Hip Hop is not just mainstream rap. It is more than Lil Wayne or 50 Cent. The real essence of Hip Hop culture is found in what Hip Hop pioneer KRS-One refers to as a “unique collective consciousness; the creative, causative force behind Hip Hop’s elements,” prompting him and many other Hip Hoppers to stress time and again that Hip Hop is not something one does, but rather something one lives. This way of life is socially critical, anti-mainstream, and profoundly creative at its core. According to The Hip Hoptionary: The Dictionary Of Hip Hop Terminology by Alonso Westbrook, Hip Hop is defined “as the artistic response to oppression. A way of expression in dance, music, word/song. A culture that thrives on creativity and nostalgia. As a musical art form it is the stories of inner-city life, often with a message, spoken over beats of music….” However, in the eyes of a majority of people, this Hip Hop community has been reduced to nothing more than a commodity in the form of mainstream hip-hop music.
The current American social commentary about Hip Hop clearly demonstrates our need for better cultural education on the subject. Undoubtedly, the most common form of criticism leveled upon Hip Hop artists is directed toward those who rap about gang violence and drug use in their songs; critics argue that they are glorifying this lifestyle and encouraging it among younger generations However, it is better understood as a chronicling of the real and daily experiences of many Americans who feel—and justifiably so—abandoned by their own country. Hip Hop is in many ways a history of the struggle of America’s urban minorities, and, as KRS-One states in his Temple of Hip Hop, “History informs a People as to who they are and where they’ve been… History creates reality for a People; it tells them what they are capable of.” Many of the arguments to take these “harmful” elements out of hip-hop music are in fact attempts by those outside the Hip Hop community to rewrite or censor its history due to a shallow understanding of Hip Hop culture.
To ignore the narrative behind Hip Hop and its evolution as a living identity is to be oblivious to a significant portion of modern American history, though this cultural illiteracy is increasingly not limited to the US but also applies internationally. Though it was produced in a particular set of historical circumstances, Hip Hop has demonstrated time and again its potential for creating transnational and transcultural sense of community. When Japanese Hip Hop producer Seba Jun (Nujabes) passed away in 2010, graffiti, tribute albums, and other artwork in his memory began popping up around the world; even today he is often depicted alongside the late American Hip Hop legend J Dilla. On the other side of this transpacific Hip Hop fellowship, the Japanese MC Dengaryu (who I met after his show in Shibuya earlier this month) lamented the untimely death of American artists like Big Pun, stressing how much their music has impacted his own life.
But it was something else Dengaryu kept repeating that got me thinking—throughout our conversation he continually referred to the “global Hip Hop nation,” a community he believes transcends one’s birthplace and the culture in which one was raised. It is instead connected by a way of thinking and a desire to actively change the societal status quo. This same sentiment of a global Hip Hop tribe was captured by Japanese beatboxer Afra when he said in an interview, “I can’t even imagine my life without Hip Hop. Whether I’m drinking this tea or I’m beatboxing, I am Hip Hop. It’s blood—Hip Hop is blood. The color of your skin’s got nothing to do with it.”
Wandering through the Japanese underground Hip Hop scene this past year and talking with artists and fans alike has thoroughly convinced me of one thing: any university that hopes to produce culturally literate students in the 21st century must offer some courses on Hip Hop and its history. Outside of the ExCollege, there are currently no such courses at Tufts. Hip Hop’s compelling development as a culture and means of artistic expression, along with its undeniable relevance to the field of Africana studies, leave me astonished at this lack of accessibility.
As hip-hop music has become steadily commercialized over the years, the definition of Hip Hop has been recast to refer solely to this family of music and its related artists. Although the media perpetuates impressions like this regularly, to characterize Hip Hop in this way is to completely misunderstand its true spirit and vitality. There is hardly a single social issue left in the world that Hip Hop has not offered its commentary on; it has given a powerful voice to otherwise marginalized peoples and groups. Tufts and other institutions of higher education would benefit from adding Hip Hop to their curricula and thus increasing their students’ cultural literacy.