Crossing Borders

Moving The Crowd

June 8, 2006

First off, thanks to all of you for dropping in. I'm going to try to paint a picture of hip-hop, its past and present, its development, its fractures and its potential. But in fact, the beauty of this medium is in what my guests and more importantly you have to say. So I'm very happy and appreciative to be a catalyst.

Right now would be a good time to mention that I've confirmed two other guests: John Jay of influential advertising giant Wieden + Kennedy and T.J. Crawford, chief organizer of the 2006 National Hip-Hop Political Convention. My aim is to do at least two entries a week: one that sets the context, the other that gives space to our guests. So stay tuned!

Hip-hop is a movement. But it didn't start as a political movement. It began as a way for forgotten young people in New York City — overwhelmingly Black and Latino and poor — to find ways to have fun.

So while hip-hop has come to express generational identity, it's not exactly comparable to the civil rights movement or the Black Power movement. Hip-hop began as pastime, became an arts and a cultural movement, then took on aspects of a social movement later as it spread globally in the early 80s.

One of the main reasons it did spread is that young people — like me on that rock in the Pacific — were looking for new ways to express themselves under changed circumstances.

By the time I heard "Rapper's Delight" in 1979, the great era of social reform in America was fading quickly. Things fell apart, and the politics of abandonment set in. Deindustrialization, disinvestment and white flight led to devastated communities. In the birthplace of hip-hop — The Bronx — these politics could literally be seen in the blocks of empty, burned-down buildings.

That a culture born of young people in these conditions would take hold first in places around the world that suffered a similar politics of abandonment is not just poetic, it makes perfect sense.

Hip-hop provided a way for invisible young people to make themselves known, to represent themselves. I remember that, even as a kid growing up in Honolulu — at that time one of the few cities in the U.S. that was predominantly non-white, a fact that seems entirely quaint now — it was a shock to see movies like "Beat Street", "Breakin'", "Style Wars" and "Wild Style" in which most of the young people were urban and of color. Most of the images I had seen in the media represented an ideal that was white and suburban.

In the early 80s, the multiculturalism movement organized activists and artists in an effort to transform the way American thought of itself — not as society in which all people aspired to conform to a white-bread, suburban ideal, but as one in which difference could be celebrated. The main demand was for representation of marginalized people in institutions of power and in images in the media.

By the 90s, hip-hop was conquering the American pop mainstream, in effect, winning some of the multiculturalism movement demands. For better and worse, even suburban white youths wanted the kinds of representations hip-hop provided. Hip-hop arguably prepared the way for the U.S. pop imagination to begin opening itself to the sounds and sights of a globalized world.

How and why was hip-hop able to do this? Was it all a good thing? Now that it's become the new pop mainstream, is hip-hop still commercially and culturally relevant? These are some of the questions for our guests and you.

We'll be hearing next from Reginald Hudlin, president of entertainment at BET, about the transitions in American popular culture from the 80s to the present, what that has meant for African American cultural producers such as himself, and what he sees as the challenges he faces moving forward.

Catch you in a minute.

Older: Don't Stop the Planet Rock Newer: An Interview with Reginald Hudlin of BET

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