Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

From Civil Rights to Hip Hop: Toward a Nexus of Ideas

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

From Civil Rights to Hip Hop: Toward a Nexus of Ideas

Article excerpt

   The most radical ideas often grow out of a concrete intellectual
   engagement with the problems of aggrieved populations confronting
   systems of oppression. (1)

The preceding quotation from historian Robin D. G. Kelley captures the manner through which socially and politically conscious (SPC) Hip Hop emerged from the social, economic, and political experiences of black youth from the mid- to late 1970s. (2) Hip Hop pioneers such as Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, among others articulated the post--civil rights generation's ideas and response to poverty, drugs, police brutality, and other racial and class inequities of postindustrial U.S. society. (3) In many ways, early hip hoppers were not only the progenitors of a new form of black social critique, they also represented the voice of a new generation that would carry on and expand upon the ideas and ideology of the civil rights generation. (4)

Since the early years of Hip Hop, SPC hip hoppers have continued to espouse many of the ideas and ideology of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) and Black Freedom Struggle (BFS), but in a language that resonates with many black youth of the postindustrial and post--civil rights integrationist era. (5) For instance, on Michael Franti's 2001 compact disk (CD) Stay Human, Franti uses rap and reggae-style lyrics to critique U.S. capitalism, imperialism, racism, and globalization and to offer analyses of discrimination, prejudice, and oppression similar to those of activists and theorists of the CRM and BFS. In his song "Oh My God," Franti lays out what he believes are the hypocrisies of U.S. democracy by pointing out its discriminatory practices against the poor and people of color, its use of the death penalty, its indiscriminate bombing of other countries, and its counterintelligence activities that subvert the rights of U.S. citizens. He states:

    Oh my, Oh my God,
    out here mama they got us livin' suicide,
    singin' oh my, oh my God
    out here mama they got us livin' suicide....

    Listen to my stethoscope on a rope,
    internal lullabies, human cries,
    thumps and silence, the language of violence,
    algorithmic, cataclysmic, seismic, biorhythmic,
    you can make a life longer, but you can't save it,
    you can make a clone and then you try to enslave it?
    Stealin' DNA from the unborn
    and then you comin' after us
    'cause we sampled a James Brown horn?
    Scientists whose God is progress,
    a four headed sheep is their latest project,
    the CIA runnin' like that Jones from Indiana,
    but they still won't talk about that Jones in Guyana,
    this ain't no cartoon, no one slips on bananas,
    do you really think that that car killed Diana,
    hell I shot Ronald Reagan, I shot JFK,
    I slept with Marilyn, she sung me "Happy Birthday." (6)

The lyrics in "Oh My God" and other songs on Stay Human are potent, analytical, and reminiscent of the critiques and ideas of such black leaders as W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Kwame Toure, Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers. Franti's ideas as expressed in "Oh My God" and Stay Human regarding U.S. imperialism, racism, discrimination, and the usurpation of individual rights are similar to those expressed in Du Bois's essay, "The Freedom to Learn"; King's book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community; Gil Scott-Heron's song, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"; and Angela Davis's numerous writings on the prison-industrial complex. Other socio-political rappers and hip hoppers, such as Public Enemy, Sister Souljah, KRS-One, MeShell Ndegeocello, Goodie Mob, The Coup, Blackalicious, Jurassic 5, Kanye West, dead prez, Mr. Lif, Mos Def, Immortal Technique, Hieroglyphic, and Ms. Dynamite are among the many artists of the SPC genre of Hip Hop who offer cogent analyses and commentary on race, poverty, and discrimination that build on the ideas and ideology of CRM and BFS. …

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