Sociopolitical Activism and the Origins of Hip Hop

In the twenty-first century, hip hop music is often associated with behaviors like drug use, sexualization of women, gang violence, consumerist and materialistic ideas, egocentric and pop culture values, however, hip hop culture and its music planted its roots in social progression and civil rights movements in the 1970s, working to bring urban communities together in reforming the black and Latino condition of New York City.  Hip hop has since grown into one of the largest subcultures on the planet because of its relatable connection to youth movements and a wider human struggle faced by millions of people around the world.  The culture of hip hop transformed from social elements like history, philosophy, religion, and ethics, converted its philosophies and teachings into an artistic form of self-expression that has garnered mass appeal through its innovation of previous black art movements and the rebellious, competitive nature of the culture.  In a similar fashion to jazz and blues which also ties in elements of racial injustice and oppression, finding African roots and expressing knowledge of self, hip hop arose from the traumatic social conditions faced by minorities in inner cities during the twentieth century, expressing these woes and generating a positive rehabilitating effect on black American ideas, customs, and history.  More specifically hip hop grew out of gang culture, combining its competitive elements and community-based organization into an art form that was used to assert the attitudes and beliefs of black and Latino communities in an effort to resist cultural oppression and to start the reconstruction of the impoverish and desperate states that festered within urban cultures. “From its beginnings in New York, rap has been a vehicle for the young and disenfranchised. Early on it provided dispatches from America’s crumbling inner cities ravaged by crack cocaine, violence, and apathy from elected officials.”

The commercialization of hip hop as a recent phenomenon has compromised the original ethics by promoting mainstream stigmas that do not fundamentally mesh with the principles of hip hop culture and other black art movements outlined in this essay.  Hip hop has since become an object of criticism, corporately tied, and lacks the strong grassroots principles it once embodied during harsh social and economic times of 1970s urban America.  However, minority politics are an essential element of hip hop culture since its inception, but even more so as an intrinsic piece of black and Latino consciousness as a platform to combat social injustice in a artistic - non-violent way; the ethics and principles of hip hop have and will always be a force representing minority activism and the struggles of these groups in America and around the globe.

Artist-activists in black communities started becoming active during the Harlem Renaissance period of twentieth century New York, where black nationalism a political thought was artistically expressed through music, poetry, dance, paintings and more. It is impossible to disconnect hip hop culture from the movements and thoughts of figures like Marcus Garvey, Alain LeRoy Locke, Langston Hughes, Willie Smith, Billie Holiday and more.  Reiland Rabaka in her book hip hop Inheritance argues that the foundations of hip hop has simultaneously converged and diverged from other black aesthetic traditions, in that, everything that hip hop has become was inherited by a collective black consciousness that gave rise to many artist-activist movements.  Where hip hop stands alone as an art movement is through its ability to encompass communities, where the Harlem Renaissance was mainly comprised of artists and was a relatively quiet, small movement,  hip hop spread throughout New York rapidly in the late 1970s into communities desperate for positive leadership.

For urban black and Latino communities in America, the civil rights movements that arose during the twentieth century were challenged by a severe cultural deterioration that impacted the effectiveness of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, James L. Farmer, and Roy Wilkins in helping impoverish minority communities.  From East to West, urban communities were entrenched in a racially prejudiced system that pitted them against success through segregated education, a lack of human rights, high unemployment rates and a thriving but violent drug culture that was sweeping communities under these conditions.  To the many blacks outraged by these circumstances rebellion was a must, however, the rebellious actions of black communities were not always proactive, instead, the mid-twentieth century often saw violent and damaging behavior to the communal environment which debilitated the infrastructure for creating black success in America cities.  The defeats of these civil rights leaders, both, failing to unite a legitimate long-term grassroots front against minority oppression and their assassinations,  physically and politically stagnated the progress made by these men and reverted urban communities back into a war-like mentality throughout the 1970s.
  
