They dont know who we be/
They dont know who we be/
DMX, Who We
Be, The Great Depression (2001).
"[ O]nly a small
percentage of people have a genuine concern for Hip-Hop."
Chuck D, Fight the Power: Rap, Race, and Reality
Its been 30 full years since the
cultural force known today as Hip-Hop mushroomed out of the ghettos of South
Bronx and spread over the surface of the earth, but nobody could have claimed, back
then, to foresee the journeys Hip-Hop would take or the magnitude of a legacy
it would build through those journeys. It was simply impossible for a gang of
hopeless, crime-prone Black and Brown
saps to set off a cultural explosion that in little over two decades boasted a
multi-billion dollar empire. Its easy today to look back and reminisce with
great pleasure (and displeasure), but the founding fathers and mothers of
Hip-Hop had no idea what trail they were blazing would one day make many multi
millionaires or create such intense international dialogue and debate.
More importantly, they couldnt foretell,
even through all the struggle and strife that produced this remarkable
phenomenon, that very few would have the courtesynay, the human decencyto
acknowledge its place and time in history as a moving mass of artistic genius.
Last Friday, the Texas Board of Education cast its lot amongst those
unconvinced Hip-Hop deserves the light of public recognition.
In a controversialreally whitewasheddraft
of the states high school social studies curriculum, Hip-Hop as a significant
cultural contribution failed to meet the mark, as conservatives struck out, on
multiple counts, attempts to add Hip-Hop to the list of noteworthy cultural
creations in American history. Experts had recommended students study the
impact of cultural movements in art, music and literature, such as Tin Pan
Alley, the Beat Generation, rock and roll, the Chicano Mural Movement, country-western
music and hip-hop, reported The
Houston Chronicle. The board's seven social conservatives, joined by
Geraldine Tincy Miller, R-Dallas, considered some of the hip-hop lyrics
offensive and voted to eliminate hip-hop as an option for students to
Hip-Hop, however, made
some good friends at the party, as Thomas Jefferson, the word democratic,
and references to religious tolerance also fell under the red inks of the
Republican and conservative members on the board whose sense of history stands
somewhere between the pages of McCarthyism and Reaganomics. Texas students, if
this measure is finalized in May, would learn some strange stuff of their
country and world. They would learn that Hispanics hardly count as having any
social relevance in American historyand neither do just about all non-White
people. They would learn that their country is God-given and can do no wrongand
never has. They would learn that if not for conscionable and courageous
conservatives, Black people might still be hanging half-burnt from trees and
denied suffrage. They would learn that the Black Panther Party was a violent
and fascistic mob with eyes cocked at social destruction. And, of course, they
would learn next to nothing of the global force for political and social
advocacy that is Hip-Hop. In short, they would learn White History to an H.
Man, this history don't acknowledge us/
We were scholars long before colleges/
This notion that all Hip-Hop artists
wallow in the wasteland of gutter talk certainly brings to bear baggage of the
past. From the early 90s on, political leaders lived high off the curiosity
Hip-Hop aroused in society. From congressional hearings to TV panels to newspaper
columns, the fix was inHip-Hop dominated the national dialogue. Everyone had a
say and couldnt remain tight-lipped long enough to ponder its accuracy. What
is Hip-Hop? When was Hip-Hop conceived? Why is Hip-Hop relevant? Why do White
kids love Hip-Hop so much? Very few could answer; but far more wanted toand
Commentators and critics divvied up
Hip-Hop into categoriesGangsta, Commercial, Mainstream, Underground,
Good, Bad. But the scale showed it biaspublic figures shamed Gangsta and
Commercial Hip-Hop for exploiting social maladies and repackaging trauma and
glamorizing violence and fetishizing fatalism. Black activists invited TV
cameras to special sessions where stock of Hip-Hop CDs cracked under their trampling
boots and the crushing tires of farm tractors. Still, very few voices of
conscience made headway as the debates ratcheted.
