Whether you’re a fan of President Obama or not, most reasonable people agree that it’s a good thing that our nation is at a point where a black President is even possible. If you had told me twenty years ago that a black man named Barack Obama would take the vote in my staunchly caucasian hometown I wouldn’t have believed you. Of course, my hometown isn’t as staunchly white as it was either (that’s a good thing, by the way).
While everyone was marvelling at how far we’ve come and boasting about how “post racial” we are, no one was talking much about how we got here. Yes, we still have to go a ways until the playing field is truly level but I think we moved along the road faster thanks to hip hop.
It seems no one wants to say it, but there is nothing since the civil rights era that even compares to hip hop (or rap to us old folks) this way. When rap went mainstream, it carried messages about life in African-American neighborhoods and communities directly to kids, teenagers, and young adults. In the past, we had the Harlem Renaissance, authors like Richard Wright, and some popular music speaking to the same issues. In those cases, though, they had a limited impact on the culture at large. And when the message did reach the masses, it was typically packaged in a way to make it more palatable to the white audience buying it. No offense to great songs like “What’s Going On”, but they didn’t challenge people the way hip hop did. Country music had been telling the story of the rural poor for years. Now it was the inner city’s turn.
I said up top that “It’s All Thanks to Run DMC.” That’s oversimplifying it but they were the first hip hop act that I have clear memories of. They opened the doors to other acts, like Public Enemy or Eric B and Rakim, who later blew open my mind. I don’t know if hip hop would’ve reached the audience it did without them.
Hip hop was direct. It pulled no punches and spoke in the language of the neighborhoods it came from. And I loved it. Outside of this music, I would’ve had no chance to get perspective on what was happening to people growing up in places with none of the support systems I had. Even gangsta rap, which I’ve never been a fan of, when at its best could give voice to people would never be heard before outside of their own circles.
And when that voice is heard, whether it be negative or positive, it breeds some level of understanding. That understanding gave perspective. And that perspective spread to an entire generation, who would pass it to their children. If you have that perspective, you don’t easily fall into the generalized thinking that leads to prejudice. You’re more likely to see people as human beings, not caricatures. This is what prior generations never had.
Let’s take the song “Ghetto Bastard” by Naughty by Nature as an example. This is a song about a man whose story would’ve never been told in popular entertainment before this. If he showed up in a song or a story, or if you saw him on the street, he’d be chalked up as “just another criminal” or a bigot’s Exhibit A on why they don’t like black people. In this song, though, you see how his environment doomed him from day one. Who’s to say I wouldn’t have wound up the same way under the same circumstances? And while we can’t blame everything on someone’s childhood (no matter what, you have to make your own decisions sooner or later), there’s more levels to how a person like me, growing up where I did, might understand him. In other words, he exists beyond a racial caricature.
And I would’ve had none of this without hip hop. I wouldn’t have read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I wouldn’t have been able to hold an intelligent conversation with a Nation of Islam member while pumping my gas in Ypsilanti. And I simply wouldn’t have listened or understood as much as I did when I actually met people who grew up in those neighborhoods.
Hip hop also opened up other art forms the way it opened up music. Do you think Do the Right Thing or Boyz N The Hood would’ve been made without the way being paved?
Throughout our history we’ve had people in neighborhoods right next to each other who might as well have been living in different countries. This isn’t new or unique to us. The people living on the different hills in Ancient Rome looked at each other the same way. But because of the breakthroughs in popular media in the last twenty-five years, we have a chance to hear the voices of the “other people” in ways people never had before. Motown, R&B, and even Jewish entertainers had been pushing these boundaries out for years. I think hip hop kicked holes in those same boundaries like nothing before. Not all of it’s been great. I don’t know that it’s as innovative a force as it was and I did know young bigots who had their prejudices validated by groups like 2 Live Crew. At the end of the day, though, no art form is perfect and I think it’s overall effect on my generation and the ones following has been positive and criminally overlooked by the people who make a living discussing these things.
One more thing, I think we have to tip our hats to Eddie Murphy in much the same way. I don’t think it hurt that one of my idols growing up was a black man who was always the smartest guy in the room.