While civil rights groups made an impact on the quality of life and personal liberty for minority race Americans, communities in urban areas began to create vigilante movements forming political groups like the Black Panther Party which embodied a socialist, communal approach under the leadership of Huey Newton.  Street gangs rose in affiliation with Black Panther movements who fostered the ideals of collectivism, combined with the rebellious, sometimes violent spirit of the law that was thought to disabled black prosperity.  But the rise of organized criminal street gangs and violent pro-black movements in major cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles fueled a self-destructive culture that often enabled the ignoble position of minority groups in America.  Where many black Americans viewed the law as an unjust racial caste, street gangs and Black Power movements disregard for the law altogether created a crippling dynamic that embedded racial stereotypes upon all black and Latino Americans.  While police and minority issues date back to the seventeenth century, violence between blacks, Latinos, and police, skyrocketing incarceration rates and harassment created a perspective that enabled the profiling of minority groups and law enforcement alike. Without strong benevolent leadership, black communities struggled to grasp the concepts that helped achieve the feats of social justice so revered by black communities to this day.

In the New York City borough of the Bronx, the street gang culture in the late 1960s through the 1970s worked like a military operation in a struggle for dominance against the law and challenging other gangs for the same street power.  South Bronx communities faced terrorism that included military grade weapons being wielded by gang members, and it was not uncommon for felony murder to take place on a daily basis.  The New York crime rates of violence, property, murder, and robbery all nearly doubled from 1965-1970 and continued to proliferate at high rates for the next twenty-five years. Racism fueled the violence on the streets and in the prisons, mainly along black and Latino lines (groups like the Bloods and Latin Kings are examples of these racially aligned gangs.)  In the prisons, new gangs were formed that trickled out back to the streets creating more feud between the racial classes.  Prison violence became a daily occurrence, specifically at the Rikers Island facility in the Bronx where it continues to remain a problem to this day.   
  
Organized gangs around the country used drugs as their central mode of profit, fueling the drug culture and endangering black urban communities through violence and addiction attributed to this business.  In the 1970's the drugs of choice were heroin and cocaine, and overdose was the leading cause of death for people ages fifteen to thirty-five in New York City. Gangs in New York, however, did not control the mass flow of drugs into the city; the Mafia did, and they created a pyramid scheme that enlisted minority gang affiliated youth to push the narcotics, which would later dramatically affect incarceration rates in black communities.  The proliferation of drug use and associated violence had major impacts on minority family dynamics, where many children born in these urban environments had to be raised by their grandparents because the biological parents were either in jail or were victims of serious addiction that would lead to the neglect of their young.  Regardless of the negative impact and potential consequences, black communities often glorified drug hustlers for escaping poverty and its environment and exploiting the system to generate black prosperity.   
  
Arson became an epidemic during the early 1970s in the South Bronx as street gangs began burning down abandoned buildings, structures, and property of rival gangs, while sometimes starting fires just to be deviant.  The constant threat of fire exhausted emergency personnel and forced business to relocate because of fear and better opportunities for stability elsewhere.   Business owners desperate to leave the crumbling Bronx neighborhood even paid gangsters to set their redlined buildings ablaze to collect the value of the building through insurance fraud.  It was this kind of behavior that influenced assumptions of minority criminal culture, racial prejudice and police brutality, which in turn made street gangs more volatile and established the attitude that gang affiliation provided protection from police and other civilian minority violence.  Sometimes gang members were accused of crimes they did not commit, caused by the overload of criminal behavior and the established racial prejudice of the law enforcement system.   
The realization of this desperate state by the urban gangs fueled the desire for change within their own communities, to create a safer, more stable place for the youth and families in the South Bronx by changing the culture of crime into something positive, and artistic.  Out of these desolate conditions, hip hop was born.

Prominent street gangs like the Savage Skulls, Savage Nomads, Black Spade and The Ghetto Brothers initiated the movement to clean up the neighborhood streets, meeting with community members, and town officials in 1972 at a television studio in the South Bronx.  At this meeting members not only express the demoralizing situation of the South Bronx, but also the infrastructure problems that influence these circumstances, like the lack of jobs, insufficient funding for youth agencies and majority black schools.  The community was not satisfied with the answers they received from city officials and dissolution between the groups was at an all time high.  The gangs of New York City could agree on one thing, that the conditions of the Bronx were not going to change unless they actively changed their own culture, because the infrastructure of oppression in their communities was being apathetically neglected by city politics.

