I went to see a new documentary recently put out by the National Film Board of Canada, United States of Africa. In it, the director, Yanick Letourneau, basically follows around a Senegalese hip-hop artist, Didier Awadi, as he creates a hip-hop album entitled Présidents d’Afrique; much of the film is a meditation on the role of hip-hop in politics, particularly African politics. The film was excellent, as is the album. But one thing about the film wasn’t excellent: its introduction (since the film was part of a festival here in Edmonton, a person talked about the film before the showing). The dude had good intentions, but in placing the movie in the broader context of the hip-hop cultural movement, he missed the mark, both objectively and perhaps more fundamentally. His argument went something like this: “We kind of took a risk in showing this film because of the association with this music and violence. Well, I just want to say that this film is not like that. This film is about hip-hop. It is not about rap, like gangsta rap and violence and all that other stuff related to rap. It’s important to clarify what hip-hop is compared to rap, because a lot of people don’t see the transformative power of hip-hop to be a force for good in the world. That’s what this film is about.” Okay, he didn’t explicitly say that they took a risk in showing this film, but it was pretty obvious from everything else he did say. What was also obvious was that he thought hip-hop was fairly misunderstood, that it was associated with violence, and that he wanted to correct this misunderstanding.
As you can imagine, I had a bit of a problem with this intro; the fact that I’m writing about it a week later means the problem hasn’t gone away. First, this guy’s distinction between hip-hop and rap was just plain wrong, and second, it is wrong to associate hip-hop or rap, or whatever you want to call the genre, with purely negative social phenomena, and to do so euphemistically, potentially with classist or racist undertones. I’ll get back to that second point in a bit. First, it seems lots of people don’t know the difference between hip-hop and rap. I say this having written an academic paper on hip-hop, in which even the reviewers were not clear about this distinction, so it’s not just my friend from the film festival.
Hip-hop vs. rap. I’m not even quite sure how to classify homeboy’s distinction of hip-hop vs. rap, other than on some evaluative dimension like “hip-hop is good, rap is violent and therefore bad”. Hip-hop, as anybody who’s curious enough to look up the term on Wikipedia will see, is a term for a cultural movement encompassing visual art (graffiti), dancing (b-boying), and music. The musical component is twofold, DJ-ing and MC-ing. So in theory, when people talk about the musical element of the movement, they should say something like “hip-hop music”. But realistically, that’s kind of long and thus annoying, and it’s usually clear from the context that only the musical component is being discussed, hence the shortening of the musical genre to simply “hip-hop”. Perhaps because of this use of terminology, many people have started using the term hip-hop for only the music and are not aware that the broader cultural movement also bears this name.
But back to the music. A DJ spins records, and an MC presides over a show. In hip-hop, DJ-ing started as a way of extending and repeating the break of popular songs; MCs of parties would talk over the records. The talking, however, would generally be rhythmic, like spoken poetry — it would be rapping (here again, a Wiki search suffices to kill the curiosity). That is, ladies and gentleman, rapping is the spoken component to hip-hop songs. It has its origins in the African-American oral tradition, and thanks to hip-hop, it is probably the most popular form of poetry actively listened to in the U.S., if not the world.
Thus the distinction between hip-hop and rap is more like a part-whole relationship than a sub-genre classification, like gangsta rap vs. the rest of hip-hop. Why then, you ask, is gangsta rap not called gangsta hip-hop? According to this site, Dr. Dre invented the term gangsta rap music to describe the albums he produced. I haven’t read the Rolling Stone article cited on that page, so I can’t say what was going on in his head when he came up with this term, or if that’s even the right etymology. But perhaps he wanted his music to be marketable to mainstream audiences, who often think of the musical genre as rap, not hip-hop, particularly back in the early 1990s.
Clearly as a linguist I’m aware that the meanings of words change over time and across social groups. So at the end of the day I don’t really care if you refer to the music as hip-hop or rap, as long as you and your listener understand each other. But it does bother me to see a false dichotomy created to discuss the music, and worse, a false dichotomy in which neither side is fully explained, but in which one side is judged as having fairly negative associations, which people often euphemistically dance around.
