Christian academics are supposed to engage the culture around us. We’re supposed to interact with music, art, literature, film, and philosophy. We’re supposed to pick things up, examine them, take them apart and reassemble them, and understand how and why they work.
But we often neglect an art form that’s incredibly significant in today’s society. It’s a music form, actually, and it is the music form that I think has been the most important musical movement in the last 50 years or so.
I’m talking about hip-hop.
Hip-hop sprang up New York City, mostly in the Bronx, in the 70s and 80s. It began as a social movement as much as a music style (and lifestyle), and it was, until recently, unique to the African-American community. It quickly became a social movement, a powerful way to comment on American culture and the black community’s place within it.
Much rap music, now commercialized and manufactured to appeal to mass audiences, retains only a shade of the social commentary prevalent in the rap of the 70s and 80s. But the spirit prevails in many artists, and they’re producing very important albums. For decades, prominent and underground rappers alike have presented scathing commentaries on current events and culture, describing the black community, and building a culture that sprang entirely from their communal experiences.
The music form is relatively young, but it’s increasingly relevant. It’s especially important in 2015 after incidents like the Mike Brown shooting, Eric Garner’s murder in NYC, and the prominence of important conversations about race in contemporary America.
Hip-hop is unique in that offers the brutally honest, open, and frank insights into a huge part of American society. No other music style is doing that right now (or at least not as prominently). Countless tracks offer a blistering take on everything from the American prison system and the disproportionate number of black men who are incarcerated and have at least one count against them because of their race and culture, like this verse from rap duo Run The Jewels:
Conditions create a villain, the villain is given vision The vision becomes a vow to seek vengeance on all the vicious… I’m a fellow with melanin, suspect of a felony, Ripped like Rakim Allah, feds is checkin’ my melody (from “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” by Run The Jewels)
To poverty, violence, and being abandoned by the rest of society:
They merking kids, they murder kids here Why you think they don't talk about it? They deserted us here... Down here it's easier to find a gun than it is to find a fucking parking spot No love for the opposition, specifically a cop position, Cause they've never been in our position Getting violations for the nation correlating you dry snitching (from “Pusha Man” by Chance The Rapper)
To government corruption and institutionalized racism:
Poor reparations, the Bush administration Unequality, martial law, segregation False hood, false teaching, false education Now's the time for us to come amongst this nation They deceiving us, they don't believe in us… For all my people that's out there persevering through the storm Black fist, Staten Island, stand up, stand strong Penetrate through the gate and bring the Clan along (from “A Better Tomorrow” by Wu-Tang Clan)
I can’t speak to the experiences in these songs. I’m not from their world. But I can tell you that there is a raw anger, a despair, and a defiance in these songs that is very, very culturally important. These songs present deep, wide, urgent problems in an important part of our society. And people are writing off the messages in these songs because they don’t take the art form seriously.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t like hip-hop. I don’t care if you don’t like the artists’ tones, or agree with their sentiments, or disapprove of their ideas. I do care about people starting to listen to this music and understand the people who make it.
It’s important. It is important. It is important.
Are you listening?