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Hip-Hop Music: Politicizing the African American Narrative

By Yoni Sternberg

 

The terms ‘music’ and ‘politics’ represent an enormous landscape that allows for multiple understandings and perspectives. Some claim that ‘everything is political’ or ‘all music is political’. Rejecting the ‘all-inclusive’ approach provides the opportunity to define political in a way that has particular meaning and that addresses specific issues. To avoid being either too broad or too narrow, I would like to adopt an element of John Street’s definition from his book Music & Politics – ‘differentiating yet inclusive’ – that renounces the too narrow traditional definition of politics as limited to the activities of parties and governments. “It would be a strange definition of politics that excluded the activities of social movements, such as those organized around sexuality or gender or ethnicity”[1]. The context for politics within hip-hop is the experience of African Americans in the United States. Hip-hop emerges from, documents and comments upon, and lashes out against central aspects of the African American experience.

In focusing on ‘music’ for this project, I will concentrate on studio recorded music of several artists released during or after the 1980s, examining hip-hop as a specific genre of music. However, when discussing ‘music’ generally, I will again draw upon Street’s understanding of the connection between music and politics:

…that how music works on us, and how we act upon music, are intimately connected to the way we think and act politically. This is not just a claim about individuals, but about the collectivities and institutions they form. It is true for governments, parties and social movements, and the power they wield or seek to gain. It is a claim … about the music of politics, and the politics of music.[2]

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Understanding hip-hop requires examining its origins and evolution. Hip-hop began as a cultural movement when DJs began experimenting with scratching records, breakdancing, and rapping.[3] Musically, hip-hop was borne out of various styles of music and different genres, such as jazz, r&b, rap, soul, funk, rock, and many more. Today, the hip-hop landscape – both as music and in the political statements it makes – has changed to the point where original hip-hop artists may not even consider ‘new hip-hop’ to be in the same category as the music they created that originally defined the genre. Nonetheless, when I discuss the genre of ‘hip-hop’ and the narrative embedded in ‘hip-hop’, I am referring to all styles of hip-hop – contemporary as well original hip-hop – so as to identify, in broad strokes, key themes that are recognizable throughout the entirety of this particular musical genre.

Beginning in the late 1980s, key themes in hip-hop music emerge and become defining elements of the genre across various different artists in different eras. The core narrative of hip-hop is the documentation of the African American experience, including the discrimination, injustice, oppression, and violence African Americans experience in their everyday lives. While hip-hop’s political narrative is grounded in documenting oppression, it moves beyond mere documentation to themes of resistance to oppression and violence – violence heaped upon African Americans as well a violence within the African American community. This paper will trace the evolution of that narrative from the late 1980’s to the present day, noting its beginnings as documenting local, neighborhood realities of African Americans, to the national embarrassment that was the failed response to Hurricane Katrina, and back, again, to the neighborhood realities that still define the African American experience today. In tracing the narrative, I will utilize the music of significant artists and the songs that exemplify the genre and serve as markers over time to illustrate the evolution of the narrative that has been vital to the growth of hip-hop.

The artists I will be discussing are widely known – that is, for those who listen to hip-hop often – and some are well-known cultural figures as well. Groups such as Public Enemy and N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitudes) will be discussed, as well as artists that span the decades; Mos Def and Kendrick Lamar. I will conclude by examining the trajectory of earlier artists as a framework for the genre’s current political messages – specifically through a more detailed discussion of Kendrick Lamar’s recent album, To Pimp a Butterfly.

This presentation will illustrate that the themes of inequality, subjugation, and violence that form the core of the hip-hop message remain core even today – a reflection of the record of continuous injustices that remain systemic in the United States. However, it will also demonstrate that hip-hop has evolved over time; its message is not only the narrative of oppression experienced by African Americans, but also reflective, stressing the importance of leadership among the African American community to take responsibility to recognize internal trends that must be addressed within that community. This self-examination, represented in Kendrick Lamar’s music, signifies the maturation of the genre alongside documenting, despairing, and resisting the tragic realities that continue to plague African Americans in the United States.

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In the next section, I will discuss two hip-hop groups that embodied the African American experience, and pushed hip-hop as a political platform of resistance and social change in the late 1980’s and 1990’s – N.W.A. and Public Enemy.

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If you would prefer to skip around, here are different section links: Origins in the ‘Hood; Extending the Message and Kendrick Lamar and the Future of Hip-Hop.

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[1] Street, Music & Politics, 7.

[2] Ibid, 8.

[3] Poku, “Hip-Hop, Technology & Innovation.”

(For a full reference list, see the Bibliography)