Hip-Hop Revolution explores the current cultural and political landscape of hip-hop by providing a broad based historical context for the art. Beginning with the emergence of popular culture in the United States and the minstrel show in the antebellum era, I work through the emergence of jazz, rock and roll, blaxploitation movies in the 1970s, to the development of hip-hop in the mid-1970s New York City. The point is to explore the durability of race as a touchtone for popular entertainment—particularly music. By doing this, I establish an essential framework for understanding certain deeply racialized tropes in hip-hop.
Though this book gives some cursory overview of the history of popular culture and race, it is, at its core, an examination of hip-hop with a special emphasis on its last 15 years. I explore the meaning and implications of rap music in particular. From Congressional hearings, controversial artists, to a cultural juggernaut, with incisive, bold, and daring social and political commentary, rap music is full of diverse expressions and experiences. I look at the ways in which hip-hop’s demands for authenticity are centered on particularly salient tropes of race, class and gender.
So, rappers like Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and 50 Cent, embody the core tropes well: African American males with roots in poor, urban landscapes. The more one lacks one of these essential tropes, the more he is scrutinized for being “real.” For example, Eminem’s impoverished, inner-city upbringing gave him a degree of credibility—beyond his lyrical skill—that being an upper-class kid from Iowa would have not.
“I look at the ways in which hip-hop’s demands for authenticity are centered on particularly salient tropes of race, class and gender.”
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.
I think that my Chapter 4, “Gangstas, Militants, Media, and the Contest for Hip-Hop,” provides some new perspective on the intense debates surrounding the culture, and reflects a good part of what the book is about.
As mentioned, I explore many of the arguments used against hip-hop. Unlike many of those who write about the debates, I give voice to the rappers who are often some of the most eloquent critics of their peers who are often charged with bastardizing the art.
For example, groups like Jurassic 5, the Roots or Mos Def have established their own standards for “realness” in hip-hop that veer far from commercial rappers like Lil Wayne, 50 Cent or Young Jeezy. But, the former group happens to offer social commentary as well, speaking out against various forms of oppression, while providing absolutely amazing lyricism and creativity.
Also, this chapter provides a level of demographic analysis not seen on any study of hip-hop. It refutes pervasive myths promulgated by many public intellectuals and cultural critics on various ends of the political spectrum.
“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.”
Ultimately, this book explores the culture and politics of hip-hop by providing a broad historic context and wide-ranging use of sources and texts. If your favorite rapper has sold anywhere near gold in the last twenty years, chances are I consider his or her impact and contribution to the art. I look at activism, policy, race, gender, class and intellectual engagement in hip-hop. I think that laypeople will be surprised to see exactly how diverse the hip-hop community in the U.S. is.
Moreover, many hip-hop denizens of a divided hip-hop nation may be surprised at the range of expression among artists. Others will be amazed to see how many of the current debates about artistic direction and “authenticity” are identical to those of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. It really offers a broad historical and social exploration of the nexus of generation, gender, class and race in the context of America’s latest truly unique artistic gift to the world.
Finally, I think that this book offers a cursory history of African Americans since the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, but exploring the socio-economic landscape, demographic shifts, and debates that have characterized the last forty years, with a particular attention to younger people.
Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, raised in Los Angeles, earned his BA from Morehouse College and Ph.D. from Indiana University. An Associate Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, he is author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity, recipient of a 2005 Choice Outstanding Academic Title, and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics or Rap, winner of the 2008 W.E.B. Du Bois Book Prize from the North East Black Studies Alliance. He is also Associate Dean for the Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Connecticut.