With the rise of hip hop as a money making institution, the genre may be losing touch with its roots.
If you were not already aware, afford me the opportunity of informing you that 2014 was a pretty terrible year for race relations in the USA. Now, I’m not here to debate or scrutinize the painfully familiar cases that have stained our memories; you have undoubtedly heard somebody else talk about them, because nobody lives in a hole that deep in the ground. But what I do want to talk to you about is the ever-changing landscape of the black experience in America, and how the largest institution of race relations in the country is reflecting these changes. This is an institution that, according to Jay-Z’s interview on Oprah’s Master Class, has “done more than any cultural icon.” An institution that Forbes says generates more than $10 billion in revenue annually. That institution is hip-hop. Now, being a white boy from a predominantly Jewish Montreal suburb, this is a tough question to answer… but does hip-hop truly represent the black experience in America anymore? Lately, it seems like the whole world has been arguing over what hip-hop is. And more importantly, what it is not.
A hip-hop song, like every other genre of music, is the result of an artist’s perspective. The imagery that hip-hop evokes continues to be shaped by the trials, tribulations and triumphs of a culture whose history in the United States has been resoundingly disadvantageous. Historically, hip-hop music has earned a strong reputation for illustrating themes of poverty, violence and drug trafficking; Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest recently clarified the definition of hip-hop on Twitter as an “artistic and socio-political movement/culture that sprang from the disparate ghettos” of New York in the ‘70s. It was for this reason that we have legitimized hip-hop as an art form: at some point, it captured the realities faced by black America.
Now, recently there’s been a growing dialogue as to whether that’s still the case. I can name at least five different interviews in the past couple months off the top of my head that have touched on the burgeoning racial tension in hip-hop. These conversations have brought particular attention to corporate America, and how the sound of hip-hop has been affected by its effort to continually monetize its most prominent figures and themes. If hip-hop’s legitimacy as an art form is assured by its capacity to portray the black experience, then I think it’s logical to make an assumption that the sound of hip-hop should have undergone some sort of audible transfiguration in its response to the bruising that the black body is currently suffering. I wonder if people—like Macklemore, or Azealia Banks, or J. Cole—have arrived at the same, depressing conclusions that I have after I asked myself this next question: can we even expect hip-hop to capture the experiences of Black America as an art form if it is subject to corporate America’s presentation of it as a product? Because I am so damn curious.
No form of music can be defined beyond who is performing, and how they perform it. Traditionally, hip-hop was defined by black people performing about, well, mostly black situations. As we have come to acknowledge, hip-hop was an emotional release, cathartic in its illustrations of gun violence and poverty, symptoms of the grim economic circumstances that plagued several corners of the black community from which the genre eventually emerged. But does the prevalence of these themes in commercial hip-hop music continue to reflect the black American experience today? J. Cole voiced his concerns in an interview with Power 105: “If you really take another listen to what’s being played right now, what’s being said, it don’t represent us no more … or I don’t know if it ever did … or if it just really represented what could be sold, and what could be marketed and what could be pushed.”
Considering that Neighborhood Scout placed the three most deadly neighbourhoods in America in 2013 in Detroit, where 80 per cent of its residents are black, or in Chicago, where the police department’s official online records estimate that three out of four homicide victims are black, it’s just frankly untrue of Cole to think that the discussion of gun violence in hip-hop music no longer provides even a marginal portrayal of the modern Black American experience. And if hip-hop never represented black people in America, as Cole described, why do so many listeners consider the political outspokenness of musicians like KRS – One or Public Enemy, both of whom enjoyed great commercial success, as one of the quintessential features defining hip-hop’s golden era? Forest Hills Drive, J. Cole’s third studio album, went gold within two weeks of its release. And while he is complaining about how there should be more artists in the commercial hip-hop scene who rap like him, the obnoxiousness of Cole’s message is eclipsed by the nobility of his theories and ideas on why the commercial hip-hop scene is lacking a brand of lyricism that paints different pictures of the black experience in America. Pictures that stand for a significantly greater share of the black community, beyond the likeness of what we have come to expect from Chief Keef’s or Bobby Shmurda’s music.
What J. Cole brings to our attention is how familiar these topics within the commercial hip-hop scene really are, how accustomed to this dialogue that we, as an audience, have grown, and what role, if any, the music industry has played in perpetuating these themes of destruction.
Stay tuned for part II of this discussion in next week’s paper.