Crossing Borders

Don't Stop the Planet Rock

June 5, 2006

Is it strange for an Asian Pacific Islander who grew up in the suburbs of Honolulu to be writing about hip-hop? I didn't think so.

But when I went out to promote my door-stopper of a book last year, I found out differently. Seemed like everyone wondered how someone of my background might have come to write a 500-plus page biceps-enhancer on the topic. (Thankfully, I never met the ones who didn't think there were 500-plus pages worth of the topic.)

I mean, did they live on the same planet as me?

When I got over being so defensive, I realized that unpacking that question could actually be quite interesting.

See, for me, hip-hop is the thing that connects me not only to the kids down the block and at my son's elementary school, it's the thing that allows me to not just talk, but as we say, build with someone my age who grew up under apartheid in South Africa. It's the thing that allows me to articulate to my elders how the political landscape has been completely altered since the civil rights movement, the depths of hopelessness that many young people feel.

It is the thing that allows me to express the specificity of being an Asian/Pacific Islander in America, while getting deep into the stories of young people of all kinds of backgrounds all around the globe, and most of all, of the African diaspora, spanning North America, the Caribbean, South America, in a loop to Africa.

Hip-hop is ancient and futuristic, it's local and it's global, it's progressive and reactionary, it's hot and cold. It's my world.

So for the next month, welcome.

In Can't Stop Won't Stop, I used hip-hop as a window through which to understand the history of the U.S. from the late 60s to the millennium, the period during which hip-hop culture came into being, and my generation moved from the margins into mainstream. I wrote a lot about the politics of abandonment that gave birth to hip-hop, and the politics of containment that have shaped its maturation. I wrote about how hip-hop became one of the big ideas of my generation, the thing that defines us, that we call our own. I'm interested in how this culture, which began with forgotten youths in New York City, came to infect and affect young people all around the world, including this boy on a rock in the middle of the Pacific.

Over the next month, in this blog, (I've got my own here) I'll return to these themes. I'll bring in some folks for us to hear from, who can help us understand the issues of race, class, gender, globalization, and power that hip-hop raises. We'll be hearing from Reginald Hudlin, president of entertainment at Black Entertainment Television, on how and why the environment has changed for Black cultural production over the past 25 years. I'll talk with Cristina Veran, a member of the Rock Steady Crew back in the day who now covers indigenous movement for the United Nations, on how hip-hop is allowing native youths around the world to transform and maintain their cultures. We'll be hearing from many others.

Where is this big idea headed? Will it help us get to a better or a worse world? Come back and we'll build.

Newer: Moving The Crowd

Link to this entry


Macie wrote on June 5, 2006 4:09 PM:

I'm really looking forward to reading your thoughts, but I admit that I'm skeptical about the "power" that hip-hop raises. It's an argument that might have been made 20 years ago, but now, when one of the members of Public Enemy is starring in a VH1 reality show, it's hard to imagine that hip-hop is going to change the world...

Brad Ding wrote on June 7, 2006 12:03 AM:

Just the fact that a member of PE is publicly known now, after 20 years of work shows just how much change we've gone through. Hip Hop is becoming the lens through which we judge other cultural movements, although common modern-day Hip Hop's truthfulness/integrity is something that could/probably will be discussed. I am interested to know how Hip Hop has made it easier for you to express being of an APA background, b/c in your book, while it focused on urban youths, it didn't get into the different races/ethnicities that were affected. That's what I really want to hear, your personal experience with the music and the culture.

Gigi Miranda wrote on June 7, 2006 4:18 AM:

As a community based educator and organizer for the past 10 years working in the most "chaotic and confused" communities across the nation, I have witnessed hip-hop as my own and many youth I worked with, saving grace. As recalled in the lives of the pioneers of hip-hop, it still speaks to struggling communities of today.

In my experiences it has unearthed these underlying truths, revealing cultural identity found, intergenerational conflict connected and the reclaiming of self-expression in the most purest and powerful form. In a way, I have seen youth validate their existence and reclaim their voice in its expression. There is a distinct universality unifying the unheard and disadvantaged allowing and validating their stories. Perhaps it is in the rhythm and spirit of its roots that speaks worldwide of our social conditions.

