Hip Hop as a Means of Communication

The new phenomenon of Hip Hop music that emerged in the neglected African­ American and Latino neighborhoods of south Bronx in the 1970’s, was created for the people by the people; taking on a social and political context. Hip Hop music took on the role of a cultural and political voice during a time of great struggle for youth in urban communities. These communities were socially alienated and often sunk in poverty. Urban youth rejected mainstream America due to the lack of consideration for their struggles.


Hip Hop Music as a Means of Communication

Lolita Mendoza Castañeda

University of Colorado Denver

Media and Society

Hip Hop Music as a Means of Communication

It’s difficult in postmodern society to go a day without being exposed to music. Music is everywhere. Whether you are actively listening to music, or just happen to come across it in your daily routine, it is probable that music plays a role or multiple roles in our lives as postmodern people. Music is used in TV, film, theatre, ads, on our mobile devices, in restaurants, at grocery stores, malls, in bars, clubs, and the list continues. Hardly anyone can deny the presence of music in their homes, in transportation, and in public places. In fact music might be one of humanity’s most ancient forms of communication. According to an article by The New York Times, BBC News, and multiple other sources, in May of 2012, scientist used carbon dating to show that flutes were 42,000 to 43,000 years old. Evidence shows that flutes weren’t the only instruments used in prehistoric times, old cave paintings depict rattles and drums as early as the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras (Peter, Donald, Claude, 2010, p. 5). So this means that music predates the invention of writing and was used as a form of oral communication in pre­modernity. It is conceivable that music is embedded in nature if we consider the chirp of birds and crickets as natural origins of music. Perhaps music has a biological origin. If so, we must question whether music is more than just an artistic form of expression. What does music function as besides entertainment in postmodern times? There have been multiple studies on classical music and other popular genres, but a very minimal amount of scholarly studies focus on Hip Hop music as a medium of communication and its influence on postmodern society. In fact, in my music history I/II courses, taken my junior year of college in 2013, we used a book called A History of Western Music. Rap was mentioned in two paragraphs out of the 986 pages of written text (Peter2010, p. 964, 968).In this paper I will focus on Hip Hop music as a means of communication. The first part of this paper will cover the history of Hip Hop as a communication technology, then I will go over what other scholars have had to say about Hip Hop music’s influence, and lastly I will present my own analysis of Hip Hop’s social, political, and historical influences.

History of Hip Hop Music
When Hip Hop music first arose in New York in the early 1970s, many people thought the new genre might be a fleeting moment in the extensive history of music. But Hip Hop music didn’t manifest from thin air, it derived from an enduring past of musical influences and African/African­American culture. Hip Hop music rode on the wings of R&B, Funk, Soul, Blues, Jazz, and Rock and Roll. It was also influenced by poetry like that of DJ Kool Herc who had an aggressive style that combined socially­conscious words recited in spoken word format. The poverty stricken population of talented inner­city youth would creatively extract rhythms and melodies from existing records and combine them with poetry; giving birth to a new style of musical expression. Those reciting poetry over the rhythmic beats were called MC’s (rappers). DJ’s (disk jockeys) would spin old vinyl records, which would function as the underlying music the MC’s would recite their words to. MC’s, DJ’s, breakdancers, graffiti artists, and fans formed a Hip Hop community that quickly grew into a culture. The new phenomenon of Hip Hop music that emerged in the neglected African­ American and Latino neighborhoods of south Bronx, was created for the people by the people; taking on a social and political context. Hip Hop music took on the role of a cultural and political voice during a time of great struggle for youth in urban communities. These communities were socially alienated and often sunk in poverty. Urban youth rejected mainstream America due to the lack of consideration for their struggles.

