We know the drill. Oh, you listen to rap? Name every rapper, ever. Know your lyrics and know your artists, or you are a fake fan. Never mind the fact that the self-righteous Brown boy that demanded you prove yourself derives his entire personhood from a genre of art that he blithely hyper-consumes for clout. And this popularity contest of who engages best with the newest trends in music, footwear and fashion is at the forefront of a majority of the hip hop consumer discourse today, in classic appropriation of Black culture. But hip hop encompasses an entire cultural movement that expresses people’s lived and political experiences across a variety of different art forms, from street art and fashion to music, dance and MCing. The musical style influences much of our mainstream media, popular culture and trends which are superficially consumed without a second thought.
On March 11, TedXUofM hosted the “Conversations in hip hop” winter salon, which gave me a chance to consider my own (often mindless) consumption of rap music and appreciate the larger culture, history and breadth behind the genre of art. I was fascinated and inspired by the insight and wisdom of the panel of speakers including Kwasi Ampene, University of Michigan professor, author, filmmaker and ethnomusicologist; Elisandra Rosario, dancer, DJ, activist and filmmaker; Paul (Fifty) Johnson, graffiti and multidisciplinary artist; and Tonie Arcon, Business senior and a musician.
The panelists spoke about their first experiences with hip hop from The Sugarhill Gang’s quintessential “Rapper’s Delight” to Missy Elliott, Biggie Smalls and Tupac playing on the radio. In conversation with each other, they agreed on the curation of community and empowerment hip hop offers to those who engage with it. Arcon confessed that much of the foundation of his relationships with his roommates and his friends has been rooted in hip hop.
“(It) brings people together … I think hip hop has that kind of effect,” Arcon said.
Ampene spoke to the manifestation of this solidarity, discussing a brief history of West African hip hop and its function as a platform for the youth to speak on ongoing socio-political issues.
“My journey (with hip hop) starts across the ocean,” he said.
While we often associate the earliest traction of the movement to the Bronx, N.Y., Ampene discussed the long tradition of hip hop in West Africa through interconnected spiritual customs. According to Ampene, in West Africa, the hip hop movement was a form of public transcript and socially conscious dialogue, empowering the youth with a platform and empowering entire communities with its sacred roots in religion and gospel.
He attributed the gap in historical knowledge about hip hop to the Westernized erasure of African hip hop tradition, demonstrated by the modern manifestation of hip hop in the United States through certain practices of consumption.
This resonated with me, as I thought about the modern-day hip hop that I know well compared to its African spiritual roots that I hadn’t previously considered. To me, while much of production and creation of the art of hip hop itself encompasses its own set of Western social interpretations and ideals drawing from tradition, history and lived experience, the almost robotic Westernized perspective of some modern-day consumer practices focuses specifically on the American Dream as the human ideal, singularly fixating the narrative of hip hop on music about possession of money and hypersexualization of women alone. Mine is a critique of the listeners, who expect these themes and fail to appreciate hip hop’s more traditional aspects. This commercially-forced divergence in interpretation from hip hop’s spiritually-rooted African origin is necessitated by pressure from capitalistic consumer demands, creating a divide in consciousness between the art itself and consumption of it. So much so that modern-day consumers of hip hop may unintentionally force the art into a monolith stripped of its deep-rooted culture and diversity of artistry. Often distracted from its original connection to spirituality and ancestral respect and from the artist’s original intent, some practices of modern consumption and commercialization of hip hop have confined this extremely diverse genre into a monolithic narrative.
To counter this one-dimensional perspective of the monolith, Rosario talked about her method of performance.
“Let your art exist in intergenerational spaces,” Rosario said. “Let your work inspire and bring knowledge to younger generations.”
Even so, Johnson made the distinction between artwork for others and for the individual through comparing it to the characteristic purposes of murals and graffiti art. While murals are created in dialogue with their surroundings to speak on something specifically relevant to the community it belongs to, he said, graffiti art is far more individual to the artist.
In correspondence, Arcon spoke to the heterogeneity of hip hop and the related struggle for artists to identify what truly defines hip hop, and, consequently, what it means to be Black in an increasingly commercialized sphere.
“Using melodies, that’s not (perceived as) hip hop, the same way a student wanting to study neuroscience, he’s not (perceived as) Black,” Arcon said.
In saying so, Arcon challenged the monolithic understanding of Black culture, Black music, Black art at large and Black identity and intellect, emphasizing the importance of seeing each artist for what they bring to the table.
These speakers’ experiences serve as a reminder of the inherently diverse sphere of hip hop that is vastly overlooked and notoriously appropriated in today’s mainstream. I, too, am guilty of ignorantly submitting to pop culture norms, I won’t lie. I joined the hip hop game pretty late, and though I was constantly surrounded by the culture through following new trends in both streetwear and dance, I only really started listening to the genre of music a few years ago. I’ve since explored its depths by studying some of my now-favorite artists like J. Cole, Nipsey Hussle, Kid Cudi, Joey Bada$$, Noname and GoldLink. While many of these artists do individually engage in highly relevant socio-political dialogue from their own lived experience, their art is not the only kind that contributes meaning and importance to hip hop. Michigan in Color columnist Udoka Nwansi drives home this very important point in her critical piece “A quick look at how we consume rap music”: “It would be ignorant to automatically write Black art off as less meaningful just because it doesn’t address current socio-political events. Looking at Black music in such a way places its value in direct correlation to how socially aware it is, which is not, by any means, always an accurate indicator of good art.” While I appreciate the direct empowerment and dialogue of my favorite artists, from Nipsey’s legacy of social activism to J. Cole’s albums of raw experience and wisdom, like Arcon suggested, artists like Playboi Carti won’t nurture that same effect because different artists curate art for different moods. Instead, Arcon asserted, Carti will “have me feeling good on a Friday night.”
Art in relation with corporate and academic institutions will always constitute a complex relationship –– because art is often in critique of the same structures it is distributed by –– and each artist engages with this complexity by their own means and through their own lived experiences. But as consumers of hip hop, it is not our job to criticize the methods in which an artist is engaging with socio-political institutions in their work, nor is it up to us to determine whether or not that art holds value, like Nwansi says. Instead, it’s time we focus on judging our own consumerism.
Consumption of art, especially music, is arguably one of the more profound joys of life. But it’s important to understand that under the forces of capitalism and commercialism, our methods of consumerism are often tainted by racism, classism and heteronormativity. Thus, it is our duty to break away from that limiting perspective to understand art for what it really is: experience. hip hop is a vehicle for the diverse lived experiences of so many individuals across many different modalities of art — from graffiti to music to fashion — accessible for us to engage with intentionally and introspectively. While I might not know the names of every rapper and the lyrics to every song, I’m working to break the hip hop monolith perpetuated by my own consumerism while I’m at it. And to the pretty boy who would much rather spend his time testing me on my rap knowledge, I encourage you to do the same.
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