50 Years Later, is Hip-Hop Still Radical?

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It’s an afternoon in July 2023, and New York City Mayor Eric Adams is in his element. Standing at a podium at the foot of the marble staircase in New York’s City Hall, the Mayor is flanked by staffers, supporters, and hip-hop stars including Eric B. (of Eric B. and Rakim fame), rapper and reality TV star Peter Gunz, and “The Blastmaster” KRS-One. The occasion is the announcement of a series of concerts to celebrate hip-hop’s 50th anniversary across New York’s five boroughs. Aiming to look the part of “Hip-Hop Mayor,” Adams, who usually wears formal business attire, has forgone his typical suit jacket and rocks a half-zipped black Adidas track jacket and a red baseball cap with the letters “PR” in metallic gold emblazoned above its blue brim — a nod to the city’s Puerto Rican population, the co-architects of hip-hop culture. After introductions from various speakers, Mayor Adams cajoles KRS-One into freestyling. “Talk about how great I am as a mayor. You got to get on the mic!” 

Then, a moment both surreal and absurd, KRS-One — the rapper who sampled speeches by Black radical activist and thinker Kwame Ture; penned songs critical of police violence like “Sound of da Police”, “Black Cop”, and “30 Cops or More”— launched into a rhyme praising Adams, a former police captain and staunch defender of the New York Police Department despite frequent allegations of police brutality and other forms of misconduct and overzealous policing in the first two years of his term: “I’m telling you right now, because back in the day / there was a mayor called Mayor Koch / that didn’t know his way,” he rapped, mentioning the city’s mayor during the dawn of hip-hop. “Had us running all up and down the whole city. / But 20 years later, guess who popped up? /  Real hip-hop. And you know what’s up.”

This wasn’t even the only example of something like this happening during last year’s 50th anniversary festivities. Lil Wayne performed “Mrs. Officer” at Vice President Kamala Harris’ September event celebrating hip-hop, offering the parodic image of Harris dancing to a song with a title that could be used as a derogation of her “tough-on-crime,” easy-on-cops policies as California’s Attorney General. Fat Joe gifted a pair of Terror Squad Air Force Ones to former President Bill Clinton, who notably signed the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act which caused a crisis of mass incarceration. AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted-era Ice Cube would have been arch-enemies with conservative commentator Tucker Carlson in the early 1990s, but in July he went on Carlson’s show, where he called the COVID-19 vaccine a “rush job.”

The mostly sanitized celebrations of the genre’s 50th anniversary appear to suggest that the culture has lost its radical edge. You’d think the hip-hop world would have something to say about its anti-establishment roots on its “birthday.” Instead, we saw the opposite.

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“The fact that these oppressed communities created these cultural expressions in an independent, autonomous way in a response to the hostilities that they were suffering is, in many ways, at least radical, if not fully revolutionary,” says Dr. Jared Ball, Ph.D., Professor of Communication and Africana Studies at Morgan State University. “It’s the condition that [Black and Brown people] find themselves in, capitalism or colonialism or whichever, that doesn’t go away. It doesn’t automatically go away because some kids started plugging into streetlights and creating a new art form.”

Ball points to Slyvia Robinson’s Sugar Hill Records, the label that released Sugar Hill Gang’s seminal “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979. The first commercially released hip-hop record and an immediate hit, it was a contrivance born not of some pro-Black altruism but of Robinson’s impulse to capitalize on a sound from the streets to save her label from bankruptcy. 

“Sylvia Robinson comes in [and] yes, she’s involved in supporting hip-hop by releasing songs like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message” on her label, but she’s also, from the beginning, creating a fraudulent concoction to sell rap music to white audiences in the Sugar Hill Gang,” he says. “So from the very beginning, it’s already commodified, it’s already trying to attract audiences not for their political [edification], not to attract whites to say, ‘Here’s what’s happening to these poor Black kids and let’s fix it,’ but, to say, ‘Let’s make money off of it,’ and then that’s what we end up with.”

Now, in the wake of Hip-Hop’s widely celebrated 50th anniversary, the culture seems at an impasse as it becomes firmly entrenched within mainstream capitalist culture. There was a global uprising in June 2020 after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. And while many corporations attempted to placate Black and Brown protesters in various manners, the hip-hop world offered what felt like the bare minimum. That dynamic continues today, as the biggest rap stars are often politically neutral in public, and a focus on profits has softened much of the genre’s political bite. Yasiin Bey, speaking on the podcast The Cutting Room Floor earlier this month, described Drake’s music as “more compatible with shopping” than art that reflects the urgencies of a society in multiple crises like climate change, state violence, a wide wealth gap, and war.