Hip Hop shares common ideas and ideologies with historic and current issues that include the civil rights­black power movement and the larger black freedom struggle (Derrick, James, 2005, p. 193). Hip Hop artists such as Public Enemy and KRS One were known for their political lyrics highlighting urban struggles, their music created a cultural identity that urban youth could relate to and associate themselves with. Hip Hop culture encompasses not only a musical genre as Derrick P. Alridge and James B. Stewart mention in their journal publication called Hip Hop in History: Past, Present, and Future, “but also a style of dress, dialect and language, way of looking at the world (perspective), an aesthetic that reflects the sensibilities of a large population of youth” (p. 190). Hip Hop music and culture flourished from its inner­city roots diversifying Hip Hop music and reaching a worldwide audience that the mainstream media could no longer ignore. Although Hip Hop music started off having a socially conscious, political context that gave a voice to the neglected urban youth, eventually mainstreaming and commercialization of Hip Hop music distorted Hip Hop’s essential purpose in place for the pursuit of financial gain. Perhaps the reach that Hip Hop was able to achieve in a short amount of time caught the attention of the mass media or maybe it was the power to politically influence the youth that turned the mass media’s head in the direction of Hip Hop. But like many other communication technologies that gain traction, mass media and the powers that be capitalized on the young yet flourishing medium. This commercialization of Hip Hop brought about ideologies that no longer coincided with civil rights, black power movements, and the overall black freedom struggle. Instead it tended to focus on the violent, misogynistic, and materialistic, aspects of gangster rap, which in turn created unrealistic stereotypes about Hip Hop culture.

Literature Review

Most Hip Hop scholars agree that Hip Hop was developed as an alternative culture for a neglected urban youth. Scholars such as Tricia Rose, author of one of the most heavily used references in this area of study called Black noise: Rap music and black culture in contemporary America, Katrina R. Stapleton, author of From the margins to mainstream: The political power of hip­hop, and Derrick P. Alridge and James B. Stewart, authors of Hip Hop in History: Past, Present, and Future all have similar views in regards to Hip Hop’s role in developing an identity for urban youth. As mentioned in the history section of this paper, urban youth were rejecting mainstream American in the 1970s. Urban youth couldn’t relate to mainstream America at the time because mainstream media didn’t recognize the inner­city life of African­American and Latino cultures. Furthermore, Hip Hop functioned as a voice for urban communities that spoke their language and understood their struggles and triumphs. Hip Hop told a story that urban communities could related to and identify themselves with in the midst of a society that had never recognized their story.

Another common notion that scholars tend to agree on is that Hip Hop’s origins incorporate elements of the larger African­American and African cultures. This is most likely due to the environment in which Hip Hop surfaced and the demographics of those areas. In the 1970s, mainly African­American and Latino people lived in and around South Bronx, New York. According to multiple scholars, some of the main traditions apparent in hip hop music include, playing the dozens, storytelling that teach lessons also known as griots in African culture, and protest against social injustice which stems from the extensive history of struggles that African­Americans have faced throughout history.

According to Katrina R. Stapleton, author of From the Margins to Mainstream: the Political Power of Hip­Hop, ‘playing the dozens’ is a time­honored tradition in African­American community in which one brags, boasts, toasts, or signifies. “The process includes ‘ritual insults’ in which the speaker tests their verbal prowess by seeing who can form the best taunt” (Katrina, 2008, p.220). Dozens playing was and still is a primary part of rap competitions or battles. A great example of rap battling is demonstrated in the movie “8 Mile,” in which rapper B­Rabbit played by Hip Hop artist Eminem, battles with multiple rappers in his hometown of Detroit (2002). Another great example of this is shown in a documentary called “The (R)evolution of Immortal Technique,” in which independent Hip Hop artist Immortal Technique explains his early rap battling days (2011).

Griots according to multiple scholars were referred to as African storytellers with the responsibility of passing down stories of each generation in a song while imparting knowledge about society (Katrina, 2008, p. 220). Being a Griot was a highly respected and important position within African community. Griots oral skills were recognized as essential in the preservation of important knowledge. Hip Hop music incorporates this tradition. Rappers have in a sense become urban Griots who use their lyrics to comment on what it means to be young and black in this time. Tupac was a great example of an urban Griot. Tupac wrote songs about urban lifestyle and struggles such as “Dear Mama,” “Ghetto Gospel,” and many other songs that illustrate the life of young African­American men and women in the ghettos of America. It is evident that this tradition carries on in Hip Hop music because rappers convey cultural and political info to the youth in a form that intrigues them.

Protest against social injustice is another tradition scholars often address. This tradition derives from ‘negro spiritual folksongs,’ that are inspired from experiences like those of slave times and many other sorrows African­Americans have struggled with. Songs that were sung by African­Americans during slave times evolved into soul, blues, gospel and Hip Hop music also. This tradition is apparent in Hip Hop music especially that of Public enemy, KRS One, Immortal Technique and other politically influenced rappers. Songs like “Fight the power,” “Philosophy of Poverty,” and “Sound of the police,” illustrates social injustices amongst urban residents. These songs are often objections to oppression that is inflicted on certain groups of people by dominant elites. Chuck D of rap Group Public Enemy once labeled rap music as “black man’s CNN.” Hip Hop music also tends to function as a call to action, or relevant news source for urban society once again used as a tool that helps urban youth define themselves in a society that doesn’t notice them.