A little less than a year later, Kevin Donavan  (Afrika Bambaataa), Clive Campbell (DJ Kool Herc) and others created hip hop culture in the South Bronx which was rooted in Afrocentric nationalism aimed at pulling angry minority communities out of street gang culture into a more positive, peaceful artistic form of rebellion and expression.  Donavan, warlord of the largest New York City gang at the time the Black Spades, was inspired by black liberations movements which his family including his mother were actively engaged in.  He made it his mission to clean up the streets for a better cause and wanted to create a counterculture that brought knowledge and wisdom to the next generation that would aid their fight against minority oppression. He won an essay contest that allowed him to visit a small community in Africa where he was introduced to the movie “Zulu.” Inspired by the movie and the African culture he was immersed in, he took some principles back home with him to New York, where he would adopt a variation of the name Bhambatha (Bambaataa), chief of the Zulu clan who lead a rebellion against colonial economic oppression in South Africa in 1906.  Thus many of the founding principles of hip hop come from authentic African, and African American cultures. 

In 1972 DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican immigrant, would throw huge block parties where he would play some of the most famous jazz, party, and funk records; often “looping” drum breaks from these records.  Emcees would used the microphone to “rap” for the crowd, while others would “breakdance” to the drum break. They did this simultaneously, and deejay’s would often rap as well.  Rapping in 1972 was not as technical or poetic as it is today as it was mainly comprised of improvisational rhythm and rhymes and “rocking the crowd” through repetitious chants, ideas and improvisations that were reminiscent of elements from familiar jazz routines in earlier black art movements like the Harlem Renaissance.  The parties thrown by DJ Kool Herc in the 1970s were immensely popular within the Bronx borough, where the monumented birth of hip hop is said to be at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue along the Harlem River. 
  
Inspired by Kool Herc's musical skills and innovation, Afrika Bambaataa took an interest in the art displayed at these parties and wished to mesh it with counterculture ethics that supported black consciousness of their African roots, built on the principles of peace, love, unity, and having fun and.  The principles of hip hop we multifaceted and were fostered in Afrika Bambaataa's organization known as Universal Zulu Nation, a unified organizational project between New York City gangs, which harnessed the elements of emceeing, deejaying, breaking (dance), and bombing (graffiti), with the idea of “knowledge of self” influencing all these art forms.  As hip hop became a popular subculture “Crews” began to form, usually composed of deejays, rappers, and breakers who would compete against other crews in a true cultural meritocracy.  The best crews would bring large crowds to parties to compete for the new form of street credibility, or “juice.” Hip hop was also popular in other boroughs throughout the 1970s, specifically Brooklyn and Harlem, but Bambaataa and Herc are considered to be the major hip hop acts and influencers of the art and culture, and in their prime had success spreading the culture around the country, and the world throughout the 70s and 80s. Bambaataa’s organization, inspired by the Movie “Zulu” and his own experiences, also utilized much of the thought from leaders and groups like Marcus Garvey, Huey Newton, the Nation of Islam, and the Moorish Temple of Science.  Hip hop emerged in the South Bronx in the early 1970s as a black art movement rooted in expressing the anger felt by African-American communities, upon themselves, the culture exhibited by gangs and urban cities and the racist systems minorities faced in America. 

While Afrocentrism and black nationalism were a large part of hip hop’s creation, the culture itself was not racially aligned, and hip hop has since been comprised of every single race and ethnicity.  Hip hop organically tied itself to the South Bronx community and brought all races together, specifically blacks and Latinos through the artistic elements. However, political groups close to hip hop pioneers like the Black Panthers and Five-Percent Nation infused racial philosophy synonymous with black movements of the time, typically anti-white.  Nonetheless, hip hop parties were not segregated, but honestly pushed racial tension and violence aside during events, especially as hip hop expanded outside of New York City to the West coast and in to Europe into the the 1980s; there are famous and renowned white hip hop artists in all elements of the culture, but the culture itself is still considered black culture by scholars and its counterparts.   Having fun is what would drive the races and the youth into the culture through these artistic elements that expressed the urban struggle, the fight for change, and simply the artistic talent and creativity of these people.  At these parties, Bambaataa also encouraged the pursuit of intellectual studies, affirmations and getting know one’s self, by putting down the weapons and using this expressive outlet to soothe their struggle.  

