February 19, 2019
A Brief History of Social Issues in Hip-Hop
This paper will cover a brief history of some of the important social issues that were occuring in Hip-Hop around the time of its rise, as well as the impact that Hip-hop had on society during these times. It will focus on the Black Power Movement, and Police Brutality. It will also contain a brief summary of what Hip-Hop is.
An Introduction to Hip-Hop
What is Hip-Hop? Described in the Britannica Dictionary as a “cultural movement that attained widespread popularity in the 1980s and ’90s; also, the backing music for rap, the musical style incorporating rhythmic and/or rhyming speech that became the movement’s most lasting and influential art form.” (Light and Tate 1)
Hip-Hop is made up of four main elements: deejaying or “turntabling”; rapping or “MCing” (Microphone Controller); graffiti or writing; and B-boying (break dancing) which was the type of dance associated with Hip-Hop.
Its origins are in the South Bronx, (a burrough in New York City) which in the late 1970’s was known for being extremely impoverished. The first known Hip-Hop artist was an eighteen year old immigrant named Clive Campbell who went by the name DJ Kool Herc. 1979 was the year that the first Hip-Hop song gained traction on the national level. A song called “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugarhill Gang. Since then Hip-Hop has risen to be the most prominent genre in music.
A Brief History of the Black Power Movement
In 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Blank Panther Party for Self Defence or (BPP). The original purpose of this party was to track cases of police brutality. A growing number of unchecked cases of police violence, and abuse of power led parties like the Black Power Movement, and BPP to become more prominent as the late 60’s rolled into the 70’s. These parties felt that the civil rights movement was being based more on white people’s perceptions of civil rights than black people’s perceptions.
They had their own newspaper whose articles reflected their hardening stance against the law. Police officers caricatured as pigs which became a national vernacular. This became a recurring logo of a black panther holding a gun to the head of a pig in a police uniform.
On the other side of the spectrum Panthers were forming a variety of charitable services to the African American community called “Serve the People Programs”. This included Organizing health clinics and schools, food drives, and distributing groceries for free.
Regardless of the way they have been perceived “the Black Power movement was a complex event that took place at a time when society and culture was being transformed throughout the United States, and its legacy reflects that complexity.”(Gale 1)
The Black Power Movement’s influence on Hip-Hop
Moving into the early 80’s Hip-Hop became increasingly socially conscience. Arguably the most pivotal Hip-Hop song of 1982 was “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. It was the first song to be politically slanted, and considering that most Hip-Hop at the time was party based this was saying something. In the underlinings of the song they were imitating a Black Panther chant with the lines: “You gotta dip-dip-dip dive, so-so-socialize/ clean out your ears and then open your eyes” (Serrano 30).
In a 1988 interview named “Armageddon in Effect” with Spin magazine Chuck-D a member of the Furious Five stated that, “Rap serves as the communication that they dont get for themselves. …Kids won’t pick up magazines or no books, really unless it got pictures of rap stars, they don’t see themselves on tv” (Serrano 30) Hip-Hop was a way for these artists to express the adverse conditions they were living in. Chuck-D talked about being frustrated by all the noise. The homeless people eating garbage. The sub-par public education, and always being surrounded by either rats, roaches, or junkies. Even Spike Lee who is an American film director spoke on Chuck-D. “Lee placed Chuck in the streets amidst the likeness of Black Power fighters, one new black icon anointing another” (Serrano 73).
Hip-Hop didn’t stray far from the Black Power Movement even into the early 90’s. Tupac Shakur was the son of a Black Panther member, and quickly became thought of as the legacy of the Black Panther Party. His mother Afeni Shakur was “…Acquitted on charges that she was part of the Black Panther plot to bomb public spaces in New York City” (White 22) in April of 1968.
“Building upon this cultural memory of the Black Panther party, the image of Tupac with his heavily tattooed body and his middle finger in the air also stands for black rebellion, and dissatisfaction” (Davis 321). But instead of a call to join a political party Tupac’s call was for record sales. It is arguable that the consumption of Hip-Hop music in general has taken the place of the political struggles as the means to right social or economic wrongs. Davis writes that “In the place of the type of intellectual labor the Black Panther Party came to demand of its members, Tupac offers those who identify with him a disjointed and episodic…. conception of the world” (Davis 322). The Black Panther Party deserves to be recognized as an organization that constantly subjected itself to self-criticism, debate, and revision. They saw that as they evolved the party needed to evolve with it, and that helped them maintain the parties existence, in one form or another even to this day.
Police Brutality & Hip-Hop
Police brutality is a topic that reaches far beyond Hip-Hop, but it’s artists have made sure that their views on police brutality don’t go unnoticed. Countless artists through the generations have spoken out through their music about their own experiences, and the experiences of others with the abuse of power in the hands of law officers.
In 1988 NWA came out with the extremely controversial album “Straight Outta Compton”. “They were the first rap group that America actively tried to ignore, and then eventually tried to stop” (Serrano 67). In 1989 Milt Ahlerich, who was an assistant director in the FBI sent a letter to Priority Records in which he admonished then for creating the record. He continued saying that “fuck the police” was promoting violence against law officers. They were denounced by politicians and members of the media. They were blocked from the radio, and TV. They were even banned from performing in certain cities. NWA’s outspoken and violent way of dealing with these issues was not adopted by every artist.
Big krit wore a police uniform while delivering a spoken-word piece about police violence. “ Mommas been crying and they gon’ keep crying Black folk been dying and they gon’ keep dying The police been firing and they gon’ keep firing The government been lying and they gon’ keep lying” (Butler 1). Halfway through he switches to the point of view of the officer. “Why you chilling? F– your feelings. Why you smiling when I’m so serious? I hate patrolling your space, like why you living? Stop asking questions. Why you filming? You look suspicious. I think you dealing. Step out the car. Fit the description” (Boyles 1).
Another Christian Hip-Hop artist known as Lecrae performed a spoken-word referencing Philando Castile who was fatally shot by an officer in minnesota. “They tellin’ us “Make America Great Again” I’m like hold up, when was America great again? Was it when they took us from our native land? Or maybe it was when they took the natives’ land? Racism is an institution created by the lies that hide in white supremacy, but everything black ain’t white, so take ownership, conflict existed before we were on the ship, no justice, no peace, but what’s worse, the promethazine or the police?” (Boyles 2)
T.I. performed “We Will Not” while in a Black Panthers jacket, and beret. This particular song was directed at police officers with the lyrics: “No we will not stand here in silence While they take the lives of our brothers and sisters and partners We will not turn a blind eye to the murder with no repercussions Oh no, we will not We will not live on our knees, we will die on our feet This ain’t no lie that I speak All you youngins out here in the streets only wanna shoot people who look like you You can stay home, you too weak.” (Butler 2) when asked about why he thinks there is so much negativity in Hip-Hop he responded with: “I think people need to take into consideration that hip-hop, traditionally, has always been a reflection of the environment the artist had to endure before he made it where he was, so if you want to change the content of the music, change the environment of the artist and he won’t have such negative things to say.” (Butler 2).
Ice Cube one of the more prominent and outspoken artists in Hip-Hop covered a wide range of social issues that plagued the black community. He spoke on the racism of non-black grocery owners in the hood to the racism that created the hood in the first place. “I understand how America works, how capitalism works, it’s a pyramid system. And we’re relegated to the bottom of that system. So being that, they think they can do and treat us any kind of way. It’s really up to us to stand up for our own rights and dig ourselves off that bottom. I’m not surprised that we’re dealing with the same situations because I know that the enemy that we’re dealing with is the same one that we dealt with in 1990 or 1991 or 1985. I’m not surprised at all” (Williams 5).
“A Panther Generation Gap.” Editorial. Chicago Tribune (October 30, 2002).
bandele, asha, “Meditations in the Hour of Mourning” in Michael Datcher and Kwame Alexander, Eds., Tough Love: The Life and Death of Tupac Shakur (Alexandria, VA: Alexander Publishing Group, 1997).
“BET Hip Hop Awards: T.I., Big K.R.I.T. and more speak out against police violence.” Washingtonpost.com, 5 Oct. 2016.
“Black Power Movement.” Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, edited by Donna Batten, 3rd ed., vol. 2, Gale, 2010, pp. 54-55.
“Chuck D and Spike Lee Remember Do the Right Thing.” YouTube, YouTube, 1 July 2014, youtu.be/zYHPWzg0iXA.
Davis, Angela Y., “Black Nationalism: The Sixties and the Nineties” in Gina Dent, Ed., Black Popular Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992).
“Hip Hop Awards Performance: Lecrae Had Something to Say.” BET.com, BET Networks, 4 Oct. 2016
Jen Boyles (@Jen_Boyles) October 5, 2016
Light, Alan, and Greg Tate. “Hip-Hop.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 14 Feb. 2019, www.britannica.com/art/hip-hop.
Serrano, Shea, “The Rap Year Book” New York, New York, Abrams Image, 2015
Williams, Stereo. “The Original Gangsta: Ice Cube on 25 Years of ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted,’ Kendrick Lamar, and Cops.” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 7 June 2015
White, Armond, Rebel for the Hell of It: The Life of Tupac Shakur (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1997)