"It's Bigger Than Hip-Hop": Hip-Hop as Politics by Dana Williams


"Not until you listen to Rakim
on a rocky mountaintop
have you heard hip-hop”

- Saul Williams, “Twice The First Time”

“The revolution will not be televised...
The revolution will be no re-run, brothers
The revolution will be live.”

- Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”


“Hip-hop” does not just mean “rap”. Hip-hop is actually an entire culture, attitude, and perspective that attempts to link the following aspects: MC’ing (i.e. rapping) as the vocal communication, DJ’ing as the music, breakdancing as the dance, and graffiti as the written communication. It has its roots in America’s poorest of the poor inner city areas, like the Bronx in New York City. With the downfall of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, hip-hop formed to organically fill a void for young people, allowing them to create a cultural expression and meaningful existence all their own.

What it is

Hip-hop serves to provide a means of expression to those without any means. Corporate control over the mass media, stifling economic “opportunities”, and a repressive police and legal system essentially mandates working outside the mainstream parameters for many people.

MC’ing is nothing more but the present-day version of an ages-old tradition of oral storytelling. DJ’ing and breakdancing both recognize that all societies have emphasized music and dance as a form of cultural celebration and unity. In essence, hip-hop is a synthesis of culture and oppression, and it is liberatory in nature.

In many ways hip-hop culture is akin to punk rock culture. Both formed as an outgrowth of youth-apathy-turned-rebellion. Punk rock has its culture of anti-authoritarianism, skateboarding, a strong DIY (do it yourself) ethic, and the like. Both youth cultures were anchored in musical expression (rap and punk), and they started out by talking about what was most important to them at the time, in a somewhat politically-neophyte fashion. There was always an undercurrent of politically-charged lyricism to both, yet it was more rhetorical and less focused.

Then, in 1987, came Public Enemy. Political rap music would never be the same again. Coming out of Long Island, NY, Public Enemy attacked the rap world and the rest of America with a vengeance with their incredibly dense and chaotic sound. By their 2nd album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy was tearing into social ailments of all sorts: the mass media, TV addiction, prison rebellion, the music industry, and Black liberation. With their Black nationalist and pro-Nation of Islam twist, Public Enemy seemed on the verge of reincarnating the ghosts of Malcolm X and Huey Newton. A slew of socially conscious hip-hoppers followed: EPMD, Boogie Down Productions, and Run-D.M.C.

However, capitalist America was quick to catch up with hip-hop (about the same time it did with punk rock). Like everything that is culturally valuable, “the market” will exploit it as a commodity, water it down to its most basic form, and twist its values to support American-style capitalism. By the early 1990s, the record industry picked up on the “gangsta rap” sound. Popularized by NWA (Niggas Wit Attitude), its spin-off members (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy E), and other West Coast rappers, gangsta rap was further perverted by the music industry and pimped as the “bright, shining future of hip-hop”. Whereas older “gangsta rappers” like Ice Cube and Ice-T occasionally rapped about socially conscious topics interspersed with tales of ghetto life (hear “Us” and “Escape From the Killing Fields” respectively), the new school eschewed all social and political issues, and delved into a glorification of the gang violence, misogyny, gun culture, and drug-dealing/money-making that plagues inner cities all over the US.

Even though many rappers only hold a mirror up to the world around them and no more glorify violence than they retell it, the perpetual emphasis upon the individualistic, “money making” mentality began killing hip-hop. In evaluating this trend we should ask, what is the difference between the cooption of rap by Master P and Jay Z, and the cooption of punk rock by Blink 182 and Green Day? What used to be dangerous to mainstream America and the status quo has been sanitized (by good ‘ole fashioned American values), homogenized, and exploited all over the airwaves, MTV, and pop culture, all for the “benefit” of our nation’s youth. Today, the average teen has no better idea who Public Enemy is than who the Minutemen were. That heightened consciousness and activism has been reduced to a world of “doggy-dogisms” and low rider cars (or now SUVs).

What it means

When a cultural expression becomes nothing more than another product to sell, the wisdom and frustration that created it begins to die. But, hip-hop was not about to go away and die quietly. Too many politically aware people were and are involved in hip-hop for that to happen. Michael Franti and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Arrested Development, The Coup, KRS-One (from Boogie Down Productions), and Paris (who recently wrote one of the best songs about the so-called “War on Terrorism”) surged to the forefront of political rap at this time. Even these popular figures are only the tip of the iceberg (and only represent the moderately commercially viable elements in hip-hop); many rappers of political flare remain relatively unknown outside of their own communities, playing obscure and infrequent shows at house parties (not unlike the careers of many unknown punk bands who toil away at dank and badly lit venues for years).

