Coming Full Circle: How Hip-Hop Culture Has Become Its Own Worst Enemy
In 1994, rapper Common released a song entitled “I Used to Love H.E.R.” (H.E.R. meaning Hearing Every Rhyme), in which he blamed the degradation of hip hop on west coast gangsta rap, and compared it largely to the misogynistic view of women in society. In 2008, he released a track entitled “Announcement”, which featured the lyric: “I still love her she be needing a dick/when it comes to hip hop it is just me and my bitch”. Coming from someone once known as one of hip hop’s greatest thinkers and lyricists, these lyrics are not just surprisingly different from one another, but are also entirely contradictory, and representative of the two sides of hip hop culture and its mainstream impact on its artists and audience. Like all forms of popular culture and music, hip hop as a medium relies on its position between innovation and audience expectation; entertainment-hungry masses enjoy the reliability of established, yet condemn unoriginality. This fair-weather approach to marketing and consuming modern hip hop is the essence of the hypocrisy to be found in Common’s artistic message. Then again, an artist need not be constrained by a recurring ideology in all of their works – by all means, most great art and opinion is built on bordering contradictions. However, hip hop as a means of expression relies on identification with its audience, and thus its established grammar must be universal. Common insists on hearing and being heard; often this means compromising intellectual thought to be understood (or heard) by your audience. Hip Hop is an inclusive medium of entertainment, and as such, lacks a basic and consistent ideology in order to be as consumable and accessible for as many listeners as possible. What results is an art form that ends up being consumed largely as a product of The Other, losing its original message and intent in the process, which results in a vicious cycle between hip hop and its audience.
Hip hop is widely synonymous with youth. What is commonly regarded a view of so-called “urban” culture (which also hosts a larger range of stereotypical ethnic distinctions), hip hop and rap are moreso aligned with youthfulness in the societal consciousness. To be fair, this unmistakable perception of hip hop owes to its content as much as its form. Lyrical themes involving explicit male power fantasies of wealth, sexual dominance, and retribution go hand in hand with the greedy frustrations of its pubescent audience. However, this poses a major question: Does rap music and other traits of the hip-hop culture influence teens or merely mirror the culture that teens have created (Roach, 2004)? It is an incredibly difficult subject to answer, as both are engaged in a vicious cycle. Both youth and hip hop feed each other equally. As far as form goes, six digit production budgets and strongly manipulated imagery to accompany them, lend an attractive glitz for susceptible young listeners. All the passion a young person has for their preferred taste is largely dependant on the surface elements of the final art, and its imitative tendencies; in other words, it sounds like something else that sounds good. The good is the glitz, and the content beneath is only a substitute for justifying hip hop sound and imagery. It is good if it looks and sounds how it should. The so-called high art and high culture popularly classify hip hop for its base, and hostile vocabulary, yet mainstream hip hop is anything but liberal or revolutionary (however, independent and less commercially dependant artists have established hip hop as an excellent forum for radical and topical lyricism). Mainstream hip hop can be prickly, and even sinister (heightened by the predominant use of diminished chord patterns in the underlying beats), but it is more of an aggressive mission statement of gaining what the high culture elite currently posses. Herein lies the contradiction surrounding the ideology (or lackthereof) in modern commercial hip hop; the popular sentiment of “staying hood” haunts every popular hip hop artist. This down to earth, yet oddly rags-to-riches image is confusing for cultural analysts – remaining true to the various codes of honour and unwritten syntax of the street is a key principle in many songs, yet also is the accumulation of wealth, degrading the “weakened” (sexualized) role of women, and glamourization of violence (Jet, 2000). The folk sensibility of “staying hood” values community, established codes, and opposes the realities and injustices of the urban lifestyle. On the other hand (and often in the very next verse), leaving this “hood” and rising to the status of those would violate very community they were maintaining. The “hood” is a solely urban concept, but the aforementioned contradiction surrounding its status cannot allow hip hop’s cultural consumption to be termed urban. It is perceived as a product of youth because of this contradiction – after all, a child has no specific desires, save only one for everything. Mainstream hip hop’s prerogative is the desire for everything, as songs demonstrate a need for truth and community, as well as the material gain and self-interest that contradicts it. As a cultural product, hip hop is youth-oriented and is thus consumed as a reasonable expression of fantasy, enjoyment, and a smoothing over of the Catch-22 between segregation and capitalist gain.
