This is Our World: Hip-Hop’s Historical Resistance to Systems of Oppression
When it was first conceived, hip-hop was a form of resistance by people of color to their oppression: not only a way of life, but also a route to social change. Yet artists who continue this tradition of challenging the intersections of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy are a minority in the U.S. today, where the music industry’s steady consolidation has effectively channeled multiple routes to commercial success into the hands of a few. Consequently, artists whose politics and motivations differ too radically from the projected norm are generally excluded from the spotlight. And despite a surplus of online avenues to fame in the Information Age, many rising artists aim to imitate the work coming out of the mainstream.
When I was a teacher at Seattle public schools, a majority of the inner-city students I worked with had little to no knowledge of the revolutionary origins of hip-hop culture. Although the messages conveyed by modern hip-hop on TV and in music affected them, influencing their aspirations to become models or singers or basketball stars, they were unaware of its history of resistance to oppression and so did not think to question what had become of it in the modern context.
A prominent example is mainstream hip-hop’s portrayal of young women of color as highly sexualized appendages to high-rolling male MCs. This is not an accident. Leading TV and Internet content providers, their positions of power affirmed by government and backed by the global banking industry, in cooperation with the individual artists themselves, have managed to paint women of color as an erotic, exotic, and available multitude, the predominant narrative fed back to audiences who become convinced of its reality. This, one may argue, is a source of such trends as women of color around the world displaying their bodies for a chance at the limelight on the Internet, while evident in the comments left on their videos is the rampant homophobia of the typical young fan.
Long-standing critiques of selective, biased news reporting and the health- and self-esteem-threatening fashion and entertainment industries, affecting both women and men, can now legitimately be applied to much of the music industry. Exposure to this type of message without a critical framework fertilizes many of society’s racist, heterosexist, and misogynistic beliefs; in this case, that being rich and using many women sexually is makes a “real man”, or that it is reasonable to aspire to be a “video ho” to capitalize on your youthful body or good looks.These narrow portrayals underscore a heterosexist gender binary in the service of capitalism while drastically limiting possible definitions of black and brown people. Because the current generation of American youth has not been taught, and is mostly too young to know firsthand, what hip-hop means and where it comes from, they are particularly susceptible to the social conditioning incurred by mainstream hip-hop’s skewed vision of Black people and people of color. But it is not too late for the culture of hip-hop to again be a central avenue for resistance.
Hip-hop, defined by nomenclature and old heads as knowledge (hip) and movement (hop), is the cultural product of socio-economic inequality and youthful ingenuity during a specific spatial and temporal moment. It developed into a lasting language for struggle worldwide. In New York City beginning in the 1970s, Black and Latino youth developed multiple avenues by which they could express and display powerful youthful energy, creativity, and innovation. With music, movement, and murals, they defied the poverty, unemployment, and lack of opportunity in their communities resulting from the deindustrialization of the 1970s and beyond.
High unemployment and a dearth of opportunities in impoverished urban communities had left many restless young people on New York City streets. Yet on those same streets, thanks to the dawn of the 8-track, one could find still-usable turntables and LPs left out for collection. These were to become the essential tools of the DJs, creating beats at the heart of the culture. Youth began teaching themselves and each other how to communicate with what we now know to be the different modes of learning: verbal, aural, visual and kinetic. Cardboard appliance boxes became dance floors to to b-boys and b-girls, who developed a style of physical expression drawing upon many disciplines of movement ranging from gymnastics to martial arts. Spray paint left in trash cans gave a palate to graffiti artists, who grew ever more able to accomplish more elaborate work in riskier locales, making their indelible marks on the urban landscape. And MCs, born at the parties, moving the crowd, had verbally acrobatic roots located in the ancient tradition of the griot, the African community speaker, storyteller, poet and oral historian.
From simple beats and monosyllabic rhymes, hip-hop quickly evolved as its practitioners furthered their experiments with vinyl, mic, paper, paint, and movement. They became role models to underserved youth around the nation, the culture spreading from coast to coast, to LA, Chicago, Detroit, and all across the South. It has not stopped since. Today, hip-hop culture is as popular in such places as India, Japan and parts of Europe as it was during the height of its American golden age. For this reason, among many others, it is critical to assess the social and cultural implications of the hip-hop currently getting global play due to its rotation on US TV and radio.
From a feminist perspective, today’s mainstream hip-hop is abhorrent in its blatant objectification and commoditization of the female body, especially bodies of women of color, a topic that has been raised by many cultural critics and hip-hop activists. How is it that a culture built on empowering those who are excluded on the basis of socio-political identity, can continually oppress women, the largest globally marginalized and vulnerable community?
The answer lies in the two-way relationship between the subculture of hip-hop and the dominant culture of US civilization, a central tenet of which is a maintained hierarchy of masculine over feminine and the enforced dominance of heteronormativity. Hip-hop, born into this civilization, naturally adopted the biased attitudes of its parents, which were then reinforced by billions of advertising, television, film and Internet messages projecting white heterosexual males as the admirable standard and females as accessories at best, and property at worst.
Due to the political favoritism of corporate interests, and the concentrations of power created by media consolidation, dominant society has effectively acquired mainstream hip-hop for use as a big media direct feed. But whereas in the past, young women listeners had female MCs to look to as cultural touchstones and role models (Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Lauryn Hill [check this & that] ), the fierce, lyrical, and wise female emcees have been pushed from the main stage and the positive role models lost. Many modern rap divas have foregone the focus on empowerment to play the game of the good ol’ boys, promoting the same aggressive, individualistic, high-end lifestyle (e.g., Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim, Nicki Minaj, Remy Ma, Jackie-O), and even the non-mainstream messages of self-identified queer women, such as Jean Grae, can still perpetuate sexism, violence, and homophobia.
We are currently in another cultural moment in which new and direct routes to audiences are more accessible than ever. With the systematic violence against women and people of color one of our most pervasive and lasting social struggles, there exist opportunities for radical artists and creators of culture to make their voices known. We can challenge the patriarchal, upper-crust fantasy worlds portrayed in modern hip-hop by speaking our personal truths, openly and constructively critiquing the messages we observe via radio, TV and Internet, and analyzing the ways in which they feed the narratives of patriarchy and oppression.
Queer women of color can pose a triple threat to intersecting systems of oppression, especially when articulating in their art the conditions and issues affecting them, uncovering hidden stories from the margins. For at its heart, hip-hop is music that tells stories, and music, in the words of Yehudi Mehunin, creates order out of chaos.
As a queer-identified woman of color spoken word artist, for years before rhyming, rap was the medium that most ordered the chaos in my head, giving shape and reach to my critique of US imperialism as well as the heteronormativity rendering my queer identity invisible. Hip- hop is one of those rare forms of expression with the unique quality of being both mesmerizing and easily memorized. It is this quality behind its broad appeal, and its accessibility is what makes it one of the most versatile and reliable methods of mass communication available to those who desire social justice. To illustrate, hip-hop has grown organically in some of the most impoverished and war-torn communities in the world today, including Somalia and Palestine.
I encourage young hip-hop fans and practitioners to familiarize themselves with the history of the music that has carried us this far. To create, encourage, seek and support hip-hop that empowers the self and the community. Hip-hop outside the mainstream is still a place from which social change can be spurred, beginning with the creative individual, and has the potential to one day redefine what is considered successful. Performances at the community level could develop into opportunities to record and produce music for rotation, touring and distribution through alternative channels. By developing our own art, eschewing the general production and distribution systems of the primary record labels, instead utilizing networks and resource-sharing, we can help to reinvigorate the original revolutionary spirit of hip-hop and apply it towards issues facing marginalized communities today.
Angela Martinez Dy / El Dia is a transcontinental multiracial writer, spoken word artist, queer femme, educator, cultural activist, social entrepreneur, and hip-hop MC. A performance poet since age 15, she has been integral in bringing youth and young women’s voices to the forefront of the arts communities in Seattle and across the United States. For more information, visit her blog: El Dia in the UK.