…from Bebop to Hip Hop, black music has been shaped by the material conditions of black life (Lusane, 1993:42)
In 1992, the 'gangsta' rapper, Ice T, offended mainstream white America with the song 'Cop Killer', a fantasy of violent retribution for police brutality. Though, strictly speaking, a heavy metal rather than rap record, the lyrics of the song were seen as typifying rap's dangerous, incendiary potential. Replete with its almost obligatory references to 'bitches', 'hoes' (whores), 'niggas', gang feuds, 'slinging dope' and 'icing cops', the sometimes violent, misogynistic, anti-Semitic and invariably profane themes of hip hop have induced widespread condemnation from all quarters of American society (Lusane, 1993; Rose, 1994).
While the extent of establishment outrage towards hip hop is admittedly unprecedented, African American music has traditionally attracted more than its fair share of controversy. Similarities have been drawn, for example, between the attitudes of present-day hip hoppers and the surly, 'anti-assimilationist' stance adopted by the bebop jazz players of the early 1940s (Rose, 1994), while rap music itself echoes the rebellious sentiments of the 'soul anthems' that ruffled conservative white sensibilities during the Black Power era of the 1960s (Neal, 1999).
This chapter reaches far beyond the incomprehension and indignation often accompanying such genres to explore the way that bebop, rhythm and blues, vocal pop, soul and hip hop have each played a fundamental role in helping African Americans to psychologically survive and/or create oppositional identities during times of injustice and oppression. The following analysis borrows extensively from general commentaries on post-war black American popular music by Gilroy (1989) and Neal (1999), and from the more specialised analyses by Kofsky (1970, 1998) on jazz, Haralambos (1974) and Ward (1998) on rhythm and blues and soul, and Rose (1994) on hip hop. Its overriding aim is to outline the cultural, political and psychological significance of each of these musical genres by paying close attention to the particular socio-political contexts - prior to, during and since the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s - in which they emerged and developed.
In drawing on these existing works, the chapter will emphasise how 'psychological resistance' to racial subjugation is often expressed via musical