The rappers giving the finger to fatalism

From the 1970s onwards, hip-hop artists have been penning anthems about refusing to accept their lot.

Judith Ayers

Topics Culture

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It can often be easy to dismiss rappers as pandering to the commercial whims of their record labels and talking about their bitches and cars. But you don’t have to go far to find deeper meaning in many classic and contemporary works, one which expresses a distinctive struggle for freedom, autonomy and self-determination.

The scene is set: blighted inner-city, rundown public-housing projects, crumbling state schools with no options, public playgrounds that double as trash dumps and needle bins, all with a predatory police state carting many young men away to jail. The promises of civil rights never realised, the unintended consequences of government intervention have killed the spirit of the community. More importantly, these government reforms often made minorities dependent on state handouts. But growing up in these conditions can lead to a desire to reject a sense of fatalism and dependency, which in turn can build interesting and powerful cultural movements.

One of these movements is the rise of hip-hop, music that emerged from the New York Bronx in the 1970s. Hip-hop artists speak not only of reality, such as the hopelessness, violence and pain of the ghetto, but also of hope and of the search for self-determination, freedom and peace.

The history of this striving for self-determination in hip-hop music is well articulated by Chuck D from the rap group Public Enemy, who says: ‘Hip-hop began with an emphasis on “knowledge of self” and connection to community, family, and love.’ This powerful desire to want to take control of one’s own circumstances runs throughout the hip-hop canon. From Tupac in ‘Brenda’s got a Baby’ singing, ‘Cause I bet Brenda doesn’t even know. Just cause you’re in the ghetto doesn’t mean ya can’t grow’, to veteran Lauryn Hill belting out ‘Oh, I get out of all your boxes. I get out. Oh, you can’t hold me in these chains I’ll get out. Oh, I want out of social bondage. Knowin’ my condition. Oh, is the reason I must change.’

Some of the calls for freedom against state control are blatant, such as Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ and ‘Shut ‘em Down’. But others are more explanatory, such as Notorious B.I.G.’s intro to the song ‘Juicy Lyrics’: ‘This album is dedicated to all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin’, to all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustlin’ in front of that called the police on me when I was just tryin’ to make some money to feed my daughters, and all the niggaz in the struggle.’ Hip-hop is a gathering place for those who wish to express their disgust at the oppressive social system and can act as living refutations to people who say they should just accept their lot and not fight to realise their ambitions.

In the song ‘Knowledge of Self (Determination)’, the rapper Kweli opens up the song with a call for people to take control of their own destinies: ‘So many emcees focusin’ on black people extermination. We keep it balanced with that knowledge of self determination.’ The song illustrates the reality of the poor communities. ‘I feel the rage of a million niggaz locked inside a cage’, he declares, all the while arguing that people can go beyond their current circumstances: ‘At exactly which point do you start to realise, that life without knowledge is death in disguise? That’s why knowledge of self is like life after death.’

Rapper Nas emphasises prestigious jobs that you could have if you work hard in the song ‘I Can’. He tells the choir children who accompany him during the chorus, ‘Nobody says you have to be gangstas, hoes’. He reminds them to read and do more, to aspire the change the world: ‘Ghetto children, do your thing. Hold your head up, little man, you’re a king.’

In The Roots song ‘The Fire’, the group pushes for power of choice and to continue on an individual’s path for a better life: ‘I realise I’m supposed to reach for the skies, never let somebody try to tell you otherwise…I never show signs of fatigue or turn tired, ‘cause I’m the definition of tragedy turned triumph.’ This song emphasises the control and power that one should have in their life.

The ability to determine our futures is a struggle against external forces that should be met by all of us everyday. More people should listen to hip-hop and hear it as a legitimate expression of those fighting in that struggle.

Judith Ayers is currently studying Political Science and Mass Communications at York College of Pennsylvania and is an active member of the student liberty movement.

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Topics Culture


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