How Capitalism Underdeveloped Hip Hop: A People's History of Political Rap (Part 2 of 2)

Derek Ide I Social Movement Studies I Analysis I June 4th, 2013

Disclaimer: The language expressed in this article is an uncensored reflection of the views of the artists as they so chose to speak and express themselves. Censoring their words would do injustice to the freedom of expression and political content this article intends to explore. Therefore, some of the language appearing below may be offensive to personal, cultural, or political sensibilities.

West Coast Projects, the Rise of Gangsta Rap, and Congress's War on the Youth

Gangsta Rap burst forth in its nascent form in the late 1980's in the heart of Los Angeles. To comprehend how this subgenre of rap developed, however, the ruthless conditions which originally produced the gang epidemic must be recognized. Institutionalized racial segregation, economic deprivation, and social degradation, enforced by hegemonic government and business structures, had historically plagued communities of color in the area and produced a distinct history which would give rise in the 1980's to a prodigious spike in gang activity and violence. Historically marginalized groups would be pitted against one another in despondent economic conditions and forced to compete amongst themselves for the paltry scraps that fell from society's table. Government departments, banking agencies, and the real estate industry would play into the game of get-rich-quick racial segregation. Redlining, the practice of denying or increasing costs of housing and insurance to economically segregate communities along racial lines, played a fundamental role in the homogenous racial composition of west coast urban areas. In 1938, the Federal Housing Administration released an underwriting manual which all lenders were forced to read, explaining that areas should be investigated in order to determine "the probability of the location being invaded" by "incompatible racial and social groups" and, more importantly, that for a "neighborhood is to retain stability" it must "be occupied by the same social and racial classes" because a change in these would lead to "instability and a decline in values." [1] Some entrepreneurs "figured out how to hustle racial fear" [2] by buying at low prices from whites fleeing their homes and selling to blacks at prices significantly higher than market level. This effectively kept blacks and whites segregated into different neighborhoods.

After World War II, public housing projects were constructed, giving Watts the highest concentration of public housing on the West Coast. [3] Combined with this historic segregation, the 1980s brought with it "deindustrialization, devolution, Cold War adventurism, the drug trade, gang structures and rivalries, arms profiteering, and police brutality" which would combine to "destabilize poor communities and alienate massive numbers of youth." [4] In the same decade 131 manufacturing plants closed their doors, Los Angeles's official unemployment was at 11 percent in 1983 and in South Central youth unemployment was over 50 percent, one quarter of Blacks and Latinos lived below the poverty line, and living conditions had drastically declined. [5] Even when gangs attempted to make peace and establish long-standing treaties with one another, no infrastructure was in place to maintain stable communities with jobs and social services. In fact, when the leaders from seven rival gangs called a truce and marched to City Hall to request funding for social services, they were told they could apply for a paltry $500 grant. [6] This denial was on top of the conservative economic agenda dominating the political domain at the time which had already cut spending on subsidized housing by 82 percent, job training and employment by 63 percent, and community service and development programs by 40 percent from post-World War II era progressive spending policies. [7]

It was within these conditions that by the 1980s, after the dismantling of political organizations such as the Black Panthers and Young Lords, 155 gangs would claim over 30,000 members across the city. [8] Gangsta rap, as it was labeled, would attempt to articulate, and in some instances glorify, the street life so common in Los Angeles. Immortal Technique points out that a "factoid of information probably purposely forgotten through the years is that before it was labeled 'Gangsta Rap' by the industry itself it was called 'Reality Rap' by those individuals that created it." [9] Political prisoner and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal explains that the music was spawned by young people whom felt "that they are at best tolerated in schools, feared on the streets, and almost inevitably destined for the hell holes of prison. They grew up hungry, hated and unloved. And this is the psychic fuel that seems to generate the anger that seems endemic in much of the music and poetry." [10] This anger would shine through on tracks such as "Straight Outta Compton" by N.W.A., where rapper Ice Cube explains that he's "From the gang called Niggaz With Attitudes" and "When I'm called off, I got a sawed off, squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off!" [11]

