young people today are Tupac and Eminem.

A lot of people consider Eminem the new political voice however the most he offers as political commentary to date is the song "White America" which delivers considerably less than the title promises. What you’d expect from the title of this song is an analysis of how the wealthy white elites use racism as a tool to divide people and are cashed up at the expense of a poor majority. But at the end of the day he saves his harshest criticism for the record executives who dismissed him as another Vanilla Ice and those that seek to censor him. For him it’s all about attacking the people that stand in the way of his success- hardly politically charged ideas about how to take things forward for those less fortunate.

Tupac’s lyrics show the influence his mother, who was a prominent Black Panther, had on his political outlook. Through his music he encourage thousands to learn about the Black Panthers and read the autobiography of Malcolm X.

But as the lessons of history have shown it takes a mass, organised movement to create social change. The Black Panther Party were incredibly organised: running community campaigns, spreading the organisation nationally, using the media, putting out over 250,000 newspapers a week at one stage to spread their message. And because of this they represented the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. Hip Hop emcees now have the platform to get their ideas to reach hundreds of thousands of people internationally however they are restricted in changing society without the organisational framework behind them.

The fundamental issues which were chiefly expressed through hip hop from the very beginning: racial discrimination, police brutality, poverty, its links to an oppressive system and the want for change are still relevant and very real for most people today.

The four elements of Hip Hop are now represented all over the world in places like Africa and Israel, where people are telling their stories and expressing their identity and ideas. In the socialist party we link these ideas up to an organized movement and fight for the transformation of society. In the last year we have been at the front line for refugee rights, the anti war movement, for decent education and health care for everyone- not just those who can afford it.

If you care about the politics that a legacy of emcees, b boys and girls, dj’s and graffitti artists have expressed through hip hop for generations or if you want to further educate yourself then start fighting with us here in Australia.

I believe that only a society run by working class people will end once and for all the racism, exploitation and poverty world wide that is part and parcel with this capitalist system.

First posted on the web site of the Socialist Party, the cwi in Australia.

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January 2004