There are more diverse facets and demographics than youth that make up hip hop’s primary market, a large part of which is race. Hip hop is culturally considered an African American art form, and while a big deal is made about the genre being a product of the supposedly race-less “urban” demographic, the subtext still revolves around matters of race, and an us vs. them sentiment. This is where inclusion comes into play. There is a give-and-take enjoyment factor that exists for listeners divided by an ethnic (and by extension classist and cultural) divide. A listener can derive enjoyment through identification as much as they can through subjectification; the former allows a listener to align themselves to the racial community being accepted by the lyrics and delivery, whereas the latter allows them project into the romantic world of another, previously exclusive racial community. Hip hop is largely successful because of this – black urban youth find it to be a highly relatable part of their culture, while suburban white youth glamourize the typical urban lifestyle (Roach, 2004). It would be short sighted and even ignorant to assume that class distinctions relate directly to the black and white divide (which also do not take into account the countless other ethnic communities that enjoy hip hop), but the recurring example of well-to-do white youths enjoying the “stay hood” down-to-earth, exciting and glamourized nature of inner-city lifestyles predominantly lived by a marginalized African American community, is not a far-off one. Much like the suburban youth in Chicago, white society use hip hop as a way in which to make a connection to black urban youth, completely ignoring the cultural significance and message that hip hop holds for black youth (Kotlowitz, 2000). Hip Hop, while basking in cultural images that are commonly directed towards an African American community (performed in large part by African American artists), is enjoyed by a diverse spectrum of ethnic demographics. Yet, this begs the question – is hip hop fundamentally black? The past decade has swerved cultural consumption away from this distinction (with help from Eminem, and to a lesser extent, Vanilla Ice), but only after the medium became popular in previously mentioned upper-middle class white demographics. Was white identification and subjectification with early hip hop the result of rebellious pubescence of white youth supported by a boring and unoriginal suburban upbringing? Or is it more likely that white, suburban youth wanted to make a ‘connection’ to a glamourized version of black urban youth, and found their music as a means to do so? Despite being sugar coated with popular race-isms of an inner city (West or East coast) commonality, modern mainstream rarely tackles subjects like racism and segregation head on. It more immediately reflects the mundane cultural and racial vocabulary already existing, rather than providing a commentary on it. This makes it even more difficult for hip hop to be appreciated as an art form with an underlying message, and easier to be consumed at face value as a product of The Other, without any thought being given to its original intent.
If hip hop is this superficial and shallow, where does its appeal come from? On a foundational level, hip hop is rhythmic and musically uncomplicated. It remains in a constant groove, adheres to the modern rock and roll verse/chorus structure, and its common and accessible lyrical performance takes priority over the mechanics of the underlying melodies. This is, obviously, not the case for all modern hip hop acts, but it is the standard for commercial hip hop. Hip hop does not require preparation, and even catching a song half way through does not detract from its overall feeling of wholeness. It is a medium of the immediate, where the sum of its parts is less important than its current verse. This “safe” lack of instrumental complexity allows it to be consumed more easily, and is more viable to be listened to without focus (in clubs, the radio, background songs for parties). On the other hand, hip hop existed as a genre that required its audience to listen and register the lyrics. Again, in a push to allow hip hop to be more inclusive and exist in as many forums as possible, the lyrical content of modern hip hop is repetitive, mumbled, and tackling even more obvious concepts, instead of being used as a lyrical tool for important messages of oppression and urban lifestyle.
A large portion of these arguments is based on what has become known as mainstream hip hop. However, it is unnecessary to demean the quality and artistic integrity of commercial work. There are commercial iterations of every major genre, yet lyrically, hip hop obsesses with the affluence that is only gained through commercial success. The language that has formed from being deliberately unheard has formed a hip hop genre in and of itself. Youth audiences are imaginative and impressionable; they are still concerned with the superficial elements that sparkle like new toys rather than the familiar and adult world of inherent meanings and truths. A large portion of mainstream hip hop’s target demographic is still highly impressionable, and even if they do not fully understand the words that are being used, they can understand the tone (Jet, 2000). Unfortunately, a large part of the messages now brought forth by hip hop artists are negative, focusing on the importance of getting rich, having nice cars, and mistreating women. Women are often objectified lyrically and visually. Racial slurs are frequently uttered as well, a way in which hip hop ironically degrades itself – the very kind of oppression that hip hop was supposed to fight against. Lastly, as Alex Kotlowitz explores in “False Connections”, The Other is consumed, not acknowledged. Hip hop is another means in which this is done; it is an important part of African-American culture and has significant meaning, but is now consumed by white society for its face mainstream value – lacking a powerful message, and predominantly as a way in which to make money. Hip hop is a glamorous genre, and often over exaggerated as a morally inept one. Misogyny is all over the place, and violence is justified, but this very capitalist genre of music is only as guilty as the institution it panders to. And that institution cannot get enough of it.
Is Hip-hop culture harming our youth?. (2000). Jet, Retrieved from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1355/is_26_98/ai_68018839/
Kotlowitz, A. (2000). False connections. The Consumer Society Reader, 253-258.
Roach, R. (2004). Decoding hip-hop’s cultural impact: scholars are poised to take a close look at the influence of hip-hop on the social identity, values of today’s youth. Black Issues In Higher Education, Retrieved from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0DXK/is_5_21/ai_n6146619/