Dating back to the 1970s at the Bronx in New York, abandoned buildings and parking lots came to life when urban youths turned to the streets hosting block parties. Block parties were an essential part of building the foundations of hip-hop and rap as it served as an outlet for self-expression.
Pioneers of the genre, like DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash developed distinct styles that have persisted throughout Hip-hop’s evolution. Such styles include speaking in rhyme and rhythm over instrumentals, DJ techniques such as the backspin, cutting and even scratching. A decade later, hip-hop had already gained traction, spreading like wildfire across the country. Record labels took greater notice of the hip-hop movement and began investing in some artistes, thus sparking the beginning of the “Golden age of hip-hop”.
For some, hip-hop is merely another form of music. However, this niche art was tremendously crucial during its early years of creation. Its emergence from the violent and impoverished part of New York the Bronx, with a predominantly African American population led to hip hop being a way that these people were able to voice out their dissatisfaction towards authority, in particular against legal institutions for their oppression on the marginalized communities such as the discrimination of the Blacks by police officers and the justice system.
The rise of “gangsta” rap in the 1990s — featuring lyrics focusing on drugs, violence and gangs — enjoyed mainstream success, with albums such as N.W.A Straight Outta Compton and The Chronic by Dr Dre selling in large numbers. This further encouraged unknown hip hop artists to spread their political or social message to inform people throughout the country about the harsh conditions in their marginalised neighbourhoods.
The concept of hip hop being a form of self expression has since been accepted by not only the general public but also formal institutions, with hip hop lyricism being taught and researched upon in formal institutions such as the University of Toronto where George Elliot Clarke teaches the potential of rap music to promote social change.
Yet, hip-hop does more than empower and add depth to one’s identity: it also provides much-needed support to others in their times of need.
Hip-hop has historically acted as an alternative path that one could take and opened windows of opportunities for many of the marginalised in America.
In Tricia Rose’s book entitled Black Noise, rap was seen as “a black cultural expression that prioritizes black voices from the margins of urban America … a form of rhymed storytelling”. This was (and arguably still is) necessary for black people, especially in the 1970s, when racism, violence and crime were the status quo for American blacks. Many were pressured into joining gangs as there were little other ways for them to cope with the discrimination and oppression.
However, this complex genre introduced them to new ways in which they could release their pent-up frustration over decades of discrimination through music, and not through raising fists. Hip-hop acted as a platform where self-reflection was accepted and otherwise difficult topics could be openly discussed about. In this vein, hip-hop is not as superficially crude as it appears — it is a medium by which the marginalised can express themselves.
In the present, rap has evolved to transcend not just genres but geographical borders. The 21st century has made music much more accessible to the global population. With the rise of the internet, anyone can now be a rapper.
While modern American rap usually waxes lyrical about living a lavish life, doing drugs, and sometimes going back to “gangsta” rap, it can be seen that these songs still have an underlying message behind them. The most prominent and relevant song would be Childish Gambino’s “This is America”, in which he raps about gun violence and brings up prejudices against the African-American community in America.
With the recent resurgence in political hip-hop, rap artists all around the world have raised awareness of pressing issues that have arisen in their communities or as a means to bring injustice to light. For instance, Nas’ “Cops Shot The Kid”, which was released in 2016, brings up an issue that has long since plagued the US — police brutality.
Take also local rapper Yung Raja, whose Tamil-English rap tracks serve also as concrete expressions of Raja’s Tamil culture, providing much-needed representation in Singapore’s music scene. The nature of hip-hop songs being brought into the market and the increase in diversity of rap and hip-hop songs have made listeners everywhere more accepting towards hip-hop culture.
Even now, hip-hop & rap songs are dominating global musical charts and the recent rise in popularity of rappers in the musical scene, which could be a sign that it’s time we examine the continued relevance of this genre in our world today. However, lyrically, hip-hop & rap songs touch more on complex issues back then during tumultuous times, while current songs seem to cover more light-hearted topics lyrically, with a shifting emphasis on musicality instead.
So, the next time you hear a hip-hop track blasting from TikTok or Instagram, don’t just bob along — you can have a think about the circumstances that inspired this composition.
Here are some hip-hop and rap songs we would highly recommend to new listeners!
B.o.B – Airplanes ft. Hayley Williams
Lupe Fiasco & Guy Sebastian – Battle Scars
Eminem – Love The Way You Lie ft. Rihanna
Super Bass – Nicki Minaj
Alexander Crooke Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Music Therapy, & Raphael Travis Jr. Associate Professor of Social Work. (2019, May 18). The healing power of hip hop. Retrieved February 16, 2021, from https://theconversation.com/the-healing-power-of-hip-hop-81556
Tyson, E. H. (2002). Hip Hop Therapy: An Exploratory Study of a Rap Music Intervention with At-Risk and Delinquent Youth1. Retrieved February 17, 2021, from http://jjie.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Tyson-Hip-Hop-Therapy-1.pdf
Dr Alexander Crooke, U. (2021, February 15). Hip hop’s healing power. Retrieved February 16, 2021, from https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/hip-hop-s-healing-power
Atkins, J. (2020, November 01). Say it loud: How music changes society: Udiscover. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://www.udiscovermusic.com/in-depth-features/how-music-changes-society/
Hart, W. (n.d.). The culture industry, hip hop music and the white perspective: How one-dimensional representation of hip hop music has influenced white racial attitudes. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://www.academia.edu/428185/THE_CULTURE_INDUSTRY_HIP_HOP_MUSIC_AND_THE_WHITE_PERSPECTIVE_HOW_ONE_DIMENSIONAL_REPRESENTATION_OF_HIP_HOP_MUSIC_HAS_INFLUENCED_WHITE_RACIAL_ATTITUDES
Rory, PQ. (2019, November 26). Hip hop history: From the streets to the Mainstream: Icon collective. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://iconcollective.edu/hip-hop-history/