The Black Arts Movement and Hip-Hop

By Gladney, Marvin J. | African American Review, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

The Black Arts Movement and Hip-Hop


Gladney, Marvin J., African American Review


The past decade and a half has witnessed the emergence of the most recent "seed" in the continuum of Afrikan-American culture,(1) rap music. Hip-hop music and culture have caused volumes of controversy and forged their way into a marginal position alongside that of popular culture. Through rhythm and poetry, hip-hop has endeavored to address racism, education, sexism, drug use, and spiritual uplift. Hip-hop criticism, however, has primarily focused on the music's negative and antisocial characteristics, and has rarely yielded information about hip-hop's relationship to its artistic precursors.

It is important that observers understand hip-hop in a context that reflects its aesthetic goals and the tradition from which hip-hop has emerged. Black Arts literary critic Addison Gayle, Jr., notes that Black art has always been rooted in the anger felt by Afrikan-Americans, and hip-hop culture has remained true to many of the convictions and aesthetic criteria that evolved out of the Black Arts Movement of the '60s, including calls for social relevance, originality, and a focused dedication to produce art that challenges American mainstream artistic expression. Conservative attitudes concerning hip-hop's irreverence for middle-class values - evident in slang, clothing, etc. - have impeded the process of critically analyzing an art form that, at its core, has proved to be a considerable force for social change through campaigns such as Boogie Down Production's "Stop the Violence." At the very least, hip-hop has brought much needed dialogue to issues affecting America's Black community in a manner that no popular art form has, prompting Public Enemy's Chuck D to refer to hip-hop as the "CNN" of the Black community.

In this essay, I point to three areas that show the ideological progression from the Black Arts Movement to hip-hop: (1) the elements of anger and rage in the cultural production of Afrikan-American art in the two movements being studied, (2) the ideological need for the establishment of independent Black institutions and business outlets such as schools and publishing and recording companies, and (3) the development of a "Black Aesthetic" as a yardstick to measure the value of Black art.

Black Rage, Anger, and Cultural Expression

The element of black anger is neither new nor, as Herbert Hill would have us believe, passe. The black artist in the American society who creates without interjecting a note of anger is creating not as a black man, but as an American. For anger in black art is as old as the first utterances by black men on American soil. . . . (Gayle xv)

Addison Gayle, Jr., directs our attention to the prevalence of anger in the experience of Black Americans and makes it clear that Black art cannot be divorced from this reality. Historical events in both the Black Arts and hip-hop eras include extreme examples of Black frustration and rage: Consider, for example, the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and the riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. ". . . anger - raw and unhollywoodish - is what we are talking about," writes Haki Madhubuti. "Anger for unfulfilled promises, anger toward legislators who back stepped on policies decided, passed and not implemented, anger pouring undiluted toward a rulership that feeds on greed and exploitation and views Black people as enemies or as necessary burdens to be thrown crumbs like animals in their latest theme park" (Why xiv).

Black Arts and hip-hop texts created amid the anger that is easily perceived in major historical events such as the L.A. rebellion and the riots of the late '60s reflect the rage the Black community feels. Amiri Baraka's "Black Art," for instance, illustrates the extent to which anger would dictate this poet's creative path:

. . . We want "poems that kill." Assassin poems, Poems that shoot guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys and take their weapons leaving them dead with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland. …

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