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Media - Hip-hop and cultural identity

Deepsouth v.6.n.1 (Winter 2000)
Copyright (c) 2000 by
Janet Harvey

by Janet Harvey

  All rights reserved.


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In this essay Janet Harvey explores the cultural politics of Hip-Hop as a form of creative expression that offers up a critique of mainstream culture. Analysing the dangers and potentials of such a critique, Harvey considers how 'Black' as a political identity is mobilised in Hip-Hop in an era that Stuart Hall terms 'the global postmodern'.


Hip-Hop is a form of popular culture which began in the late 70s, and synthesised several subcultural forms including graffiti writing, breakdancing and rapping. Originating from the ghettos of South Bronx, New York, the performance of rap music by early DJs like Afrika Bambaata incorporated Jamaican dancehall and German electronics in the production of a new kind of sound, Hip-Hop.  Beginning as a subculture deeply rooted to the ghetto, Hip-Hop provided a means of expression and discourse for marginalised black and Latino youths who had no place in the media of the dominant culture. 

African Americans have experienced cultural displacement due to the history of slavery which involved the mass exportation of Africans to the Caribbean and the Americas. The identity of 'Black' encapsulates this history of dispersal and is used by some as a means of also uniting minority cultures other than those who claim African ancestry. Hip-Hop music is one vehicle which sometimes collects a diverse group of cultural identities together under the banner of 'Black'. For example, Caribbean and Latino Americans, who face similar problems of marginalisation that leads to crime, ghettoisation and ostracism from mainstream culture have been partners in the production of Hip-Hop and sometimes included under the umbrella of 'black' identity. 

The revaluing of the term 'black' as positive is a practice most commonly associated with the 1960s civil rights movement and the figure of Martin Luther King. Hip-Hop culture is strongly rooted in this black hybrid identity, and represents the continuing struggle for marginal voices in an age of global media imperialism. While Hip-Hop began as a ghetto subcultural practice, banned by MTV, it has become a global phenomenon.  Rap was brought to the mainstream in the early eighties with predominantly white crossover acts such as Blondie and the Beastie Boys, and it has maintained a complex relationship with the commercial side of the music industry.  Global communication technologies have enabled Hip-Hop to act as a critique of mainstream society, and a 'voice' for dispossessed people everywhere.  However, such a critique can only exist alongside its opposite in a marketplace where cultural capital may be brought for a price, so long as it fits the bill of the purchaser. 

In today's late capitalist society, most artists are managed under multi-national labels whose interests lie with consumer appeal,  which can mean perpetuating mainstream stereotypes rather than critiquing them.  Nonetheless, Hip-Hop has proved difficult to categorise and assimilate into the music industry.  Incorporating new media technologies, constantly changing styles and an ever-growing hybrid mix of cultural and religious practices,  Hip-Hop and 'black' identity are representative of this era which Hall terms 'the global post-modern'.  Today's media imperialism has forced 'white' American values on people around the world, many of whom are neither white or American.  The production and distribution of 'black' cultural identity through Hip-Hop  rejects this compulsory inculcation of white values, and in doing so it has become a site of identity for people around the world who are facing similar issues. 

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