Hip-Hop Ain't Dead
— Alice Ragland
Everybody sound the same, commercialize the game
Reminiscin’ when it wasn’t all business
If it got where it started
So we all gather here for the dearly departed
Hip hopper since a toddler
One homeboy became a man then a mobster
If the guys let me get my last swig of Vodka
R.I.P., we’ll donate your lungs to a rasta
Went from turntables to mp3s
From “Beat Street” to commercials on Mickey D’s
From gold cables to Jacobs
From plain facials to Botox and face lifts
— Nas, “Hip Hop is Dead,” 2006
HIP-HOP HAS revolutionary roots. Created in the late 1970s by impoverished Black youth, it gave voice to give those who had historically been silenced and disenfranchised by racism and poverty. Its four components of emceeing, break dancing, graffiti and DJing provided a creative outlet for young people.
Rap Music originally acted as a microphone to highlight the experiences of African Americans dealing with poverty, police violence, cultural genocide and a host of other issues generated by white supremacy and corporate greed. Early rap songs served as a news source for young Black people, revealing issues of structural injustice and causing the masses to question society in a way that the white supremacist media and educational systems never would.
Instead of war on poverty,
They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me
— 2Pac, “Changes,” 1992
Many rap artists used their words to question oppression. This is where hip-hop began, a radical middle finger to the system that created the need for such an outlet.
When I was younger, I remember intently listening to Public Enemy and Tupac Shakur’s political messages and calls to action for uplifting the Black community.
It’s time to fight back that’s what Huey said
Two shots in the dark now Huey’s dead
I got love for my brother but we can never go nowhere
Unless we share with each other
We gotta start makin’ changes
Learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers
— 2Pac, “Changes,” 1992
I remember my soul being quenched by powerful women rappers such as Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Lauryn Hill who spoke out against sexism and misogyny.
Papa got a brand new bag, Mama got a brand new Jag
A gold tag, I ain’t no old hag
I represent not only in the kitchen and the bedroom
But also in the boardroom so give me more room
Deny my opportunity, you in jeopardy
Yo, yo, set me free, don’t hinder me, let me be
— Queen Latifah, “Freedom Rap,” (Theme from Panther) 1995
Of course there were still songs about sex, partying and having fun, but the genre seemed to have a healthy balance of frivolity and challenging the status quo.
Now, it seems as though the revolutionary nature of the music has dissolved. When I turn on the local hip-hop station, I typically hear a monolith of inane voices worshipping consumerism. The face of rap music seems to be dominated by two-dimensional caricatures glorifying sex, drugs, violence and money.
I hear song after song about starting from the bottom and “making it,” which reenforce the capitalist lie of meritocracy. If I want to hear rap songs that challenge the system, I can’t find them on the radio.
But why? What happened to create this “dead” state of hip-hop?
Power and Profit
The capitalist ambush of rap music happened. The political messages and cries for justice in rap songs were virtually silenced when the music was mainstreamed. Music industry executives and media moguls, including owners of the radio and television corporations, not only saw the earning potential of rap, but they also saw the power it had — the power to politicize young people of color and instill them with knowledge that would be a potential threat to corporate rule.
White male record executives were intimidated by the thought of Black youth knowing the truth, so they decided to cash out on an ignorant, monolithic image of hip-hop.
Damn your color and white world supremacy
Got ya drippin and sweatin, you can’t believe what I said
Wait for me to change my mind, hold your breath
You’ll be dead…
— Sistah Soulja, “The Hate that Hate Produced,” 1992
As rich white media execs recognized the immense financial possibilities of rap music and the power of hip-hop transferred from street artists to media corporations, hip-hop artists and song lyrics that spoke truth to power were not allowed to thrive.
Artists whose music evoked a flicker of critical thought were forced into the realm of underground hip-hop, losing the potential to ever be played to a mass radio audience. Music about relevant issues virtually disappeared from mainstream media outlets, replaced by an overabundance of music that promoted negative stereotypes, misogyny and belligerent behavior.
As a result of this capitalist ambush of hip-hop, the only rappers who were rewarded significant air time are the ones who embodied stereotypes of violent, drug-dealing criminals. The only women rappers who earned the spotlight embodied stereotypes of Black women as manipulative, gold-digging whores. These stereotypes serve the white capitalist interest.
In the days of slavery and Jim Crow, the images put out by minstrel shows and racist movies made whites fear Black people and hindered their ability to empathize. These images also helped to justify the horrors of lynching and other unfathomable punishments perpetuated against people of color.
You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture
You’re fuckin’ evil I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey
You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me
And this is more than confession
I mean I might press the button just so you know my discretion
I’m guardin’ my feelings, I know that you feel it
You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’
You made me a killer, emancipation of a real nigga
— Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry,” 2015
Stereotypes of Black women in mainstream hip-hop as materialist and hyper-sexual cause us not to be taken seriously. To be treated as though we’re worthless. To be disrespected. To be seen as sex objects.
They cause people to vilify Black women such as Anita Hill who speak out against sexual abuse by Black men. To this day, these stereotypes continue to mangle society’s view of Black women and strain the relationship between Black men and women.
I bring wrath to those who disrespect me like a dame
That’s why I’m talking, one day I was walking down the block
I had my cutoff shorts on right cause it was crazy hot
I walked past these dudes when they passed me
One of ‘em felt my booty, he was nasty
I turned around red, somebody was catching the wrath
Then the little one said (Yeah me bitch) and laughed
Since he was with his boys he tried to break fly
Huh, I punched him dead in his eye and said “Who you calling a bitch?”
— Queen Latifah, “U.N.I.T.Y.,” 1993
Similarly, stereotypes of Black men as violent, drug-dealing criminals cause the public to believe in the inherent criminality and inferiority of the race. To fear dark skin. To clench purses and lock doors. To shoot and kill unarmed, Black civilians. To fail to recognize any guilt in cops who kill unarmed, Black civilians. To believe the victims “probably did something wrong,” and “if they just followed the rules they would have been fine.” To blame hoodies and sagging pants instead of structural injustice. To blame the poor for their poverty. To be numb to the suffering of others.
And I can’t forget the internalized oppression that the stereotypes perpetuated in corporatized rap music exacerbates. These images, and mainstream rappers’ glorification of violence, make it nearly impossible for many Black boys to envision a life of success outside of selling drugs. These images make it difficult for many Black girls to imagine success in anything other than stripping, and they cause many girls to define their self-worth by solely by their physical assets.
Boys younger and younger are mistreating women. Girls younger and younger are battling for likes on Instagram in order to feel that they are worth something. Rap idols coax Black youth into worshipping expensive clothes and shoes instead of caring about anything substantive. They persuade Black people, old and young, to waste money on worthless material possessions for the sake of status.
Insecurity roams the black community
Homes where kids must have jewelry
The high school female need earrings and details
so she can be cool to be amongst popularity
The various name brands that reach the price scan
that's not about the right price, but more like the right scam
to rule us all, confuse us all
— Kendrick Lamar, “Vanity Slaves,” 2009
Reclaim Our Rap
We must realize, however, that this stereotypical image perpetuated through mainstream rap music, which is controlled by wealthy white men, does not define hip-hop. There are still artists who challenge injustice through their music. These artists have always existed, but their music has generally not received adequate exposure because of its subversive nature.
Rappers such as Immortal Technique, Killer Mike, Kendrick Lamar, Lupe Fiasco, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Lauryn Hill and many others continue to use their lyrics to question society. Their music speaks to real issues of poverty, racism, and other social justice issues. Because much of their music challenges stereotypes, capitalism and racism, supporting these conscious hip-hop artists is a revolutionary act.
Not only do radical rappers challenge the status quo through their music, but they also speak truth to power in their interviews and other public appearances. Lupe Fiasco has used his voice to question U.S. militarism and other social justice issues, including his controversial comment in an interview with Bill O’Reilly in 2011 suggesting that all U.S. presidents, including Obama, are terrorists because of their foreign policy decisions that have destabilized countries all over the world.
Immortal Technique constantly breaks down systems of oppression in his interviews, explaining complex topics such as U.S. imperialism, capitalist exploitation and racism in terms that anyone can understand. And Killer Mike has spoken openly on a variety of platforms about race, politics, and his support for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
We must make an effort uplift the artists who speak truth to power — those who sacrifice money and fame for authenticity. who debunk myths, question injustices and defy the status quo. We must fight back against the corporate ambush of hip-hop and reclaim the power of music in our revolution.
For me, radical rap gives me the strength to continue fighting. The passion behind lyrics such as those quoted in this commentary satiates my spirit as a revolutionary. This is the music that I will continue to play until we win, until corporate power is returned to the hands of the people.
I look forward to the day when the capitalist lies are no longer played over the airwaves, the day when real hip-hop artists’ cries for justice are finally answered.
Bring the power back to the street where the people live
I’m sick of working for crumbs and filling up the prisons
Dying over money and relying on religion
For help. We do for self like ants in a colony
Organize the wealth into a socialist economy
A way of life based off the common need
And all my comrades are ready
We just spreading the seed
— Dead Prez, “Police State,” 2000
March-April 2016, ATC 181