The arts of breakdancing and deejaying took a political backseat to elements like emceeing and graffiti, however, breaking and deejaying are still recognized as artistic acts of rebellion and transformation in hip hop communities all over the world, as Bambaataa was credited by early journalists for “stopping bullets with two turntables,” the idea of replacing violence with fun artistic competition.
Deejaying was the primary force behind hip hop in 1970s, where many new artistic and technical innovations like mixing and “scratching” records became popular tools of the DJ repertoire, along with traditional emcee skills that involved the crowd.  This type of emceeing would remain popular especially as hip hop became more commercial, but political messages in rap lyrics also resonated in hip hop circles around New York City.  

The first conscious, political “rappers” were a group called The Last Poets, who applied conscious black nationalist poetry over jazz/funk instrumentation. Their style was considered more spoken word than “rap,” which has more rhythmic features than the music of The Last Poets.  The innovation of their first two albums was revered and saw major success in the early 70s topping charts in a number of genres - but hip hop was not considered a musical genre in 1970.  However, many pioneers of hip hop culture consider The Last Poets, particularly group member Gil Scott-Heron, as the original rappers, or what would inspire the likes of conscious hip hop artists like Melle Mel, Public Enemy, and KRS-One.  James Brown is also credited as one of the first conscious “emcees” with hits like “Say It Loud - I’m Black I’m Proud,” and his music heavily inspired DJ Kool Here who used many James Brown records at his parties.  Conscious and political hip hop was very popular at Bambaatta and Herc’s block parties and was actively promoted. 

Emcees began to emerge into the forefront of the hip hop movement in 1978 as spectacles of their own, mainly because of the versatility of the art, using poetry, improvisational rhyming and story telling to captivate crowds with funky flows, clever jokes and crowd control. Those inspired by the likes of The Last Poets also used this art form to preach to mass crowds of one hundred plus, utilizing the same crowd techniques behind strong black nationalist messages, expressing their ideas and qualms freely. Legends were born over night on the sheer magnitude of their message and the support they received for their thoughts and skills.  However, political rappers were not the life of the party and the political messages were not always as justice oriented as future conscious rappers would demonstrate, but more so reflections of their dreams and goals of escaping this oppression and becoming successful people in society.  Political rap was not hip hop that had early commercial success either and wouldn't become popular until the mid 1980s, but the conscious emcees that broke out in the 1980s were influenced by the parties and the messages of their fathers, uncles, friends, Bambaataa, Herc and the pioneers who created the hip hop counterculture principled on expressing their distressed social condition of American oppression. 

Kool Herc in a 1989 interview stated, “I wanted rap to always be a positive, beautiful music.  I wanted it to be political.  I want it to stay that way.  We got kings, queens, and jokers.  There was some women complaining about the lyrics of Slick Rick, but she gotta understand that he's like a Eddie Murphy in our business and there are selective people out there that want that.  It's not like he's going to go play in front of the youngsters. The radio is not supposed to give a lot of air time to records like that.  That's the peoples choice. That'll spread like wild fire through word of mouth. It don't need no airtime.  The jokers Herc refers to in this quote were rappers who used the art form for fame or money, instead of spreading a positive message like the culture was intended to do.  The uniqueness of Bambaataa and Herc’s new aesthetic culture began to catch on with black and Jewish record label owners, now invested in finding the next commercial hip hop hit throughout the Bronx and uptown Harlem. Political rap had its most productive era between 1978-1988 with acts like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5,  Public Enemy, KRS-One, and Eric B & Rakim, until violent gangster rap would take precedence into the 1990s.  Gangsta rap was socially conscious and black nationalist to a degree, but challenged itself with violent lyrics that further embedded stereotypes and expatriated the gang problems hip hop was created to deter.  The commercial success of the emcee is what has damaged the fundamentals principles of hip hop culture to the greatest extent, because of the influence emcees have on minority youth and the choice messages of expression by many emcees that are not principally grounded in hip hop ethics.