Their rhymes signified a shift from the revolutionary programs set forth by previous political rappers and instead focused on a complete self-indulgence in instant gratification; drugs, women, the murder of enemies and assassination of police, everything was fair game. It was N.W.A.'s track entitled "Fuck tha Police," released in 1988, which garnered national media attention. The rather prophetic song would become a universal slogan in ghetto communities just four years later with the police beating of Rodney King and subsequent urban uprisings. Disgusted with the police brutality they witnessed regularly, N.W.A. would take up the issue, not politically, but with an individual vengeance and wrath previously unmatched. Beginning with fictitious court hearing in which "Judge Dre" would preside "in the case of NWA versus the police department," the "prosecuting attorneys" MC Ren, Ice Cube, and Eazy E would each lay out their case against the Los Angeles Police Department. Ice Cube's opening lines, brimming with unparalleled virulence, would set the tone: "Fuck the police comin' straight from the underground, young nigga got it bad cuz I'm brown, and not the other color so police think, they have the authority to kill a minority." Reminiscent of Paris's earlier fantastical verbal assassination of President Bush, MC Ren would warn police "not to step in my path" because "Ren's gonna blast," and, turning the tables, he confidently proclaims his hatred towards the police "with authority, because the niggas on the street is a majority." Eazy E finishes the last verse, emphasizing that fact that cops should not be perceived as immune to violent resistance: "Without a gun and a badge, what do ya got? A sucka in a uniform waitin' to get shot." [12] The controversy revolving around this song would push the album it was featured on, Straight Outta Compton, to double platinum status. By June of 1989, the right-wing backlash against N.W.A. would be front page news, an entertainment manifestation of the "War on Gangs" which L.A. Police Chief Darryl Gates had already brought to South Central.

The atmosphere of late 1980's was dictated by punitive measures explicitly directed at youth and relentless attacks on youth culture. The Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act was passed in 1988 and enhanced punishments for "gang-related offenses," created "new categories of gang crimes," and gave up to three years in state prison for even claiming gang membership. [13] This piece of legislation had profoundly harmful repercussions for youth who identified with, or even may have displayed certain characteristics of, being involved with a gang; police considered any combination of two of the following examples to constitute gang membership: "slang, clothing of a particular color, pagers, hairstyles, or jewelry." [14] Within a decade most major cities and at least nineteen states had similar laws. [15] The crossover into what became a congressional attack on Gangsta rap was facilitated by opportunistic politicians who pounced excitedly on the chance:

Tipper Gore, the wife of former vice president Al Gore, and Susan Baker, the wife of Bush's former campaign manager, James Baker, formed Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) which called for, and received, a congressional hearing on record labeling. Every song listed by the PMRC and presented at the congressional hearing as being too explicit and obscene and in need of censorship labeling was done by a Black artist. [16]

While politicians and networks of Christian fundamentalist groups had already begun anti-hip-hop campaigns under a guise of protecting morality, what Thompson labeled the "cultural civil war," [17] it was failed liberal politician and head of the National Political Congress of Black Women, C. Delores Tucker, who spearheaded the congressional war on Gangsta rap. Teaming up with cultural conservatives, Tucker, through a façade of feminism and racial pride, organized a concerted campaign against rap in order to push through legislation that strengthened juvenile-crime laws and crackdowns on youth. Inverting cause and effect, she argued that the hip-hop generation would become internalized "with the violence glorified in gangster rap" and that rap music created a "social time bomb" which would "trigger a crime wave of epidemic proportions," only to be stopped by smothering the cultural and musical developments of ghetto youth. [18]

Among some of her chief targets was Tupac Shakur (2Pac), who was not quiet in his opposition to Tucker and her political opportunism. Tupac, staying true to his roots on "Nothin' But Love," outlines the composition of his family tree as one of "Panthers, pimps, pushers, and thugs;" [19] this unique mixture helped him to articulate a conception of the rebellious ghetto lifestyle blended with the legacy of black struggle into what he termed "Thug Life." An acronym, which stood for "The Hate U Gave Little Infants Fucks Everybody," [20] his idea of "Thug Life" was a "new kind of Black Power" [21] that young black males were forced to live through:

These white folks see us as thugs, I don't care if you a lawyer, a man, an 'African-American,' if you whatever…you think you are, we thugs and niggas [to them]…and until we own some shit, I'ma call it like it is. How you gonna be a man when we starving?... How we gonna be African-Americans if we all need a gun? [22]

Tupac, whose mother Afeni Shakur was a prominent Black Panther and political activist, would utilize his connections with the streets and balance his music with historical connections to political organizers such as Huey Newton and chilling urban tales of despondent situations such as the fictitious tale of the teenage mother Brenda and the ever-present black-on-black violence. Through this unification of social commentator and street participant, Tupac would authenticate his image to millions of youth, black and white alike. Tupac's response to Tucker's critique of the lyrical content of his music was redolent of Chuck D's interpretation of rappers as journalists who help to show the world the gruesome reality of urban street life; as he argued, "I have not brought violence to you. I have not brought Thug Life to America. I didn't create Thug Life. I diagnosed it." [23]

Furthermore, according to Dyson, the attempt to suppress "gangsta rap's troubling expressions" is manipulated for "narrow political ends" that fail to "critically engage…artists and the provocative issues they address." [24] While dialogue concerning rampant homophobia, sexism, and other dehumanizing aspects of certain rap artists should be challenged, it should be done so in a way that does not alienate and isolate, but engages and allows for the artist to transcend both actions that reflect the dominant ideology and the use of oppressive language. Rapper and activist Son of Nun summarizes his position:

Some real rappers spit truth every night, but say stupid shit when it comes to gay rights. They talk about the Panthers, but they never knew that Huey woulda' called their asses out for what they do…So, in my music, I try not to call out specific emcees…[because] I realize that I have more in common with them, then I'll ever have in common with the label head or the corporate people putting that music out… [Despite sexist or homophobic remarks] when you read the interview and listen to some lyrics, you'll see that there's a revolutionary consciousness that's there at the same time…and I'd rather see those brothers as my comrades whom I can build with, as opposed to people I need to chop down and diss… [25]

This extension of the right-wing economic attack on working class and poor youth into the cultural realm, as exemplified by politicians like Tucker, should not be viewed in isolation from the larger historical trends occurring at the same time; it operated within a certain political economy and aided the perpetuation the dominant ideology required in order to push through neoliberal economic policies.

The mental framework in which Gangsta rap functions is articulated by Immortal Technique, drawing on the theoretical contributions to education outlined in Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he explains, "Our youth and young adults see these gangstas and other ruthless men [famous gangsters, drug kingpins, etc.] as powerful beyond the scope of a government that holds them prisoner. People emulate their oppressor and worship those that defy him openly." [26] This does not, however, mean that Gangsta rap is devoid of a political foundation or that it should be ostracized by the Hip-hop community. As Dyson argues, "While rappers like N.W.A. perform an invaluable service by rapping in poignant and realistic terms about urban underclass existence, they must be challenged…[to understand] that description alone is insufficient to address the crises of black urban life." [27] Thus, this fusion of gangster and rebel, a sort of misguided revolutionary, groping in the darkness of urban decay and abandonment for a way to challenge oppressive, hegemonic institutions, finds its musical expression in the West Coast rap scene. Today, gangsta rap has spread far beyond the streets of L.A. and into every neighborhood, ghetto, suburb, country, to every corner of the world. The rebellious, gangster appeal, devoid of social content and reality, continues to be marketed on every street corner; a sort of "manufactured, corporate bought thug image" is pushed to the youth while "the Revolutionary element is for the most part completely sanitized by the corporate structure."[28]

Corporate Consolidation and the Telecommunications Act

This rejection of the revolutionary and embrace of the thug caricature so common in contemporary hip-hop is, in large part, a result of corporate monopolization of radio airwaves and dismantling of independent record labels. For years, questions concerning rap's viability as a musical genre and it's viability as a pop music sensation surrounded the relatively young art. Industry executives looked upon rap with disdain, viewing it as a niche market unsuitable for broad consumption. This allowed the genre to slip under corporate radar and maintain a sense of independence from major pop labels for a significant period of time. After the innovative development in 1991 of SoundScan that utilized bar-code recording to garner hard data on music sales and replaced the previous "archaic method" which had relied on the retail personnel who compiled weekly, subjective reports of sales trends "open to interpretation," [29] rap was found to have a much broader appeal than originally thought. With this new, more objective methodology of measuring music consumption, rap jumped from the relative obscurity of being a subcultural phenomenon to a major competitor with rock and pop music on the Billboard charts. [30] The "underreporting of rap was a result of long-standing cultural sensibilities and racial assumptions" [31] on the part of retail personnel. Subsequently, industry executives who still may have "harbored ill feelings toward the genre" could no longer "ignore the sales data SoundScan provided…[or] the huge financial payoff it offered." [32] As hip hop observer and critic Craig Watkins explains, "In an industry that had long ago sold its soul to the guardians of capitalism, the commercial compulsions that operate among culture industry executives are a powerful force." [33] The music, however, would have to be tamed considerably.

These commercial compulsions galvanized industry executives to tighten their stranglehold on rap music. In order to protect their status within the capitalist framework and pop music industry, executives were forced to marginalize and reject progressive, dissident, revolutionary, socialist, or any other form of independent and autonomous rap that may present a systemic critique of the established relations of power in society. Corporate hip-hop, as exemplified with the rise of rappers like 50 Cent in 2003, "rested almost entirely on its ability to sell black death" where "guns, gangsterism, and ghetto authenticity brought an aura of celebrity and glamour to the grim yet fabulously hyped portraits of ghetto life." [34] Statistics are not conclusive, but Mediamark Research Inc. estimates that whites constitute around sixty percent of the consumer market for rap in the United States. [35] Other sources, such as Def Jam CEO Russell Simmons, place the number somewhere closer to eighty percent. [36] Regardless, it is obvious that hip-hop is not an exclusively black culture; the composition of the consumer market facilitates a sort of "cultural tourism" where a "staged authenticity" [37] filled with racial stereotypes of black culture can be marketed to white youth.

