Prof. Patrice Wilson
May 14, 2010
Hip-hop as a Cultural Movement
What first comes to mind nowadays when you hear the word ‘hip-hop’? Most people think of a gangster embellished in large diamonds, sporting baggy clothes, huge cars, all with a general disregard for the welfare of humanity. It wasn’t always like this: hip-hop was originally born as a recreational activity, used as an outlet to cope with poverty. The notion of hip-hop has clearly changed in a big way since the advent of hip-hop culture back in the 1970s. Contrary to popular belief, hip-hop is truly a deep-rooted culture that has used rap music as its medium to appeal to its audiences. But time and time again, people have generally disregarded hip-hop as a cultural movement due to the violent themes and shock value contained within hip-hop’s rap music. Author William Perkins explains that in retrospect, no one has really taken the initiative to examine hip-hop’s intricacies, namely the roles it has played within cultures all around the world (vii). Not only that, but general criticism of rap only targets the surface of the culture; there is much more to a culture than just its music. Nevertheless, the reasons for its worldwide appeal go much deeper than the profanity and clothing styles that people see on the surface. Hip-hop is the cornerstone of self-expression, and it is also a culture that emphasizes racial, class, and gender value within a society. In this sense, hip-hop can be considered to be a genuine cultural movement despite the controversy because of its emphasis on self-expression and appeal to youth culture. A cultural movement is roughly defined as ‘a group of people working together to advance certain goals’. But before we can fully understand what hip-hop culture is, we need to understand its history. In his article, writer Peter Katel traces the development of rap quite well. Created in the Bronx, hip-hop had began to make itself known in 1967, when DJs discovered rhythmic breaks in a record track, as rappers matched their lyrics to the beat, and created what we know now as hip-hop (Katel 538). Hip-hop especially appealed to the black teens of New York, and was defined into four main branches by a famous disc jockey named Kool Herc: DJing, breakdancing, graffiti, and rapping (Katel 538). Although hip-hop was beginning to find its place within the Bronx, poverty plagued the Bronx neighborhoods. Author Jeff Chang reports, “…average per capita income dropped to $2,430…the youth unemployment rate hit 60 percent” (13). The entire community was pressured by financial problems; many people were looking for an emotional outlet for their stress. Since hip-hop culture was relatively new at the time, the curiosity of Bronx youth led them to explore just what this new culture was all about. While rap is clearly the most outspoken form of hip-hop, newcomers to the scene quickly took interest in at least one of the four elements. As they continued to develop their skills, eventually the four elements all came together in the form of a ‘battle’. From previous experience, I have learned that battles are arenas where hip-hoppers face off against each other, competing to see who is better than the other through either breakdance or rap. Perkins defines a battle as a form of “ritualized insult” (16). But this form of competition was not hostile; in fact, battles like these promoted creativity and attitude, which appealed to the curiosity of Bronx youth. Through hip-hop’s four elements, most notably rap, hip-hop’s followers found a way that helped them to cope with the problems in their society. But what is rap? Katel defines rap as “performance poetry, recited without accompaniment and known in its rap-spinoff form as ‘spoken word’…the clearest example of hip-hop culture extending itself beyond its turntable-spinning roots” (535). Rap generally represents the vocal side of hip-hop. Using rap as a form of expression, rap...
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