Graffiti, like hip hop, grew out of gang culture early in the twentieth century, where gangsters “tagged” “turf” to mark their gang territory. Typically, graffiti was simply the name of the artists, or a “tag,” sometimes multiple tags on top of other tags, because these young bombers would fight competitively for “turf,” much like the gangs did before it grew immensely popular.  Artists and crews with superior talent and recognition for their styles and art work would maintain stomping grounds for their pieces, usually in neighborhoods they lived.  Before the term hip hop was even coined, graffiti street art was already a serious problem for New York City police, with graffiti artists “bombing” subway stations, bridges and other city owned property to the tune of $300,000 dollars per year to remove the vandalism. “Taki,” a young “tagger” became notorious for leaving his custom marks of spray paint all over New York City, but at the age of 15, he was too young to be charged with even a misdemeanor crime.  Taki's art became folk legend in underground youth communities, where other artists began to showcase their own signature styles of painted calligraphy.  Metro police declared war on graffiti artists in 1972, publicly condemning it and appropriating laws and factions to take down graffiti vandals. Taggers viewed this as oppression of their expression and individuality.  Armed with spray paint cans, taggers suited up and went to war with New York City for the next ten years.  The negative publicity disseminated by the city only fueled the youth culture and public property continued to be the canvas of choice.  

Even more than rapping, the rebellious nature of the graffiti element stands out as a clear anti-authority principle from its inception.  Graffiti was seen as an artistic side to criminality that those who adopted hip hop used it to replace the violent gang culture and used it as a liberating form of public expression.  During the New York City graffiti war, the artistic messages became more political, sometimes protesting police violence and corruption, nuclear testings, drug abuse along with other revolutionary messages and murals.  DJ Kool Herc and Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation were also into street art and recognized its youth and revolutionary appeal adopted it as an element of hip hop as soon as the culture was created. Graffiti had its most political impact during the 1970s and its role as a political faded out of hip hop circles with the commercial success of conscious hip hop emcees. Political graffiti has recently had a resurgence in hip hop, other counterculture groups and political movements around the world, utilizing artistic expression as a means to convey satirical and political messages.

Hip Hop was also rather spiritually aligned, easily distinguished in the ideological hip hop element “knowledge of self,” which is a transcendent idea passed down from religious factions like the Moorish Temple of Science, Nation of Islam, and other religious groups with large minority populations.  Knowledge of self is a term used by these groups to refer to a Afrocentric mix of spiritual and political consciousness used to empower minority groups who were oppressed.  Bambaataa began using hip hop art to increase the ethical, cultural and collective knowledge of the black community by encompassing the principles of knowledge of self.  He would educate partygoers by playing pro-black funk records by James Brown, Earth, Wind, & Fire, and also mix in recorded speeches from Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and other prominent black cultural leaders.  There was a tremendous amount of cultural labor that Universal Zulu Nation participated in to make hip hop culture something that encompassed African history, tradition, origins and ethics that empowered its followers. 

One of the main tools to educate hip hoppers was known as “Infinity Lessons,” which were open, interpretative teachings that contained all-inclusive knowledge of spiritual beliefs, metaphysics, ancient science, and conspiracies that were disseminated and discussed within early hip hop circles. Even though race was put aside in these lesson, much of the knowledge stemmed from black nationalist ideology and the rejection of “white supremacist history books.”  Through Universal Zulu Nation and the Infinity Lessons, gangs were slowly but surely uniting under the cultural and spiritual leadership of Africa Bambaataa, where the political motivation was to created a global movement based on peace, healthy living, environmentalism, and the search for spiritual and historical truth. While this element, “knowledge of self,” is considered a “lost element” by many hip hoppers today, Bambaataa had success in providing quality reflective analysis into African American history, culture and knowledge that minority youth was not receiving in public schools.

