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Hip-hop gave us Public Enemy, Lauryn Hill, Kendrick Lamar: after 50 years, this music demands proper respect

The movement born at a New York block party in 1973 is now global, an instrument for learning and a weapon for protest

By Nels Abbey

‘Hip-hop’s 50th birthday is in large part a celebration of commercial success, and understandably so. It is a culture that has taken the byproducts of economic pain and created millionaires, even billionaires. Maybe it helped to put a Black man in the White House. But its true legacy and power should be measured not in chart positions or dollars and cents, but in hearts and minds won and changed’

ON 11 August 1973, Clive Campbell (popularly known as Kool Herc), an 18-year-old DJ, hosted a party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. Unbeknownst to the men and women dancing the night away, they were witnessing the birth of a socioeconomic and political miracle, which came to be known as hip-hop.

If you consume rap music in a fleeting manner – possibly via the gatekeepers of commercially focused entertainment conglomerates – then you may find the point above easy to scoff at. Indeed, you may consider hip-hop a problematic musical phenomenon, typified by bling, boisterousness, violent beefs, exaggerated drug tales and bikini-clad women, all set to banging beats.

There are elements of all these things; it would require a Trump-sized dishonesty to pretend otherwise. But if they are all you focus on, you will misunderstand what has been one of the most influential and important catalysts for change in the last five decades. You will miss an infectious phenomenon that has powered empathy, boundary-pushing storytelling and a cascade of digestible postcolonial and anticolonial messages. And this matters – for Black and other minoritised and formerly colonised people rarely have control of the education system or the media, and therefore have limited influence over what is disseminated, and how. Hip-hop has played a vital role in that communication: in shaping our battle for the minds of the young, and therefore the future of society.

Hip Hop 1
A Tribe Called Quest in 1991. Photograph: Al Pereira/Getty Images

Take my generation as an example. Before many of us had a proper grasp of what apartheid, imperialism or white supremacy were, A Tribe Called Quest told us to “Stir it up” for Steve Biko – a song that forced me to go and research who Steve Biko was and exactly what he fought for. With records such as KRS-One’s You Must Learn and Nas’ I Can, hip-hop helped tear down “white man lies” posing as Black history, and villains presented as heroes. At the same time, victims of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program, some of whom were serving prison sentences, all of whom were presented to us by the mainstream as villains, were reappraised. Common & Ceelo’s A Song for Assata told the story of Assata Shakur (who has been living in exile in Cuba since 1984), and numerous songs mentioned Mutulu Shakur (who recently died, just months after being released having spent 37 years in prison), as well as Geronimo Pratt, and countless others.

Though hip-hop has certainly served as the soundtrack to capitalism’s excesses, it has also shed light on the dark and often enslaving underbelly of the “free market system”. Before the concept of a zero-hours contract was common currency, the likes of Dead Prez explicitly chronicled the pain of deeply exploitative and inequality-enshrining employment on songs like W-4 (which should be every gig worker’s anthem). On ‘They’ Schools, a song that terrified me, and which I did not properly understand until I was in my late 30s, Dead Prez demonstrated how the education system serves as a pipeline to these jobs, because it was not designed with the interests or problems of Black people in mind. In their own words: “They [schools] ain’t teachin’ us nothin but how to be slaves and hard workers / For white people to build up they [their] shit / Make they [their] businesses successful while it’s exploitin’ us”.

Queen Latifah confronted misogyny in songs like U.N.I.T.Y., while Lauryn Hill and Rapsody picked up the baton from the likes of Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou to elevate the stories and lived experiences of Black people, and especially Black women.

With the backdrop of Reaganomics and the “crack epidemic”, Ice Cube leveraged his gift for storytelling and his anti-establishment mindset to document the ills (and thrills) of living in economically deprived and therefore gang-troubled areas of Los Angeles. K’naan did the same thing for life in Somalia. Skinnyman’s Council Estate of Mind leaves you with a vivid understanding of the “science of social deprivation” plaguing the poor in Britain. The Italian rapper Ghali has brought compassion to the debate about migrants arriving in Italy by small vessels. He has also raised money to fund a boat to help save their lives.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the right has identified critical race theory as the bogeyman responsible for young people’s increasingly progressive nature. But they are wrong. The ideas they fear are being pumped into children’s minds in classrooms are far more likely to be learned from hip-hop: many more people listen to Kendrick Lamar and J Cole than read Ibram X Kendi.

Hip-hop’s 50th birthday is in large part a celebration of commercial success, and understandably so. It is a culture that has taken the byproducts of economic pain and created millionaires, even billionaires. Maybe it helped to put a Black man in the White House. But its true legacy and power should be measured not in chart positions or dollars and cents, but in hearts and minds won and changed.

From the dream of Pan-Africanism to the reality of elevating a culture of entrepreneurial activity in deprived communities, and the movement towards equality, hip-hop’s foremost contribution has been in elevating the consciousness of society: in giving the downtrodden the space and time to tell their own stories in unapologetic voices.

From New York to York, Los Angeles to Lagos, Memphis to Milan and Mogadishu, Baltimore to Baghdad, people have used the trumpet of hip-hop to tell their stories. It hasn’t created a utopia. That was never likely. But the force of people with a way to tell their truths is a powerful thing.

Nelz

 Nels Abbey is an author and broadcaster. His new book, The Hip-Hop MBA: Lessons in Cut-Throat Capitalism from the Moguls of Rap, is out next year

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/aug/11/50th-birthday-hip-hop-voice-truth-new-york-world-protest?CMP=share_btn_wa

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