Examining Hip-Hop Culture
Since hip-hop emerged from the South Bronx in the 1970s, it has become an international, multi-billion-dollar phenomenon. It has grown to encompass more than just rap music—hip-hop has created a culture that incorporates ethnicity, art, politics, fashion, technology and urban life.
While keeping much of its original fan base, hip-hop music and culture have become popular among mainstream consumers—particularly suburban youth. Some believe that as commercial and “gangsta” rap emerged, so did lyrics that glorify drugs, violence and misogyny. Many artists who choose, instead, to feature socially conscious and politically oriented lyrics are considered alternative or underground.
Socially Conscious Rap
“It became underground versus commercial, and they put us in a box, me and Mos Def and a lot of artists doing what we was doing. And you would see underground and conscious in front of our names as a prefix, but it would almost be like tongue in cheek. It would almost be like, ‘Well, it’s that corny underground stuff.’ You know what I’m saying? It wasn’t said in a way that was respectful in a lot of ways, and in the same way that people would talk negative about gangsta rap and not really understand what its roots are.
“So I saw the need to break those walls and those barriers down in interviews. So anytime someone referred to me as underground and conscious, you know, I’ll wear it, because I am conscious about what I say and do, but I would make the distinction and let them know that I do the same thing as these other brothers. It’s just a different part of the spectrum, and I try to celebrate the similarities between me and other artists when people try to divide me with it.”
“Well, personally, all rap is socially conscious. The concept of rap itself is socially conscious. But the real difference between socially conscious rap and, I guess, another expression would be the personality of the person his or herself. It’s not enough to just rap about socially conscious issues. The question is, ‘Are you a socially conscious person?’ So even though your rap may be something that is questionable or controversial or thuggish in nature, but you could still be a socially conscious person and use the resources that you gain in one arena to help out in another.”
“I’m very honored to be labeled as conscious, even though I never wanted a label. But just to be called conscious, initially, I was like oh, they trying to box me in. They kind of separating me from the everyday street people. But then, after a while, it was like you know what? I am a conscious artist, ’cause consciousness is about awareness, and just being aware.
“And also when I look at conscious artists throughout history, you could think about Bob Marley, you think about Marvin Gaye, you could think about Stevie Wonder, KRS-One. People that spoke consciousness in the music.
“And if I can go down anywhere close to them brothers as being a conscious artist, then I’ll be very grateful. So I’m happy being a conscious dude, you dig?”
Representation of Women
“[The Spelman student protesters] were saying that some of my videos were degrading towards women, which is a controversy because I don’t really see it like that. As far as what we did, we got adult women, we went to the clubs. You know, I’ve been to nightclubs. I’ve been to adult dance clubs. We portrayed what some would consider a bachelor party. Everybody’s been to ’em. Every guy’s been to ’em. Every guy wants to go to ’em. I didn’t see it as degrading.
“We were there on the campus to hold a bone marrow drive, there to save lives, and I just thought that their timing, to pick that opportunity right there to make a statement when the school is 8 blocks away from a strip club. Why aren’t they out in front of the strip clubs picketing? They have several students attending their schools that also dance at these clubs, and they didn’t make any reference or try to go to any of these students and talk to ’em.
“I just feel if you really wanna get the roots out of your grass, don’t cut it at the top. Dig down; you know what I’m saying? Dig down deep and pull it from the bottom if you really wanna get this situation resolved. I just think they took a shot at me at a vulnerable situation.
“I think we do have some instances where some people push the limits, you know, but that’s in everything. Some people push the limits on daytime television. Some people push the limits in movies. Some people push the limits in sports and athletics, you know. We push limits.
“I don’t really think that anyone is really out to demean women. I know, I’m not, considering 85% of my fans are women. If they thought I was doing something demeaning towards them, they wouldn’t support Nelly the way they do. I give women more credit than I think a lot of people do. I think they’re definitely smart enough to say, well, this brother is doing this on purpose. He’s out to hurt us, and he’s not participating in anything in the community. He’s not trying to help sisters at all. He belittles his mother and all the women around him, which is not true.
