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Hip Hop: Today's Civil Rights Movement?

The New H.N.I.C., The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop book cover.
The New H.N.I.C., The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop book cover.
Hip hop is inherently political, the language is political. It uses language as a weapon -- not a weapon to violate or not a weapon to offend, but a weapon that pushes the envelope that provokes people, makes people think.

Hip-hop culture, with its street rhythms and explicit lyrics, is more relevant in advancing civil rights today than the peaceful messages of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., author Todd Boyd says.

In his new book The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop, Boyd, who teaches at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, writes: "I would suggest that you might get a better read of what's going on in the world of Black people today by listening to DMX on It's Dark and Hell is Hot than by listening to repeated broadcasts of Martin Luther King speeches."

In an Weekend Edition Saturday interview with NPR's Scott Simon, Boyd says he's not demeaning King in making the comparison. "I would suggest that Martin Luther King and his politics are very specific to a certain time and it's important for us to learn from that, but if we want to talk about the present and the future, hip hop is much more immediate and much more relevant. We're in a moment where we can't simply look at things from that 1960s perspective and expect for it to hold up in the present day."

"I think what Black Power did and what hip hop would pick up on later, was move away from the sort of passive sense of suffering, 'We shall overcome'. Hip hop is much more active, much more aggressive, much more militant."

"Hip hop is inherently political, the language is political," Boyd says. "It uses language as a weapon — not a weapon to violate or not a weapon to offend, but a weapon that pushes the envelope that provokes people, makes people think."

Boyd says H.N.I.C., the acronym in the title of his book, is a reference to "a phrase in the 1970s — head nigger in charge. N-i-g-g-e-r for so long was considered a derogatory word" rooted in slavery and racism, he says. But hip hop has "come along and changed the meaning of that word — n-i-g-g-a." The late rapper Tupac Shakur said that acronym stands for "Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished," Boyd says. "So the word now, I think, for many people is a word of affirmation."

Below is an excerpt from The New H.N.I.C., The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop by Todd Boyd:

Change the Game

The Def Jam record label announced sometime in 1999 that it would be releasing two highly anticipated albums by rappers DMX and Jay-Z, respectively, during the last two weeks of the year. The plan was to end the millennium with the number-one record in the country and begin the new millennium the same way. To no one's surprise, Def Jam was successful in its quest. DMX's And Then There Was X ended the year at number one, and Jay-Z's The Life and Times of S. Carter opened 2000 at the top of the charts.

Although this may seem less than exceptional now, there was a time in the not too distant past when hip hop was thought to be meaningless noise, simply a passing fad, another annoying youthful trend destined to go the way of disco, the betamax, and Rubik's cubes. Over the course of the past twenty years, however, hip hop culture has gone from being a marginal New York subculture to being a phenomenon that not only has saturated mainstream America but also has had a massive impact at a global level.

This move from marginal to mainstream was even highlighted by a recognized cultural barometer, Time, which on its February 5, 1999, cover declared America to be a "Hip Hop Nation." Shortly after, hip hop diva Lauryn Hill, who received five Grammy awards at the 1999 ceremony, and who appeared on the cover of that issue of Time, quizzically stated after accepting award number five, "[T]his is crazy... cause this is hip hop." Her astonishment at receiving such widespread acclaim while being immersed in a culture once deemed insignificant, even by the music industry, is truly a reflection of the arduous road hip hop has traveled since its meager beginnings in the South Bronx some twenty years earlier.

The significance of this moment though is not solely confined to the current popularity of a music genre, or its musicians. The music and the larger culture that surrounds it, hip hop, emerged from a uniquely African American disposition, and like the blues, jazz, and soul before it, give voice to those who tend to occupy the lowest rungs of the American social ladder.

Though the roots of the culture are informed by the African American oral tradition, as well as the lived conditions of poor Black and Latino youth in postindustrial New York, hip hop has been able to expand from this initial base, and has become, in my mind, a dominant generational voice throughout the world, be they gangbangers in South Central Los Angeles, Algerian immigrants in Paris, or blackface Japanese youth bouncing to the phattest track in Tokyo's Roppongi district, not to mention the proverbial suburban White teenagers or rural "rednecks" who also constitute a large segment of hip hop's consumer base.

Elvis Presley ain't got no soul/John Coltrane is rock and roll/You may dig on the Rolling Stones/but they ain't come up wit that style on they own.

--Mos Def, "Rock and Roll"

Yes, like rock and roll before it, hip hop too, defines a generation, but rock and roll was initially derivative, an appropriated form of Black music. When this appropriated form of Black music was performed by White artists, it would provide the soundtrack for the baby boom generation; its impact, again, having an almost exclusive effect on mainstream White society. In other words, rock and roll became White music, speaking to various segments of the White masses. Though rock

would expose a generational shift during a very transitional time in American social history, it never had the same exclusive impact or significance outside the mainstream.

Hip hop has now revolutionized the times precisely because it is music from the margins that has grown up to consume the mainstream. As Jay-Z says, "[W]e brought the suburbs to the 'hood." However, unlike the blues or the rhythm and blues that formed the basis for rock and roll, hip hop did not need to be repackaged in Whiteface for it to be consumed by the masses, and this is a telling commentary on the historical changes that have taken place in America since the 1960s.

In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, popular culture and especially music and sports have became cultural sites where a seemingly un-compromised sense of Blackness could be articulated and even turned into a profitable commodity. Many see this commercial nature of hip hop to be another example of the mainstream consuming the margins. It is my assertion that hip hop never went to the mainstream, the mainstream came to hip hop, and this reversal or shift in power relations underlies the cultural concerns that will form the basis of this book. As hip hop pioneer and present-day rap mogul Russell Simmons says in his book Life and Def, "I see hip hop culture as the new American mainstream. We don't change for you; you adapt to us."

Hip hop, a music that in its very definition is about existing on the margins, must now confront life in the mainstream. This has, at times, been difficult, similar to the contradictions experienced by many successful rappers themselves, when their present life of luxury conflicts with their ghetto roots. On another level though, hip hop has become a profound expression of something much larger. The generation that emerged in the aftermath of the civil rights movement remains perplexed over whether they will actually try to integrate with mainstream society or whether they will choose to remain isolated in their own existence.

This classic American dilemma over assimilation has been revisited through hip hop. In some ways, like the characters in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, we find ourselves back at the same place many African Americans were at in the late 1950s/early 1960s: pushing for integration but constantly asking at what cost.

Hip hop, a social movement in and of itself, has been the most visible expression of this societal trepidation in regard to a full embrace of American society. In my mind, this is evocative of Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather saga, in which Italian immigrants try to become American citizens; over the course of their journey, we see the toil and strife involved in making this happen. Though African Americans have faced a more difficult fate relative to mainstream social mobility, they have often demonstrated the same struggles in life, and through cultural expression.

Hip hop has become the most compelling contemporary articulation of this age-old American question. It is this examination of post-civil rights African Americans and their struggles regarding this dilemma of assimilation, as expressed through hip hop, that again underlies the motivation for this book.

From The New H.N.I.C., The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop by Todd Boyd, published by New York University Press. © Copyright 2003.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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