American Culture

Popular Music Scholarship V: Hip-Hop and its Voice(s) of Protest

A look at hip hop’s forbears, its evolution from black protest music to class protest expression and its relationship with its female artists…

Queen Latifah (image courtesy

(For previous essays in this series, look here, hereherehere, and here)

This will be the last essay on the excellent group of scholarly discussions of popular music’s elements of protest, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social ProtestIt is the essay I have waited until the end to write for a couple of reasons: first, my knowledge of hip-hop is limited enough to be called laughable by most music fans of the last 30+ years (that in itself is amazing to consider—hip-hop is now more than 30 years old); second, the section from which these essays come in The Resisting Muse is called “Monophony or Polyphony?” and covers a good bit of territory. That said, these essays are well worth some review and discussion—so I will do my best to do them justice.

There are three essays to be considered. The first is Russell A. Potter’s look at hip-hop in relation to the Postmodern moment, “The future is history: hip-hop in the aftermath of (post)modernity.” Following Porter’s essay is a historical discussion from James Smethurst, “Everyday people: popular music, race, and the articulation and formation of class identity in the United States.” Finally, Gail Hilson Woldu addresses the issue of gender in hip-hop in “Gender as anomaly: women in rap.” Each of these essays offers interesting perspectives on the evolution of music (and equally importantly, musicians) as forms of protest against the hegemonies of culture and the always considerable complexities of class and gender relations.

It makes the best sense from a chronological standpoint to look at Smethurst’s essay first since it offers at least a bit of historical perspective. Smethurst argues that hip-hop (which seems to be a term used more to refer to the culture than to musical work) or rap is important in that it merges the interests and concerns of both black and white lower class people in ways that both groups can relate to comfortably. While Smethurst notes that such mergers began as far back as doo-wop music and certainly saw moments of conjunction in the music revolutions of the 1960’s (the title of his article references a well-known Sly Stone song), he sees the embrace of hip-hop by suburban white America as proof of the triumph of hip-hop as a soundtrack for the disaffection of those at the mercy of the manipulations of power elites. Further, he points to Eminem as a sort of “Elvis of rap” who serves as the bridge figure between the experiences of black Americans and white Americans as members of an American underclass. There is also an interesting discussion of the influence, particularly on youth behavior and attitudes towards what may be perceived of as unjust uses of authority, of the depictions of “thug life” with its portrayal as heroes of those who flout moral and legal codes and adhere to their own systems of conduct.

Russell Potter’s focus is on hip-hop as a reflection of Postmodernist artistic interests. This of course means that Potter focuses his interests on what has been both hip-hop’s most controversial and most interesting musical legacy: its sampling of the works of previous artists to create new assemblages (or, as Potter notes, using the critical language of Postmodernism, pastiches). This “mixing up” of beats, sounds, and raps (in this case used to refer to the actual spoken word poetry by artists known in common parlance as rappers) allows, Potter claims, hip-hop artists to ignore boundaries between types of music even as rappers ignore boundaries of other sorts (as referred to in Smethurst’s essay). Potter argues that this collage creating behavior of hip-hop artists creates new discourses that are more ambiguous and harder to categorize, thus enriching our discourse and raising new questions about what art can and cannot be.

The difficulties faced by female rap artists such as Queen Latifah, Salt-n-Pepa, and Foxy Brown are the subject of Gail Hilson Woldu’s essay in this group. Woldu argues that female hip-hop artists depict independence as a central theme in their work. This independence, Woldu points out, is most often discussed in terms of financial security, sexual freedom, and emotional strength. What Woldu notes is the problem that the marketing of female rappers created for them—the emphasis on creating images for these artists as sex symbols to some degree blunted the power of their messages and they suffered a similar fate in some ways to their predecessors—artists such as the Motown women who were manipulated to make them attractive to middle class (presumably majority white) audiences. Woldu also emphasizes that hip-hop culture has major misogyny problems and the depiction of women in male rap videos consigns them to categories that the lyrics of these same women artists have tried to counter with their messages of strength. Woldu argues that for the most successful of these artists that this duality of being both messengers for female empowerment and at the same time sexual objects is a continuing problem. She lauds their commitment to bringing women’s voices to the hip-hop conversation even as she deplores their objectification as a price of their success.

These articles all point to important conclusions for readers: as a social force, hip-hop and rap have been more powerful than any other form of popular music for the last three decades or so. Still, as with all the genres of popular music discussed in these essays (and reviewed in my essays), hip-hop has issues it must address if it is to assert itself as a real voice of protests against social and political injustices both here in America and across the world.

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A couple of final thoughts about this collection and the future of popular music scholarship—and the future of popular music.

As wide ranging and thoughtful as these essays have been, their focus has been largely on a past where music held some status as a cultural force. The last decade has seen the power of musical (indeed, all) artists diminished to such a degree that even “legendary” artists cannot make much impact on audiences so caught up in the revolutions in technology that they can barely acknowledge each others’ existences, much less pay attention to important cultural messages delivered by art or music or literature. Though in some ways it seems nearly impossible to conceive, it is (though remote) possible that we have seen what REM once called “the end of the world as we know it.” It is possible that we are entering a world where art of any kind only has value as decoration or entertainment or background for “more important” activities.

One can wish this not to be so and even believe it impossible. That will not change what outcome we are reaching, however temporary that outcome may be.

That makes the continued work of scholars such as those involved with The Resisting Muse even more important. When human interest does turn again (as I believe it will) to the arts and what they add to human understanding, such work as this will be invaluable for “filling in gaps” concerning neglected, even lost, art forms.

May such useful and interesting scholarly work continue even as we continue our decline into this dark age of technocratic obsession. We shall be glad to have it some day…


2 replies »

  1. This is an odd articulation to me, as if hip hop has conciousness and needs to decide what it wants to be when it graduates.

    “hip-hop has issues it must address if it is to assert itself as a real voice of protests against social and political injustices both here in America and across the world”

    I’m pondering.

    • This is the Internet, Otherwise, where grammar is dead and reification is universal. Of course hip-hop has a consciousness – if corporations can be citizens, which naturally implies that THEY have consciousness, then a musical genre can have a consciousness, too.

      Or it’s simply vague reference run amok. It could be that.

      Nah, hip-hop has a consciousness…. 😉