 “You’ve always had a hyper-capitalist streak in hip-hop because there’s always been sort of a Trump streak there, ” says Dan Charnas, a music industry veteran, associate professor at New York University and author of best-sellers Dilla Time and The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. According to Charnas, social consciousness and capitalist impulses have always coexisted in the culture to varying degrees and as the business of hip-hop grew one set of values won out over the other. “I think that hyper-capitalism was the thing that ended up being rewarded, not just by the industry, but also by the audience. I think the audience tended to really like those tales of making money as the nineties gave way to the 2000s. It was like reading a Robert Kiyosaki [author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad] book.”

But there was a time when hip-hop — at least part of it — was better aligned with the radical politics of previous generations like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the Black Liberation Army (both of which counted Tupac’s mother Afeni Shakur as a member). Organized by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), an activist organization inspired by its namesake, The Black August Hip-Hop Project was created in 1998 to deepen the connection between the hip-hop community and the radical struggles that inspired some of the music’s most politically oriented artists. If Hip-Hop’s 50th anniversary marks the nadir of rap’s left-leaning activism then the Black August Project was its zenith. 

Black August began in the California state prison system when Black prisoners used the month to commemorate the life of slain prison activist and political theorist George Jackson and fellow incarcerated human rights activist Khatari Gaulden by fasting, studying, and training. This grew beyond prison walls to become a celebration of global Black resistance against racist repression as far back as Nat Turner’s rebellion and Haiti’s revolution against colonial France. In 1998, after a visit to Cuba for the World Festival of Youth and Students and conversations with exiled dissidents Assata Shakur and Nehanda Abiodun, MXGM connected their work of advocating for incarcerated activists they deemed political prisoners, fighting police violence, and pushing back against mass incarceration with hip-hop. The first Black August was a benefit concert meant to raise funds and awareness in support of political prisoners such as Mumia Abu Jamal, Mutulu Shakur, Sekou Odinga, Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, Jalil Muntaqim, Hugo Pinell, and others whom MXGM claimed were targeted by the state for their activism. 

Monifa Bandele was instrumental in creating Black August. As an activist, decades-long member of MXGM, and current member of the leadership team in the Movement For Black Lives, she recalls how her love of hip-hop as a Brooklyn kid coming of age in the nineties coincided with her political awakening: “When we founded the Black August Hip-Hop Project, many of us young activists went down to the World Youth Festival in Havana, Cuba. We had been doing work as organizers around mostly police brutality,” Bandele explains. “And it’s also the early years of the huge influx of folks going into prison because of the 1994 Crime Bill. So we were ripe for [understanding] ‘OK, the state is after us, our friends are getting locked up, crime and violence were also very high in the eighties and nineties, and we have this emerging platform that connects us around the world.”

Enlisting politically inclined rappers like Common, Talib Kweli, Yasiin Bey, Black Thought of The Roots, David Banner, and dead prez, Black August raised funds for the legal defense of political prisoners and political awareness among rap fans. Understanding hip-hop as a tool for global communication, Bandele and her MXGM cohorts decided to explicitly affect what this powerful communication tool was used for.

But while the artists who participated in Black August were broadening their perspectives to think about social justice and human rights around the world, a larger segment of artists were sharpening their focus on hip-hop as an industry. The late ‘90s and early 2000s gave us the rise of Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella, Murder Inc. Cash Money, No Limit, and a slew of hybrid artists-businesspeople who began to shift the music industry power balance in favor of artists and homegrown labels to cash in on a booming music industry. In 2000, revenue from CDs rose to a record $13.2 billion, buoyed by multi-platinum albums from Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z, DMX, and Eminem. The Jay-Z and DMX-led Hard Knock Life Tour grossed a then-record $18 million, proving that rap could sell out arenas countrywide. Controversial rap mogul Diddy covered Forbes’ first Celebrity 100 list in 1999, the same year the publication valued his Bad Boy Records at $250 million. Russell Simmons sold his shares of Def Jam to Universal Music Group for an estimated $120 million. Hip-hop had shifted from Bronx park jams to a billion-dollar business, and the imagined spoils of a successful rap career were more attainable than ever. As the business of hip-hop blew up, the left-leaning politics of hip-hop began to recede from view.  

“I’m someone who really believes that culture is very powerful, but that it’s also a tool. It is a tool that could be used to advance or to destroy,” Bandele contends. “Hip-hop, which started in New York [and] grew globally, is a connection of Black youth at the time and now multi-generational Black people across the world. And that’s very important because one of the ways that we build political power is through being connected. And one of the ways that we connect is through communications platforms, through cultural platforms.”

