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R.Reese, Popular Culture Review, volume XI, no.2, Summer 2000.

FROM THE FRINGE: THE HIP HOP CULTURE AND ETHNIC RELATIONS

ABSTRACT

The “hip hop culture” has permeated popular culture in an unprecedented fashion. Because of its enormous cross-over appeal, the hip hop culture is a potentially great unifier of diverse populations. Although created by black youth on the street, hip hop's influence has become worldwide. Approximately 75 percent of the rap and hip hop audience is nonblack. It has gone from the fringes, to the suburbs, and into the corporate boardrooms. Indeed, McDonald's, Coca Cola, Sprite, Nike, and other corporate giants have capitalized on this phenomenon. Although critics of rap music and the hip hop culture seemed to be fixated on the messages of sex, violence, and harsh language, this genre offers us a paradigm of what can be. The potential of this art form to mend ethnic relations is substantial. In the 1950s and 1960s the “Beat Culture” challenged the status quo in ways that unified liberals and prompted change. In the same vein, the hip hop culture has challenged the system in ways that have unified individuals (particularly youth) across a rich ethnic spectrum. This paper will discuss the development of the hip hop culture, the cross-over appeal of hip hop, and the potential of this culture to mend ethnic cleavages in our society.


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Today, hip hop/rap is the fastest growing music genre in the U.S., accounting for more than 10 percent of the $12.3 billion music sales in 1998. 1 Rap music has become the linchpin of the hip hop culture. The overall hip hop culture has been established by this musical art form. The language (street slang), dress (baggy pants, caps worn backwards, expensive sneakers), and style of the hip hop culture have all evolved from rap music.2

To illustrate rap's widespread popularity, according to Soundscan, a company in Hartsdale, N.Y. that monitors music sales, at the end of 1998, 9 of the 15 albums on the pop chart were rap. At the end of 1998, three of the top selling albums were rap acts: Jay Z, Outkast, and A Tribe Call Quest. According to Neil Strauss, rap is replacing rock and roll as the most popular genre of music among youth.3 Ten years ago, in the suburbs you heard teenagers blasting music from such rock artist as the Byrds, Doors, the Eagles, Van Halen, and Guns `N' Roses. Today, teenagers are blasting rap music from such artist as Jay Z and Outkast.4

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, rock music accounted for 32.5 percent of the industry's $12.3 billion in sales during 1997. But this figure is down from 46.2 percent a decade ago. Meanwhile rap music's share of sales has increased 150% over the last ten years and is still rising.5

HISTORY OF HIP HOP

Busy Bee Starski, DJ Hollywood, and DJ Afrika Bambaataa (founder of the Zulu Nation in New York) are the three New York artists who have been credited for coining the term “hip hop”.6 This genre began in the`70s with funky beats resonating at house parties, at basement parties, and the streets of New York.7 According to Geneva Smitherman, the foundation of rap music is rooted in “Black oral tradition of tonal semantics, narrativizing, signification, playing the dozens, Africanized syntax, and other communicative practices.” 8

One can trace the commercial history of rap back to 1979 when the Sugar Hill Gang produced the enormously successful song entitled, Rapper's Delight. The raw begginings of contemporary rap music can be traced to the Bronx in the mid 1970s.9 Rap music was a way that urban black youth expressed themselves in a rhythmic form. Rap music, along with graffiti and breakdancing was the poetry of the street.

As the interest in rap music grew, so did its message. The collective message of rap told candid stories of the urban streets--stories of drugs, violence, and crime. No matter how hedonistic the message, urban youth found a platform to outwardly express their rage towards the system. To them, the police embodied the system; they were indeed a reflection of America's attitude towards them. Hence, vicious verbal attacks on police behavior reflected urban youths' most intimate conceptualization of the system.

According to Patricia Rose, rap music continued to blossom after the release of Rapper's Delight. It was “discovered” by the music industry, the film industry, and the print media. Artists such as Run DMC, Whoodini and the Fat Boys helped what seemed like a fleeting phenomenon persist in changing popular culture.10 Krush Groove, a highly successful movie depicting the life of rap music, further elevated rap music into the mainstream. This movie earned Warner Brothers $17 million worldwide, a gold soundtrack, and most importantly, highlighted the potential of this art form.11

LANGUAGE

Street language is transmitted to the hip hop culture through rap music. One can hear a Chinese or Filipino hip hopper using the same slang as the African American hip hopper. Irrespective of their ethnicity hip hoppers use adjectives such as dope, da bomb, legit, hittin, all that, to describe something that is excellent. The word “nigga” is one of the most popular words of hip hoppers. Contrary to the traditional derogatory meaning of the word, hip hoppers use the word as a term of endearment. One can hear a white, Asian, or Latino hip hopper saying, “TJ is my nigga,” which means “TJ is my good friend.” The vernacular of this culture changes constantly. What might be a cool statement today, might be “played out” (outdated) in a year.

