Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hip Hop: A Struggle Against Oppression

Immortal Technique

Hip Hop is a cultural phenomenon that now consists of many elements and many different types of people. It is a fragmented subculture in the United States in which one part of it is at risk of extinction by assimilation into the U.S. mainstream culture. The Hip Hop culture in the United States can be broken up into two main parts: the mainstream culture and the underground culture. Each of the halves of the culture receive ideological influence from a separate source. The underground culture made up of mostly minority ethnic groups receive positive, self empowering, community oriented, and pro-critical thinking ideology from intellectual members of the underground culture. These members that have passed on knowledge for decades are mentors to the youth. This is the opposite of the self absorbed, pro-capitalist, sexist, and hate filled ideology that is taught to the mainstream hip hop culture which consist mostly of European Americans (whites) whose mentors are the record label CEOs and Hip Hop sellouts. Therefore in this essay, I will explain (1) the two main ideologies in the Hip Hop culture, (2) where they come from, and (3) who they benefit. Who they benefit and don't benefit is particularly important because this is where one can see the struggle of the oppressed minority classes and where the Hip Hop mentality started.
It was all said to begin in the 1970s in the South Bronx of New York. A time of economic hardship for minority groups and single parents due to discrimination in the workplace and racial stereotyping in the media. Even though suffering was inevitable among minority groups the South Bronx was teeming with youthful life, mostly African Americans and Latinos, and those youth had no outlet for their creativity to call their own. With the introduction of turntables and the looping of rhythm breakdowns in old Rock n Roll and R&B records something new was created. It is said that this is what sparked the movement and its many elements. Therefore in order for one to understand race and ethnic relationships in the Hip Hop culture one must first be familiar with certain terms and the main elements that make up Hip Hop. The five main elements of performance are: MCing, DJing, graffiti, b-boying, and beat-boxing. MCing is performed by a MC or emcee which stands for master of ceremonies. The emcee's performance can be with or without music (acapella) in the background accompanied by the emcee's rhythm applied poetry (RAP). The DJ also know as the disc jockey manipulates records with turntables to compile a rhythm and melody. Graffiti is a form of street art with a message that is often done on the sides of buildings with spray paint and stencils. B-boying is the art of hip hop dance that has many different styles depending on the region and is sometimes referred to as 2-stepping. Last but not least, beat-boxing is the art of simulating the sounds of drums and other instruments with the mouth and vocal cords. These elements laid the foundation for the South Bronx youth. Thus in the beginning Hip Hop was exclusively for African Americans and Latino Americans. Soon after the culture’s birth it spread like wildfire among the inner cities and suddenly a new culture was born. A culture that the Latino and African American communities could call their own. It served as an educational tool for people who were not given the privilege of a middle class European American education. Public Enemy's political front man Chuck D referred to Hip Hip as the CNN of the black community. So through Rhythm and poetry, Hip Hop endeavored to address racism, education, sexism, drug use, and spiritual uplift. (Gladney) Just like in the 1960s, this new generation had created their own form of political protest, consequently though it's popularity would in the end jeopardize its cultural authenticity.
During Hip Hop's dramatic ascendancy in the 1990s, artists and fans found themselves in a contradictory situation that other subcultural groups (such as Punk) confronted previously: being “inside” a mainstream culture they had, in part, defined themselves as being against. (McLeod) The assimilation of the underground Hip Hop culture into the mainstream culture of Hip Hop happened because media corporations saw a potential to make profit off of the new found popularity of the underground culture. They made a parody version of Hip Hop and with it came a different ideology, one that promoted the interest of the record label owners and European American upper class capitalist (the oppressors) instead of the interest of the oppressed lower class. Immortal Technique, a revolutionary emcee from Harlem has criticized the black mainstream record label owners in many of his songs. He compares them to the “house niggers” of the slave days. The house niggers of slavery served the slave owners in the their homes and received a few extra privileges such as old clothes and left over food, but were still oppressed by the systemic slavery. A house nigger can be described in modern words as a black person that does their best to please white people even if it means disowning their own racial identity. This is where many emcees claim Hip Hop was betrayed by its’ own people for money and the promise of fame. Therefore it wasn't hard for the mainstream culture to gain immediate popularity with the right marketing tools and right figureheads to be the faces for the new Hip Hop. The success of the mainstream culture could also be because people are fascinated by black culture's differences, drawn in by mainstream social constructions of black culture as a symbol of rebellion.(Cutler) So it can be said that Hip Hop has been commodified as suburban rebellion and sold to the masses. Now in 2010 it is evident more than ever how much hip hop has become a part of an American’s every day life. The music industry is booming thanks to Hip Hop and its many sub-genres. In the mainstream music world more than 70 percent of Hip Hop albums are purchased by whites. (Morrell and Duncan) This is not hard to understand because the majority of people who have access to television, radio, magazines, and financial resources are of European descent. The mainstream Hip Hop culture most certainly caters to the white American Hip Hop enthusiast and therefore the ideology it portrays is transferred to the already majority racial/ethnic group in United States. Media conglomerates like Viacom own many media outlets such as: MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Block Buster, BET, Comedy Central, CBS News, and the list goes on. Now one can see how mainstream Hip Hop became so popular throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, nonetheless the underground culture survived this take over by the media giants and has maintained its' genuine cultural elements, but is always under constant scrutiny.
