Hip hop commenced in 1973 by the founding father, DJ Kool Herc who was entertaining for his sister’s birthday party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. The initiation of hip hop was highly influenced by the decision of President Jimmy Carter in 1977 when he decided to urbanize a community in the Bronx, destroying homes of those in poverty and building new homes for others to move into. (Zuberi, 2008) The Latinos and blacks occupying the houses in poverty received no help from politicians and were referred to as the Bronx Zoo. African Americans used hip hop which was created in the ghetto to express their resentment to what was going on in their environment. Hip hop facilitated an improvisational energy, a reclaiming dance where DJs’ and rap artists’ responded to systematic violence against their community. Hip hop today has transitioned to a multibillion corporation that sends a new meaning to those who listen to the music. The film, Hip Hop Beyond Beats & Rhymes by Byron Hurt digresses the reasoning to why Hip hop culture has transitioned from a stage of expression against politics to a more negative portrayal of African Americans.
As a local Seattleite, I have been exposed to the strong hip hop culture in the Pacific Northwest. There are many opportunities for people to get into the culture with young entrepreneurs starting their own street style clothing, break dancing facilities for youth to take lessons at including Massive Monkey’s studio in the International District, and numerous artists who create their own rap music. The hip hop industry has expanded from the south Bronx to a worldwide market. Rap artists are often idolized by youth and have a lot of control of what is seen as masculine and what is not. They rap about the black experience which is cultivated by their experiences in prisons, violence, drugs, etc. It has created an image of masculine black men being synonymous with thugs or being hard. In the film, Byron Hurt talks about how manhood is like the equivalence of being in a box. Qualities such as being tough, having money, being a playa or pimp, are what a black male should strive to have. If you do not have these attributes, then you are outside of the box and are considered to be soft, weak, or a faggot. It is condemned by the hip hop world to be the second; nobody wants to be that. (Hurt, 2006)
The importance of asserting manhood in hip hop has to do with the history of African Americans experience with chattel slavery. Buying and selling of human beings of African descent formed a template for economic and racial subjugation of African Americans. It was crucial to the founding of US capitalism. Dehumanizing black people is a key feature in racial exploitation. Their bodies were objectified and turned into commodities that were traded in the market place. Black men were used for hard manual labor which was justified by portraying them as big, strong, and stupid as well as being naturally violent. Black men were seen as unstable for work until they were trained by white men under discipline and control because they were intellectually inferior to whites. (Collins, 2005) Chattel slavery marked the emergence of hegemonic white masculinity centered around violence. White men are at the top of social hierarchy with ability to whip and kill black men which results to racial control and violence embedded in the definition of masculinity.
Hip hop is a man’s game which means acting strong, tough, sexualizing women, talking about money, and dominating others. Byron Hurt talks about rap being a lineage of black men wanting to deny their frailty due to slavery. White masculinity is defined as maintaining their family and economic wealth. Because African Americans did not have “real” power, they do have their body which they meant they did a lot of posturing and flexing. This behavior started in the prison environment where they sagged their pants because they did not have belts in prison and also formed gang alliances in order to survive. Hip hop is ego driven where males are challenged to assert themselves in order to attain street credibility and respect.
Gender oppression was also exposed in chattel slavery. Institutionalized rape of enslaved black women constructed images of jezebels who are seductresses. This depicts women’s bodies as a site of wild, unrestrained sexuality that could be tamed but never subdued and was used as a system profit. (Collins, 2005) Many years later, a black women’s body is still objectified by not only white men but also black men who represent them as eye candy and sex objects who do not matter. Objectification of black females bodies has been occurring long before hip hop music videos. It was originated by slave owners. It is questionable as to why black women go along with being objectified in these videos or why they are not more offended by the misogyny. In Hip Hop Beyond Beats & Rhymes Hurt interviewed women who attended the BET awards dressed in bikinis and were grabbed at by other men and asked them about how the felt about the rappers who referred to women in their lyrics as bitches and hoes. A common response among the woman was, “Oh, they’re not talking about me.” They denied that these stereotypes have anything to do with them because the lyrics were not directed towards them. In, “The New Jim Crow” Michelle Alexander talks about this state of denial. People only see what they want to see. Women deny racial oppression and other forms of human suffering even if they know it’s happening. I disagree that the way women of color are represented in these music videos does not affect women individually. We should take offense to this because we command respect.
Rap did not always talk about making money or killing others. The shift in lyrical content occurred when majors bought the labels who were predominantly white. Hip hop began to have a larger presence in marketing and the music became less conscious. (Hurt, 2006) When new albums drop, peers like to advocate with peers over which rapper is more dope. Regardless of who their favorite artist is, numerous mainstream rappers today rap about common themes that portray the necessity of the rapper to assert his masculinity. Rap artists who want to make it talk about being thugs and incorporate booty shaking in their music. They do what they have to in order to get there. If they do not fit the description of what hip hop is supposed to be, their music gets passed. The media does not want to see black people as good fathers, they want to see violence, pimps, and profanity that have been associated with the African American culture.
In order to keep up image of black people and justify their actions, they portray them in negative images and use art as a form of subjugation. When we see rap artists committing violence in music videos and then on the evening news, we see black males handcuffed and going to jail, we deem that they deserve such consequences. Black people are often portrayed as the bad guy on the media to an extent where mass incarceration has been normalized. Mass incarceration is a large reason why children today are raised with one parent. Black fathers don’t walk on their kids voluntarily, they are handcuffed. Locked away for crimes that are largely ignored when white commit crime. Mass incarceration has been normalized and all the racial stereotypes and assumptions that gave rise to the system are now embraced. It is fair to say that we have witnessed an evolution in the United States from a racial caste system based entirely on exploitation (slavery), to one based largely on subordination (Jim Crow), to one defined by marginalization (mass incarceration). (Alexander. 2010)
Hip hop started off as a form of expression for African Americans to speak out their frustrations with urbanization in the Bronx. White corporate owners saw the popularity of hip hop among black culture and sought an opportunity to make profit. Because they own the record labels, they are able to control which rappers are played and what they get to rap about. The media is able to control what the general public views and prejudices are created. I have always been a fan of hip hop but I never really stopped to think about how hip hop is a continuation of racial oppression that has dated since slavery. I do not want this to be a reason to stop listening to hip hop. It still is a large part of black culture and a displaying raw emotion. There are still artists out there who are able to advocate through their music and draw people to loving hip hop.
- Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. Dir. Byron Hurt. Perf. Byron Hurt. Shibboleth Authentication Request. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2015. <http://washington.kanopystreaming.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/video/hip-hop-beyond-beats-and-rhymes>
- Zuberi, Tukufu. “Birth Place of Hip Hop.” N.p., 2008. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.
- Collins, Patricia Hill. “The past Is Ever Present.” Black Sexual Politics. New York: Routledge, 2005. 5385. Print.
- Alexander, Michelle. “The New Jim Crow.” The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 173-208. Print.