the death of hip-hop?

Bear with me here. I’m asking, from an academic perspective, if the election of Barack Obama will result in the death of hip-hop.

My son’s reading class is studying the poetry of Langston Hughes. I was speaking to him about the subtle threat at the end of “Dream Deferred.”  (Read that poem if you haven’t. It’s like ten lines long and quite amazing.)  I said, “That line, ‘Does it explode?’ implies that if the needs of a major portion of the population aren’t taken seriously, they can and will erupt in violence.”

My Patient Husband then laughed and asked if I was seriously suggesting that Langston Hughes wrote the “Cop Killer” of his time.

When I was growing up, rap (as it was called then) became progressively more violent, with songs such as the aforementioned “Cop Killer” and my favorite title since forever, “Fuck the Police.” And whenever someone objected to the content of these songs (the violence, the misogynism) it was defended by saying, “This is the voice of the streets, of the underrepresented minorities, and they are giving words to their anger at society.”

That might have been academic double-speak, but I can completely believe that someone who spends his life judged by the combination of his skin color and his zip code might well feel the police need to be killed or, er, well, you read the other title and figure out how to make that sound snarky.

The election of Barack Obama, in a purely symbolic sense, smashes that whole “American society hates minorities” mentality, though. Again, this is purely symbolic because his election isn’t going to directly benefit any single individual regardless of skin color, but right now, any young black man or woman in American can look at Barack Obama and think, “There is no job in America that I cannot have.”

And they’re right. That’s as it should be. 

Knowing anything is possible, is it eventually going to be understood that this anger, this “voice of the people,” no longer needs to be voiced?

The recording artists aren’t going to dry up and blow away (they want to make money) but the market of listeners might. If the anger of the music doesn’t resonate in the heart, maybe the listener will change the channel. Maybe the buyer will think twice before laying down money to play an ode to frustration he no longer feels.

It might not happen quickly. But… it might happen at all. Another chapter in history would close.


  1. Kate

    If its own success can’t kill hiphop (cmon, how many ppl can relate to songs about multi-million dollar mansions, expensve cars and bling!?) then i’m not sure even the realization of King’s dream can do it. It’s a marketing and culture machine, commercialization at it’s best. Boomers still rock n’ roll, even though they are the establishment now and have nothing left to rebel against.

  2. philangelus

    But boomer rock has evolved to the point where it would be unrecognizable to the listeners of the 1960s. Beatles listeners from 1964 would be befuddled by, say, Nickelback.

    I’m giggling about the $$$$$$$$ mansions though. Yeah, it’s kind of hard to relate. 😉

  3. Ivy

    We had a fun project in elementary school with this poem. Looking back, the teacher was playing with linked poetry, something akin to renga. You take a passage (not necessarily from poetry) and see how a future author linked into it.

    Take this:

    “My country ’tis of thee,
    sweet land of liberty,
    of thee I sing.
    Land where my fathers died.
    Land of the pilgrims’ pride
    From every mountain side,
    let freedom ring.”


    I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”²

    This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

    With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

    And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:

    My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.


    What happens to a dream deferred?

    Does it dry up
    like a raisin in the sun?
    Or fester like a sore–
    And then run?
    Does it stink like rotten meat?
    Or crust and sugar over–
    like a syrupy sweet?

    Maybe it just sags
    like a heavy load.

    Or does it explode?


    And the final link is for the students to write. I have to wonder, if this is still part of the curriculum, how many students in the fifth grade class of 2008 have titled their poem, “Yes, We Can”.

    And don’t worry, the copyright on “Dream Deferred” expired quite some time ago.

  4. Cricket

    I’ve never seen that poem before. I don’t remember doing poets or even authors in any grade, except for Shakespeare. We went for variety, not patterns.

    I think the unsociable contents are as much for shock value, or requests for sympathy, as actually suggesting people follow the instructions. I fear the ones giving advice on relationships.

  5. Kit

    One can only hope…that and perhaps the look of tailored clothing and baseball hats worn straight (if at all) will become “cool” once more.