A blend of reality and fiction, hip hop is a contemporary response to conditions of joblessness, poverty, and dis-empowerment. (Smitherman) Today's nation-conscious emcees, DJs, and graffiti artists draw their inspiration primarily from the black power movements of the 1960s. (Decker) The lyrics and graffiti often express with raw emotion their discontent with the system and how it oppresses the people of color while giving privilege to those not of color (European Americans). Underground Hip Hop to this day is still dominated by African Americans and Latino Americans even though they do welcome people of all races and ethnicities it is very rare that an European American is at ease enough to step out of their comfort zone made of suburban neighborhoods and shopping malls to go down to the “ghetto” or the lower income part of town. The gangster rap ideology of mainstream Hip Hop has taught European Americans to fear these neighborhoods because they are full of gangsters and people who want to harm them. This is a stereotype of these low income neighborhoods and the people who live in them. Yes the people might be angry at the corrupt political system they live in and from time to time might take it out on someone, but that does not mean that they will do it all the time like the media portrays. Portraying violence in lower income neighborhoods is a scare tactic to keep the people stratified and weaker as a mass. The underground Hip Hop culture recognizes this problem and tries to reach out to the regular American people, but at the same time they do no want to jeopardize what little culture they have left by putting it in the hands of “trendy” or fashion oriented hip hoppers. It shoulld be noted that explicit anti-white sentiments are rarely made in Hip Hop. Instead, pro-black statements are more typical. (McLeod) Reaching out to people is a very tedious process because you have to constantly check and recheck the “realness” or “fakeness” of the hip hopper before letting them into the underground culture. They have to make sure you are true to yourself and true to hip hop and not the mainstream hip hop created by the bourgeoisie, they call this “keepin it real”. In other words keepin' it real means not disassociating oneself from the community from which one came. (McLeod) For instance, Tupac raps in his song “I dont give a Fu*k,” “The Grammy's and the American music shows pimp us like hoes, They got dough, but they hate us though, You better keep your mind on the real sh*t, and f*ck trying to get with these crooked a$$ hypocrites.” Tupac was one of Hip Hop's more successful artists. He recognized that unlike the mainstream Hip Hop culture there are positive social and tangible gains to being in the underground culture and know where you come from.
Hip Hop can be a tool to help raise the consciousness of the listener and writer. One study showed that students in the non-mainstream culture who practiced writing lyrics were exhibiting the critical and analytical skills that the teachers wanted them to get out of their textbooks. (Morell and Duncan) Encouraging students to participate in non-mainstream Hip Hop showed the teachers how to raise the students social awareness and writing skills. This is only one of the positive effects to come from underground Hip Hop. Another positive effect of Hip Hop is that it creates political consciousness. Emcees in the underground constantly rap about politics and what is happening in the world at the time. This teaches the youth, who listen to their words closely, what to look for and how to empower themselves and their community, as well as teaching them a new form of communication called African American Vernacular English (AAVE). AAVE functions as both a resistance language and linguistic bond of cultural and racial solidarity for those born into an oppressed status. (Smitherman) The unique pronunciations of certain words and the use of slang can quickly identify an insider or an outsider to the culture. For example, In the Hip Hop culture the sound that the letters (er) make together are often pronounced as uh or ah (i.e. Nigga, Brotha) and (s) is sometimes pronounced as a (z). (Cutler) Because “nigger” is a racialized epithet in the English language, AAVE embraces its usage, encoding a variety of Black meanings (i.e. homie, friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, acquaintance, brother, sister). And “crazy niggas” are the rebellious ones, who resist racial supremacy and draw attention to their cause by acting in ways contrary to the inscribed role for African Americans. Unlike other subcultures Hip Hop is one of the few to develop its' own language and as a result the members might seem ignorant to those who don't know anything about the culture. On the contrary the people who are involved in Hip Hop are some of the most intellectual people in their community yet they are stigmatized because of stereotypes and racism.
In conclusion, Hip Hop is a struggle against oppression and only one example among many of the cultural styles pushed by entertainment and fashion industries, pulled by youth eager for the latest happening thing, and circulated by a wide range of media outlets eager to draw readers and to sell products. (Condry) The underground culture is doing everything in its' power to keep it real and authentic while the mainstream culture seeks to assimilate and destroy the underground culture to validate its' own existence. Thus the European American mainstream Hip Hop culture exploits, manipulates, and oppresses the African and Latino American Hip Hop culture so it can continue to capitalize off it's popularity and turn Hip Hop into a commodity. As emcee KRS-One once rapped, “understand that rap (hip hop) is a rebellious music therefore only the rebels should use it, the pop artist abuse it, when the audience hears real rap music they boo it, see rap music is a culture and every one outside that culture is a vulture, the vulture that makes money on the culture”, therefore the vultures most of the time are European American business men. The existence of dominant commercial concerns has meant that mainstream successes have almost invariably lacked Hip Hop's political, racial, and social consciousness, as well as being insensitive to many of the aesthetic principles such as vivid metaphors that are fundamental to the music.(Gladney) Underground Hip Hop will continue to empower its' people of color and educate them on who they can trust. They know as long as they continue to live in a system that is dominated by European American culture the light of their culture and other cultures will not shine as bright as they have the potential to. And inner city youth will continue to fight in the struggle for their rights and the rights of generations to come through what is called underground Hip Hop.