Since its onset, Hip- Hop culture has become infamous for its “low- class” origins and “inappropriate” content base. More traditional musical theorists and appreciators of music look down upon Hip- Hop and see it as the culmination of an uneducated, culturally unaware minority. What fails to be recognized is the type of culture valued by various music lovers that makes Hip- Hop inferior in the eyes of a more “affluent” majority. But in reality, Hip- Hop should be considered one of the highest forms of art, as its nature allows for it to encompass all forms of music and knowledge and make them accessible to the masses while simultaneously observing and making a critique of current culture and history. Throughout the history of the arts, there has been a rigid divide between what is considered to be “high” vs. “low” culture art. Activities such as going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, various opera houses and the ballet are typically classified as the highest forms of art.
This most sophisticated form of art poses a hindrance to a substantial amount of people, as those who attend these events are generally of a specific socio- economic demographic: namely Caucasian, rich, upper- class and educated. Even today, it can be expected that you will pay out the wazoo for opera tickets, and the sheer cost of reserving a seat immediately rules out any low- income individual from sitting in the theater. Of course, low- income, due to racism, prejudice and in truth, lack of economic means for advancement, also implies in our society “uneducated”. One must be educated in order to capture and understand cultural/ historical references and catch the depth and nuances of what each piece being performed in its respective venue is supposed to be “saying”, or what critique it makes of society. Upon lyrical and literary analysis, music almost always has a meaning behind it. You need to know about the mechanics of music and its genres in order to appreciate it and be an introspective audience member, instead of just an objective observer. That is what the most refined of music participants would say- otherwise, all the money spent on a ticket is wasted on a gauche, déclassé attendee. Sadly, Hip- Hop heads, if we classify based on stereotypes, are right up in there in that gauche and déclassé conglomerate.
Broadway musical productions are considered to be an almost happy medium between “high” culture and “low” culture music performance. According to the traditional upper-echelon of music admirers, the gaudy, showy gimmicks of the stage are not as respected or refined as the traditional, formal standards of grand orchestras and Italian lyrics without translations. Less expensive and more generalized in terms of their presentation, musicals make “high” culture somewhat accessible to inner- city people. These are a few of my favorite things– any person who has even an ounce of “high” culture in their bones can identify those words as lyrics of a song from one of the most famous musical productions of all time, The Sound of Music. Many music lovers or self- proclaimed music aficionados pride themselves on their knowledge on everything from Bach to Chopin to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Attending theatrical productions infused with musical melodies is considered to be by some, the pinochle of high- class leisure activities. Musicians of older generations could go through an entire list before ever even considering Hip- Hop as even part of this musical spectrum, and it most certainly would be at the rock bottom.
Hip- Hop’s origins derive primarily from low- income urban inner- city areas, mostly populated by those of African descent. Many of these people, due to their economic and geographical circumstances, are unable to gain access to this “high” culture. Due also to a lack of resources on the part of the artistic originators and inherent racism, the refined upper- class also labels Hip- Hop as “low” culture. You would never hear Hot Nigga by Bobby Shmurda in a Broadway production of Phantom or All Day by Kanye in the middle of The Sound of Music– it’s simply taboo. Yet, rapper Laryn Hill manages to infuse this “high” and “low” music culture in her piece “Black Rage”(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWZJQ1R7qhU).
In this song, Hill sings
“Black Rage is founded on two-thirds a person
Rapings and beatings and suffering that worsens,
Black human packages tied up in strings,
Black Rage can come from all these kinds of things.
Black Rage is founded on blatant denial
Squeezed economics, subsistence survival,
Deafening silence and social control.
Black Rage is founded on wounds on the soul”,
to the melody of My Favorite Things, as originally sung by the untouchable Julie Andrews(www.lauryn-hill.com). She takes this song which, in the musical, is sung by Frauline Maria to help the distressed children she watches over get through a storm that frightens them and uses this song to weather black people through the storm of racism and oppression in a way that explains the plight of black society logically. Frederick Douglass, as referenced in It’s Bigger than Hip- Hop by professor M.K. Asante, once said “Find out what people will submit to and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong, which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both”(Asante, 164).
“Black Rage” gives justification to the anger that those affected by racism put up with in going about their day- to- day lives. While Andrews thinks of things that cheer her up and then she doesn’t “feel so bad”, Hill recalls all that black people have been suffering and then does not “fear so bad”, which I interpret as no longer having fear to express her Black Rage as she sees fit when she reflects on how blacks have been treated throughout history.
