They don’t know who we be/
They don’t know who we be/
– “DMX, Who We Be,” The Great Depression (2001).
“[O]nly a small percentage of people … have a genuine concern for Hip-Hop.”
– “Chuck D, Fight the Power: Rap, Race, and Reality”
It’s been 30 full years since the cultural force known today as hip-hop mushroomed out of the ghettos of South Bronx and spread over the surface of the earth, but nobody could have claimed, back then, to foresee the journeys hip-hop would take or the magnitude of a legacy it would build through those journeys. It was simply impossible for a gang of hopeless, crime-prone black and brown saps to set off a cultural explosion that in little over two decades boasted a multibillion-dollar empire. It’s easy today to look back and reminisce with great pleasure (and displeasure), but the founding fathers and mothers of hip-hop had no idea the trail they were blazing would one day make many multimillionaires or create such intense international dialogue and debate.
More importantly, they couldn’t foretell, even through all the struggle and strife that produced this remarkable phenomenon, that very few would have the courtesy – nay, the human decency – to acknowledge its place and time in history as a moving mass of artistic genius. Last Friday, the Texas Board of Education cast its lot amongst those unconvinced hip-hop deserves the light of public recognition.
In a controversial – really whitewashed – draft of the state’s high school social studies curriculum, hip-hop as a significant cultural contribution failed to meet the mark, as conservatives struck out, on multiple counts, attempts to add hip-hop to the list of noteworthy cultural creations in American history. “Experts had recommended students study the impact of cultural movements in art, music and literature, such as Tin Pan Alley, the Beat Generation, rock and roll, the Chicano Mural Movement, country-western music and hip-hop,” reported The Houston Chronicle. “The board’s seven social conservatives, joined by Geraldine ‘Tincy’ Miller (R-Dallas), considered some of the hip-hop lyrics offensive and voted to eliminate hip-hop as an option for students to consider.”
Hip-hop, however, made some good friends at the party, as Thomas Jefferson, the word “democratic,” and references to religious tolerance also fell under the red inks of the Republican and conservative members on the board whose sense of history stands somewhere between the pages of McCarthyism and Reaganomics. Texas students, if this measure is finalized in May, would learn some strange stuff of their country and world. They would learn that Hispanics hardly count as having any social relevance in American history – and neither do just about all non-white people. They would learn that their country is God-given and can do no wrong – and never has. They would learn that if not for conscionable and courageous conservatives, black people might still be hanging half-burnt from trees and denied suffrage. They would learn that the Black Panther Party was a violent and fascistic mob with eyes cocked at social destruction. And, of course, they would learn next to nothing of the global force for political and social advocacy that is hip-hop. In short, they would learn white history to an H.
Man, this history don’t acknowledge us/
We were scholars long before colleges/
This notion that all hip-hop artists wallow in the wasteland of gutter talk certainly brings to bear baggage of the past. From the early ’90s on, political leaders lived high off the curiosity hip-hop aroused in society. From Congressional hearings to TV panels to newspaper columns, the fix was in. Hip-hop dominated the national dialogue. Everyone had a say and couldn’t remain tight-lipped long enough to ponder its accuracy. What is hip-hop? When was hip-hop conceived? Why is hip-hop relevant? Why do white kids love hip-hop so much? Very few could answer; but far more wanted to – and did – weigh in.
Commentators and critics divvied up hip-hop into categories: “Gangsta,” “Commercial,” “Mainstream,” “Underground,” “Good,” “Bad.” But the scale showed its bias – public figures shamed “Gangsta” and “Commercial” hip-hop for exploiting social maladies and repackaging trauma and glamorizing violence and fetishizing fatalism. Black activists invited TV cameras to special sessions where stocks of hip-hop CDs cracked under their trampling boots and the crushing tires of farm tractors. Still, very few voices of conscience made headway as the debates ratcheted.