Corporate consolidation of media outlets has galvanized this process of promoting a certain image of ghetto youth while downplaying the revolutionary or counter-hegemonic sentiments expressed in the music. Major labels and corporate conglomerates have very little interest in promoting artists who question capitalism or the free market fundamentalism. After all, it was that very system which originally granted them the ability to garner the enormous capital required to build their constantly expanding media empire. Immortal Technique articulates this concept:

The hood is not stupid, we know the mathematics / I make double what I would going gold on Atlantic / 'Cause EMI, Sony, BMG, Interscope / Would never sign a rapper with the white house in his scope / They push pop music like a religion / Anorexic celebrity driven / Financial fantasy fiction. [38]

Without an understanding of the significant role that major media outlets play in promoting a specific paradigm, especially in the case of a popular musical juggernaut such as rap, the rise of the glorified, gangster image cannot be concretely analyzed. Chang comments that "a lot of times people will talk about 50 Cent, but they won't talk about the structures that have made a 50 Cent possible." [39] The structures Chang refers to are multifaceted, and include broad neoliberal market deregulations that, since the 1970s, allowed for massive corporate takeovers of independent record labels and a consolidation of radio and other media outlets. For instance, by 2000, five companies - Vivendi Universal, Sony, AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann, and EMI - dominated eighty percent of the music industry. [40] One act in particular, however, the Telecommunications Act passed by Congress in 1996, presented "a landmark of deregulation," a "legal codification of the pro-media monopoly stance" that allowed the free market to shift power "decisively in the direction of the media monopolies." [41] The passage of this act had a percussive impact on the artists' creative control over their music.

The Telecommunications Act relaxed ownership limits over radio and television for corporate entities, essentially creating fewer corporate conglomerates with concentrated control over various media outlets. Congress ostensibly passed the act under the tenuous postulation that "a deregulated marketplace would best serve the public interest." [42] As to be expected, its passage spurred a rapid absorption of smaller, local radio stations into the hands of large, already established companies such as Clear Channel,[43] Cumulus, Citadel, and Viacom. [44] The result was that hundreds of jobs were decimated, community programming was abandoned, and radio playlists became standardized across the country. [45] For a stations like KMEL-FM in the Bay Area, whom prided themselves on being a "people's station" by engaging in social issues affecting the San Francisco community, this meant being bought out and merged with competing stations; playlists became nearly identical, specialty shows were cut, local personalities were fired, and local or underground artists "unable to compete with six-figure major label marketing budgets" were left without a venue. [46] Artists like Binary Star, who challenged the gangster caricature, would become, even more than before, systematically excluded by these corporate structures. Rhymes, such as those displayed on one of Binary Star's most well-known tracks "Honest Expression," [47] would be consistently ostracized from airplay.

Conglomerates like Clear Channel, unlike locally controlled radio, had no community affairs department to foster dialogue or promote local artists with fresh sounds or unique lyrics. [48] Companies downsized to maximize profits and regional programmers overtook local ones, signifying a further shift from local interests of listeners. [49] The ever-present need to increase profitability also galvanized some stations to replace live disc jockeys with prerecorded announcers who would create localized sound bites and patch together entire shows based upon a master copy that was filtered down through regional and local distributors; [50] radio truly became top-down. Subsequently, the public sphere in which artists could contest the image of the apolitical gangster or socially devoid party-goer shrunk rapidly. Corporate rap became a medium through which content was filtered and sterilized while dissident voices were marginalized or shut out completely. Even political rap was reworked into a specific consumer niche; "defanged as 'conscious rap,' and retooled as an alternative hip-hop lifestyle," the prefix became "industry shorthand for reaching a certain kind of market" instead of an authentic, organic title. [51]

Thus, as is the trend in a capitalist society where the "market...does not assure that all relevant views will be heard, but only those that are advocated by the rich [and can market a product of mass appeal that will attract advertisers, which dominate the programming message]," the Telecommunications Act has had profoundly negative implications upon hip-hop's autonomy and ensured that the media landscape was "dominated by those who are economically powerful."[52] Likewise, the prodigious increase in corporate consolidation facilitated the process by which consumption could be artificially managed and manipulated by the "mass media's capacity to convey imagery and information across vast areas to ensure a production of demand." [53] Therefore, the exclusion of particular forms of musical expression, especially those deemed political or controversial, are replaced with corporate-driven, marketed images of young black males adhering to a socially constructed thug stereotype. Fokami explains:

Corporations which dominate the media, have heavily marketed (to influence consumer demand), produced and perpetuated, the gangsta image by, among other things, playing gangsta rap lyrics, almost to the exclusion of other alternative voices that would contest such lyrics or image... The Act has made it virtually impossible for alternative voices in rap (either by the gangsta rappers themselves through their alternative "positive" tracks or by other "positive" rap artists) to be heard on the radio, since corporate conglomerates are less concerned with diversity in ideas but in meeting market created consumer demand for such lyrics. [54]

