From the Golden Age of Hip-Hop up to around the early to mid 1990’s, for the most part, Rap and Hip Hop music seemed to reflect the social atmospheres during the time period. Artists often rhymed about what went on around them. Of course, there have always been party anthems and bragadocious ego fulfilling verses, but overall, music didn’t determine societal behavior as much as societal behavior determined music.
Many journalists often cite how the earliest moments in Hip Hop culture reflected emcees poor economic situations and their desire to see their communities improve. But even later, during a not-so-distant generation, Hip Hop and rap music integrated current events and current political and social sentiment. Being a strong, well-rounded and respected artist meant that that artist was at least minimally aware of current events, and somehow, some way, those events were reflected in his or her music. This was done either directly through lyrics or in overall tone.
Now, however, being a strong, respected artist simply means an artist is well-branded. Instead of artists maintaining and reflecting an awareness of current events, artists ARE current events.
Before Hip Hop became such big business dominated by corporate media, artists were aware and connected to what went on around them. But more importantly, they responded. Whether there song expressed public sentiment about police brutality or police ineffectiveness in inner-city communities, or misogyny, or gang violence, they spoke to issues that concerned the public and needed to be aware of and concerned about social and economic politics in order to reflect a community’s needs and concerns in their music. And this type of music wasn’t limited to the “conscious rappers,” even the party anthem and “gangster” rappers partook in this kind of social dialogue.
Artists didn’t always set trends, often, they responded to trends that already existed – and not just fashion or consumer trends, but political trends as well. But even though certain artists made adidas track suits, cross colors, Africa medallions, and political action trendy and popular, influence was a two-sided street. Artists influenced the audience, but the audience also influenced artists just the same. In this way, Hip Hop, for a long time, maintained a symbiotic relationship with the people. The streets of Hip Hop were two-sided.
For instance, during the Los Angeles riots and for a good while leading up to them, many Hip Hop artists incorporated inner-city communities’ discontent and frustration into their music. When the AIDs epidemic hit hard, artists started reflecting safe sex and HIV/AIDs awareness and commentary in their music. Queen Latifah responded to misogyny that plagued machismo, inner-city social interaction. Whether artists or groups were considered gangster rap, conscious rap, dance rap, etc., their music often reflected what was important to the public instead of what happens now, which is the public reflects what’s important to artists.
Also important, many songs that incorporated social commentary were considered popular, top-40 music and were frequently played on the radio. You didn’t have to listen to B-sides or obscure tracks on an album to hear music with substance. Radio playlists had diversity and artists’ jobs weren’t only to set trends, artists also had to respond to real life and what went on around them, outside of their potentially glamorous lives. They worked for and supported the public just as much as the public supported them.
Why is all of this important or worthy of consideration?
Now, the relationship between artist and public has taken a drastic turn for the worst. The relationship between artist and listener now more closely resembles the relationship between pimp and ho. Artists dictate what brands, behavior, foods, and types of beauty, etc. are acceptable and trendy, and the public follows suit. Instead of talking about safe sex in a currently hyper-sexualized culture that is still rampant with teen pregnancy, misogynistic, and prone to disease, public discussion turns to what it means to Superman a ho or ride that surfboard after rolling up some imaginary partition most listeners don’t really have access to.
In a current society in which, according to the Rape Crisis Center and other public organizations such as the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Census Bureau, 1 in 4 women are raped and misogyny is still a problem, we still sing along to top-40 songs on the radio with lyrics like “taking hella long, bitch give it to me now” and “these hoes ain’t loyal.” And you can’t tell me this last lyric doesn’t resemble that pimp/ho relationship I mentioned earlier. What’s more unfortunate is the one-sided street that Hip Hop has turned into.
Not only are artists not paying attention to and reflecting social needs or concerns, there are no alternatives. We don’t have songs like “U.N.I.T.Y,” “who you callin’ a bitch” to offset men and women alike yelling to the heavens “these hoes ain’t loyal” and “pop that p****y for a real n****!” We don’t have a “fight the power” anthem, or popular “let’s talk about sex,” “Brenda’s got a baby” or “911 is a joke” to accompany the “Humpty Dances” of our current era (should be read: to accompany songs like “I Don’t Like” with lyrics like “we smoke dope all day, all night…. Pistol toting and I’m shooting on site… with my n***** when it’s time to start taking lifes” and songs with lyrics like “beat the p***y like Emmit Till” and “And if she ain’t tryna give it up, she get dropped off… Might spend a couple thou’ just to bust that open
Rip it off, no jokin’”).
