In Dr. Dyson’s essay, “The Culture of Hip Hop,” he attempted to dispel many of the negative stigmas that faced Hip Hop and critically analyze the music genre for what it WAS at the time. From touching back to its roots in the African oral traditions and the poetry of Gil Scott-Heron to critiquing the carefree, “pop” sensation that was Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff, he overviewed the early days of rap music and its development as an emerging form of American music.
Reading this now from his point of view, you get a sense of the cultural climate which Dr. Dyson was living in at the time. Throughout the text, he praised Hip Hop for its power and potential to share the pain and disparity that the black community has been subject to for centuries. He raved on how “rap began to describe and analyze the social, economic, and political factors that led to its emergence and development: drug addiction, police brutality, teen pregnancy, and various forms of material deprivation.” Hip Hop, to him, seemed a branch of music that not only deserved respect as an art form but also could be a force to help redeem the scarred, black spirit and community in America.
Now he did address many of the problems apparently “stemmed” from Hip Hop. Four big issues he keyed on were violence, mainstream commercialization, sexism, and a lack of critical reflection on the past to mold a better future. He states that while a “shallow understanding of rap” is far from a fair reason for many opposers, who more than likely have never listened to the music, to judge it by, rap music was still in need of a clearer, more moral stance and purpose.
I found this to be informing albeit “preachy.” Dr. Dyson seemed to come off as a know-it-all speaking down at his audience on what Hip Hop should be rather than speaking to them with how it can be improved. It was as if he were trying to attribute a vocabulary to describe it that didn’t quite fit the genre. Too elevated and aloof when the music, at its heart, is suppose to be down to Earth. He describes Hip Hop to be a youthful culture rooted in a rich history, but addressed it as if it reached a maturity that it had yet to reach at the time.
One can argue it still hasn’t gotten to that point yet. It’s interesting to see how much Hip Hop has changed in its 40+ year history while many of the issues he brought up remain, if not multiplied. Women are still objectified by men and even among themselves now. Black on black violence is celebrated among rappers. Take the current scene in Chicago with rappers like Lil Durk and Chief Keef popularizing “Drill Rap.”
But there’s still hope. Hip hop is still growing up. It’s pioneers are no longer the young, fresh teens in the heyday, but seasoned vets to be honored and respected. Dr. Dyson was definitely correct when he wrote, “…rap deserves attention and should be taken seriously… it should be promoted as a worthy form of artistic expression and cultural projection and an enabling source of black juvenile and communal solidarity.”
Written February 2014
S/O to Prof. Josh Karant