To recognize its marketing value is to understand its underground force. One must critically look on how the industry has used hip-hop into this booming business. When we look back at its origins and how it speaks to the youth and people, there is a certain universal truth reflecting unity and peace. This can be considered a worldwide ritual, hip-hop.

Ivor Miller wrote on June 7, 2006 11:01 AM:

I'm thrilled that PBS is hosting Jeff Chang's ongoing project about the crucial topics expressed through the hip hop arts. Over and over I hear the dismay of young people with high ideals about what hip hop can do for expressing their reality and the struggle for justice, who are confronted by the crass commercialism inflicted upon hip hop. I know this program will help some reaffirm the many alternatives that don't make the news. I hope that among the issues would be using hip hop aesthetics to learn about the impact of Africans in the Americas over the past few hundred years. In one of many examples, the 'battling' aesthetic in hip hop that has parallels in Brazilian capoeira, Trinidadian calypso, Cuban popular and religious music, Caribbean carnival, and more, is part of a continuum transmitted by African migrants to this continent over the centuries. This approach to music became key to the ability of people from all around the world, meeting in the most oppressive conditions, to communicate and create community. With the continuous negative reports in the mainstream news about Africa as a place of AIDS, starvation, genocide and corruption, an appreciation for the best in hip hop aesthetics can help teach younger ones about the positive, enduring, joyful influence of African philosophies and traditions that have traversed the globe though the arts, and been enriched through the process.
Ivor Miller, author of Aerosol Kingdom (UP of Mississippi 2002)

Anthony Santa Ana wrote on June 7, 2006 2:47 PM:

As a witness, participator, and encourager of this global phenomenon, Hip Hop has become my second mother and spiritual philosophy and belief system that sometimes I tend to disagree with. Nonetheless, this love/hate relationship tends to ground me and continuely changes my perception as it progresses.

As a Pin@y, I knew that being a marginalized people in America was going to be difficult, but that's the exact reason why I grasped and gravitated towards Hip Hop culture. I thought it would embrace who I was but lo and behold there too was struggles in the culture that furthered my struggle to proclaim my existence. My voice of being Pin@y in Hip Hop was often challenged and overlooked by people commenting, "that is just another Asian kid trying to copy the African American experience." Thus, I felt another battle in the culture of Hip Hop. As a marginalized people in American mainstream and now Hip Hop culture, my hope is that validation and representation across all cultures in Hip Hop can be balanced. I always thought and will think that Hip Hop is the voice of the people, not just of the selected few and originators.

As the world becomes closely connected because we live in an information and technology age, the advancement of Hip Hop across physical boundaries is inevitable. Thus, the Hip Hop diaspora continues to grow and breathe life in areas that us Americans forget to pay attention to. Travelling around the world and being greeted by graf worldwide, I sensed that Hip Hop was present because youth clinged to Hip Hop because of it's culture of progressiveness and improvisation. From favelas in Brazil to shanty towns in South Africa. From France's generations of Hip Hop to traditional incorporations of Aboriginal sounds of Australia. As we know Hip Hop has influenced the world in all facets of life and the Hip Hop diaspora is something that should not be overlooked but watched and studied because this can be the glue to solidarity worldwide. Just think young people utilizing the medium of Hip Hop for progression of social movements or more simply put changing the world in the name of Hip Hop.

Troy Nkrumah wrote on June 7, 2006 3:29 PM:

Keep up the good work Jeff. All I can suggest is that you keep bringing home the point that Hip Hop is a culture. One that encompasses a large amount of people, many of which are not involved in the arts aspect of it. We are not just dancers, mc's, djs, graf artists. Some of us are lawyers, doctors, professors, students, dope dealers, dope users among others. We are both the positives and the negatives in this society because, if nothing else, we are a reflection of this society. We will be either its liberators or its enslavers. The better we understand ourselves and this culture, the better chance we will will have at becoming the liberators that we are all waiting for. Again, keep up the great work Jeff. You have come along way, stay true and I will be reading and reposting your blogs!
Your friend and comrade,
Troy Nkrumah
Chair, National Hip Hop Political Convention

Kyra Gaunt wrote on June 7, 2006 7:26 PM:

What an honor to have Jeff Chang spreading the message! I teach a hip-hop course now at NYU, years back at U.Va. Was the first to teach a hip-hop music course. Music is the last place to diversify its curriculum long after English and Afro-Am had caught the fire. Now it's about not only teaching appreciation so college grads will one day be benefactors of the future this music holds, it's also about having people love and honor the people who've made it. Thanks Jeff for a book that really opens people up to that possibility.
Kyra Gaunt
The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop (NYU Press, 2006)

Billy F. wrote on June 8, 2006 12:36 AM:

Hip-hop for me was a way of identifying myself as a teenager in the 80's; it's addictive, cutting-edge style was always rebellious and raw enough to drag me away from the Iron Maiden records.

