Hip Hop as a Cultural Movement

2 February 2017

What first comes to mind nowadays when you hear the word ‘hip-hop’? Most people think of a gangster embellished in large diamonds, sporting baggy clothes, huge cars, all with a general disregard for the welfare of humanity. It wasn’t always like this: hip-hop was originally born as a recreational activity, used as an outlet to cope with poverty. The notion of hip-hop has clearly changed in a big way since the advent of hip-hop culture back in the 1970s.

Contrary to popular belief, hip-hop is truly a deep-rooted culture that has used rap music as its medium to appeal to its audiences. But time and time again, people have generally disregarded hip-hop as a cultural movement due to the violent themes and shock value contained within hip-hop’s rap music. Author William Perkins explains that in retrospect, no one has really taken the initiative to examine hip-hop’s intricacies, namely the roles it has played within cultures all around the world (vii). Not only that, but general criticism of rap only targets the surface of the culture; there is much more to a culture than just its music.

Hip Hop as a Cultural Movement Essay Example

Nevertheless, the reasons for its worldwide appeal go much deeper than the profanity and clothing styles that people see on the surface. Hip-hop is the cornerstone of self-expression, and it is also a culture that emphasizes racial, class, and gender value within a society. In this sense, hip-hop can be considered to be a genuine cultural movement despite the controversy because of its emphasis on self-expression and appeal to youth culture. A cultural movement is roughly defined as ‘a group of people working together to advance certain goals’.

But before we can fully understand what hip-hop culture is, we need to understand its history. In his article, writer Peter Katel traces the development of rap quite well. Created in the Bronx, hip-hop had began to make itself known in 1967, when DJs discovered rhythmic breaks in a record track, as rappers matched their lyrics to the beat, and created what we know now as hip-hop (Katel 538). Hip-hop especially appealed to the black teens of New York, and was defined into four main branches by a famous disc jockey named Kool Herc: DJing, breakdancing, graffiti, and rapping (Katel 538).

Although hip-hop was beginning to find its place within the Bronx, poverty plagued the Bronx neighborhoods. Author Jeff Chang reports, “…average per capita income dropped to $2,430…the youth unemployment rate hit 60 percent” (13). The entire community was pressured by financial problems; many people were looking for an emotional outlet for their stress. Since hip-hop culture was relatively new at the time, the curiosity of Bronx youth led them to explore just what this new culture was all about. While rap is clearly the most outspoken form of hip-hop, newcomers to the scene quickly took interest in at least one of the four elements.

As they continued to develop their skills, eventually the four elements all came together in the form of a ‘battle’. From previous experience, I have learned that battles are arenas where hip-hoppers face off against each other, competing to see who is better than the other through either breakdance or rap. Perkins defines a battle as a form of “ritualized insult” (16). But this form of competition was not hostile; in fact, battles like these promoted creativity and attitude, which appealed to the curiosity of Bronx youth.

Through hip-hop’s four elements, most notably rap, hip-hop’s followers found a way that helped them to cope with the problems in their society. But what is rap? Katel defines rap as “performance poetry, recited without accompaniment and known in its rap-spinoff form as ‘spoken word’…the clearest example of hip-hop culture extending itself beyond its turntable-spinning roots” (535). Rap generally represents the vocal side of hip-hop. Using rap as a form of expression, rap artists began to make themselves known around the world, drawing influences from life in the poverty stricken Bronx.

Perkins explains how rap’s focal point is self-expression through vocal means, through the poetic style that was used by famous rap artists such as Run DMC (10). Little did the hip-hop community know, this emphasis on self-expression would lead to a full-blown controversy. While hip-hop embodies self-expression as a whole, rap took the ideal and took it to a whole new level: a new form of rap music, ‘gangsta rap’, emerged as a byproduct of the individuality that hip-hop followers pride themselves on. Author Tricia Rose sums up this controversy by saying “a key aspect of much of the criticism that has been leveled at hip-hop is the laim that it glorifies, encourages, and causes violence” (34). Riddled with misogyny and violence, rap has come under fire from numerous critics saying that the music itself is socially inappropriate. Author Rachel Sullivan explains how these opinions and attitudes towards rap music created a public view of hip-hoppers as African American low-lifes, and how rap was blamed for supposedly generating a violent fan base (607). It doesn’t help the situation when rappers tend to revel in their ‘gangsta’ lifestyles.

As a response to general criticism, rap artists have used a term called ‘keeping it real’ to defend their music, saying that rap music refers to the hardships of street life in the Bronx community (Rose 134). But while the battle continued to rage on within the rap scene, others were forming their own opinions as well. Ironically, as the controversy grew, so did the success of commercialized rap. Sullivan points out this irony with a statistic of rap album sales in the states: “Billboard’s top 100 albums of April 11, 1998, included 13 rap albums, whereas Billboard’s top 100 albums of January 20, 2001, included 21 rap acts” (609).

As more and more debates about violent content began to pop-up, the rappers began to take different sides on the situation. Some rappers emphasized moral themes and racial pride in their songs, while others stubbornly stuck to the stereotype, producing rap with derogatory content and focusing on financial profit. Author Todd Boyd describes this conflict: within rap culture, there were now two different groups of rappers: the socially conscious group, and the gangsta rap group (51). Despite the controversy, rap’s influence can’t be ignored.

The main reason for the controversy surrounding hip-hop can be chalked up to one thing: a misunderstanding between cultures. While rap has been the target of criticism from around the world, most of them are so quick to bash rap for its content that they completely ignore hip-hop as a whole. Boyd explains that when dealing with hip-hop, critics tend to follow the ideas of other critics, leaving them with a shallow understanding of the culture itself (57-58). Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the fact that the derogatory content in modern rap cannot be denied, but I believe that it goes towards a greater purpose.

