(FinalCall.com) – When hip hop emerged out of New York neighborhoods in the late 1970s, it reflected the gritty reality of urban life but was connected to a street peace movement and included words of pioneers like Kool Herc, Kool Moe D, Kurtis Blow and the social-political philosophy of Afrika Bambaata and the Zulu Nation. The hip hop movement was linked to quelling gang wars, Black pride and connected to break dancing and graffiti art. All of it was tied to expressions by Black youth at a time when funding for music, art and expression programs had been drastically cut.
It was dismissed as a fad.
A range of expression bloomed over time, some like the Sugar Hill Gang offered party music and poetic urban portraits, while Rakim and Public Enemy pushed overt political and strong social messages, De La Soul came with eclectic lyrics, Digital Underground offered comic relief as Run DMC offered tales of B-boys and their lives on the streets of Queens, N.Y., and MC Hammer staged elaborate stage shows and rocked the mic with funky beats.
Money watchers kept close tabs and by the late 1980s, Niggas With Attitudes came roaring out of California with what was called gangsta rap, following in the footsteps of rappers like Ice T and others whose words and stories were more hardcore and reflected the violence of street life. The music hit hard and the corporate money changers made the most of an opportunity. Companies also promoted a formula of foul-mouthed expression and rappers shifted focus to meet demands pushed by profit hungry corporations.
For the last 20 years, gangsta rap tales of pimps, hoes, drugs, sex and violence have been the dominant themes of commercialized rap music. But even this music was censored, if it reflected an anti-establishment edge. NWA was fine so long as it told tales of gang wars and hood rivalries. But when NWA included “F–k Tha Police,” on its blockbuster Straight Outta of Compton album, FBI and law enforcement agencies balked and shut down shows when the rappers tried to express rage against police brutality.
What was once a fad has become a multi-billion dollar global cultural force and ubiquitous presence in almost every aspect of America communication from product ads, entertainment, PSAs and fashion to ring tones and references in popular culture. The difference is that control of the art form created by Black youth has been hijacked and held hostage to commercial interests focused on profits, not social justice or upliftment. The easy scapegoats for the images, words and music beamed across TV screens and computer monitors are the gangsta rappers, the same young Black men labeled super-predators in the 1990s and tied to the prison industrial complex today.
But the power lies beyond what you see on the screen and is held in the hands of White consumers, who purchase the majority of rap music, and corporations squeezing dollars while presenting a limited and very skewed picture of Black life that doesn’t threaten White supremacy.
Despite those challenges there have always been a core element of hip hop artists who have devoted themselves to staying true to the culture and there have been moments where artists have tried to speak out.
In 1988, the biggest names in East coast hip hop joined together with KRS-One for the Stop the Violence Movement and produced “Self Destruction,” which warned about a takeover of hip hop and the tragic results of Black fratricidal violence. “It’s time to stand together in a unity. Cause if not then we’re soon to be Self destroyed, unemployed. The rap race will be lost without a trace Or a clue, but what to do Is stop the violence and kick the science. Down the road that we call eternity Where knowledge is formed, and you’ll learn to be Self-sufficient, independent To teach to each is what rap intended. But society wants to invade. So do not walk this path they laid.”
West coast hip hop responded in 1990 with “We’re All in the Same Gang,” which called for an end to violence and gang wars and offered social commentary. NWA and gansta rapper Ice T were among voices that called for peace.
The lyrics were poignant: “Sisters, since we are the mothers of this earth. It’s time we start being good mothers from the birth. Of our children, no time for sleepin. Teach em to fight and win for the right reason. It’s your time, it’s your life, live it. Proud to be Black, young and gifted. Lifted by the knowledge and takin’ the right route. Gang violence needs to be wiped out.
“America, the red, the white, the blue and the blue and the red for Crips and Bloods, the white for who’s got you doin’ time for bustin’ caps on one another, the Underground is down for peace among brothers.”
The corporations and radio stations didn’t push hip hop’s anti-violence messages or its voices on a broad scale and when survivors of centuries of oppression and ghetto life expressed the reality of street and prison life, young Blacks were again the scapegoats. They were blamed for violence, drug abuse, disrespecting women and destruction in Black neighborhoods.
A constant voice of love, guidance and correction came from the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, who urged rappers to use their power and intellect to awaken their people and the youth of the world. His words offered insight into the realities and impact of cultural expression and those behind the scenes who manipulated talented, but often unaware youth.
“There are a lot of people my age that talk about the lyrics of rap artists. They are upset that the rap artists speak of killing, using drugs, the misuse of our women, ripping off and killing police but the lyrics do not come from apples that have fallen from some other tree,” he told rappers assembled for a 2001 summit in New York.
“The society says it wants rappers to clean up their lyrics, but, the society does want to clean itself up,” the Minister observed.
As many rappers reclaim the soul of hip hop and speak strongly against injustice and violence, they must be supported. That means making distinctions about messages in the music and value of a range of expression while applauding rappers like Nas, Common, Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne and Jadakiss when they produce music that highlights the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, condemn the war in Iraq, speak to voting and politics, question the bombing of the World Trade Center and tackle other serious issues.
We also need to encourage hip hop artists to become the voices of self-determination and builders of their communities. Enlightened lyrics from their lips can awaken the Black nation overnight.