Street language has become a pidgin language of sorts. Even if hip hoppers have different first languages, they still can understand the slang of hip hop. Hence, this culture is bounded linguistically. I can personally recall my trip to Japan in 1995 in which my friend saw a Japanese teenager with a Snoop Dogg cap on--the teenager could barely speak English but he was fluent in street slang.

CLOTHING

Why has the hip hop culture transcended ethnic boundaries? The urban street prep seems like an oxymoronic term. However, urban hip hoppers adorn themselves with the most unlikely preppy labels. Clothing styles that include such bourgeois labels as Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica, and Ralph Lauren, seemingly contradict the image of the fearless street soldier.12

According to Michiko Kakutani, young urban blacks have coopted the dress of upper crust whites as a manisfestation of their lack of power in American society. While actual material success maybe unattainable, the rationale for adorning expensive Polo shirts, blue jeans and sneakers is to present an image of success. Suburban white kids scoff at the material success of their parents and their parents' friends. One way to express this disdain, is by identifying with the renegade image of the street. Many white kids are "cultural tourists who romanticize the very ghetto life that so many black kids want to escape. Instead of the terrible mortality rate for young black males, they see the glamour of violence. Instead of the frustration of people denied jobs and hope and respect, they see the verbal defiance of that frustration."13

Kakutani suggests that this vicarious outlet of symbolic expression is why white suburban males have become the largest audience of gangsta rap. In the 1950s popular culture was dominated by the “Happy Days” scene. Black leather jackets and greased hair represented the zeitgeist. In the 1960s, the hippie and bohemian look had the greatest influence on pop culture followed by the polyester and bell bottoms of the 70s and the preppy influence of the 1980s. The 1990's have been dominated by hip hop fashion.14 This fashion consists of baggy pants worn very loosely, baseball caps worn backwards (NBA, NFL, or successful university athletic teams), oversized rugby or polo shirts, and expensive tennis shoes. Hip hop fashion, unlike the fashion of other generations, has uniquely cut across almost every ethnic boundary. Indeed, a significant number African American, Whites, Latinos, and Asians youth between the ages of 12 and 22 dress the same irrespective of their ethnicity.15

CROSSOVER APPEAL

According to Russell Simmons, hip hop's first millionaire entrepreneur who is chairman and CEO of Rush Communications, states that one reason rap is so popular is because of the resistance it has met. The more resistance there is and the more controversy there is the more people are going to want to buy it. The heated debates that took place in the late 1980's and early 1990's about censoring the lyrics of rap music only spawned sales. The infamous group “2 Live Crew” was the beneficiary of their highly publicized court case regarding the First Amendment.16 Individuals such as Tipper Gore and C. Delores Tucker have led the charge to censor the lyrics of rap music.17 According to Simmons, kids like the fact that status quo does not condone the music and tries to control it. It becomes a liberating experience for kids to rebel against the status quo.18 Some parents are leery of rap music and its rebellious message. According to Nelson George, hip hop's most prolific and perhaps best chronicler, “New music of any generation is always scary to the parents.”19

Before rap music, there was Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bob Marley, and more recently, punk rock, that galvanized the rebellious spirit of youth across the U.S. Now what seemed to be a passing trend, chronologically fitting between heavy metal and alternative rock, has become the chosen platform of rebellion for youth.20

A good example of how rap music and hip hop has cut across ethnic boundaries can be found in the Asian community. In Los Angeles, there is a blossoming Asian American rap scene, consisting of groups like Bubula Tribe, Undercover, Asiatic Apostles, Brotherhood from Another Hood, the Seoul Brothers, Lani Luv, and the Boo-Yaa Tribe. These groups represents various styles. Messages range from social issues such as hate crimes against Asians to relationships between blacks and Koreans in nearly every major city.21 White rappers such as The Beastie Boys, 3rd Bass, and Vanilla Ice have also had success in the industry. Cypress Hill, Fat Joe, and Big Punisher, are Latino artists who have impacted the hip hop culture.22 The overall message of this music is the same. It is cool, didactic, and unabashedly rebellious. According to Russell Simmons,

"Hip hop has transcended beyond just music. It has become a lifestyle and/or a culture for people worldwide. Hip hop is an attitude and hip hop is a language in which a kid from Detroit can relate to a kid in Hong Kong. Seventy-five percent of our audience is nonblack kids. Now you have kids in Beverly Hills who are sensitive to situations in Compton."23

Simmons goes on to state that although racism still exists in our society, it was not strong enough to thwart the collective enjoyment of rap by the youth of America and around the world.