Thus, while congressional attacks were pummeling rap music for degrading lyrical content and demeaning music videos, the same politicians were simultaneously passing laws which facilitated the crystallization of apolitical, socially devoid gangsta rap into mainstream pop culture. This apparently blatant contradiction is, when viewed in the context of the capitalist state, much more consistent than at first glance; the political establishment sought to promote corporate consolidation and media monopolization, thus limiting public space for dialogue and debate in the hip-hop community, which, in turn, allowed them to pursue a the preferable path of blaming the victims for society's woes. Avoiding an uncomfortable and possibly incriminating dialectical analysis which would address the root cause, namely the dominant political and economic system, that perpetuates many of the social blights expressed in rap music, politicians attack the youth, and especially Black and Latino youth, for problems that plagued urban communities long before rap music hit the scene.

Bursting Onto the Mainstream Scene and Contemporary Political Rap

Hip-hop stepped forward into the mainstream political establishment in 2004 when it had a brief, rather superficial media campaign targeting youth voters. Rap mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs used hip-hop as a platform to organize a campaign under the sensationalist title "Vote or Die" as an attempt to register younger voters, garner youth participation, and generate excitement about the elections. While registering voters was only a marginal success, [55] it was clear the goals were decidedly apolitical with little actual political motivation for urban youth who, for years, had felt alienated from mainstream political discourse. The two candidates put forward by America's ruling elites, George Bush and John Kerry, had platforms so similar it was challenging to generate enough interest for young people to mobilize within the context of the two-party duopoly. Four years later, however, hip-hop would emerge as an unimaginably powerful advertisement for Barack Obama. His 2008 campaign sparked immense interest within the hip-hop community and debate flourished over whether or not hip-hop should stand behind Obama. It was little more than a decade prior that Tupac hopelessly exclaimed "although it seems heaven sent, we ain't ready, to see a Black president" on the song "Changes." [56] Now, energized by a candidate whom, for the first time, they felt would reach out to the hip-hop generation, many artists, such as Jay-Z, took center stage in fundraising concerts and spoke proudly of their involvement in his campaign. Nas, one of hip-hops "most brilliant orators" [57] whose own political trajectory involved going from conscious gangster with his first album Illmatic (1994) to passionate revolutionary with his latest release Untitled (2008), "captures the gambit of fears, hopes and doubts that swirl together in the consciousness" [58] of the black community on the track "Black President:"

KKK is like "what the fuck," loadin' they guns up / Loadin' mine too, ready to ride / Cause I'm ridin' with my crew / He dies--we die too / But on a positive side / I think Obama provides hope and challenges minds / Of all races and colors to erase the hate / And try and love one another, so many political snakes / We in need of a break / I'm thinkin' I can trust this brotha / But will he keep it way real? / Every innocent nigga in jail gets out on appeal / When he wins--will he really care still? [59]

Nas is not alone in his critical support for Obama; Mary J. Blige and rapper Big Boi from Outkast compose a song of solidarity for the working class and poor in "Something's Gotta Give," which challenges Obama to truly listen to the concerns and pressures of urban communities while earnestly calling for desperately needed social change. Big Boi articulates his working class consciousness when he rhymes, "You know the common folk, blue collar, day-to-day workers that squeeze a dollar / so maybe they can swallow a little, not a lot, just enough to fill that bottle / But it's a million dollars a gallon for gas to get to work tomorrow." [60] Unapologetically political, well-known artists creatively maneuvered political dialogue and discussion into the mainstream discourse.

Still, these odes to Obama were able to push through corporate outlets partly because their content and message remained safely within the established political borders. Obama, after all, garnered large support from many of the capitalist classes ruling elites, whom viewed the Republicans eight-year run as disastrous for the United State's economic power and image abroad. Despite this brief stint within mainstream circles, political hip-hop did not begin, and it will not end, with Obama. Radical hip-hop and revolutionary artists like Immortal Technique, Dead Prez, Paris, Lupe Fiasco, Son of Nun, and an innumerable amount of other artists remain marginalized and embroiled in the struggle to spread their message in the face of a competitive, cut-throat jungle of corporate conglomerates and consolidated, top-down radio. Often, hip-hop artists formulate unique narratives or relay stunningly academic critiques of society that tie together seemingly separate issues and help the listener foster a more critical, holistic analysis of larger societal forces.

On his latest single, "3rd World," Immortal Technique utilizes a percussive, hard-hitting instrumental produced by DJ Green Lantern to expose U.S. imperialism and militarism across the globe, brilliantly explicating on the concept of contemporary war as a natural outgrowth of capitalism. Born in Peru and representing his "Third World" roots, Technique explains that he is:

From where the only place democracy's acceptable, is if America's candidate is electable… from where they overthrow Democratic leaders, not for the people but for the Wall Street journal readers… So I'ma start a global riot, that not even your fake anti-Communist dictators can keep quiet!

