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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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As a form of popular culture Hip-Hop, in its various manifestations, offers alternatives to mainstream styles of singing, dancing, art, fashion and recreation.  Rapping, breaking and graffiti, like vouging, have offered black and Latino youth the chance to compete and express creativity in their local environment the streets.  Guevera shows how graffiti writing has been a major source of identity for Latina women, notwithstanding that the artform is physically dangerous, illegal and fiercely male-dominated.1   She quotes one such woman, who describes subway writing as resulting from a need to make "your mark on a city that got to be so huge [when] you're just a little nobody from the ghetto.  You have no money, no school training, what can you do?".2    Subway graffiti evolved from gang tagging as early as the 50s.  Graffiti had developed into a stylised artform by the 70s, but was rarely seen outside the ghetto until the subway trains were targeted because they could carry the artwork through the whole city. Public art, in Guevera's eyes, challenges the dominant view of art  as a private, individual expression limited to art schools, galleries and other designated areas.  Art in the hands of Subway writers becomes  a tool of public expression in the subversion of top-down cultural programming and the hegemony of billboard icons.3


Breakdancing also involves contestation over public spaces, as well as skill, competition and creativity. These local forms are important in providing counter-identities, or in Hall's words, "knowable places in the face of the global post-modern, which has, as it were, destroyed the identities of specific places, absorbed them into the post-modern flux of diversity" .4  Reclaiming the local through the practice of Hip-Hop has given people at the margins a place to speak from. 


In the early days, Hip-Hop music was also commonly performed on street corners or in parks. Rap has roots in competetive verbal street games, like "dissing" and "signifying", where participants competed to ridicule each other in ingenious ways. Inspired by Muhammad Ali's use of rhyming couplets, this artform's close connection to rap is evident in Mitchell-Kernan's definition that "the apparent meaning of a sentence signifies its actual meaning" .5  MC Jam Master J describes the mike as being "like a drug" when he first started taking his turntables out into the park.6   Rap music was drawing crowds together not only to listen but to participate. Rose discusses how Rap music, along with Hip-Hop's other pubic artforms, embodies what authorities find most threatening in urban black culture- the group dynamic.7  One member of an underprivileged underclass alone poses no threat to powerful officials, but when groups form on street corners and much larger groups at Rap concerts, police go to unheard-of extremes to contain this perceived threat. However, if group communication and identity of urban poor poses a threat to the existing social order, it almost certainly empowers those participating in it. Where hegemonic forces seek to fragment marginal groups, performance of Hip-Hop music has facilitated group communication and ideology, constituting a strong source of identity for its participants.


Hip-Hop music offers the most direct form of social critique in its lyrics.  Because the spoken component of Rap can be long and unlimited in its form, rap lyrics have more room for social comment than other genres such as Rock. MCs with a social conscience use this route to speak directly to the people, in a similar way to Brecht's use of direct address in theatre and film. Unlike Rock musicians,  Rap MCs make sure the listener knows who they are and what they stand for. Grand Master Flash's 1982 hit, "The Message",  is an early example of "message" rap, with its stark depiction of Ghetto reality, embodied in the phrase "Don't push me cos I'm close to the edge/I'm trying not to lose my head".8   Public Enemy, another group who " ..didn't rap about partying", expressed their resentment against "..a land that never gave a damn/about a brother like myself, coz they never did".9   10  Other rap groups, like MC Michael Franti's political wing, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphopracy, use direct address to criticise specific elements of mainstream culture with rhymes like "Television/the drug of a nation/breeding ignorance and feeding radiation".11   This form of rap has been criticised by  writers like White, who feel its politically correct message and obvious rhymes fail to incorporate the linguistic devices and double meanings which give rap its cutting relevance.12 Less outwardly political, Franti's crew Spearhead express the contradictions at work in contemporary American society. Spearhead's "Dream Team", a song about Franti's love of Basketball, criticises double standards in attitudes toward black people and sports in the phrase "The brothas on the street, and everyone is scared of ya/So how can 10 Africans represent America?". 13  The song ends with a repeated couplet to drive the message home:

See I like to shoot hoops/not brothers/
It's not like the shoot-hoops/['re] not brothers 14

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1 Guevera, Nancy, Women Writin' Rappin' Breaking in Droppin' Science: Critical essays on rap music and Hip-Hop culture, ed. William Perkins (Philadelphia: Temple University Press 1996) pp. 49-62.

2 Ibid, p. 53.

3 Ibid, p. 60.

4 Stuart Hall, The Local and the Global: Globalisation and Ethnicity in Culture, Globalization and the World System. ed. Anthony King (Binghamton: Dept. of Art and Art History, State University of New York , 1991) p. 35.

5 William Perkins, The rap attack: an introduction in Droppin' Science ed. William Perkins, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press 1996) p. 4.

6 The Show [ video recording] Columbia/Tristar Home Video, Russell Simmons & Brian Robbins (1996) .

7 Tricia Rose, Hidden politics: discursive and institutional policing of rap music in Dropping' Science ed. William Perkins, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press 1996) pp. 236-257.

8 Dancing in the Streets: Planet Rock [video recording], part 10.

9 Ibid.

10 Public Enemy, It takes a Nation of Millions [Sound Recording] Def Jam:1988. "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" track 6, 4:55.

11 Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, self-titled. [Sound Recording] Capitol Record: 1992. "Drug of a Nation" track 1, 5:29.

12 Armond White, Who wants to see ten niggers play basketball Droppin' Science (1996), p. 20

13 Spearhead, Home [Sound Recording] Capitol Records: 1997. "Dream Team" track 7, 4:43.

14 Ibid.