SIT-COMS, MOVIES, MAGAZINES

The hip hop culture has prompted various industries to pay attention to their appetite. Sit-coms such as the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Martin, Malcolm, Steve Harvey, and the Jamie Foxx Show all capitalize on this population. In the past, black humor appealed to few outside of this population; now it is widespread. Movies such as Boyz N the Hood, New Jack City, Jason's Lyric, Juice, and Menace II Society are rugged movies that depict the reality of the urban streets. These movies have been highly successful in cutting across ethnic boundaries. Movies such as Friday, Booty Call, I've Got the Hook Up and Wu have been comedies that have depicted the humor that is still strangely ever present on the treacherous urban streets. These comedies have also been widely popular among a diverse population.24

Magazines such as Vibe, Blaze, The Source, Rap Pages and Stress were created to appeal to this population. Because of its multiethnic popularity, Vibe Magazine's circulation has risen to 606,237, a 17.1% increase from 1997 to 1998. Advertisements that appear in these magazines run the gamut from small unknown companies to powerful companies that are household names.25

Vibe's editor-in-chief, Danyel Smith states, “Although Vibe may seem like a black magazine, its perspective and appeal are much broader than its covers would indicate. Vibe is a multicultural music magazine based in the African American culture and sensibility.”26 Magazines such as Vibe, along with the aforementioned sit coms and movies, have done a remarkable job of “keeping it real”--speaking the language and to the imagination of this culture.27

POSITIVE MESSAGES

One of the many positive side effects of the hip hop culture is that it encourages corporations to recruit a diverse cadre of individuals. Hence, recruiting minorities who have the pulse of this culture becomes an imperative. The African American market alone has $325 billion in buying power. A myriad of organizations that appeal to the hip hop culture have diversified for competitive advantage. It makes good business sense. For example, half of Universal Muscic Group's employees are minority. This organization is number one in market share in the U.S., Europe, Latin America, and Australia. The record label's overall market share is 23 percent globally and 25 percent in the U.S. 28

92.3 The Beat is the most popular radio station in Los Angeles. It appeals to a broad multiethnic hip hop population in the greater Los Angeles area. They have taken advantaged of their broad appeal by launching initiatives to bridge ethnic cleavages.

They host several community panel discussion on issues such as: Asian-bashing, hate crimes, and African American and Asian Relations. In the Fall of 1997, this radio station sponsored a “No Color Lines” essay contest for Los Angeles high school students. The participants were to write in 92 words or less what the words “no color lines” meant to them. I was one of the judges of this contest. The following are two essays written for this contest:

Contestant #19

“What No Color Lines Means to Me”

To undertand “no color lines,” one must see what a blind man sees--nothing; he hears and feels, and thus, is able to really see each person's heart. As a Chinese-American Student, I have been spit on and told to “go home.” I have been excluded because I am “yellow.” But we can take our first step toward eliminating such acts of racism by looking through the eyes of a blind person. This way, we can surmount the color barrier that prevents us from discovering the kindness that is within us all.

Contestant #21

“What No Color Lines Means to Me”

Lost, in LA, I feared the homeless black man following me. Ashamed, I discovered it was the trash can he pursued in hope of food, not me. I'm no racist. I'm a girl who learned the meaning of “no color lines” the hard way. It is not pointing fingers at those who display hate and ignorance aloud. It is looking in the mirror and finding that spot hidden which holds all the ugliness and prejudices we've developed, and doing everything in our will to overcome them--being blind to further our vision.

Out of the 700 participants in this contest, I was struck by the common concerns and the common language of this diverse group. While I was reading these essays, I realized the potential of this population to mend ethnic relations. There were several positive aspects about this essay contest, but one was that it encouraged a diverse population of high school students to think about ethnic relations and what their roles were in enhancing these relations.