On "Ghetto Manifesto," The Coup humorously outline ghetto conditions, sardonically utilizing hip-hop lingo to emphasize their point, "Got a house arrest anklet but it don't bling bling, got a homie with a cell but that shit don't ring!" Later, they put out a call for organization and mobilization, explaining "even renowned historians have found that, the people only bounce back when they pound back." They simultaneously challenge nationalist ideology, "the trees we got lifted by made our feet dangle, so when I say burn one I mean the Star-Spangled." A plethora of underground and independent rap artists express similar themes which address the need for autonomous political organization and present alternative, more humane visions for society.

Hip-Hop at a Crossroads: Conditions Today and Where Do We Go From Here?

Hip-hop was cultivated in the streets as an innovative response of urban minorities, traditionally marginalized by dominant political and economic structures, seeking a voice of their own. Alienated by harsh conditions imposed upon them by an advanced capitalist society, these urban youth sought an outlet where they could foster their own conceptions of identity and challenge institutional oppression, whether individually or collectively. Poverty, unemployment, a decrepit educational system, cuts in social services, and capitalism's inherent need to maintain a permanent underclass blended together to create a matrix in which a new, counter-hegemonic culture would emerge with the dialectically opposed characteristics of both the oppressor and the liberationist. Today, the devastating conditions which birthed hip-hop remain a reality and, in some instances, have intensified. The recent crisis capitalism has found itself in continues the downward spiral and the world economy appears close to collapse. The conditions for the working-class and the poor, however, have only worsened over the thirty years since hip-hop established itself as a cultural entity. Unemployment is skyrocketing nationally across color lines but in many cities, such as Milwaukee, Detroit, and Chicago, black unemployment is at or near 50 percent. [61] Already claiming the highest rates of poverty in the industrial world, U.S. poverty statistics have risen drastically since the onset of the world banking crash, placing both Blacks and Latinos at or above 20 percent; youth minority statistics are often much higher. [62] The loss of jobs, combined with the collapse of the housing market and sub-prime predatory lending, has pushed an immense amount of working-class residents out of their homes[63] and left nearly fifty million people without healthcare. [64] Schools, after a brief glimmer of hope with post-civil rights integration, have become more segregated now than they were thirty years ago with public school systems in Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and many other urban areas 80-95 percent Black and Hispanic. [65]

Thus, the conditions in which hip-hop originally arose have not improved. Social commentator and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor postulates these are rational outcomes of the dominant political economy:

The material impact on the lives of Black workers should be clear enough, but ideologically, the systematic and institutional impoverishment of African American communities perpetuates the impression that Blacks are inferior and defective. These perceptions are perpetuated and magnified by the mass media, Hollywood and the general means of ideological and cultural production in bourgeois society. The recurrence and persistence of racism in this economic system is not accidental or arbitrary. American capitalism is intrinsically racist. [66]

Like Taylor, independent hip-hop has, throughout its existence, maintained a critical approach to the capitalist mode of production and the material conditions resulting from it. On "Window to My Soul," of Dead Prez painfully professes the emotional trauma he experienced as he watched his older brother develop a serious drug addiction. Rather than blame the individual, an old rhetorical tactic utilized to conceal social inequality and displace blame, even more prevalent now that a Black man occupies the Whitehouse, [67] addresses the larger socioeconomic forces which often dictate and limit choices for the urban poor:

The same conditions that first created the drug problems still exist… / And on days off, we blow off them crumbs like nothing / Getting high cause a nigga gotta get into something / But we get trapped in a cycle of pain and addiction / And lose the motivation to change the condition… / How did Black life, my life, end up so hard? [68]

He questions the entire wage system and bourgeois morality with piercing lines such as "got to go to the job or starve, without a gun every day employees get robbed." Questioning whose interests are served in the perpetuation of the current system, he concludes that it's "the police, lawyers, and judges, the private owned prison industry with federal budgets." He ends with an unapologetic proclamation that the oppression of blacks is systemic, but oppressed communities cannot turn to individualized forms of escapism and instead must discuss the organization of society as it currently exists, "I blame it on the system but the problem is ours, it's not a question of religion; it's a question of power." [69] The call to a revolutionary alternative, although not always explicitly detailed, has been a persistent theme in the language of political rap. This, undoubtably, is due to the fact that many within the oppressed communities share Taylor's conviction that the dynamic interrelationship between wealth, power, poverty, and the institutional forms in which oppression is manifested.