After reading your book I feel a better identity and sense of belonging about my past growing up in an urban neighborhood of Boston; like I had a place etched in history where no one seemed to care about before.

Hip-hop was important for me because guys like Rakim and Chuck D. always spoke the truth. And they had it figured out a long time ago.

DJ wrote on June 8, 2006 9:47 AM:

In response to Marcie. Your late, hip-hop has already changed the world.

Hi Jeff! Still trying to get you down to ole Savannah, GA. I'm loving the PBS collabo. I'll be reading all the blogs in depth soon so that I can speak on the "power of hip-hop" in my community. For my organization hip-hop culture predominates in everything we do. We have witnessed some pretty powerful changes in our young people when you allow them to examine the historical and cultural context of hip-hop.

Can't Stop Won't Stop has been a Godsend for our agency. Filled with historical facts that lead to in-depth discussion on the effects of poverty and crime, topics in which our student have now began to exam and explore. I am an advocate for promoting Media Literacy with young people. They must be able to take a part the messages being sent to them through popular media such as hip-hop so that they may reach a point of "critical consciousness" so to speak. In order for hip-hop to continue, it is important for us to now began to cultivate young minds on the power of the genre.

In our Hip-Hop 101 workshops I am constantly telling our young people that for the first time in history minority cultures have a huge microphone. That microphone being hip-hop music which has national and global reach, in others words the wattage is unlimited. So when you write you must ask yourself, "what is it that I want the world to know about me?" "what do I want to really say about my community?" Those puzzled expressions let's me know that they are now thinking. And we all know that ole adage, "Think before you Speak". I could go on and on. I'll blog some more as time permits. Holla!

Davena Jordan
Executive Director
AWOL All Walks of Life, Inc.

David wrote on June 13, 2006 1:31 PM:

I must admit, I was a little hesitant about the hip-hop movement in the 80's while growing up as teenage, I thought this genre is crazy and it will pass. Well to my amazement look at this global movement of today, it is something to behold. The movement has grown and evolved in the states but globally it has given voice to so many others who are voiceless in their worlds and culture. I must say here in the states, hip-hop is dead to materialism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia just to name a few. Jeff, I will be keeping up with you in the future.

parris wrote on June 13, 2006 6:28 PM:

i think hip hop will go as far as its members go. if hip hop turns completely commercial as a way to gain profit, then there will be a drastic change in the music that i have grown up to love. i have been a hip hop(rap) fan for, i think tha greatest m.c. of all time is RAKIM...anyway, i grew up in the nwa, onyx, original gangsta music era. i also was a fan ao, a tribe called quest, brand nubian, leaders of a new school, empd, nice, and smooth,...just to name a few. those artists had substance to their rhymes , not to mention real lyrical ability...nowadays, alot of the originality that made hip hop is fading and turning into a processed form of entertainment, insted of the raw, passionate, unique artform it used to be. do'nt get me wrong, there are alot of artists(roots, common, talib kwalie, mos def, kanye west, just to name a few) that are keeping it, "original" again,...but i worry about the future of hip hop....will it still be enjoyable and entertainig in the next 10 years(im 28yrs old)

Theresa at POV wrote on June 15, 2006 7:24 PM:

This is in reponse to Ivor, the 2nd post above. I think you might also be interested in what Simon Anholt has to say about nation branding, and, in particular, the branding of Africa.

What do you think about the way Africa is portrayed by Bono and others? Is it damaging or helpful?

Kyra Gaunt wrote on June 1, 2007 5:30 PM:

Stand corrected. My senior colleague Portia Maultsby was the first to teach hip-hop music course in a dept or school of music. I was more than likely the 3rd behind Cheryl Keyes. But it's still a feather in my cap!

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