CONCLUSION

If messages of love, peace, anti-racism, and human uplift are resonated among the hip hop population, it can have an enormous impact on ethnic relations in our society. In the 1950s and 1960s the “Beat Culture” spoke of love yet challenged the status quo in ways that did not compromise their rebellious spirit. In the same vein, it is possible for the hip hop culture to keep its rebellious street flavor and speak to issues such as love and respect for all. It is possible for rap artists such as Master P, Wyclef Jean, and Busta Rhymes to empower America and the world's youth like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Bob Marley did. Artists, such as the late rapper Tupac Shakur, have rapped about such compassionate issues without losing the rugged flavor of the streets. In his song, “I Wonder If Heaven's Got A Ghetto,” Shakur sings,

"I see no changes, all I see is racist faces misplaced hate makes disgrace the racist...I wonder what it takes to make this one better place...take the evil out the people (then) they'll be acting right cause both black and white are smokin crack tonight and the only time we deal is when we kill each other, it takes skill to be real, time to heal each other...."

Millions of hip hoppers all over the world have heard these lyrics. If more artists concentrated on positive messages such as this, the impact could be revolutionary.

Unlike any other subculture in American history, the hip hop culture has transcended ethnic boundaries. Because of its eclectic audience, it has the greatest opportunity to build ethnic bridges and mend ethnic relations. Hip hop has taken hold and permeated significant regions of the world. The clothing, music, mannerisms, and lexicon, are unmistakably the same in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Zurich, Milan, and Tokyo. Indeed, this culture has the potential to make it cool not to commit hate crimes, not to discriminate or be homophobic or mysogynistic, and not to be racist.

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NOTES

1 Keith L. Alexander, “Hip-Hop Magazine Gets Fiery Start, Good and Bad,”
USA Today
, December 30, 1998, B1.

2 Gregory Lewis, “Hip Hop Gives Birth to Its Own Black Economy,”The San Francisco Examiner, December 6, 1998, E3.

3 Strauss, Neil, “The Pop Life; Crossing Racial Boundaries, Rap Gains Ground,”

4 The New York Times, October 15, 1998, E1.

5 Robert Hilburn, “Year in Review/Pop Music; In the Shadow of Hip-Hop; Rap is Where the Action is, and its Popularity Still Hasn't Peaked. Could Rock `N' Roll Be Finally Dead?” The Los Angeles Times, December 27, 1998, 6.

7 S.H. Fernando, The New Beats, (Anchor Books Doubleday: New York, 1994), IX.

8 Chris Dickinson, “3-CD Set Chronicles History of Rap,” Everday Magazine, January 4, 1998, 3.

9 Geneva Smitherman, Black Talk: Words And Phrases From The Hood To The Amen Corner , (Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1994), 3.

10 S.H. Fernando, IX.

11 Patricia Rose, "Fear of a Black Planet: Rap Music and Black Cultural Politics in the 1990s,”.The Journal of Negro Education, 60, 3, Summer, 1991, 3.

12 Maximillian Potter, “Black by popular demand,” Premiere , v.9, January, 1996, 39.

13 Woody Hoschswender, “Prep Urban,” Esquire, v.125, March, 1996, 131.

14 Michiko Kakutani, “Common Threads: Why Are Homeboys and Surbanites Wearing Each Other's Clothes?”The New York Times Magazine , February 16, 1997, 18.

15 Linda Mae Carlstone, (1997), “Teens and Fashion, Baggy Still Rules, But More Than Ever, Anything Goes,” Chicago Tribune, Sec. 1:1, June 1, 1997, 17L.

16 Lewis, E.3.

17 “16 Is Rap Music Here to Stay?” Jet Magazine, V.94, no.12, August 17, 1998, 56.

18 Lewis, E.3.

19 Jet, 56.

20 Lewis, E.3.

21 Hilburn, 6 and Strauss, E3.

22 William Eric Perkins, “Droppin' Science: Critical Essays On Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture, Ed., (Temple University Press: Philadelphia 1996), 282.

23 Jet, 59.

24 Ibid.

25 Fernando, xviii.

26 Alexander, 2B.

27 Teresa Moore, “Finding Her Groove at Vibe; Danyel Smith Calls the Shots at Fast-Rising Hip Hop Magazine,” The San Francisco Chronicle, February 25, 1998, E1.

28 Alexander, 2B.

29 Chuck Philips, “Company Town; Diversity Is Sweet Music to His Ears; Entertainment: Doug Morris Set Out to Build a Multicultural Team” Essence Magazine, February 21, 1996, D2 and Universal Music Group Web Site, “Universal Music Group Fact Sheet,” available: http: //www.universalstudios.com/music, January, 1999.