William Upski, a graffiti writer from Chicago and author of Bomb the Suburbs, notes four general trends of hip hop politics: the Black nationalism of Public Enemy, the leftism of Disposable Heroes, the conservatism of TRQ, and the feminism of Queen Latifah (Upski, 95). But Upski says that hip-hop defies these easy classifications and asserts that it is vital for hip-hop to approach subjects from the perspective of the DJ—sample from all directions—and the best solution will eventually become apparent.

The general political orientation of hip-hop has usually veered away from conservative influence (except in the case of gangsta rap and the MTV-crowd). Thus, we are left with an emphasis on collective uplift, self-determination, autonomy, and social justice. This has embodied itself in songs by the Disposable Heroes ranting about US foreign policy and offering one of the first defenses of homosexuals in the hip-hop world, Digable Planets rapping about being pro-choice and freeing political prisoners, and Paris taking on the entire White-power structure and specifically (the first) George Bush who he charged with abandoning the needs of Black people.

In last few years, I’ve seen at least two shining examples of political hip-hoppers who have captured the imaginations of many: revolutionary rappers dead prez and a song featuring a rap by Sarah Jones. dead prez’s album called Lets Get Free attacked every problem they could see: decaying public schools, the police state, prisons, socially-devoid hip-hop, political assassinations, and flat-out racism. In the vacuum of these problems, they offered up true solutions, and in more ways than one likening themselves to the Black Panthers: emphasizing true intimacy in relationships and not just sex, healthy diets, prioritizing life, taking charge of communities, not allowing “leaders” to arise who will control others, and striving for united freedom. In fact, the cover art to their album speaks volumes to their intensity: impoverished-looking African youth with rifles raised above their heads in unison.

Sarah Jones, a “spoken-word artist” (some deride this term as pompous) who presently does not have her own album out, attained notoriety when her one recorded song with DJ Vadim (from USSR: Life From The Other Side, Ninja Tune Records) was played by a Portland, Oregon college radio station and received an FCC fine. Apparently, the FCC deemed Jones’ song to be “obscene”, even though the song was a harsh denouncement of the sexism rampant in much of commercial hip-hop (think a less-profane version of Above The Law’s “Freedom of Speech”). In this song called “Your Revolution” Jones rapped: “Your revolution will not happen between these thighs... your revolution ain’t gonna knock me up without no ring and produce little future MCs... or [have] me giving up my behind, just so I can signed and have someone else write my rhymes / I’m Sarah Jones not Foxy Brown... the real revolution will not be you shaking and me (moan) faking between these thighs”. Although the songs contained none of the so-called “Seven Dirty Words”, it mocked others’ macho sexual innuendo with a witty and sarcastic feminist analysis.

Not only African-Americans have embraced the sounds of hip-hop, but also Latinos, Asian-Americans, Whites, and—perhaps most importantly to those on the Great Plains—Native-Americans. Julian B stands a shining example with his debut release Injunuity (Commodity Records) that blends traditional Native sounds and samples with a clear message of spirituality, culture, and politics of Native life. He is at his most ferocious while defending the legacy of one of the US’s most famous of political prisoners (perhaps on par with Mumia Abu-Jamal), in a song called “Free Peltier”.

What it really means

If you want to hear real hip-hop, don’t go shopping at Sam Goody or Wal-Mart. Don’t watch MTV or VH1. As with anything in the world—especially in art and music—the most political and creative things are to be found at the grassroots level; poetry slams, open mic sessions, your local subway station, anti-prison-building rallies, etc. Find that great music out on small, unheard of record labels, hear it playing on late-night college radio stations, read about it (and hear it) in back issues of the now defunct Blu magazine, hear it blasting on stereos in front of small grocery stores in America’s inner cities.

Hip-hop is by its nature political, since it represents the frustrations, aspirations, and creativity of huge tracts of America’s disenfranchised. To merely exist in an assembly line-produced culture such as this is itself a political feat. The lyrics are the sounds of dissent and the beats are the raised fists.

The culture of hip-hop will always be broader than just those who listen to rap music and those who wear baggy pants. Just as some argue for expanding our conventional definitions of punk rock to include artists like Billy Bragg or Ani DiFranco, so we should also strive to expand our interpretations of what hip-hop means and how it should be used as a tool for the collective improvement of our generation.

So, who is “hip-hop”? Well, if we have a beat and rhythm in our hearts, and want to create a new world within the shell of the old, hip-hop is all of us.


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