What is Hip-hop & am I a guest?
If you follow KRS-One at all, you have heard the phrase “You are not doing Hip-hop, you are hip-hop.” But, what exactly IS Hip-hop? In KRS-One’s book, “The Hip-hop Gospel” he lays out the case that Hip-hop is a cultural way of life paying respect to God and to living out the H-LAW (Health, Love, Awareness, & Wealth). I’m only about a third into the book and there is much I like about the book. However, at times the book comes across dogmatic and almost fundamentalist.
This friction I feel while reading the book got me thinking, “What is Hip-hop to me?” As a white person who has participated in Hip-hop for most of my life do I feel like a “guest”? And finally, why do I tend to hold more skepticism for white rappers/producers in hip-hop than I do for black participants? If so, why?
Not that these questions are new to me. I’ve thought about these ideas a lot throughout my life. But, with reading this book combined with the most recent exchange between Eminem and Lord Jamar I’ve been thinking about it even more lately.
First, to me Hip-hop is something I can’t necessarily define. I know it is more than music. I know people who credit Hip-hop for changing their life, for putting them on the straight & narrow, for bringing life when life did not exist. But, is it a religion? Is it a full-blown culture? Is it a way of life? Probably depends on who you ask. Is there one, certified definition? I’m not sure. But, what I would offer is that Hip-hop must be more than music. It must challenge the status quo especially for black people in the USA. It must be revolutionary, counter to the mainstream republican/neo-liberal democrat capitalistic-controlled society. It must speak truth to power in that way. Now, does it always have to do that? Can it be fun? Can it be Biz Markie? Of course. Oppression and marginalization must produce revolutionary thought but at the same time it must also give comic relief. However, this relief must not come at the expense of people burdened by the system. Rather, it must be an outlet.
As far as being a “guest” in Hip-hop, I like that terminology. I think about other cultures around the world and I imagine myself visiting them. How would I act? Like I own the place? Obviously not. I think about the trip I took to the Dominican Republic when I was in high school. Did I go there with the attitude that their culture, a culture they built, was mine and I had just as much ownership to it as they did? Of course not. Now, is the Dominican Republic the same thing as Hip-hop? KRS-One might make a case that the two are much more similar than I. But, even though I see the two very differently doesn’t negate the fact that I feel compelled to approach Hip-hop with the same respect and honor I did when I visited the DR. I did not create Hip-hop. My ancestors had 0% in its creative beginnings. So I will continue to approach and engage it with humility and respect just as I would any other culture.
Part of that approach and engagement includes having a heightened awareness for those who would casually wipe their dirty shoes all over Hip-hop’s welcome mat without any respect for the music and the people who created the house they are about to walk into. I’m not a fan of that kind of disregard. As stated above, to me Hip-hop is much more than a catchy jingle. Hip-hop is rooted in a righteous fight against injustice. When I see a rapper just using rap music as a way to gain attention or earn money I get turned off quickly. If it appears that the rapper is taking his/her music craft seriously but pays little attention to the deep cultural aspects of Hip-hop, that too rubs me the wrong way. So in this way and for these reasons I think I do have a more critical eye for white rappers approaching Hip-hop.
Maybe I don’t fully agree with KRS-One’s approach. We’ll see how the rest of the book turns out. One thing is for sure, I have tremendous respect for KRS-One’s dedication to a music and culture that has shown me nothing but love and respect. Peace to everyone preserving and advancing the music and the culture. So what do you think about all that?