The landscape of independent, political hip-hop is constantly changing, progressing, and evolving. In the last few years, the augmentation of revolutionary hip-hop which aims to combat traditionally oppressive societal institutions and entrenched corporate structures provides a glimpse of the potential for the art's future. Hip-hop's place in politics extends far beyond a presidential election or congressional debates on explicit content; hip-hop, in the words of Dead Prez's M-1, "means sayin' what I want, never bitin' my tongue / hip-hop means teachin' the young." [70] Immortal Technique tells it like this, "I live and breathe Revolution, Rebellion is in my blood and Hip Hop is the heart that pumps it." [71] Two decades into the rap game, Paris provides a way forward with the newest single, "Don't Stop the Movement," from his independently owned label Guerrilla Funk:

Givin' power to the people to take back America / Panic in the head of the state, pass the Derringer / Aim and shoot, Beruit to Bay Area… / Panther power, acid showers/ This land is ours, stand and shout it… / Hard truth revolutionary black militant / Death to the Minutemen, checks to the immigrants / Streets still feelin' it, we still killin' it / We still slaughterin' hawks, feed the innocent / Read the imprint / Guerrilla Funk was birthed outta' necessity, collectively / Respectively, to behead the beast / On behalf of the left wing scared to speak, NOW GET UP! [72]

Expressing the need for solidarity between the struggles against militarism in the Middle East, black oppression in the U.S. and dehumanizing anti-immigration policies, the chorus warns activists to not stop the movement for social justice and liberation. It ends with a recording of the common protest chant which proclaims that "the people, united, will never be defeated." KRS-One comments that hip-hop is the only place Dr. Martin Luther Kings dream is visible, "black, white, Asian, Latino, Chicano, everybody. Hip-hop has formed a platform for all people…that, to me, is beyond music." [73] As underground rap artist Macklemore urges his listeners, "to my real hip-hop heads, please stand up, because the only ones who can preserve this art is us." [74]

The battle continues to rage over hip-hop's soul. Two contradictory forces clash to gain dominance: one representing the great wealth and power of the established order, the other struggling for independence, autonomy, and social change. Black intellectual Manning Marable makes the argument that "cultural workers," such as hip-hop artists, "must be able to do more than rhyme about problems: they have got to be able to build organizations as well as harness the necessary monetary resources and political power to do something about them." [75] To answer the question of what role hip-hop will play in the formation of such revolutionary organizations and movements depends on which side wins, the power of profit or the power of the people. For hip-hop activists to rescue the art form from capitalism's corporate clutches it will take dedication, organization, and education; time will tell if the hip-hop generation is up to this onerous task. The very essence of the culture is at stake.


[1] Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, "Origins of Housing Discrimination," International Socialist Review, Issue 59, (May-June 2008), accessed 5 April 2009; available from; Internet.

[2] Chang, 307.

[3] Ibid., 308.

[4] Ibid., 315.

[5] Ibid., 314-5.

[6] Ibid., 367-8.

[7] Ibid., 279.

[8] Ibid., 314.

[9] Immortal Technique, "Gangsta Rap is Hip Hop,", accessed 5 April 2008; available from ; Internet.

[10] Mumia Abu-Jamal recording on Immortal Technique, "Homeland and Hip Hop," Revolutionary Vol. 2, 2003, Viper Records.

[11] N.W.A., "Straight Outta Compton," Straight Outta Compton, 1988, Ruthless/Priority.

[12] N.W.A., "Fuck tha Police," Straight Outta Compton, 1988, Ruthless/Priority.

[13] Chang, 388.

[14] Ibid., 388.

[15] Ibid., 388.

[16] Folami, 263.

[17] Chang, 292.

[18] Ibid., 453.

[19] Tupac Shakur, "Nothin' But Love," R U Still Down? (Remember Me), 1997, Jive.

[20] Urban Dictionary, accessed 5 April 2009; available from; Internet.

[21] Shakur, "Tupac Resurrection Script."

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.,

[24] Dyson, 414.

[25] Son of Nun, "Son of Nun - Hip Hop Artist and Activist," SleptOn Magazine, accessed 5 April 2009; available from; Internet.

[26] Immortal Technique, "Gangsta Rap is Hip Hop."

[27] Dyson, 407.

[28] Immortal Technique, "Gangsta Rap is Hip Hop."

[29] Watkins, 36-7.

[30] Ibid., 39.

[31] Ibid., 39.

[32] Watkins, 41-2.

[33] Ibid., 42.

[34] Ibid., 2-3

[35] Manning Marable, "The Politics of Hip Hop," World History Archives, accessed 5 April 2009; available from -; Internet.

[36] Carl Bialik, "Is the Conventional Wisdom Correct in Measuring Hip Hop Audience?" The Wall Street Journal, accessed 5 April 2009; available from; Internet.

[37] Dean MacCannell, In The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (Schocken Book 1976), 153.

[38] Immortal Technique, "Watch Out," The 3rd World, 2008, Viper Records.