“You know, the precious thing in my life is my daughter. I have an 11-year-old daughter, and she loves her daddy. And she’s never seen the video that a lot of these people were [protesting]. Now, how is it that I’m on the road the majority of my time, and I can stop my kids from seeing a video when you can’t, and you’re at home all the time?”
LL Cool J
“The criticism I would give is that there’s room for more love in the music. And there’s room for better treatment of women in the music. It’s interesting, I made songs about women my whole career, and love and relationships, and I did that before I had daughters.
“So it’s not like my daughters caused that. But as a guy who has three daughters in addition to a son, when I look at the way the girls are treated in the video, it’s not that I don’t wanna see somebody look sexy. Please. It’s not like I don’t think a woman can be in a bikini, that’s ridiculous.
“But sometimes, it’s the way they’re treated and the way they’re constantly portrayed that can be a little disappointing. I think that a woman has the right to look at this music and look at the videos and be inspired to be something more than just one thing. And I think that’s the only thing that I see as a problem.
“That, and just there’s room for more love. I think a little less anger, a little more love; I think the music would be a lot healthier. I think it’s just a little one-sided now.”
Dr. Gail Wyatt
“[The myth that black women are highly sexual] is just as vibrant today as it was 200, 500 years ago. And these myths are over 500 years old, literally. They started in the 16th century, and their vibrancy and their potency has not changed. In fact, we have so many young hip-hop artists and movie stars that emulate that very same image of the she-devil, the woman who’s not sexually responsible, who’d bare her clothes in some other format, but certainly not on her body, and that her self-worth is defined by how much of her body she can show.
“And this has a lot to do with why people don’t take seriously when we become infected with HIV and AIDS or sexually transmitted infections or if our unintended pregnancy birthrates are high. They just assume we’ve just done something wrong.”
Hip-hop’s white audience
“Well, rap music, and I will say hip-hop culture in and of itself, but rap music as its calling card, offers to young white males a sense of rebellion, freedom, manhood, courage. That’s what it means when you see a 50 Cent or Snoop Dogg or someone on television just blatantly defying the law and doin’ what they’re doin’.
“No one sees the thug and the criminal. They see courage. They see, ‘This is my chance to wile out and be rebellious in the form of music.’ Sort of, like, a video game kind of thing. Release certain tension through the fighting of some violent games on your PlayStation.”
“I think parents want to know why their kids are up in their room listening to Eminem. It’s the same thing as the parent who’s like, ‘Don’t watch Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show because I don’t like the way he swivels his hips.’ It’s just like a different generation. And I think that’s why kids love it—because their parents don’t like it, but also because their parents don’t understand it. Parents don’t even understand what they’re saying, most of those hip-hop songs. And it’s like a thing that kids can have to themselves.”
“I think that we’re playing a game of racial politics when we say that white kids buy most rap music. It’s suggesting that the buying power of young African Americans is not as substantial as it is.
“I think the other thing that it’s doing is it’s helping to create a comfort zone for people who want to do business with the music industry, and so it’s clear to me that the audience of white kids has been partially manufactured by the music industry. Look at the concert attendance, how that’s shifted, which is in some cases more radical than the buying audience. Record executives were the ones who first began to say that white kids were buying most hip-hop.”
“It’s not just an American thing anymore. It’s a worldwide thing. It’s on every commercial; from wherever you go, you can see it in the world. And then another thing that we’re responsible for is that we actually are bridging that gap tighter and tighter on the racism, because my nephews, who range from, like, 10 to 15, they don’t look at white/black the way you and I, our parents [do]. It’s shifted. They look at it like, ‘What are y’all talking about? Who cares?’ You know. And that’s because of hip-hop, because MTV’s playing all of it. BET’s playing, you know, white and black videos. And it’s a beautiful thing to see because of the culture.”
“I got into hip-hop to change my life. I come from the streets, so I was able to make a change. I think it’s bad when you got kids get into hip-hop to want to be bad. Most people that’s on the street, they want a better life. And that’s what me and my friends—we definitely wanted a better life. A thing that makes hip-hop bad is the kids that in it for the glorified, the bad side of it, because they never really lived like that, and they’ll be around with millions of bodyguards and stuff, but they’re not living like that. So these kids out in the real world don’t understand that, so they glorify it.”