What people don’t realize is that hip-hop is essentially an extension of black culture, except in a much more visual and vocal form. However, if we took the time to understand hip-hop in context, maybe the motives behind rap music may become much more clear. Hip-hop’s evolution has been a process: the influence of its culture wasn’t something that was simply created overnight. Boyd gives an explanation of the evolution of rap backed by its hip-hop roots, through the tale of hip-hop mogul Nas, saying that the way he hasn’t changed the content of his lyrics reflects hip-hop’s immovability and unchanging message (90-93).

The history of rapper Nas can be used as a way to explain the motivations behind the hip-hop message. But there are reasons for the violence in rap music. Boyd explains that rappers draw influence from hip-hop’s history, and that this history provides a strong foundation for rappers to build from (88-89). In a way, hip-hop is trapped by its own violent history. But this same history is what allowed rap artists to go so far with their music and explains its commercial appeal to its audiences around the world.

The power of language is the powerful driving force that gave rap its much-needed momentum to make hip-hop known in American society. Rap essentially tells a story of hip-hop life, and author Geneva Smitherman explains how rap lyrics represent the Black language style, which is “often woven into a narrative” (12). Most of rap comes from its roots in black history, and draws upon earlier works from that history. Smitherman explains this practice called ‘sampling’, which takes samples of beats in songs created in the past and puts them unchanged into a new song with different lyrics (16).

This recycling of song material creates songs that are both new and old, a trend of which still continues today. In fact, much of this sampling plays a key role in preserving the true nature of hip-hop culture: since the culture’s outspoken quality, rap, has not changed dramatically, its initial purpose is still intact. Smitherman goes on to say that rap has saved certain rap artists from a life on the street and has given them another chance in society (21). But as hip-hop continues to be commercially successful, most cultures have not taken the time to understand hip-hop and the motives behind the lyrics.

Not only has hip-hop expanded its ideals as a culture, but also the backbone of its success was the diversity of culture that hip-hop drew its influence from. Author Robert Thompson explains this when he says that being in the Bronx during the early days of hip-hop was to be part of a diverse, multicultural experience (Perkins 214). Generally, rap music is a reflection of black culture: the spirit and cultural energy that black culture exudes is a key factor in the commercialization of hip-hop, as he culture’s defiant nature fueled the hip-hop phenomena.

Smitherman also agrees with this when she says that hip-hop is a “resistance culture” (7). Smitherman also emphasizes that many of the themes promoted in hip-hop directly reinforce resistance against white racism and pressures from foreign culture’s influences (7). This social defiance fueled the individuality that followers of hip-hop admired, and contributed to its worldwide appeal. Contrary to popular belief, the music itself can be considered to be a hip-hop education.

Although rap artists tend to lean towards violent themes in their music this seemingly socially irresponsible approach sends out a message, although it may not seem so. Rose explains that rap’s daringness to talk about issues of sex and race is a way of speaking out to society, but hip-hop itself is quickly criticized for being too daring (8). If hip-hop were to not speak up about these things, then who would? Rose also says that hip-hop has become a way to spread their life story for rappers, with music as one of the only forms of media that allows it (135). With their music, rap artists carry with them a focus on identity.

In this sense, the rap itself is an extension of the culture: since the rappers themselves may not be able to travel, they are using their music as a medium to convey their message to the outside world. But who is the main audience for such a message? Surprisingly, the main demographic of the rap audience happens to be white adolescents. Drawn in by the shock value of gangsta rap, these kids began to attune themselves to the gangsta life, dressing in similar clothes, using the same slang, and listening to rap; things that were seen as ‘cool’ by their peers. But what effect does rap truly have on its audience?

Sullivan did a study on this, finding that “many young African Americans appear to be looking at rap for its messages about life and its aesthetically pleasing sound, yet Whites seem to be listening because of the aesthetically pleasing sound” (616). Unlike what critics have been saying about rap’s promotion of violence and the influence on its listeners, this is not necessarily the case. Rose explains this form of appeal to violence when she says “it makes rappers more accessible, more reflective of some of the lived experiences and conditions that shape the lives of some of their fans” (38).

Unfortunately, violence is an inseparable part of hip-hop culture. Think about it: if rap artists were to eliminate violence from their music, it would no longer be classified hip-hop. We live in an era of violence; the cartoons kids watch, the movies we see, the music we hear on the radio, all of it usually contains violence in some way or form. But Rose explains that hip-hop uses violence to garner public attention, using violence as a selling tool to spread its message (41-42).

But despite the fact that the hip-hop has been adopted by audiences around the world, hip-hop’s influence has not been fully realized by the public and is still not seen a genuine culture. Hip-hop is a formidable force as both a bustling industry and a culture. Rappers serve to satisfy hip-hop’s goal of self-expression through its various elements that encompass individuality and a taste of black culture. The effects of hip-hop culture cannot be denied, as it is evident in the clothing styles and words of worldwide youth.

Most of all, hip-hop is a genuine cultural movement due to its strong multicultural backing and the momentum of its influence. It makes one wonder how something as simple as poetry was able to have such a huge impact on our society. Not only has hip-hop caused us to reevaluate our positions on violence and black culture, it has raised awareness of other issues dealing with social identity and the roles we play in our society. and But even as hip-hop continues to generate controversy, the message contained in rap lyrics is still going strong.

But instead of harshly criticizing hip-hop, we should embrace it, so that we can better understand its intentions and true meaning. Even to this day, through the driving force of its music, hip-hop’s influence continues to spread across the globe and expand as a culture, and currently shows no signs of slowing down.

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