[39] Chang quoted in Jones, "Politics of Hip-Hop."

[40] Chang, 443.

[41] Ibid., 440-1.

[42] Anastasia Bednarski, From Diversity To Duplication Mega-Mergers And The Failure of

the Marketplace Model Under The Telecommunications Act of 1996 , (2003), 273, 275.

[43] Adam J. Van Alystyne, Clear Control: An Antitrust Analysis Of Clear Channel's Radio And Concert Empire, (2004), 627, 640.

[44] Folami, 291-2.

[45] Chang, 441-2.

[46] Folami, 300.

[47] Binary Star, "Honest Expression," Masters of the Universe, 2000, Infinite Rhythm/Subterraneous/L.A. Underground. Lyrics such as these present a challenge to the corporate gangster image: "I ain't hardcore, I don't pack a 9 millimeter / Most of y'all gangster rappers ain't hardcore neither… So what you pack gats and you sell fiend's crack / You ain't big time, my man / You ain't no different from the next cat in my neigberhood who did time."

[48] Chang, 442.

[49] Eric Boehlert, "Radio's Big Bully," Arts & Entertainment, accessed April 5 2009; available from; Internet.

[50] Van Alystyne, Clear Control, 660.

[51] Chang, 447-8.

[52] Owen Fiss, Free Speech and Social Structure, 71 Iowa L. Rev. 1405 (1986), 340.

[53] Rosemary J. Coombe, Objects Of Property And Subjects Of Politics: Intellectual Property Laws And Democratic Dialogue, 69 Tex. L. Rev. 1853 (1991), 1862-3.

[54] Folami, 301.

[55] Mark Boyer, "What Happened to 'Vote or Die'?" Fresh Cut Media, accessed 5 April 2009; available from; Internet.

[56] Tupac Shakur, "Changes," 2Pac's Greatest Hits, 1998, Interscope Records.

[57] Zach Mason, "Hip Hop Speaks Out for Obama," Socialist Worker, accessed 5 April 2009, available from; Internet.

[58] Mason, "Hip Hop Speaks Out for Obama."

[59] Nas, "Black President," Untitled, 2008, Def Jam.

[60] Lyrics quoted in Mason, "Hip Hop Speaks Out for Obama."

[61] Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, "Race in the Obama Era," accessed 5 April 2009; available from; Internet. Taylor cites a study by social scientist Marc Levine from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

[62] Sylvia A. Allegretto, "U.S. Government Does Relatively Little to Lessen Child Poverty Rates," Economic Policy Institute, accessed 5 April 2009; available from ; Internet. *Research by Rob Gray. After taxes, child poverty rates in the U.S. are 26.6 percent. Black and Latino minor poverty rates are higher.

[63] Taylor, "Race in the Obama Era." Taylor notes that "Black homeownership has dropped from 49 percent to 46 percent… By 2007, 30 percent of Black households had zero net worth, compared to 18 percent of white households… Households of color lost between $164 billion and $213 billion over the past eight years… Combined, this could lead to a one-third reduction in the Black middle class."

[64] "Facts on Health Insurance Coverage," National Coalition on Healthcare, accessed 6 Dec 2008; available from; Internet.

[65] Jonathan Kozol, "Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid," Harper's Magazine, Vol. 311, September 2005, accessed 5 April 2009; available from; Internet.

[66] Taylor, "Race in the Obama Era."

[67] Dinesh D'Souza, "Obama and Post-Racist America," To The Source, accessed 5 April 2009; available from; Internet. Pundits have already used Obama's election as an example that institutional racism does not exist in America. For instance, author Dinesh D'Souza wrote after his victory: "As I watched Obama take the oath of office…I also felt a sense of vindication. In 1995, I published a controversial book The End of Racism. The meaning of the title was not that there was no more racism in America…My argument was that racism, which once used to be systematic, had now become episodic…racism existed, but it no longer controlled the lives of blacks and other minorities. Indeed, racial discrimination could not explain why some groups succeeded in America and why other groups did not...for African Americans, their position near the bottom rung of the ladder could be better explained by cultural factors than by racial victimization."

[68] Dead Prez, "Window to my Soul," Turn off the Radio: The Mixtape, Vol. 2: Get Free or Die Tryin', 2003, Landscape Germany.

[69] Dead Prez, "Window to my Soul."

[70] Dead Prez, "It's Bigger Than Hip Hop," Let's Get Free, 2000, Relativity.

[71] Immortal Technique, "About Immortal Technique," Myspace, accessed 5 April 2009; available from; Internet.

[72] Paris, "Don't Stop the Movement," Acid Reflux, 2008, Guerrilla Funk.

[73] Manning Marable, "The Politics of Hip Hop."

[74] Macklemore, "B-Boy," The Language of My World, 2008, Integral Music Group.

[75] Marable, "The Politics of Hip Hop."