And though even fewer flew to the
defense of this great contribution to societycontribution without which a
whole generation might have lacked meaningthe full swath and broad bath of
Hip-Hop still remains unknown to most, especially those quick to mouth off
about how bad and despicable and vile and endangering Rap lyrics are. And the
reason why lacks no mysteryfor a generation raised on the terror of
Reagonomics and brought to life in an age where their humanities had dollar
signs written all over, the pent-up rage that found refuge through the mic
didnt do well to please authority figures.
And for all the attacks lobbed at
Hip-Hop through time, most evident has been the belief that Hip-Hop artists
have no leg to stand on in attacking society for the problems they believe it created for those they representthose torn apart by
racism and classism. You lack the
credentials, society is quick to fire back. Your concerns are as valuable as a toads croak. But Hip-Hop
artists have remained effervescent in demanding dignity from this society,
refusing to let the bellicose barrage take hold and stomp out their message or
mission. Through all the storms and static, they still find this their
responsibilityto hold the feet of the rich and powerful to the fire, and to speak
loud for the oppressed and underserved.
Perhaps this very factthat Hip-Hop at
its best lifts the voices of the unloved and rejected, of the displaced and dispossessedis
what makes the culture so threatening and so scrutiny-served, and this is what
must be kept from the hearts of schoolchildren even as they listen to Hip-Hop
artists, some of whom, it should be admitted, stray far away from any forms of advocacy
for the meek and muted, the weak and wastedthe
wretched of the earth, to invoke Franz Fanon.
Grace Wiggins, executive director of United Sisters, an E-mentoring program
focused on females ages 14-18, says she can understand the disdain for the
music, as modern forms of Hip-Hop have largely failed to demonstrate the
qualities it once hadso I think we have the leaders in Hip-Hop to thank for taking
away the significance of Hip-Hop and not having it taught as a part of history.
Hip-Hop since its inception, Wiggins contends, has morphed from an ant-sized
social service agent to a giant hungry only for the top of the charts and
skilled in leading our children into believing that there are no consequences
for our actionsonly rewards.
Wiggins also manages a listenership
campaign, Listen 2the
Lyrics, through which United Sisters hosts After School Listening Sessions
to empower young female Hip-Hop fans in putting what they hear in critical
perspectives. She says the Texas ruling only pumps up the volume why
initiatives like Listen 2the Lyrics matter: This decision only further makes
our project relevant to our community and society, as Hip-Hop is no longer just
influencing minds in the cityit has made it across seas and has become
multicultural and a language that the youth listen to and understand.
Prolific author and scholar Tricia Rose, PhD, insists the decision represents
a specific attack on Hip-Hop, one that has been going on since its inception,
but also reflects a general ignorance about, marginalization of, and hostile
disregard for, the contributions of African-Americansintellectual, political,
social and cultureto the United States.
And such undervaluing, Rose warns, is a
terrible mis-education of our youth about the complex ways that new cultural
expressions come into being. Hip-Hops reach extends beyond beats and rhymes,
she adds. It has empowered and inspired people around the world for over 30
years. To rob young U.S. citizens of their knowledge about this art form is an
educational disservice and a sign that there is still a whole lot of work to be
done when it comes to educating people about African-American culture.
Rose, whose acclaimed work on Hip-Hop
culture and music includes books like Black
can bear witness to disregard, disinterest and evasion of Hip-Hop within the
academy. Hip-Hop theory often takes flesh in forms of fun scholarship, many
detractors scowl. But at stake is the general incapacity to properly
understand, interpret and appreciate the creative and intellectual
contributions Black people have produced on these shores. Lets not forget,
Rose reminds, that Jazz, Blues and other musical forms continue to remain
marginal in music departments and in school curriculums generally.
Even more importantly, she says, all
black cultural forms suffer from misunderstanding because the larger cultural
contexts out of which they come are not studied and thus we create uneducated
cultural consumers. If students learned early on the value and virtue of
Hip-Hop, and understood the responsibility to consume critically, it would set
their feet firmly forever because, as Rose point out, I find that once you
know something, you cant un-know it.
But perhaps the Texas Board of Education
has a few lessons to teach the Hip-Hop community, amongst which must be that an
uneducated mind is a terrible thing to flaunt.
Olorunda is a cultural critic whose work regularly appears on AllHipHop.com, TheDailyVoice.com and other online journals. He can can be reached at: