A crowd hovered close to the stage in Emerson Suites last month as political rapper M-1 brought his flow to the African-Latino Society’s “The Essence of Hip-Hop.” In army fatigues, he rapped about social injustice, racial inequality, political corruption and the hypocrisy of police, lyrics apt for a Black Panther revival. Fists pumped in the air to the music of resistance, change and revolution.
The majority of those fists were white.
Those fists belonged to college students who were not taught to overthrow the system in an immediate revolution, but to follow the flow. They enrolled in a private liberal arts college for a degree to enter into a set structure — to take part in a functioning society. The tension in the room was toward the system they were fighting just as hard to enter as to overthrow.
From the onset of the Neilson Soundscan system to track music sales, around March of 1991, record companies saw hip-hop as a commodity. Fifteen years later, hip-hop has evolved and devolved, transformed and conformed, but it’s never been able to shake its roots. And now, as political hip-hop gains a massive following in college-aged, middle- and upper-middle-class white kids, the question of the music’s integrity is laid bare on the stage.
From its beginnings, hip-hop was created by black America as an expression of the present tense. Sean Eversley-Bradwell, an assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity, said hip-hop was an outlet for the movement’s “in-group” to have a conversation. The expansion of audience, however, was inevitable and important for the continuation of the genre.
“Hip-hop wouldn’t have grown the way it has without white folks being a part of it,” he said.
Sean Fennessey ’03, associate music editor at Vibe magazine, said when hip-hop went mainstream, a white audience decided to emulate and understand it, whether genuine or dishonest in those attempts. Still, the audience’s expansion did not necessarily mean the death of a cultural movement.
“I wouldn’t get too caught up in the idea that ‘oh, the golden age of hip-hop is over so all the courageous names in hip-hop are done,’ — it’s just a different animal and it’s always changing,” he said. “I’m also not in the mind-set that more people hearing something is a negative thing. I think that’s a positive thing.”
The price for hearing that music is rather steep. Tickets for the biggest hip-hop shows, like July’s Rock the Bells, or individual acts like Immortal Technique, Wu Tang Clan and The Coup, run between $50 and $100. Eversley-Bradwell said the inequality in spending power between black and white audiences leaves some shows inaccessible.
“We’re quick to talk about the poverty that black folks live in when we talk about schools or social health services, but all the sudden we feel like they’re completely affluent when it comes to buying music,” he said.
Though the economics of the situation play a factor in the whiteness of audiences, the struggle hip-hop represents may actually be more to blame for its gentrification. Sam Aronowitz, a senior sociology major who attended multiple hip-hop shows this year, said his exposure to the genre increased in college. He said live hip-hop allows him to participate in a culture he wasn’t raised in.
“It’s an easy way to feel like you’re part of something — it’s a good way to vent your frustration with the system,” he said. “Maybe [the audience] is angry because they’re privileged and they understand that — they know what’s going on, and it’s their way of siding with the other side.”
At the same time, chanting lyrics, head nodding and clenched fists at concerts don’t necessarily indicate a change in thought. Matt Farrell, a senior television-radio major, said a complacent audience remains stagnant because they’re in their own in-group discussion.
“If an audience is already political — sociology or politics majors in college — it just reiterates what they already know,” he said. “It’s masturbation.”
Use of music as a weapon for change isn’t anything new — it’s something this generation has been taught to cling to through their baby boomer parents. But Anne Tregea, a junior sociology major, said the hippies of the ’60s created the world we’re in now, the one we’re frustrated with.
“They started the revolution, but they didn’t follow through,” she said. “They didn’t finish it.”
Farrell said the problem with hip-hop is not that it doesn’t inspire people to change the way things are, but that it doesn’t show them how to do it.
“A political connection is a prerequisite to action,” Farrell said. “We don’t have a draft — we don’t have any direct connection even though we’re so angry. There is no clearly defined revolution.”
Overtly political hip-hop also has the function of potentially distancing an audience from the reality of the situation. Eversley-Bradwell said that without action, politics become a type of “play.”
“Hip-hop is play, but the realities it arises from are pretty brutal conditions in many urban communities and rural communities,” he said. “ … You can only lie to yourself, saying it doesn’t make a difference — it’s all play.”
Despite the popularity of political hip-hop with white audiences, lines are drawn between serious politics and diluted ring tones. Fennessey said right now it’s about sales, and ring tone rappers are moving units.
“Ring tones are what the major labels are signing up for, and those are the artists they’re putting out and pursuing,” he said. “They’re not pursuing new artists or career artists. Artist development is at an all-time low, and so all those things are contributing to the kind of music you’re hearing.”
Darren Foley, a senior cinema and photography major, said he’s been freestyling with friends for years. He said his appreciation for intelligent and intricate beats leaves him jaded by popular hip-hop.
“Easy-listening rap is formulaic,” Foley said. “Labels know what people want to hear. If political hip-hop had the same flow and beats, it might sell better.”
In an interview with WICB DJ Jake Frumkin after the “Essence of Hip-Hop” show, M-1 talked about providing a backdrop of struggle to the music of the rappers who enjoy commercial success with conforming beats and lyrics.
“I don’t have a problem with reporting reality — that’s been my favorite,” M-1 said. “At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about, you have to be able to put this thing in the proper context. The freedom in it is that [mainstream] rappers now are absolved of that responsibility.”
Esther Paek, a senior television-radio major, said to change the direction of popular hip-hop, the mind-set of the consumers must also be changed.
“Maybe if we change what the consumer society keeps desiring, we’ll change how the game is played,” she said. “Right now, the ball is in the consumer’s court. Do we keep playing the same old game with the same old rules, or do we switch it up?”
Eversley-Bradwell agreed, and said demand may affect supply.
“Hip-hop is not black or white — it’s green,” he said. “If a certain genre is selling, those record executives don’t care one way or another. They don’t care if it’s destructive or it’s positive as long as it’s making money. I think there’s ways in which you can use it against itself.”
Still, fans like Farrell believe music’s first function is entertainment, and the mixing of a popular aesthetic with honest, insightful lyrics are the best way to infuse music with political undertones.
“I take issue with the idea that I shouldn’t be listening to music that excites me just because it isn’t ethical,” he said. “Should I bend my taste if the music doesn’t excite me, motivate me or even entertain me?”
As M-1 concluded his show last month, he asked for the audience’s promise to go out and start the revolution. Farrell said even if the audience walked out and went back to their comfortable lives, the experience may have a lasting effect.
“Maybe they’ll go on and become the man, and remember what it felt like to be angry and young at these concerts pumping their fists, and bend a little,” he said.