"What we do now matters forever. This is not a game."
- Tupac Shakur (1971-1996)
WASHINGTON - Hip hop may have been born in the mean streets of the south Bronx, but nearly three decades later you're just as likely to find it in Hanoi as Hollis. The music and culture have permeated not only the globe, but class and education barriers as well. And with hip-hop becoming a world wide phenomenon and multi-billion dollar industry, how has the game changed?
"Hip hop came from conditions of working-class black and Puerto Rican youth that were marginalized from mainstream American culture, disco clubs and decent job opportunities," said Jay Woodson, an organizer with the National Hip Hop Convention, a group which lobbies and plans political events around hip-hop interests.
But Woodson notes that the rise to pop culture phenomenon status has taken a lot of the impetus behind hip hop out of the equation. "Pop culture reflects two aspects of hip hop well: emceeing and deejaying," said Woodson. "As for expressing our frustrations of living and working in underclass environments, having fun, graffiti, breakin' and knowledge, pop culture does not reflect those aspects of hip hop well. Pop culture focuses too much on celebrities, album sales and violence."
Dax-Devlon Ross, an author who teaches a class titled "Hip-Hop and Social Change" at the Urban Assembly Media High School in New York agrees, saying the kind of hip hop king-making that is popular on television and radio has a tendency to eclipse important social messages of lesser-known artists.
"A lot of people tend to focus on what's in the mainstream," he said. "[But] there's this whole realm of music that gets no play."
"When well-known artists like Jay-Z produce albums such as The Black Album that are vastly different from their poular style," Ross said, "their popularity and sales can suffer."
But Woodson said he believes the public is able to differentiate between hip hop artists concerned mainly with artistic creativity and the "entertainers" primarily driven by dreams of wealth.
"Most people make the distinction between a hip hop artist and a hip hop entertainer," he said. "Unfortunately, there are many entertainers who project an image just to become popular and to make money instead of being more creative and socially responsible."
But even if popular culture has diluted some of the original ideals behind hip hop's first expressions, it extending reach and grassroots loyalty have begun to be recognized as a potentially transformative political force - a vision most famously expressed by Public Enemy's Chuck D. Organizations like the Hip Hop Convention, Diddy's "Vote or Die" campaign, Russell Simmons' Hip Hop Summit, and others are working to bring the collective weight of the community to bear on the social situations which gave rise to the movement. And because hip hop has its origins in speaking out about issues which are generally brushed aside, it has become a particularly effective way for artists to make statements about their beliefs on a national and global level.
"Hip hop is a social construct and it is political. Talking about hip hop is a conversation about social issues and politics," Woodson said. "Hip hop has always been a hyper-verbal; it is a space to express thoughts, feelings, dreams, inspiration and teach lessons."
But Ross said he believes the attention to hip hop as a vehicle for political and social change exerts too much pressure on the art form.
"It's important and valuable," he said. "But at the same time, it's music. We need to stop putting so much weight on it. … It's unfair to speak of it as a vehicle for social change, but [it can be] a vehicle for individual change. It changed my life."
CONTINUE: Hip Hop and Social Change...