By Eric Tweel
Most serious hip-hop fans revile the mainstream “radio rap” which has dominated the genre since it gained widespread popularity in the nineties. They feel that the original meaning was lost when hip-hop music began to recycle the materialistic formula of drugs and violence first established by the NWA and later developed by rappers like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. As Public Enemy co-creator Bill Stephney says, “There is an over-representation of the criminal aspects of black youth culture from the videos and the records.” Gone are the days of conscious hip-hop, say commentators like Bill. And while record labels are partly at fault, the artists also share the blame. This pessimistic view of current hip-hop has persisted to the point which the phrase “hip hop is dead” – similar to what was said of jazz in the late sixties and early eighties – has become commonplace. These very words were even the title of rapper Nas’s eight album.
The once meteoric evolution of hip-hop has undoubtedly slowed to an unnoticeable crawl. Positivity, too, has largely been eliminated ever since the rise of the crack epidemic in urban communities. However, conscious hip-hop music still exists, and rappers like Talib Kweli, MF DOOM, Common, Mos Def, and the CunningLynguists are still experimenting with the genre. Interestingly, while current criticisms of hip-hop lament the disregard for the genre’s conscious beginnings, the best hope for rap music nowadays lies far away from home.
Hip-hop may have lost its political significance in North America, but this isn’t true elsewhere. What once represented ghetto life in the Bronx has been embraced as the music of marginalized members of society throughout the world – hip-hop is yet another aspect of American culture which has been exported globally.
More specifically, Middle Eastern emcees have emerged from the insurrectionary youth of the Arab Spring, such as the rap group Arabian Knightz and British-Iraqi rapper Lowkey. Like the highly politicized theatrical groups of the Ancien Régime during the French Revolution, these hip-hop groups have served as an important outlet for political expression. Of course, we must recognize a degree of historical materialism – the underlying reasons for the Arab Spring were clearly economical and societal, as with any major revolution – but the role of hip-hop is good for the genre.
It is interesting as well that a region so steeped in anti-Western sentiment would embrace a distinctly American art form. The only conclusion one can make from this is that hip-hop, like any good musical form, transcends political and geographical boundaries – and unlike the prevailing mindset here in North America, it isn’t dead.