Their Characteristic Music: Thoughts on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture

By Brown, David W. | National Urban League. The State of Black America, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Their Characteristic Music: Thoughts on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture


Brown, David W., National Urban League. The State of Black America


Almost four decades ago, Amiri Baraka declared that African-American music was inextricably linked to African-American history; in fact, according to Baraka, the music was the history. In his groundbreaking and influential book Blues People: Negro Music in White America, he stated that throughout American history, "[a]t each juncture, twist, and turn, as black people were transformed, so was their characteristic music." Baraka applied this trenchant cultural critique to slave work songs, spirituals, blues, and jazz, demonstrating that black social and economic development was reflected in the music, and that the music had a profound influence on white America as well. Baraka's insight about the past applies to the present as well: We must examine hip-hop music to understand the under-35 generation of African Americans. The music reflects the environment, artistry, ambitions, fears, and possibilities of young black people. It also sheds light on some of the enduring incongruities of American race relations.

Rap music burst onto the national scene in the late 1970s, and has withstood nearly two decades of predictions of its imminent demise. Instead, rap and hip hop have soared. Last year its sales accounted for 12.9 percent of the $14.3 billion national music market, making it second in popularity only to the 25-percent share held by rock music.

Rap has spawned hip-hop culture-an attitude, a pose, and a way of behaving that has deeply influenced music videos, movies, fashion, technology, advertising, and sports. This essay explores some of the more unambiguously positive aspects of hip hop, focusing on developments in the past decade. For example, hip hop is a testament to the resourcefulness and inventiveness of the post-civil rights era generation. Hip hop also demonstrates the continuing tendency among black people toward self-reinvention; some of the most discerning social commentary from young black people is expressed in rap lyrics. Moreover, hip hop's increasing growth and mainstream popularity show that black youth are maintaining an old tradition: they are again America's music and cultural vanguard.

Nonetheless, some aspects of hip-hop culture have always been troubling, and remain so. The reason is that rap reflects some of the most serious dilemmas facing these young African Americans-such as the staggering incarceration of young black men (and, increasingly, women), the persistent lack of meaningful opportunity, and the casual veneration of violence, misogyny, and other forms of social pathology. The "gangsta" facet of rap music seems to be self-consciously following Baraka's suggestion that "[e]ach response a man makes to his environment helps make a more complete picture of him, no matter what that response is."

That's one reason hip hop is also a fault line that divides African Americans of different ages; it is keenly disparaged by many blacks over 35. Yet, an extraordinary dimension of rap music and hip-hop culture is that the most insightful and effective commentary can be found within the genre itself.

Since its foundation is in beats and rhymes, rap music has grown in infinite directions, making it impossible to generalize about the genre. Some rappers, like Slick Rick, are colorful storytellers who are prone to employ a narrative structure. One of the most common motifs is for rappers to issue an incessant series of boasts about their lyrical skills, sex appeal, or affluence. Some bohemian rappers favor sly, intellectual lyrics; others tap into the theology of The Nation of Islam or mysticism of the Five Percent Nation. Although rap has produced numerous pop superstars (think MC Hammer or Will Smith) who concoct danceable, radiofriendly hits, other artists (Public Enemy, for instance) deliver a blistering and uncompromising political message. One of rap's most commercially successful, and controversial, subgenres has been dubbed "gangsta rap." This term is of limited utility because to a large extent it is a media-imposed label that is branded on pretty much every rap album that features explicit lyrics, whether or not the music depicts the criminal hedonism that is gangsta rap's hallmark.

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