America needs hip-hop more than ever

Darren D'Altorio

Hip-hop, musically and culturally, has always had an interesting position in the social and cultural landscape of America.

It’s been loved, hated, hailed, banned and bumped from the West coast to the East side, all the way down to the South and beyond. It has taken the blame for inciting street wars, riots and murders. And it has challenged the constitution, defending the rights to freedom of speech and expression in this country.

Nowadays, hip-hop is the cultural status quo. From fashion to communication and big business, hip-hop swag has taken the United States hostage.

Tricia Rose, professor of Africana studies at Brown University and author of “Black Noise: Rap Music and Culture in Contemporary America,” has explored how hip-hop culture has adopted the logic of capitalism, keeping the American Dream afloat, even though it’s being battered by rogue waves.

Let’s parallel hip-hop to capitalism, just for a moment.

Capitalism thrives on competition, class conflict, the haves and the have-nots battling it out on a corporate war field. Executives see the bottom line, profit margins and new converged business and media strategies to secure market share. The proletariat, working-class folks see the branding and commercialization spewed by the white-collar side and feel the need to buy into it, thinking it solidifies their social status and serves as some measure of success.

Hip-hop also thrives on competition, class conflict and the battle of the haves and the have-nots.

Jeff Chang, author of “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: a History of the Hip-Hop Generation,” confirms this capitalistic parallel.

“Hip-hop culture has become something of value in the market place,” Chang wrote in the Border Talk blog on “It is a commodity that can leverage other commodities, and transform identities and cultures around the world.”

Beyond the similarities, hip-hop began as a different beast. It was born far from commoditization, commercialization and capitalism. It began as a means of self-expression. It was a voice for a struggling neighborhood. It was a reason for young people to have fun, dance and forget about the struggles, stresses and problems of the daily grind.

That is why hip-hop holds a power that needs to be recognized by all Americans. It is all encompassing – business and pleasure rolled into a beat-laden package. Raw, uncensored and provocative, hip-hop explores ways of life only imaginable in the greatest works of fiction or Hollywood motion pictures. It totes the joys of riches and prosperity in life, but it also expresses “pain and the desire for change,” Chang wrote.

The lyrics and messages of hip-hop artists are the greatest, truest social commentaries because they are straight from the source. These artists grew up in the hoods and ghettos of America. They turned a negative situation into a positive one, using their environment and social surroundings to craft lyrical works of art. Much like any good art, something is to be learned from it.

What can hip-hop teach us?

First, it teaches us that we are all the same. It doesn’t matter what race or social class you belong to. Struggles are struggles, problems are problems, passion is passion. You either let them bring you down, or you use them as fuel for something greater.

Second, it proves movements are real and lasting. Our country was founded on social unrest and war. Hip-hop has caused wars in the streets and in the halls of Congress for the past 30 years. In the face of censorship and in the cold cuffs of the law, hip-hop culture and its artists have “stayed the course,” as Mr. Bush would say, remaining true to what they believe in and shouting it loud from stages and street corners.

Finally, hip-hop is a lifestyle and culture of aspiration, a real testament to the truth of the American Dream. What started as a countercultural movement now exists as one of the largest, most profitable business endeavors in the modern world. It is the greatest irony and the greatest success story for a movement. The way hip-hop took marketing in its clutches and molded the monster known as branding in its favor should be taught in business schools worldwide.

Chang wrote that “branding is another metaphor for the transformation of nothing into something, a nobody into a somebody.”

People who embrace the commercialization of hip-hop will be shattering glass walls and ceilings of race, sexuality and expression. And giving hope to every person who wishes to have their voice heard in this country.


Darren D’Altorio is a senior magazine

journalism major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].