COLUMBIA — Three decades after its birth, hip-hop, which began as an artistic expression for black, urban youth, has come to be accepted and created by people all over the world. It conjures up its magic by celebrating its origins and continuing to express political, social and personal struggles.
Hip-hop emerged out of the social upheaval of the 1970s in New York's Bronx borough, writes journalist Jeff Chang in his 2005 book, "Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation." Following the civil rights movement, blacks and Latinos in New York, particularly the South Bronx, battled with government neglect, high unemployment rates and slum-like housing. Chang writes that the response was similar to that of other disadvantaged people in other cities in America: rioting and violence. From the chaos, a generation of art evolved.
Here's a sampling of violence/drugs/misogyny:
Artist: Flo Rida
Sample lyrics: Work the pole, I got the bank roll/ I'mma say that I prefer them no clothes/ I'm into that, I love women exposed
Artist: 50 Cent
Song: "My Buddy"
Sample lyrics: Infrared beam in the scope for distance/ The best company when approaching business/ He who ride with me to the end/ We all got a friend/ And mine is a G-U-N
Artist: 50 Cent
Song: "High all the time"
Sample lyrics: I don't need Dom Perignon, I don't need Cris/ Tanqueray and Alize, I don't need s---/ I'm high all the time, I smoke that good s---/ I stay high all the time, man I'm on some hood s---
Here's a sampling of activist/positive:
Artist: Mos Def
Sample lyrics: My folks said they was in love when they had me/ I take they love they made me with to make rhymes and beats/ Can you feel? The raw deal, it's all wheel-driven/ Contemplate the essence of beats, rhymes and living/ Speech in line with the rhythm, designed with the rhythm/ Ears and eyes keepin good time with the rhythm
Artist: Black Eyed Peas
Song: "Where is the love"
Sample lyrics: Overseas, yeah, we try to stop terrorism/ But we still got terrorists here livin'/ In the USA, the big CIA/ The Bloods and The Crips and the KKK/ But if you only have love for your own race/ Then you only leave space to discriminate/ And to discriminate only generates hate/ And when you hate then you're bound to get irate, yeah
Artist: Immortal Technique
Song: "Leaving the Past"
Sample lyrics: Hell is not a place you go, if you not a Christian/ It's the failure of your life's greatest ambition/ It's a bad decision to blindly follow any religion/ I don't see the difference in between the wrong and the wrong/ Soldiers emptyin' they clips at little kids and they mom
"My own feeling is that the idea of the Hip-Hop Generation brings together time and race, place and polyculturalism, hot beats and hybridity," Chang writes. "It describes the turn from politics to culture, the process of entropy and reconstruction."
Hip-hop became a way to express dissatisfaction with society and call for change. DJ Kool Herc, known for creating the breakbeat, the basis for hip-hop, is credited as a pioneer of the genre. He was born in Jamaica but later moved to the Bronx, where hip-hop was born. Along came others, writes Chang, including Bronx's Afrika Bambaataa, who as a "post-civil rights peacemaker" and "hip-hop activist," introduced hip-hop music and culture to the "white art-crowd and punk-rock clubs of lower Manhattan."
And so hip-hop spread in New York and beyond with the likes of Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan. As hip-hop evolved, cities across America joined the movement. California became a hip-hop hot spot with some of its most famous artists including Snoop Dogg and New York-born California resident Tupac Shakur, whose poetic lyrics addressed issues such as racism and parental abandonment.
Other popular artists have helped place eyes on big city hip-hop scenes, like Nelly out of St. Louis, Ludacris out of Atlanta and Common out of Chicago.
And as hip-hop music spread in America, it spread across art forms, races and nations. Graphic art, or graffiti, became part of hip-hop, along with spoken word poetry and hip-hop dance, which includes break dancing, popping and locking. First, the white hip-hop group, the Beastie Boys, then white rapper, Eminem, helped paved the way for whites and other races to be more accepted as hip-hop artists. In Hong Kong, some local hip-hop dance competitions are televised.
On an international level, hip-hop has appeal, said Holly Hobbs, founder of Hip-Hop for Hope.
"On a purely aesthetic level, danceable beats mixed with catchy hooks and lyrical, poetic rhymes are cross-culturally appealing," she wrote in an e-mail interview. "On a sociocultural level, hip-hop is a music rooted in the real, while that 'real' is often exaggerated for effect (as in the glorification of violence or bravado, etc.), it is still a music rooted in the everyday experience of artists who have something to say about inequality or imbalances of power. And that is a sentiment that has no cultural barriers."
The mainstream popularity of hip-hop is especially evident in the U.S. "Notorious," a movie about the life of Brooklyn rapper B.I.G., who was killed on March 9, 2007, was set to be released Friday.
Of Billboard's Top 100 songs of 2008, hip-hop artists took the No. 1 and No. 4 spots. Flo Rida's No.1 song, "Low," spent 40 weeks on the Billboard chart. A New Orleans native, Lil' Wayne's song, "Lollipop," claimed the No.4 spot.
But hip-hop is doing more than generating millions of dollars for chart-topping artists. Reminiscent of its social roots, hip-hop is a tool for activism, a way to reach out to many fans of hip-hop — the youth.
"Hip-hop is very important in New Orleans and using hip-hop, which especially the young people are involved in, it's a way to get young people involved in rebuilding their community," said Hobbs in a phone interview. "Young people are often considered liabilities when they should be thought of as resources."
Hobbs took a hiatus from her doctoral work in Folklore, Oral Tradition and Cultural Studies at MU to create Hip-Hop for Hope, a nonprofit in New Orleans that aids in the post-Katrina rebuilding efforts. She also co-founded New Media Network, a nonprofit in Columbia that teaches First Ward children about digital storytelling. She said she hopes for that project to expand to help children interested in hip-hop to cultivate their musical talents.
Hobbs, whose academic research includes folk music and hip-hop, said that the commercialization of hip-hop has complicated its image. She said that what record labels often think sells records are songs about sex or money. She argues that hip-hop, because of its social roots and reach, has the ability to do much more.
That's why Hobbs thinks hip-hop has helped her New Orleans organization, which with the help of big-name artists, such as Lupe Fiasco, uses hip-hop to encourage community development. And community development can't happen without cultural development, she said.
"We're really strong supporters of organizations that don't just try to build roads but cultural development in terms of how can we rebuild this community to rebuild trust and social networks because those are the things that create cohesion," Hobbs said. "And if you look at what makes people have pride in their community, it's not money, it's coming together."