And though even fewer flew to the defense of this great contribution to society – a contribution without which a whole generation might have lacked meaning – the full swath and broad bath of hip-hop still remains unknown to most, especially those quick to mouth off about how bad and despicable and vile and endangering rap lyrics are. And the reason why lacks no mystery – for a generation raised on the terror of Reagonomics and brought to life in an age where their humanities had dollar signs written all over, the pent-up rage that found refuge through the mic didn’t do well to please authority figures.
And for all the attacks lobbed at hip-hop through time, most evident has been the belief that hip-hop artists have no leg to stand on in attacking society for the problems they believe it created for those they represent – those torn apart by racism and classism. You lack the credentials, society is quick to fire back. Your concerns are as valuable as a toad’s croak. But hip-hop artists have remained effervescent in demanding dignity from this society, refusing to let the bellicose barrage take hold and stomp out their message or mission. Through all the storms and static, they still find this their responsibility – to hold the feet of the rich and powerful to the fire, and to speak loud for the oppressed and underserved.
Perhaps this very fact – that hip-hop at its best lifts the voices of the unloved and rejected, of the displaced and dispossessed – is what makes the culture so threatening and so scrutiny-served, and this is what must be kept from the hearts of schoolchildren even as they listen to hip-hop artists, some of whom, it should be admitted, stray far away from any forms of advocacy for the meek and muted, the weak and wasted – the wretched of the earth, to invoke Franz Fanon.
Grace Wiggins, executive director of United Sisters, an E-mentoring program focused on females ages 14-18, says she “can understand the disdain for the music,” as modern forms of hip-hop have largely failed to “demonstrate the qualities it once had – so I think we have the leaders in hip-hop to thank for taking away the significance of hip-hop and not having it taught as a part of history.” Hip-hop since its inception, Wiggins contends, has morphed from an ant-sized social service agent to a “giant hungry only for the top of the charts and skilled in leading our children into believing that there are no consequences for our actions – only rewards.”
Wiggins also manages a listenership campaign, Listen 2the Lyrics, through which United Sisters hosts “After School Listening Sessions” to empower young female hip-hop fans in putting what they hear in critical perspectives. She says the Texas ruling only pumps up the volume why initiatives like Listen 2the Lyrics matter: “This decision only further makes our project relevant to our community and society, as hip-hop is no longer just influencing minds in the city – it has made it across seas and has become multicultural and a language that the youth listen to and understand.”
Prolific author and scholar Tricia Rose, PhD, insists the decision “represents a specific attack on hip-hop, one that has been going on since its inception,” but also “reflects a general ignorance about, marginalization of, and hostile disregard for, the contributions of African-Americans – intellectual, political, social and culture – to the United States.”
And such undervaluing, Rose warns, “is a terrible miseducation of our youth about the complex ways that new cultural expressions come into being.” Hip-hop’s reach extends beyond beats and rhymes, she adds. It has “empowered and inspired people around the world for over 30 years. To rob young US citizens of their knowledge about this art form is an educational disservice and a sign that there is still a whole lot of work to be done when it comes to educating people about African-American culture.”
Rose, whose acclaimed work on hip-hop culture and music includes books like “Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America” and “The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop – and Why It Matters”, can bear witness to “disregard, disinterest and evasion” of hip-hop within the academy. Hip-hop theory often takes flesh in forms of “fun scholarship,” many detractors scowl. But at stake is the “general incapacity to properly understand, interpret and appreciate the creative and intellectual contributions” black people have produced on these shores. “Let’s not forget,” Rose reminds, “that jazz, blues and other musical forms continue to remain marginal in music departments and in school curriculums generally.
“Even more importantly,” she says, “all black cultural forms suffer from misunderstanding because the larger cultural contexts out of which they come are not studied and thus we create uneducated cultural consumers.” If students learned early on the value and virtue of hip-hop, and understood the responsibility to consume critically, it would set their feet firmly forever because, as Rose point out, “I find that once you know something, you can’t un-know it.”
But perhaps the Texas Board of Education has a few lessons to teach the hip-hop community, amongst which must be that an uneducated mind is a terrible thing to flaunt.