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Hip-hop gets back to its politically conscious roots

This article is over 14 years, 4 months old
Senan Mortell takes a look at why rap has taken a sharp left turn of late
Issue 2070
Common’s Finding Forever album

Hip-hop is a multibillion dollar industry whose influence can be seen in fashion, advertising, TV, magazines – and even in everyday language itself.

It has moved a long way since its humble origins in New York’s South Bronx during the late 1970s.

This was an area blighted by poverty, crime and drug abuse, home to a new generation growing up as the hopes and promises of the US civil rights movement began to unravel.

From its earliest days hip-hop was an art form that spoke of the highs and lows of the dispossessed.

It was music for a good night out, or an expression of black working class experience. It was a music you could party to or reflect upon.

Hip-hop was thus both an escape from and a creative response to the poverty and alienation that affected young people’s lives in US inner city ghettos.

At first the mainstream media ignored hip-hop, or dismissed it as simply a musical fad of little or no artistic merit.

Even today, when we read about hip-hop in the mainstream press, it is only allowed to grace the pages so that it can be blamed for any number of social ills.

In this context of a cultural racism and snobbery the best antidote can be found in the music itself.


And this year has seen a healthy revival in “conscious” hip-hop – rap music that deals directly with political and social issues that resonate with the lives that people lead.

Examples include recent releases from artists such as Pharoahe Monch, Talib Kweli and Mos Def, talking about issues from the war through to poverty and the impact of Hurricane Katrina.

The music brims with anger, but also a sense of optimism – as perhaps illustrated by Common’s new album, Finding Forever.

This renewed popularity – and musical depth – of conscious hip-hop is linked to what’s going on politically in the US at the moment.

Popular resistance is on the rise again in the US, whether it’s the anti-war movement, mass marches of immigrants in defence of their rights, or the most recent protests against racism in the US legal system around the Jena Six case in Louisiana.

Conscious hip-hop’s links to these movements are not merely musical. Rappers perform for social and political causes, both in the US and internationally.

Young people today have grown up in the context of social movements – and up-and-coming hip-hop artists wear those movements’ influence on their sleeves.

But perhaps it is not simply about the artists themselves. Maybe in fighting for something better, we are all becoming more demanding of what is on offer culturally.

After all, the movement is made by people and in so doing changes people. Artists cannot remain indifferent to those changes.

The flowering of conscious hip-hop could signal a new level of consciousness and confidence among the working class in the US and abroad.

Talib Kweli
Talib Kweli’s Eardrum album

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