There tends to be a shift from early Hip Hop to what people call gangster rap and what is today referred to as rap. Scholars have noticed an emphasis in mainstream media that focuses on lyrics that highlight violence, sex, drug dealing/use, sexist remarks against women, male dominance, and materialism. When mass mainstream media finally recognized Hip Hop music and commercialized it, Hip Hops integrity was dismissed in a capitalistic approach to gaining financial value. Hip Hop artist Common expresses these feelings in his song, “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” in which he describes the transformation Hip Hop has had.

Critical Assessment
Hip Hop music tends to be a communication technology that is closely knit to oral forms of communication. This is evident in its heavy use of rhythmic poetry and storytelling. As mentioned in the Literature Review section of this paper, Hip Hop uses the African tradition of Griots to pass down information from previous generations as well as to preserve important information about society. This use of the Griots tradition in Hip Hop is also reminiscent of pre­-modernity. Hip Hop culture, like that of pre­modernity, promotes community and collectivism. Hip Hop music’s reach in its principal form is communal or tribal like that of pre-­modernity. Hip Hop music brings a culture of people together to communicate socially conscious messages and information. Oral communication uses movement, facial expression, and sound to get its messages across to the public like that of Hip Hop music. It is a multisensory experience balancing the senses. Hip Hop encourages a collectivist ideology. In a way Hip Hop combines the ideologies and social systems of pre­modernity and postmodernity. Although it encourages collectivism and community, it is also connected and informational like postmodern society. Once Hip Hop was commercialized and the mainstream media took a liking to the financial benefits of Hip Hop, there tended to be a more capitalistic ideology and industrial social system attached to Hip Hop like that of modernity. With this approach Hip Hop becomes a hybrid of modernity and postmodernity. Although Hip Hop is being industrialized and capitalized on, it also has the ideologies and social systems of postmodernity, so at the same time it is connected and informational. The fact that Hip Hop is now part of mass media and ultimately mass society doesn’t change the fact that it is being depicted in a way that it wasn’t initially intended. So how might the capitalistic approach be influencing society?

Mass media focuses on violent, misogynistic, materialistic, male dominant, and drug infused expressions of rap. What might this be doing to the identity of urban youth? With the worldwide reach of postmodernity, what might this expression of rap highlighted by mass media be doing to society overall? In a paper by Brian L. Ott called, “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?’’ A Study in Postmodern Identity (Re)Construction, Ott mentions the culture industries use of ‘identity models,’ he discusses that communication mediums mainly television furnish consumers or viewers with identity models which function as examples from whom to model their own identities. Ott says, “television both shapes the nature of identity by providing identity models and provides the symbolic resources for enactment” (Ott 58). Is it possible that Hip Hop artists have the same effect for those who look to Hip Hop when modeling their identity? I believe so.

In a Panel discussion held in mid November of 2014, Immortal Technique amongst other Hip Hop artists and activists discussed the lack of focus on being smart, healthy, happy, productive, etcetera in mass media. He said that being smart, healthy, happy, productive, etcetera is not being depicted as cool in mainstream Hip Hop; that in­itself can be devastating for those who look to Hip Hop to help them understand their identities. Are the lyrics and imagery in mainstream Hip Hop helping urban youth and society in general create a successful collective identity? With the capitalistic approach it doesn’t seem like it is.

Assata Shakur, mother of Tupac Shakur and political activist said in a quote on her website, “”Hip Hop can be a very powerful weapon to help expand young people’s political and social consciousness. But just as with any weapon, if you don’t know how to use it, if you don’t know where to point it, or what you’re using it for, you can end up shooting yourself in the foot or killing your sisters or brothers. The government recognized immediately that Rap music has enormous revolutionary potential,” perhaps this is the case with music in general.

Is it possible that the beauty and entertainment aspects of music are mere distractions taking us further away from a more profound significance that music has to offer? The mass media’s perpetual use of music in ads, TV, film, and many other mediums exemplifies the capitalistic approach that music has in society today. Earlier Hip Hop music demonstrates how profound of an impact music can have on people. Hip Hop was not only appreciated for its beauty and entertainment qualities, it brought a community of people a sense of belonging, it helped them understand themselves better.


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