This parallel between the well- known musical number and the often overlooked and neglected sufferings of the black body brings a sophisticated type of knowledge to Hip- Hop listeners. The Seattle Times writes in its opinions column piece entitled Hip-hop: Bringing Knowledge from the Streets to Academia that “linguistic intelligence relates to rapping and rhyming. The ability to formulate multisyllabic word schemes and use clever metaphors to illustrate and make points is the definition of a “dope MC (exceptional rapper)”(Seattle Times). A piece from the Washington Post, Americas Hip- Hop Double Standard states “Hip-hop compositions are masterful poetry: The form of the standard hip-hop song is three verses of 16 bars written to various beats-per-minute patterns, which mirrors Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter”(Washington Post). The way Hill expresses herself in her rap song in comparison to how other rappers express themselves mirrors this refined way of expressing oneself. However, it is those who articulate themselves in this fashion as rappers who shed a “good light” Hip- Hop, simply because they are not portraying the stereotypical “angry black person” persona.
The theory exists that it is not “possible for a Negro to write well without making us aware he is a Negro”, or that it is impossible for a black person to express his or herself in any way without performing their “blackness”(Fuller, 4). The worst thing is that if any oppressed minority “wiles out” and gets angry(which they have every right to), they are labeled as belligerent- whether it’s the angry black person or the sassy, big- mouthed Latina. Praising black rappers or people who speak or write like Lauryn Hill and bashing who don’t use “proper” or “appropriate” language is completely unjust. Some individuals just express themselves differently than others. It should not always be how people express themselves that merits respect, but why people express themselves and take a stand that merits respect and being listened to. Even though our ladies with their fur mufflers and men with monocles will dismiss and look right past Hip- Hop, they are missing the point. It’s not about how “low” the socio- musical culture of Hip- Hop is, but how high its aims are.
Hip- Hop is one of the most amazing forms of music because Hip- Hop writers and performers go out of their way to form intricate ideas and juxtapose them with beat and flow. An essential aesthetic of Hip- Hop is its ability to effortlessly pull all of these outside influences together to make popular hits that also make listeners think and reflect about what music says about our world. Where else can you find The Sound of Music being used to strengthen the black community through song? People living in these low- income areas will not necessarily come across opera, or history or science unless it’s mentioned in a Hip- Hop song; culture references are what sometimes make a track fire and make the listener go “Oh damn”. This sparks curiosity, as listeners want to know where that violin piece being sampled comes from or what book a familiar set of lyrics comes from.
The musical genre of Hip- Hop is “a pedagogy that empowers… intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes”(Hip-Hop Literature: The Politics, Poetics, and Power of Hip-Hop in the English Classroom). You’re not shamed if you don’t know where something comes from in a rap song, but you will be scoffed at if you’ve never heard the concertos playing in a concert hall. Hip- hop costs nothing, all you need is a beat and something to say- it has the potential to reach everyone. It doesn’t isolate or shame those who don’t know, but prompts them to avail themselves of global knowledge in ways that “high” culture does not always do, as exclusive as it is. Hip- Hop brings “high” culture to “low” culture and uplifts it, giving it a strong backbone and points of reference that not all genres of music can get away with making part of their sound. As “low” as Hip- Hop may seem, it is bringing factions of people that need to be uplifted higher and exposing others to the reality of “the struggle” in the most “simple”, and also the most educated of ways.
Abe, Daudi. “Hip-hop: Bringing Knowledge from the Streets to Academia.” The Seattle Times. Seattle Times Co., 12 Apr. 2007. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.
Asante, Molefi K. It’s Bigger than Hip-hop: The Rise of the Post-hip-hop Generation. New York: St. Martin’s, 2008. Print.
Fuller, Hoyt W. The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. Print.
Kelly, Laura Leigh. “Hip-Hop Literature: The Politics, Poetics, and Power of Hip-Hop in the English Classroom.” English Journal (2013): 1. National Council of Teachers of English. National Council of Teachers of English. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.
“Lauryn Hill – Black Rage (Ferguson Dedication) New 2014!! [HD].” YouTube. YouTube, 21 Aug. 2014. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.
“Lauryn Hill Official.” Lauryn Hill The Official Lauryn Hill Site. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.
Newman Perkins, Gilbert. “America’s Hip-hop Double-standard.” Washington
Post. The Washington Post, 19 Sept. 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.