Utne Blogs > Politics

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rap

by Staff

Tags: hip-hop, rap, activism, Mother Jones hip-hop, Jeff Chang, Slate hip-hop, corporate rap, Youth Organizing Project, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Campaign Against Violence,

Much commentary on rap music has asserted that funny, amusing hip-hop is a moribund sub-genre. In 2005, for instance, Slate reported on the then-popular “Narnia rap” from Saturday Night Live, musing that its goofy style offered what was missing from popular hip-hop. The article’s provocative subtitle—“It won’t save Saturday Night Live, but it could save hip-hop”—suggested that this brand of hi-jinks might serve as a corrective to the genre as a whole. But wasn’t Busta Rhymes goofy? What about OutKast? And, although he is not widely known, the popular indie artist MF Doom did happen to release an entire album about food. All of which is just to say that hip-hop isn’t the unilateral thug advertisement we might pretend it is.

In the Nov.-Dec. issue of Mother Jones, Jeff Chang makes the case that mainstream hip-hop could be poised to re-embrace the socially conscious and politically informed attitudes that mark its history. Detailing some of the politics that have motivated hip-hop artists past and present—he includes a get-acquainted-with-the-facts timeline—Chang argues that hip-hop’s potential as a genuine, widespread social movement faltered when corporate rap evolved into a “monoculture”—“a bland array of hosts and hostesses for the Bling Shopping Network.”

While Chang doesn’t delve into whether hip-hop lost or retained its political flavor at the local level, he does emphasize the focused activism of various local groups that have tapped into hip-hop culture, such as Boston’s Youth Organizing Project, Brooklyn’s Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and Milwaukee’s Campaign Against Violence, which blend politics and culture, activism and rap. Observing the impact of these organizations and the more obviously political gestures of artists such as Kanye West, one wonders when we might stop imagining what hip-hop is and actually hear it.  

Michael Rowe