A recent paper for my English class:
There is no question about the ubiquitous infiltration of hip-hop in American culture. We've all felt it bang at our car windows during stoplights, seen boxer shorts protruding from low-hanging, oversized jeans, watched graffiti tags creep onto local train cars and bridges, and witnessed grade school girls imitate sexy, Beyonce-style dance moves.
However, despite its undeniable popularity, many latter-day saints seek to shut it out. It is no secret that many popular hip-hop genres are steeped in the glorification of sex, violence, drugs, and misogyny. Two of hip-hop's legendary stars, Tupac and Biggie, were both gunned down in the 1990's. It is rare to find a top-selling hip-hop album devoid of words like “ho” or unaccompanied by a parental advisory sticker for the use of far cruder language. The New York Times op-ed writer, Brent Staples wrote in response to Lil’ Kim’s plans to release an album while serving prison time: “When it comes to rap music, what's poisonous for the culture - and dangerous for minority youth - tends to be great for album sales (par.15)”.
Despite the fact that hip-hop culture seems diametrically opposed to LDS values, why are so many of our faithful youth drawn to it? While some are surely seduced by its rugged sense of invincible carnality, peeling back a layer to examine its origins reveals something of greater interest.
Hip-hop was born in the Bronx in the shadows of the 1970's economic bust. Automobile manufacturing and steel mill jobs moved overseas for cheaper foreign labor; social services were cut with waning budgets. Public spaces in black communities became governed by lethal drug economies. It was in the face of this that hip-hop emerged, piece-by-piece, from the economical social event known as the block party. DJs competed in percussion break battles, cleverly employing the only instrument they had easy access to: existing vinyl records. Dancers judged the competitions, and MCs eventually started rhyming to the beats. In many cases, hip-hop became an alternative to gang violence as battle rapping substituted guns and knives. But above all, the greatest victory of hip-hop ingenuity lies in the fact that it provided a voice for a destitute and marginalized population (Dyson 180-182).
“When hip hop began in the South Bronx, it was the voice of the voiceless. Hip Hop artists spoke to the despair and pain of urban youth and the poor who were often without a voice...It was legendary hip hop pioneer Chuck D of Public Enemy who famously called hip hop the 'CNN of the ghetto' (Muhammad par. 1).”
As Mormons, we know that almost anything can be uttered over a pulpit. Alongside the dark and hedonistic, many hip-hop artists' work brims with positive messages from sources of great authenticity and sincerity, often offering advice about how to overcome difficult circumstances. They pay homage to their hometown, friends, family, and ancestors, often boasting of their self-determination, ingenuity, and luck in surviving along the way.
Grandmaster Flash's “White Lines (Don't Do it)” released in 1983, warned its underprivileged Bronx audience of the dangers of cocaine, addiction, and drug smuggling. The Gift of Gab cautions against average contemporary idleness in his 2001 album, Blazing Arrow: “No more of that sittin' in a slump/ No more of that coulda-woulda-shoulda junk/No more of that waiting for the inspiration, innovation or a green light--now begin/No more of that lettin' all your time pass/No more petty illusions of the mindless/It's time to expand, power from within, you're takin' over this dominion/Green light, now begin”
While hip-hop is often used to promote filth, can it also be utilized to instill personal integrity?
It is an unfortunate phenomenon that sensationalism sells. It is even more unfortunate that the white record executives who eventually marketed hip-hop to the American public knew that fact, pushing the most lewd and sexually charged hip-hop genre--gangsta rap--to a pop stature that has shadowed socially conscious hip-hop from the public view. The scholar Michael Eric Dyson wrote, “Much of gangsta rap makes voyeuristic whites and naïve blacks think they're getting a slice of authentic ghetto life when in reality they're being served a colorful exaggeration...[and] many critics argue that since gansta rap is often the only means by which many white Americans come into contact with black life, its pornographic representations and brutal stereotypes of black culture are especially harmful (180-181).”
Although fully loaded with a unique history and culture of its own, hip-hop is a medium for expressing thoughts and emotions. Our familiarity with mediums like paint, books, rock n' roll, country music, and the internet all demonstrate that mediums can become vehicles for the good or bad, depending on what the author intends.
Roger Ebert wrote: “Rap has a bad reputation in white circles, where many people believe it consists of obscene and violent anti-white and anti-female guttural. Some of it does. Most does not. Most white listeners don't care; they hear black voices in a litany of discontent, and tune out (par. 8).”
Of course hip-hop music doesn't appeal to everyone. We certainly don't need to login to iTunes and hurriedly purchase the latest socially conscious hip-hop album to display our support. But as latter-day saints, we view ourselves as culturally open and diverse. We teach our missionaries to speak numerous foreign languages in an attempt to provide the greatest amount of respect and fluidity within numerous cultures covering the earth. We seek to reach out in love to people of all backgrounds whether inside or outside of our faith for the cause of a greater good. As much as our efforts for diversity extend overseas, a quick dismissal of hip-hop culture could cause us to overlook our immediate neighbors. It's a lose-lose situation. Like most marginalized groups—early American colonizers, concentration camp survivors, and our very own pioneers—hip-hop's survivors of urban devastation reveal inspiring stories of principled persistence and hope.
I think we can all agree with Mos Def in his song, “Sunshine”: “[I don't care] what type of brand you are/I'm concerned what type of man you are/What your principles and standards are.”