You might win some but you just lost one

9 September 2005

It is not often that Hip Hop’s qualities are extolled, therefore it came as a pleasant surprise to see just that in the June issue of lifestyle magazine, Ebony.

Kevin Chappell's article on Hip Hop’s growing popularity, not only among those in its US birthplace but also among several millions around the world, provides an informative look at the musical phenomenon. According to Ebony statistics, two out of every ten records sold in the US are of the Hip Hop genre, with 80% of consumers being white. Furthermore, the Hip Hop industry generates US$4bn a year, a far cry from the early days when Grandmaster Flash was just another struggling artist trying to make it big on the commercial music scene.

Though the article provided an unusually positive and refreshing take on the genre that has been inspired by (and continues to inspire) a unique culture, it ultimately proves disappointingly blinkered and one-sided, deftly side-stepping the deeper issues that discussions of Hip Hop should encourage and only briefly mentioning its politically-charged history.

What many youths and newly-initiated may not know, is that Hip Hop adopted a political dimension in the early 80s, when acts such as Public Enemy broke the scene. Perhaps a more familiar take on this type of Hip Hop would be the Fugees, whose name, denoting a nickname for Haitian refugees, reveals their socially-conscious lyrics. Although the article makes it clear that there are different types of Hip Hop such as political Hip Hop and the ostentatious ‘gangsta rap’ (with which most are familiar), Hip Hop’s fighting spirit, which inspired significant cultural advancement in the fight for equal rights, is once again ignored. Indeed, it is only at the end of the article that Chappell asserts that many Hip Hop supporters believe it to “serve as a voice for a community without access to the mainstream media.” A more searching attitude would perhaps have thrown up more contemporary groups and artists as references, perhaps people like the self-proclaimed ‘Ghetto Pope’ of Hip Hop Kanye West or US artist Mos Def.

In a recent interview with the Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey, it would be difficult to overlook producer and Roc-a-Fella artist Kanye West’s hubris. Although throughout the interview West makes the usual self-aggrandising references of a rapper (“those cocky-sounding statements just look better in black and white”), there is also a distinctly political flavour to his words and music. Take Jesus Walks from first album College Dropout. The lyrics state, “We at war with racism, terrorism, and most of all we at war wit ourselves” and “They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes/ But if I talk about God my record won't get played?”. With this, West confronts the uncomfortable issues that still dog America today – an aggressive and increasingly unpopular foreign policy packaged under the media-friendly term ‘War on terror’, the desire to accrue wealth in order to conceal self-contempt (also touched upon in last year’s track All Falls Down), the irony of religious censorship and prejudice in a country where religion held such sway in the elections and rampant inequality based on the colour of one’s skin. This is, at least in my eyes, the gutsy, impertinent, fighting spirit that spawned Hip Hop and it is an important aspect of the genre which should be publicised far more than its artificial and commercialised relative.

On the point of racial inequality in a country that is often considered to be at the forefront of race relations, West recently made a series of unscripted comments whilst hosting an appeal show for New Orleans on US network NBC. On hearing of his tirade, I first thought it rather amusing, especially due to the renowned heavy-scripting involved in such shows. However, on further consideration, I came to the conclusion that such an outburst was not wholly surprising given West’s social consciousness.  Whilst on tour two years ago, US country group the Dixie Chicks told London fans of their embarrassment that the president of the United States was from Texas. West’s comments were undoubtedly made in the same disgruntled vein, however, with the US, the world and its media  as well as President Bush undoubtedly keeping an eye on the night’s events, his was a political statement made in true controversial  ‘Hip Hop’ style.

Ebony’s article could have been deeply thought-provoking, rebutting preconceptions by showcasing the genre’s lesser-known attributes and history, which, I believe, would aptly confront the current trend towards vilifying Hip Hop; the shopping centre ban of the ‘hoodie,’ which originates from Hip Hop culture, is an example of recent negative press. Furthermore, a more complete discussion of why the potent force that was (and still is) political Hip Hop has been largely overshadowed by the catchy but ultimately banal ‘gangsta rap’ would have been welcome. The genre has surely developed to the extent at which it cannot be irreparably destabilised by criticism of the misogyny and mindless violence that a large part of modern-day rap pedals to the public; after all, criticism is not new to Hip Hop and one may argue that it even fuels the genre’s growth. In short, the article amounts to somewhat of a lost opportunity – as Lauryn Hill says in her Lost Ones record ‘you might win some, but you just lost one.’

In order for Hip Hop’s constructive elements to shine through, a more thorough analysis involving  the consideration of all its components (the good, the bad and the past) is necessary. It is only then that society may become more aware of Hip Hop’s positive qualities and cease to view it as a useless sub-culture.

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