Originally published on Forbes.com.
When rap started out in the late 1970s, it was a form of musical expression that was both entertaining and got you to think. It was a diverse genre that held many possibilities for its practitioners. Queen Latifah saw rapping as a way to educate. “It was an expression, a culture, an attitude,” she wrote in her autobiography Ladies First: Revelations of a Strong Woman. Latifa had considered a career in law, but “Hip-hop showed me another way to communicate, another way to reach people, another way to state my case.” Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five used rap to increase awareness of social ills. For Public Enemy it was a platform for political expression. There were always rappers who viewed the genre as party music. But as rap became more popular, the party took over.
Rap became more homogenized. Professor Todd Callais from University of Cincinnati’s Blue Ash College analyzed the content of lyrics of about 900 top-charting rap songs from 1989 to 2003. He found that rap lyric topics became less varied, concentrating on sex, partying, consumerism, violence, and self-promotion. Political advocacy has all but disappeared.
In this way, the story of rap is similar to that of many new innovations that, once they become institutionalized as part of the mainstream, lose their edge. It is an example of how success can kill creativity and narrow the range of what is possible. As professor Callais wrote, once hip-hop became mainstream, “For black artists to survive they might need to sacrifice some of their originality and allow commercial rationality to dictate musical style.”
It also shows how success can kill, or at least dilute, a social movement. “Historical research on movements shows there is a strong trend toward becoming very institutionalized or mainstream and then losing both the initial idealistic ambitions but also the ability to accomplish much,” told me Klaus Weber, a professor at Kellogg School of Management who has written extensively about social movements. “When the labor movement or the environmental movement or the civil rights movement became formalized and co-opted by commercial interests, they lost some of the vibrancy of a grassroots movement.”
But for a small group of underground rappers, hip-hop has not lost its potential as a vehicle for social change. They are drawing on the legacy of hip-hop to send a broad message of awareness and empowerment. And they are doing it in part by attacking the mainstream. “It is a smaller movement than in the 1980s,” told me professor Callais, “But it is more aggressive and politically aware than in the past, and it targets mainstream hip-hop and its potentially negative consequences.”
White rapper Brother Ali is among the leaders of the underground hip-hop movement. He presented at a talk “Hip-Hop: Movement Beyond the Music” as part of Chicago Ideas Week. “Hip-hop is here to empower people,” he told me. “Hip-hop is here to reconnect us with our humanity, which is a very empowering thing if we can get over that initial hurdle of being insecure and fearful because we’re not active as men, as white people, as middle-class people, as straight people, as English speakers, as people whose citizenship isn’t questioned.”
“I interact with people on a regular basis who are white and view themselves as entering into an identity and a lifestyle because of their connection with hip-hop,” he said. “So I guess my challenge for them is to take that connection more seriously to the point where they start to look at it and discuss ‘What effect does white privilege have on our lives?’ ‘What are ways that we can actively engage in our own reality?’ I’m not saying go set up soup kitchens in the hood, sort of have this white savior thing, but I’m saying what are ways that in our lives we can fight for the music scene to be more equitable, for our day-to-day lives to be more equitable, so that we live in a society that keeps our community that created this culture strong and healthy.”
Brother Ali sees college students as key agents for promoting politically and socially conscious hip-hop. “Students have a choice and a say over how those dollars get spent at their schools,” he said. “One of the first steps would be to say if you’re going to bring an artist here that’s going to talk to us about smoking weed and having sex that’s fine. But we would like to see somebody that also talks to us about the other reason that we’re in school that gives us some substance as well as being a great artist.”
Underground rapper Psalm One has spread her positive message about hip-hop through educational programs for kids. “We teach kids that a lot of rap that they see is fantastic, meaning its fantasy. It’s not based on reality,” she said. “They take pieces of reality and blow it up. A lot of things that rappers in the mainstream talk about aren’t true.” She also teaches the kids to write raps about their lives.
Psalm One’s message is that ordinary people can be extraordinary. “It’s being amazing on the regular. It’s being dope on the regular. Being a regular person that does extraordinary things,” she said. In this spirit, her website iswww.regularblackgirl.com. “Being regular is something that a lot of people don’t want to be. Everyone wants to be different and unique and when everyone tries to be unique, everyone is the same. I used to be a chemist. Now I’m rapping. I’ve seen two dreams realized, and I’m definitely a normal girl. Even if you don’t see yourself as a huge superstar or a person who wants to personify something that is way more sensationalized than yourself, you can still do sensational things in your life.”
Psalm One will be doing a workshop at The Chicago Cultural Center on November 8th.