Jeffrey G. Ogbar


On his book Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap

Cover Interview of September 29, 2009

The wide angle

There are many inspirations for this book.  I am a huge fan of hip-hop.  Like most guys around my age, I tried my hand at breakdancing as a teen.  I was a decent hip-hop graffiti tagger—and a less than decent rapper.  Hip-hop was the sonic backdrop to my life since elementary school.

Still, I can trace this particular book to a lecture in a history course in my freshman year at Morehouse College in a pretty interesting linear way.  The professor discussed how music cannot be critically examined outside of its social, political, and historical moment.  That very basic truth, which included interesting samples of the Last Poets, Gil-Scott Heron, and RUN DMC, influenced my own considerations later, as I created my own history courses as a new college instructor.  Then one student enjoyed my lecture on music so much that she invited me to expand it into a talk for a student group.  A professor at the talk liked my lecture so much that she suggested I develop it into an article for a journal.  “Slouching Toward Bork: The Culture Wars and Self-Criticism in Hip-Hop Music” was published in the Journal of Black Studies in 1999 and was one of the journal’s most cited articles for a few years.  Reading the article, the acquisitions editor at the University Press of Kansas approached me about writing a book for its CultureAmerica series.  The rest is history.

As a historian, I wrote a book that necessarily provides an important historical framework for the central exploration of hip-hop.  This is a bit different from many other books on rap, which rely primarily on analysis of the literary text of rap.  While I provide considerable discussion of the lyrics of rap, I also engage the larger lived experience of the rappers and the consumers of this art.  Additionally, I substantively explore the debates about rap music from various facets of the culture wars, which include a range of figures as Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork to comedian Bill Cosby.

Many critics have long argued that the vulgar, violent, and misogynistic lyrics of commercial rap negatively affect the consumers of rap, particularly African American youth.  I demonstrate, however, by using raw data from government agencies, that black youth—who, though not the majority of consumers of rap, consume hip-hop at higher rates than any other group—by 2005 graduated from high school at record rates.  In 2006 the educational achievement gap was the most narrow between whites and blacks since records have been kept.  And it has since narrowed further.  The rate of teenage births to black girls in 2005 was the lowest in history.  In the 2002 midterm elections, black 18-29 year-olds voted at higher rates than their white, Latino or Asian counterparts.  In 2004 the black homicide rate was lower than any year going back to at least the 1940s!

These data are confounding to those who are barraged with negative images of the hip-hop generation, typically viewed as self-absorbed, apolitical, and mired deep in unique social, political and cultural crises that did not characterize prior generations.  And while huge quality of life gaps exist between whites and blacks, these are not new.  They are the result of hundreds of years of institutionalized white supremacy.  But, in the major indices—education, life expectancy, home ownership, poverty rate, infant mortality—African Americans between 1999-2004 enjoyed record highs of the good indices.

One of the most obvious challenges faced by African Americans, however, is the prison industrial complex, which incarcerates more people in the U.S. than in any country.  Black people represent nearly half of those in prison.  I devote an entire chapter to how prison narratives first emerge and evolve in hip-hop, while also providing a wider picture to the expansion of prisons in the U.S. in general and the effects on black folks in particular.  As even a casual fan of hip-hop can attest, rappers make copious references to prisons—even posing on LP covers behind bars, placing music videos in prisons or even special issues of the leading hip-hop magazines on prisons.