In a recent twitter rant, full of faulty assertions and desperate excuses to justify Hot 97’s significant participation in a corrupt and skewed media culture, Ebro Darden made this statement:
Look around.. What are people doing? Wanted money, wanting sex and to have fun with both.. Why would u think popular music wouldn’t reflect?
— Ebro el Viejo (@oldmanebro) June 3, 2014
But Ebro got it wrong. He put the cart before the horse, so to speak, and spoke of current media culture as though it functions the same way it did before corporate media took over Hip Hop and began over-branding artists. Now, media companies and artists dictate trends and influence behavior, but instead, Ebro claims, current popular music, including Hip Hop, reflects the people, which is simply farcical.
Were the same amount of young urban teens wearing tights and skinny jeans before rappers like the New Boyz and Lil Wayne made them popular? Was MDMA use as prevalent before the popular lyric “popped a molly, I’m sweatin’” was often chanted?
Some may think this is a chicken and egg question that’s impossible to answer, but it’s not. Quantitative, empirical research has given us some insight into if and how popular media and music influences and alters social perception and behavior. The findings suggest that Ebro is flat out wrong.
Cultivation theory suggests “when people are exposed to media content or other socialization agents, they gradually come to cultivate or adopt beliefs about the world that coincide with the images they have been viewing or messages they have been hearing” (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1994, p. 22).
“Cultivate” and “adopt” meaning: after people are exposed to popular media and listen to popular music, they start to believe things they did not necessarily believe before. Translation: the music that’s played over an over, the images that accompany this music, and the artists’ expressed opinions make people behave and think a certain way. Ebro is wrong. Artists influence the public more than the other way around.
In The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture, Bakari Kitwana explains that rap/hip-hop is an “expressive oral form through which personal and social perspectives are amplified. It is a means of communicating a “new worldview” that is shared by an entire generation of African-Americans and, increasingly, non-Black citizens of the U.S. as well as a growing international cohort (2002: 9). So, if rap music is shaping minds on a daily basis and at both a domestic and international scale, diverse content is all the more important.
Yes, dance rap with carefree, party lyrics have always existed. Gangster rap and other types of rap music full of violence and misogynistic lyrics and other less than positive ideologies have always existed.
But what is the difference between Hip Hop before media imposed a corporate agenda onto rap music and what Hip Hop has become now? Before, there was variety. Which means just as much as the public was encouraged to party, do drugs, disrespect women and be violent, they were also encouraged to vote, stand up for their rights, respect and honor women and avoid self-destructive behavior. As much as rappers set new trends and influenced behavior, artists also responded to what concerned the public – they took queues from their audience and society at large instead of relying on the public mimicking them.
Why is the current state of rap and corporate media culture so dangerous? Because any time an artist becomes the news, real information of substance becomes less important and people are less involved in politics. We lose power and control. Policies and status quo are decided for us instead of us making, or at least informing, decisions. We become drones. Idiots. We are no longer required to think if we have artists, public figures and popular culture dictating what we pay attention to, what we buy, how we feel about ourselves and who/what we need to be in order to be “relevant.”
Why is this dangerous? Because any time overly branded artists ARE the current events and the public takes their queue from celebrities and popular, public figures, people stop thinking. The public doesn’t need to think. The media determines what’s cool. The media determines people’s worth. They decide what determines success, whether someone is beautiful, worthy, ‘relevant’ or not. And we should all be well-aware of how many artists love to remind their stans, haters, competition, and some listeners that they are NOT ‘relevant.’ The People go dumb. They are silenced. While those who dominate and control the media are turned up in volume. The polis (collective public with social power, voting power and a sense of community) and it’s power is divided and disrupted. And THAT is very, very dangerous.
Camille H is a writer, editor, educator, public speaker and advocate with a Master’s in Urban Affairs. She can be contacted at [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter: @_CamilleH and add her on Facebook here