Hip-hop is so misunderstood. It seems that one way in which to go about talking about such associations is to phrase the problem in terms of how misunderstood the genre is. You, dear listener, who may or may not associate hip-hop with negative social phenomena, if only you would hear some “decent” hip-hop — and by decent, I mean uplifting, positive, or funny — then clearly you would stop thinking about violence and the like when you think about hip-hop. The movie introducer invoked this trope when discussing hip-hop, while at the same time failing to mention what exactly “rap” is, other than gangsta rap, which he sees as negative. Here is another example of the “hip-hop is so misunderstood” trope: the Edmonton hip-hop artist The Joe was on local TV in early 2011, and the host, wanting to make The Joe’s music as relevant as possible to his viewers, said (6:00 – 6:10), “I think a lot of people might have a misconception of what rap is… uh, if you want proof, of exactly how excellent this work is, keep it locked right here…” This statement was promptly followed by a cut to a commercial. Like before, the misconception isn’t followed by a well-defined conceptualization of hip-hop (here “rap” again, although interestingly he does use both terms in seemingly free variation to me throughout the interview). Instead, what follows is an implication that hip-hop, unlike the current work being discussed, is usually not excellent.
Because these claims are pretty vague, it’s difficult to see what the speaker thinks hip-hop is, and specifically, what is so misunderstood and/or not excellent about the genre. I will hazard a few guesses though, based on people who actually say what they don’t like (some) hip-hop for: the emphasis on violence, the braggadocio, the ostentatious/”pimp” lifestyle, the swear words, the misogyny, the homophobia. These are some serious claims, and so to do them justice I’ve just been focusing on one: the violence in hip-hop songs, since if anything the movie introducer seemed to associate the genre with violence.
One of the overarching themes of the hip-hop is that it is a mechanism for underrepresented peoples to express themselves. Hip-hop started in the U.S. as music by Blacks and Hispanics, but it has expanded to a worldwide scene in which, for example, African hip-hop artists use it to critique their government on behalf of politically oppressed people, as seen in United States of Africa. And a sad-but-true correlate of being underrepresented, as for example an ethnic minority group often is, is lower socio-economic status and higher rates of violence.
I once got in a huge fight with a friend about the universal appeal of different genres of music. Well, he might say it was about gangsta rap vs. I dunno, indie rock and slowcore. His point was that he hated the negativity of gangsta rap, as exemplified by the gruesome discussion of violence, particularly that aimed at police officers. He felt like music with such themes did not have the universal appeal that the often introspective lyrics of his favorite bands, such as Low, have. My point was simply that the music we listen to and like is a product of our own socio-cultural experiences and biases, not just our emotive side and hankering for good beats. For God’s sake, both he and Low are from Minnesota! How much more of a shared experience can you get? I then asked him what hip-hop artists he did like: Atmosphere. “That’s another Minnesota group!” I yelled. “And their lyrics are extremely comprehensible to you!”
I personally have no gangsta rap in my music collection and know very little about the sub-genre, so I’m probably the worst person to talk about it, let alone defend it. I do know that some prominent African-Americans, such as Spike Lee, do not like gangsta rap because they feel it is the 21st century minstrel show. I get that. Violence sells, and perhaps some artists are taking advantage of this fact. But still, if the streets are going to be violent, as is the case in too many inner-city communities, then to some extent it’s only natural that hip-hop artists from these communities would discuss violence in their songs, and would do so in a variety of ways. But for me personally, Eminem’s lyrics are some of the most violent you can get, yet he’s not associated with gangsta rap. In fact, I feel that for the level of violence portrayed in Eminem’s songs, he gets off pretty easily.
That hip-hop artists talk a lot about violence, if indeed they do so more than other genres of music, should not be viewed as something regrettable about the genre, but rather about our culture: inner cities are often violent; furthermore, this narrative sells. Hip-hop, then, is simply a reflection of our culture at large. It is perhaps these inconvenient truths that are too difficult to discuss, and which are the true reason for which “hip-hop is so misunderstood”.