Hip-hop has been the global rebellion’s soundtrack for the past 50 years.
An event with worldwide significance was modestly remembered in the United States as another Black History Month came to a close. This occasion merits much more international acknowledgment. Hip hop, probably the US’s biggest contribution to current culture worldwide, will mark its 50th anniversary in 2023 of making us wave our hands carelessly.
The formal event was appropriate for the US because it was commemorated during the Grammy Awards ceremony with performances by some of the genre’s best MCs. They took part in a solitary performance that Questlove, a member of the hip-hop group The Roots, organized.
Given that 34 years prior, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith, aka the Fresh Prince, won the first-ever Grammy for rap music but chose to skip the ceremony after learning that their category would not be televised, it was an exhilarating full-circle moment for fans of the genre. The genre was still perceived at the moment by music tastemakers as being excessively confrontational and confusing.
Even so, the Grammys commemoration this year fell short of fully recognizing the profound cultural influence hip hop has had on the world.
Hip-hop has evolved into an unusual bridge between the streets of New York in the 1970s and the streets of Iran in the 2020s. Hip-hop was created in the US as a result of the violent structural marginalization of young Black people in inner cities and their subsequent disenfranchisement.
By the time it emerged, jazz and rhythm and blues, among other music genres, had already revitalized US culture. The cultural center of Black music, Detroit, or “Motor City,” provided Black America with a soundtrack of love and resiliency in the face of extreme adversity through Motown Records in the 1950s and 1960s, conclusively demonstrating that Black music was not only distinctive and exciting but that it could also be extraordinarily lucrative.
Hip hop, however, had no interest in the ornate choreography and refined decorum of the Motown era. Hip-hop was primarily about rage and liberation. Hip-hop was about defying all the rules and taking on the world with only one person, their microphone, and sometimes a deejay.
So, it seems logical that hip-hop is currently the global soundtrack of insurrection and dissent. Gidi Gidi and Maji Maji’s Unbwogable, a hymn about facing fear head-on, was the music during Kenya’s unsuccessful political uprising in 2007. The song Rais Lebled by Tunisian rapper El General, which was published in 2010, became the Arab Spring and the revolt in Tunisia’s anthem.
The 2011 Y’en Marre demonstrations in Senegal, which stopped Abdoulaye Wade from serving an illegitimate third term as president, were inspired by the hip hop of the band Keur Gui. Rap music, such as Jonas Sanche’s Dictadores Fuera (Dictators Out), which bemoans the worrisome erosion of human rights, played a significant role in Chile’s anti-government demonstrations in 2019. Aymen Mao’s reggae-tinged hip-hop in Sudan served as the revolution’s official soundtrack in 2019.
Hip-hop by Emmanuel Jal is a significant component of the younger generation’s call for peace in South Sudan in response to the resistance of their elders. In Gaza, MC Gaza opposes local censorship in addition to denouncing the Israeli blockade and occupation.
Hip-hop provides a beat to march to and a platform for political speech for young people around the world who are upset by systemic violence and marginalization.
Hip hop is to music what traditional foot-based football is to the sport. Its ease of use and low initial investment requirements are the foundation of its universal appeal.
Hip hop emerges as a sophisticated and affordable solution for the musically inclined as traditional instruments have fallen out of use in many parts of the world and as instruments like guitars and pianos – not to mention the musical education required to play them – remain out of reach for the majority of people.
Because it is international, anyone with access to the internet can find inspiration. The fact that it doesn’t require any specialized insider expertise or knowledge makes it a particularly adaptable musical genre; this appeals to the majority of people worldwide, including the poor and working classes. Putative MCs need just to have a strong belief in their capacity to be better than anyone else who steps forward and a determination to make that happen.
This is not meant to imply that hip-hop forces itself onto untapped cultural spaces. Instead, it serves as further evidence of why hip hop, more so than any other music genre, has such a strong case for being the first truly global music form.
Rap battles, which provide MCs the chance to showcase and hone their skills against one another, can be seen as the basic unit of hip-hop, just like the match is the basic unit of football. The dynamics of the hip-hop conflict are echoed in a wide variety of international poetic traditions.
Hakamat poetry is a long-standing practice in Sudan where women use poetry to criticize males or one another. Due to their long, rich heritage of intricate oral poetry that frequently slips into warm-hearted ribbing when not telling odes to camels, the lifeblood of desert existence, the Somali people are renowned as the nation of poets.
In Kenya, there is a game called mchongoano that, like the first two examples, is reminiscent of The Dozens, a similar interactive insult game popular in the US with roots in the cultural resilience of people who were once enslaved and were subject to systemic, brutal erasure.
The genre is more culturally adaptable as a result of these worldwide ties, which reaffirm several cultural connections that unite Black culture in the US with Africa and beyond.
When young people overlay the raw elements of hip-hop over their own cultures and situations, subgenres of hip-hop have inevitably arisen throughout the world. These subgenres frequently run into the same resistance that US hip hop had in its early years.
Rap continues to be by far the most widely-sold genre in France, the second-largest rap market in the world behind the US. Even the official French music industry group SNEP has called it “overexposed” and urged people to spend more money on other genres to lessen its impact because it is the music of the banlieues, which is why it faces such strong opposition from the authorities.
Despite the UK government first devoting a significant amount of resources to criminalizing and monitoring it, grime and drill have created their megastars in the country, including Stormzy and Skepta.
Authorities in some places retaliate against the genre due to the same anti-establishment street cred that draws young people from all over the world to it. However, this retaliation extends beyond intimidation.
Rap continues to fight back against incredibly harsh legal punishment in the US, where rap lyrics are still frequently used as proof in court.
Hip-hop artists have been detained, subjected to torture, and even executed elsewhere for inciting uprisings. The newest round of anti-government demonstrations in Iran featured Toomaj Salehi’s rap lyrics, particularly his song Fal (Omen). His family claims that since his detention in October, he has been tortured.
Similarly to this, the military junta in Myanmar murdered four democracy campaigners in July after accusing them of “conspiring to commit terror acts” in response to anti-junta demonstrations. Hip-hop musician Phyo Zeyar Thaw was one of them.
Hip-hop is primarily Black music in the US. It serves as a reminder of how hard Black America has had to battle to have a voice while also doing more than just about anybody else to improve the country’s international standing as it continues to scrape out a place inside that country’s musical mainstream.
But in 2023, US hip hop has lost its political edge, substituting sex and money celebrations for rebellious (though frequently misogynistic) lyrics. As he did in 2004’s 99 Problems, Jay Z, widely regarded as the best English-language rapper alive, is much less likely to provide us with a primer on the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unlawful search and seizure today than he is to remind us of his incredible wealth and ability to buy his way out of any situation where he finds himself in conflict with authority. Of course, he is within his rights to do it.
Hip hop, however, continues to be a symbol of adolescent rebellion and inventiveness for the rest of the world, serving as a vital component of the soundtrack for generational resistance. And for that, the rest of the world should also wish hip-hop a heartfelt happy birthday.