  6. Jason Block

    Sorry it won’t. Because Hip-Hop is an industry based on anger, racial hatred and misogyny. And in the hip-hop community…that never goes out of style.

    Because if you think that certain people in the community think that America’s racial ills ended on November 4…think again. Reverend Wright called this “just the beginning.”

  7. philangelus

    But Jason, for every Reverend Wright, maybe there are 1000 children growing up who will think, “Anything is possible for me.”

    They can sell it, but if no one’s buying, they’ll move on and sell something else. The form might have to evolve if the anger at its foundation disintegrates.

  8. Memphis Aggie

    If we can exchange Motown for Hip-hop – that’d be real blessing

  9. philangelus

    Maybe instead of going backward toward Motown, maybe hip-hop can evolve even further into a “voice of the streets” that’s much more optimistic and empowered?

  10. Ivy

    Jason, the trick isn’t if *everyone* will like or dislike something so much as it’s a matter of “is there a large enough market, either through immediate sales or perpetual sales, to make this venture profitable”? I like filk, but I assure you, it’s not being played on any of the mainstream radio stations.

    Mariah Carey can sell because she has a large, immediate market for her work. Bach’s music can sell because, although there are few sales each week, the sales continue steadily week after week, generation after generation. If you don’t have one or the other, you don’t have a viable product.

    Sure you’ll get the artists who continue out of the love of the form, with little or no pay (here I’ll point to Catherine Faber as a Celtic folksinger who does it more for love than money) but I’d argue that anger isn’t done for love.

  11. philangelus

    Mariah Carey still has a market??

  12. Cricket

    Markets. Don’t talk to me ’bout stinkin’ markets unless you want an off-topic rant about manufacturers who say I don’t exist — despite the fact that I’m willing to pay the same amount as last time to replace it.

  13. Ivy

    Well she has a new album out, so she and her producer think she has a viable market.

  14. blueraindrop

    i dont think it will…. because its too easy to blame “the man” or “the system” for personal failures.

    i wonder if hillary and palin being so close has any effect on the feminists…. but again… i think it’s too easy to keep blaming men.

    the one thing that has surprised me though is people like oprah saying this changes everything.. and makes everything possible. these very same people who would have said it was possible even before obama was in the picture at all. i kinda wanna go… “if this changes everything, did you really believe it that deeply when you said it a few years ago?”

  15. Ivy

    Ha ha! Talk about a no-win situation. When Einstein responded to the news his theory was proven right, he was taken to task for not acting surprised or delighted. His famous retort to the question of what he would have said if Eddington’s results had contradicted his predictions was, “Then I would feel sorry for the good Lord. The theory is correct.”

    “Yeah, we knew” gets slammed one way.
    “Wow, this validates what we’ve been saying” gets slammed the other.

  16. Maria

    I wish Obama’s election meant oppression had vanished and there was no cause for anger, but that just isn’t true.

    There is still racism all over, and it still hurts real people by the thousands, and the deck is still stacked. Knowing someone of your race can theoretically become president (doing it in spite of racism, not because of lack of it) doesn’t mean people don’t judge you by your colour and your zip code constantly. The test of equality isn’t whether an extraordinary person can theoretically reach great heights; it’s whether ordinary people have a level playing field. There’s still a great deal of work to do before we’re near that. It’s a great step, but it’s just a step.

  17. Jason Block

    With all due respect, the day Obama gets inaugurated theoretically should have been the day(which Ivy pointed out brilliantly), that the governmental and educational policy of Affirmative Action should die and be buried.

    But it won’t…because Obama’s victory is incredibly symbolic. Obama, to be blunt is HALF-BLACK. He is embracing his African side for political convenience, as evidenced by the 95% voting percentage of the black community for him. And just as a personal aside, I have ZERO qualms about him being half-black. I just don’t like his ideas.

    Hip-hop(to get back to the original post) should change it’s focus….but it won’t. It’s easy to say it’s just a start and still be angry, instead of throwing away the misogyny, the sexualization of women, et al. Yes it does make money…and it’s not easy to make a positive choice.