Last November, PG County rapper Redveil used the Camp Flog Gnaw stage as his platform to amplify awareness of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. He used the festival’s big screen to showcase a list of hundreds of children who had been killed. He told the crowd, “If you fuckin’ human, you gon’ feel something by me saying this shit. It’s not complicated, don’t let anybody tell you that shit.” He then asked the crowd to call their representatives to demand the United States government stop funding the IDF’s bombardment of Gaza. The Learn 2 Swim rapper’s bold stance demonstrates that there are still artists reflective of the spirit of Black August. 

Mavi is a 24-year-old Charlotte-born MC whose introspective content is thematically and sonically aligned with the artists who spearheaded Black August. He says his unreleased album, Shango, was a fiery protest project amid 2020’s worldwide uprising. He said that at the same time, he noticed how people aligned against systemic oppression had become identified as just another consumer base in the entertainment industry. As Black Lives Matter and other organizations rose to prominence and demanded racial equity amid state-sanctioned violence, a “halo effect” occurred.

“Black people were divesting from anything that wasn’t actively humanizing their right to live—if you wasn’t ready to say ‘Black lives matter’ niggas was not going to fuck with you.” 

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In more recent years, hip-hop has become the go-to means for corporations seeking to rehab their public image and mollify their Black consumer base. The NFL effectively blackballed Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence and fought off consumers’ calls to boycott the league by bringing in Jay-Z as the league’s live music entertainment strategist and allowing Roc Nation to coordinate their Super Bowl halftime shows (including 2022’s “Dr. Dre and Friends” extravaganza). The maneuver mirrors Jay-Z’s decision to accept partial ownership of the Brooklyn Nets to make the Barclays Center’s displacement of Prospect Heights residents more palatable to Brooklynites. 

In the summer of 2020, during the heat of the post-George Floyd and Breonna Taylor uprising, Black people demanded racial equity and increased awareness of racism from America’s corporate infrastructure. The hip-hop media brand Mass Appeal was one of many companies that expressed solidarity with its Black consumers. Founded in 1996 by Patrick Elasik and Adrian Moeller (and revitalized in 2013 by a group of investors including Nas), the brand works with streaming platforms and major brands on hip-hop-oriented TV shows, documentaries, and concerts. On June 2020’s industry “Blackout Day,” Mass Appeal noted, “we are dedicated to working internally and externally to ensure that this not another cyclical initiative, but a pillar of our identity,” and that they’d “work closely” with community organizers so that “real change can be effectuated” in America. 

Four months later, in October, Mass Appeal Media, Inc. filed a trademark application for the phrase “HipHop50” with the United States Patent and Trademark Office which covered sundry “entertainment services including “development, creation, production and post-production services of multimedia entertainment content” across various forms of media.  Peter Bittenbender, the Chief Executive Officer of Mass Appeal and member of The Universal hip-hop Museum’s board of trustees says the rationale for filing for the trademark when they did was about elevation, not proprietorship. “It was a way to elevate the conversation for the [Universal hip-hop] Museum where this is something that feels exclusive. And we didn’t prevent people from using ‘Hip-Hop 50.’ We never enforced the trademark. As you can see, people used Hip-Hop 50. So it wasn’t something that we ever were going to be territorial over.” 

Regardless, the trademark gave them a controlling stake in the language used in hip-hop’s generational celebration. When asked how much they prioritized political advocacy in their 2023 initiatives, Bittenbender noted that “for us, it was like there’s so many different places you can extend your impact” and that ”the main place we put attention was the hip-hop Museum.” The museum hosted a number of events featuring various artifacts from throughout rap’s history as well as performances from luminaries who might otherwise have not been celebrated. Admirable, indeed, but far from reflecting any of the genre’s radical point-of-view. Ultimately, how much political advocacy could be expected from a corporation, and how does one take ownership of something like “HipHop50?”

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“Hip-hop is so open source,” Mavi says. “The reason why hip-hop has anti-capitalist leaning is because it’s a container of Black history. The form of it reflects the function of it. As a result of speaking for a community that’s unified in certain ways, the story of hip-hop is a story of borrowing, contributing, and sampling over the last 50 years. None of the [progenitors of the] pillars of hip-hop would say, ‘I invented Hip-Hop.’”

While hip-hop’s political consciousness has seemingly waned, Black and Brown people’s conditions haven’t changed all that much. Dr. Ball feels like the Hip-Hop 50 festivities should have done a better job of demonstrating that. “If we can all come together around break dancing and mixtapes, great, but at some point, we got to have a question about, why are these people still poor?” he says. “Why are they still getting killed by the police? Why are they still all in jail? When do we get to that? When does the love of the people and all this unity get to solving the actual conditions? If you love me, love me out of poverty. Don’t love my art and just leave me in chains, like, goddamn.”

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