Hip-Hop: life and death in Amerikkka


By Miguel D'Souza

The movie Boyz 'n' the Hood has brought the realities of black America to all who have seen it. Director John Singleton has created a picture of the struggle to survive in Amerikkka that is chilling in its portrayal of the cycle of death and violence endured by young black males.

Boyz is a product of the Hip-Hop nation, an outpouring of action and creativity triggered by the music we call Hip-Hop.

Black America is experiencing an artistic renaissance not seen since the strains of Coltrane's music were first heard. This is not limited to music, but has crossed into film and politics as well. The Hip-Hop nation has freed itself from the shackles of post-Ronald Raygun Amerikkka, and is now moving the Afrikan American into a period of fierce self-determination and political power.

The Nation of Islam, rappers like Ice Cube, Public Enemy, the Poor Righteous Teachers, and the films of Spike Lee, John Singleton, the Hudlin Brothers, Mario van Peebles, are pushing the new Afrikan-American thought, not into white Amerikkka's homes, but more importantly, into the arena of Afrikan-American discussion.

The origins of Hip-Hop lie (musically, that is,) in the block parties held in the projects where the large majority of black Americans live in larger cities like New York and Los Angeles. DJs would hook up their sound systems to any available source of power, and vacant lots would rock to the sounds of funk and R 'n' B. MCs, most of whom were DJs, would usually chant through records ("Throw your hands in the air, and wave 'em like you just don't care"), and this developed into a very basic rap. (Incidentally, it was the activist H. Rap Brown, whose speech style revelled in the intricacies of "playing the dozens" that gave rap its name).

Out of this scene, party "hosts" — mostly gang members who did a neat sideline as DJs — began to acquire fame for their skill and slickness on the "wheels of steel". Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc and the Sugarhill Gang were just three who eventually went on to release records on independent labels.

Hip-Hop is a development of that early scene, and differs vastly in its style, politics and view of the Afrikan-American world. Technology has changed the sound, the sampler complementing the DJs' turntables as the primary instrument (check out De La Soul's LP Three Feet High and Rising for a prime example of sampling at its most creative).

The rappers themselves have evolved into many different styles and attitudes: the hard-core Gangsta style of Ice Cube, NWA, Cypress Hill, the Geto Boyz, or the West Indian-influenced Ragamuffin of the Poor Righteous Teachers, Shabba Ranks, and Queen Latifah, the "love rap" of Father MC. (I don't refer to Vanilla Ice or Hammer here, those creations of a music industry that cynically ignores the fact that Hip-Hop is here to stay, yet invents pop ing to cash in on it.)

In 1991, white Amerikkka woke up to find that a particularly bad-mouthed bunch of hoods from Compton in south central Los Angeles called Niggaz With Attitude had the number one album in the nation, a collection of radio unfriendly tunes by the name of Niggaz4Life. What's more, the album sold without any significant radio airplay or any video play, and despite the best efforts of white censorship activists to ban the sale of the album.

Hip-Hop has been roundly chastised by the left because of its content. But while the work of NWA, the Geto Boyz and the 2 Live Crew does contain lyrics that would make most people squirm, the best way to protest is not to give fuel to the right. Censorship in Amerikkka has long worked to maintain the status of white power structures and will continue to be about suppressing minority groups.

Hip-Hop has acted to regulate its own activities anyway. The work of artists like the 2 Live Crew and Geto Boyz is swamped by a myriad of artists with far more to say than simple "bitch, ho" shit. Hip-Hop is a progressive music, both in its form, which is like nothing ever heard before, and in its content, which is evocative and relentless in its demands for a change in society — its impatience with the pace of change and the nature of the changes that do eventually occur.

On the cover of his latest album, Death Certificate, which features a "life side" and a "death side", rapper Ice Cube has this to say: "Niggas are in a state of emergency. The death side is a mirrored image of where we are today. The life side is a vision of where we need to go. So sign your death certificate ..."

Ice Cube has weathered criticism over the years from the left because of his seemingly poor representation of women in his work. The statement on the cover of Death Certificate is an explanation of the content of his music: it is a snapshot, chilling in its description of the reality of black life. Young Afrikan-American males, because of their frustration, lash out at each other, and women suffer from this. Ice Cube's music is a reflection of this, and not an incitement to his listeners to do the same.

Hip-Hop is the first step towards real change in the Afrikan-American community. Ice Cube has channelled many of the funds from his considerable album sales back into south central LA through the Nation of Islam, which in turn funds scholarships and career training for young Afrikan Americans.

Public Enemy's entry into Hip-Hop began with Yo, Bum Rush the Show, followed by 1988's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Fear of a Black Planet in 1989, and in 1990, Apocalypse 1991 ... The Enemy Strikes Black.

PE have a very definite agenda, and music is only a part of it. It has been described as clarifying and exposing the limits of white rhetoric — in an Amerikkka long on rhetoric of a New World Order and desperately short on solutions to present problems.

In Hip-Hop, the lessons are taught through personal experience, and it isn't always pretty. We should see it as a reflection of -American brothers and sisters, and as such a call for our support and understanding.
[Miguel D'Souza is a student, DJ, and announcer at 2SER-FM in Sydney, and is the host of The Mothership Connection, an Afrikan-American music show heard every Tuesday at 2 p.m. on 107.3.]

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.