National Sections of the L5I:

Hip Hop for who?

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Hip-hop music originated in 1970’s block parties in New York, especially in poorer areas like The Bronx. This genre and culture was born from a sense of community and sharing, people lucky enough to have expensive loud sound systems would throw huge outdoor parties, drawing together the community. Any debate about who owns hip-hop needs to start where the genre started – in the ghettos, musical and physical – of 1970s East Coast USA.

The birth of Hip-hop is well-documented, but as with any emerging musical fashion, some are now asking the question of who owns the genre. Just as the anti-corporate imagery of the grunge era was subverted by MTV and multi-million $ record deals, so people question whether Hip-hop is merely the latest chapter in the commercialisation of Black culture.

There are those who claim that Hip-hop lives in the experiences and lives of the poor and the oppressed. Nevertheless, ‘ownership’ of Hip-hop must be determined by who is able to produce and market it. Therefore to a large extent we must accept that Hip-hop’s material (if not spiritual) home is in the board rooms of EMI, Sony Music, BMG, etc.

This makes it necessary for fans and artists to question whose interests rappers are serving, and why that is. The hip-hop we are being sold through the mainstream, instead of challenging power, is often serving the interests of the rich and powerful elite that maintained the terrible conditions which conditioned the development of Black culture.

It is in the interests of the major record labels to only sell hip-hop that justifies the economic tyranny of a minority over the majority. So when we see images of Jay-Z, one of the biggest rap artists of our time, sat in the White House, we have to question whether these artists interests are compatible with that of the majority of the world’s poor. Of course they aren’t.

How can someone with millions of dollars possibly have similar collective interests to the majority of people in the world who live off the equivalent of a few dollars a week? Artists are certainly subject to exploitative record deals, but income from merchandise, ticket-sales and sponsorship still rests on the exploitative wage-slavery of capitalism.

In the UK we can see the negative influence on youth culture by the romanticised gang-culture in the Hip-hop we’re being sold. The right-wing media claims that a generation of young people are buying into a culture of gang violence. This is clearly an exaggeration, but we shouldn’t underestimate the attraction of the slick, platinum encrusted lottery reflected in mainstream Hip-hop.

It is no wonder that the youth of communities which face demonization in the media, police repression and criminalisation can be attracted to gangs to provide safety initially, and then a potential route out of the life of poverty and alienation which they see all around them.

But fundamentally, this is a culture that stems from the material poverty which many White, but particularly Black and Asian communities in our cities remain mired in. 50% of young Black people are unemployed in Britain, and the cuts to Education and public services will have devastating consequences for those who are already worst-off in our society.

So, latching onto the shared suffering of working-class communities across the world, what we see is a disturbing glorification of the results of poverty and oppression marketed through mainstream hip-hop. This displays the power inherent within the music industry to shape social consciousness, and therefore the awareness and behaviour of its audience. We see this repeated in the printed media too. Newspapers don’t make anybody a profit anymore, but they are so effective at reinforcing the ruling class’s propaganda that billionaires like Rupert Murdoch maintain entire media empires.

From a young age we are taught that if the things we make don’t make the rich richer, then they’re worthless. If it doesn’t make a profit for the bosses then it won’t be played on the radio or TV. Therefore artists are constantly forced to use new alternative methods to promote their material, Youtube, Myspace, etc.

All entertainment, and especially hip-hop, should inspire, stimulate, question and move us as human beings in some way or another, instead the music we are sold is totally un-challenging to human thought, violent, and materialistic – all attributes that benefit the ruling classes. If we are un-educated they can justify controlling our lives, if we are violent we are dividing ourselves instead of uniting against our common enemy, and of course if we are materialistic, the rich stay rich by selling us shit that we don’t need.

Hip-hop used to be a reflection of society and culture, but now those who control the mainstream production, can artificially manufacture the culture it is supposed to be representing. Mainstream hip-hop is a commodity to big corporations, so its motive for production will always be to make money. It is profitable to condition the youth to focus entirely on material possessions and achieving wealth, so rappers who promote a message of human need over corporate greed, like Akala, Immortal Technique, Lowkey etc, aren’t played on the radio. Young people are encouraged to aspire to be known and praised for being famous, instead of for having talent or meaning or helping progress hip-hop as a liberating form of entertainment.

In most rappers’ music videos you will see the glorification of expensive things, selling the idea to young people that ‘you can make it’ and be rich just like your favourite rappers, when in reality, the chances of climbing out of poverty for most people in the world are non-existent. This is similar in films, theatre and video games, but music is considered the most subversive and most consumed form of entertainment.

It is greatly beneficial to the ruling classes to play people against each other, examples of which can be seen throughout history. For example under Slavery, ‘field’ slaves were played against the ‘house’ slaves, through slightly improved conditions for those working in the house, because when people are fighting among themselves, they aren’t fighting the real cause of their poverty and oppression. This kind of rhetoric is prevalent in mainstream hip-hop because as the next generation of working people, we are much weaker when we are divided.

‘Independent’ or ‘underground’ Hip-hop may be starting to shape youth consciousness with no help from major record labels. During the youth resistance against education cuts in 2010/11, artists like Lowkey, Logic, and Crazy-Haze, who are involved in ‘The People’s Army’, have proved that Hip-hop’s rightful place is in the struggle, not just here in the UK, but across the world, from Egypt to Palestine to Afghanistan.

Their lyrics don’t just speak of the need to show tolerance and humility to each other as human beings (although they do this very well). They also show their understanding of the need not just to fight against our governments, but to fight against capitalism and imperialism on an international scale. The need to show solidarity with all those in struggle across the world. These positive and progressive messages will only continue to be more understood and accepted as people learn through struggle that we can only be stronger by uniting against the exploiting class of bankers, bosses and their governments.

The capitalists know that knowledge is our power, so they sell us ignorance; they know that unity is our strength, so they keep us divided. It’s time we reclaim hip-hop, and all forms of entertainment for the benefit of society, not the profit of the capitalist minority.