African American History
29 April 2020
Hip Hop and Social Movements
Every year in February, the United States celebrates Black History Month. Highlighting the trials and triumphs of the black community, the month honors the toiling past of African Americans as a whole. From the slave trade to modern movements, all aspects of black culture are celebrated in order to bring attention to the problems and accomplishments which may go unnoticed by most throughout the year. Through the use of hip hop, more attention is able to be brought towards black struggles in modern society, and raise awareness of current social and political issues.
While many may focus on the physical struggles of the black community, it is also important to observe the cultural struggles. In the series “Left of Black” with Rennie Harris Puremovement, published by John Hope Franklin Center at Duke University in 2016, a panel discussed the importance of the black arts, specifically dance. In terms of hip-hop, there is an underlying theme of individuality, creativity, and innovation which drives both the musical and choreographic aspects. On its own, hip-hop is an overall black art form, so it has found its way into social movements as a means of communication. Although hip-hop as a genre has fallen out of trend at places like dance clubs, it is still globally one of the most possible music forms today, creating a strong, profitable market for the genre. Through hip-hop and other cultural symbols, black struggles are able to be expressed and bring people together in ways physical movements may not be able to.
In modern day, many hip-hop pieces are accompanied by a music video, allowing the artist to express themselves sonically, as well as visually. Many of these videos are able to communicate an important underlying message to the viewer, without directly addressing the issue. This subliminal messaging is what makes hip-hop so important. A perfect example of this use of imagery is Childish Gambino’s This is America in 2018. The lyrics of the song in and of itself discuss black struggle, such as gun violence, a sense of needing to conform to white society, and helplessness. In the video however, Childish Gambino is seen visually parodying black imagery in the media throughout history. From the Jim Crow pose to background imagery of viral media violence, it highlights all aspects of the struggles of black people in an antiblack America. This method of communication is important as it is able to quickly be popularized by mass culture, and communicates a message out without actively trying to do so. In a little over four minutes, Childish Gambino is able to lightly touch on a wide variety of issues in a manner that is pleasing (or captivating) to the public. While seminars and museums are able to communicate a similar message, they lack the attention grabbing aspects of hip-hop. The piece is at the foremost a piece to musically entertain. This gives it the advantage of being made to entertain rather than teach, allowing it to draw in a larger audience.
Because of its impacts, hip-hop has recently become a global means of communication of black struggle. In an article by Marcyliena Morgan and Dionne Bennett, “Hip-Hop & the Global Imprint of a Black Cultural Form,” the authors argue that hip-hop has created a new means of communication and debate.
“Young people worldwide are developing into what political theorist Antonio Gramsci describes as “organic intellectuals”: those who use hip-hop to develop critical thinking and analytical skills that they can apply to every aspect of their lives. The result is the emergence of local hip-hop “scenes,” where young people practice the elements of hip-hop and debate, represent, and critique the cultural form and their social lives” (Morgan, Marcyliena, and Bennett, 177-178).
In short, hip-hop has become an alternate means of communication which seems to aid in creating a social dialog in areas where traditional forms of critical thinking and debate may be less common due to an absence of a traditional structure. This is not to say that the area is less intelligent, rather, it lacks the social structure to sit down and have political or seminar style discussions. Here, the ability to express oneself in song and dance allows people to communicate and discuss social problems in a non-academic manner.
There are various other examples of art and icons having a large impact toward cultural
cultural movements. From Rosa Parks to Angela Y. Davis, the public has a history of taking greater attention to icons than simple speeches, and it shows. A political activist, Angela Y. Davis arguably made the strongest impact when she was imprisoned.
“Angeles Davis spent 16 months in jail awaiting trial for conspiracy, kidnapping and murder. She became a cultural icon. Historian Robin D.G. Kelley writes, “‘Free Angela’ posters, buttons, and T-shirts became as much a part of the changing urban landscape as liquor stores and ‘soul food’ restaurants. Tall, lean, with a raised fist and an Afro, a flashing smile, and an aura of confidence, Angela Davis offered the African-American community a striking image to rally around” (“Say It Plain, Say It Loud”).
Her imprisonment and trial served as a rallying point for black communities, in some cases allowing people to find common ground. She served as an icon of black resistance. Davis grew up in a neighborhood known for Klu Klux Klan attacks known to target the young and old alike, such as the bombing of the “4 Little Girls” in 1963 where 4 young females lost their lives, leaving 14 others injured in a racially charged attack. In fact these attacks were done with such persistence that Birmingham was given the unofficial name of “Bombingham”. Being strongly affected by these attacks, Davis found herself in the Black Power Movement, and in particular forged ties with the Black Panther Party, despite never officially joining. In one instance she bought the firearms which were used in an attack on a courtroom. While she was not physically involved in the raid, she was put on trial for being a conspirator. All around the country, people began to rally, pushing for her acquittal. While she herself never personally ended racism, her trial greatly brought the black lower class community together to fight for a common goal, an important part of creating a strong movement. So similar to hip hop, Davis served as a middle ground between different communities, and allowed people to fight for a similar goal.
Between hip-hop and Davis, cultural icons have served as a common ground for movements throughout history. In black history, these icons have rallied people together in search of a common interest. Through their influence, their messages and rallying potential allow communities to come together and communicate, an integral part of forming a movement. After all, there is no movement without people.
American Public Media. “American RadioWorks – Say It Plain, Say It Loud.
APM Reports Investigations and Documentaries from American Public Media, americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/blackspeech/adavis.html.
Morgan, Marcyliena, and Dionne Bennett. “Hip-Hop & the Global Imprint of a Black Cultural
Form.” Daedalus, vol. 140, no. 2, 2011, pp. 176–196. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23047460. Accessed 30 Apr. 2020.
Stice, Joel. “10 Symbols You Missed in Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’, Explained.” Buzzworthy, 9 May 2018, www.buzzworthy.com/references-from-childish-gambino-this-is-america/.