Women in hip hop culture played a quintessential role in the politics of the hip hop movement.  Along with Bambaataa, Herc and their progressive youth organizational ideas, Herc himself credits the women romantically involved with the gang members for initiating the clean up act in the streets, stating they grew tired of the violence and the culture the neighborhood children were being raised in, forcing many gangs to disband under pressure from their females - in other words, it was time to grow up.  Women of the hip hop generation had close, but rocky ties with feminist movements that arose around the same time period. Women who identify with hip hop culture used hip hop as voice of their own oppression, female emcees, breakdancers, and graffiti artists also had the floor to express themselves. With the establishment of the Women's Liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s, black women of the hip hop generation began to openly challenge traditional feminist ideology as “race and class unconscious,” or insensitive to the needs of the black and Latino communities, and the class struggle that existed amongst all races. Female hip hop ambassadors also challenged feminist ideals of equal pay, obsession with control of their bodies and sexual freedom, while women of all races continue to struggle to have bare necessities like proper education, shelter, and food for them and their children.  

Hip hop women also challenged feminist ideas of “abortion on demand," with harsh evidence showing a long history of involuntary sterilization, forced abortions, government issued birth control, and medical experimentation on black and non-white women. While white feminists seemed to be advocating the destruction of the traditional family, hip hop feminists were actively trying to rebuild strong nuclear families in their communities to counter the social conditioning.  For hip hop women, women of the third wave feminists like those of the Women’s Liberation movement were middle-class white women with ignorant ideas predicated on racial and economic privilege.  Not all middle-class white feminists were insensitive to the minority plight, but hip hop feminists were partitioners of what seems like a completely different movement, with hip hop pedagogy at the forefront. These same groups of women challenged the attitudes and leaders of the Black Power movements, who did not utilize women in their movements and held patriarchal, masculine-focused principles. Hip hop woman used discursive methods to break down the ideological barriers placed upon women of color by other counterculture groups and created their own autonomous women’s organizations like the Third World Women’s Alliance, National Black Feminist Organization, Black Women Organized for Actions, and other mobilized fronts against black female oppression throughout the 1970s that would develop black feminist theory for years to come.

There are no statistics that show that hip hop actually decreased crime rates in New York City, but it did deter violent crime from those directly involved in the hip hop subculture during the 1970s and 80s and contributed to the changing nature of New York City gangs that once ravaged the streets. Hip hop was not always political either, as DJ Kool Herc and other popular deejays of the 1970s treated deejaying as a profession more than a hobby of a counterculture, and even the most conscious of emcees recognized money as a key driver within hip hop and the freelance street trade of the 1970s and 80s. Early hip hop deejays were certainly young entrepreneurs and they did not even know it. What was popularly seen as a party culture, quickly was revamped into what Africa Bambaatta would coin as “edutainment,” and this conscious form of entertainment was most commonly seen at Bambaataa/Kool Herc/Zulu Nation block parties and not necessarily in all hip hop circles around the city as it expanded.

 Nonetheless, hip hop from its inception predicated much of its success on it being a counterculture movement that was relatable to urban minority groups and youth who valued its strong political, religious, and historic premises meshed with innovative artistic expression. Today, what was once a sub-counterculture has become the mainstream popular culture and the political nature of hip hop has been subsequently pushed into the “underground scene” of local hip hop communities.  Now, much of the counterculture fight within hip hop resides in retaining the founding principles of hip hop culture instead of continuing to spread the positive message to the youth.  Hip hop counterculture is reemerging as a force within mainstream hip hop and in the underground, with acts like Kendrick Lamar, J.Cole, Joyner Lucas and others continuing to use their influence to impact youth with conscious messages that have transcended time; about police brutality, drug abuse, authentic African history and the ideals hip hops founders envisioned would empower their communities. No matter the generation, the roots and history of political activism within hip hop will never diminish, because of how closely black activism and community organization is to the culture of hip hop. Somewhere, forever, there will be an oppressed person who finds hip hop and utilizes its artistic expression to publicize their truth and the change they wish to see in the world.  That in and of itself is what hip hop manifested in the 1970s New York City ghettos and those around the world today, as an intricate piece of the sociopolitical consciousness that allows public expression to challenge global oppressors.





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