At the onset of the 1970s, America was reeling. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 were juxtaposed beside a lingering war in Vietnam, crippling poverty in many of America’s urban areas, and a climate of racial animus. Politically, the country was vulnerable; Lyndon Johnson, oft-disheveled by war, rounded out the 1960s and was succeeded by Richard Nixon to begin the 1970s. Economically, the country was feeble. Postwar gains in the economy were short-lived, inflation and unemployment rose to record heights, and consumer optimism plummeted. Socially, the country was volatile. The Black Panther Party pressed for equality along racial lines, the Women’s Liberation Movement pushed for gender equality, and social stratification between economic classes grew to unseen levels. This was the crucible in which Hip Hop music was birthed. A perfect storm of sorts occurred—a full-scale hurricane of economic, social, and political plight—at a time ripe for the emergence of a tool for self-expression. Hip Hop music filled that void.
On the east coast, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and other areas highly-populated by African Americans, were essentially quarantined from the rest of America. The practice of redlining—that is, the intentional drawing of districts designed to deprive certain groups of resources—stifled residents in the inner city. It was the struggle endured by these residents, and the harsh realities to which they were exposed, that propelled Hip Hop from the 1970s on. Kurtis Blow, KRS-One, Run DMC, Eric B. and Rakim, and Grandmaster Flash—all deified in Hip Hop history—came of age in the 1970s, and they defined Hip Hop for all of eternity. They defined Hip Hop as a window through which one can view the world; even its most vile, deplorable, sickening realities.
Per these men, if one finds chauvinism in Hip Hop, it is because a society is chauvinistic; if one finds misogyny in Hip Hop, it is because a society is misogynistic; if one finds violence in Hip Hop, it is because a society is violent. The ancestors of the genre passed on to their descendents a sense of truth and a sense of virtue; they mandated that words expressed through this music not be reflective of some nonexistent universe, but instead, of the realities before us all. Hip Hop is a demonstration of the beauty, the insecurity, the ugliness, the danger, and the compassion of the world in which we live. Yet, while our Hip Hop ancestors gave us sermons on love, poverty, lust, family, brutality, and racism, they also understood the genre’s aim to entertain. It is unfortunate, then, that the words of our Hip Hop ancestors have been misconstrued, spawning a false dichotomy between what is and is not “real Hip Hop” and what is and is not socially “destructive.”
Throughout its history, Hip Hop has been the scapegoat for all things wrong with society. From White Houses to white houses, from Black churches to Black barbershops, Hip Hop has been panned—sometimes for conveying reality, and other times for conveying fantasy. This paradox has the dangerous potential to undermine all art. What would have become of Jean-Michel Basquiat had his abstract pieces been cast aside because they didn’t portray “realistic” images of the human body? What would have become of Edvard Munch had The Scream been denied its rightful place in art history, simply because it was not a “realistic” image of man? What would have become of Picasso— of Al Loving—of Raymond Saunders; what would have become of Van Gogh? Art not being “real enough” has never sufficed as criticism, because art was has never been confined to reality. Art has often been used throughout history as a means to escape reality—a means to explore places where the feet and eyes could not travel, but the mind could. Hip Hop is art. And if we subject it to harsh criticism merely because it does not satisfy our definition of reality, it will disappoint us always. But if we can view Hip Hop as a conduit for self-expression—not a parent, not a community leader, not a teacher—she will deliver precisely what we’ve ordered.