Oft taking up a large portion of the charts and the hearts and minds of much of the population, hip-hop has undeniably grown leaps and bounds from where it started. With an undeniable amount of power, the social impact the genre has on those who identify and associate themselves with it is a subject that has been highly debated over the years by those who consider it an important artistic outlet for those who have so often been left voiceless, and those who argue that it is a powerful yet debilitating force.
With this in mind, Google+ and Intelligence Squared recently hosted a debate at the Barbican in London with a host of big-name speakers the likes of KRS-One, Questlove, journalist Touré and Jesse Jackson.
Quoting lyrics from various tracks to support their viewpoints throughout the two-hour debate, attorney Eamon Courtenay, arguing that hip-hop degrades society, and author Michael Eric Dyson, arguing that it enhances it, made their points persuasively (despite the fact that the question being debated is far more wide-reaching than a two hour conversation of any sort could provide a set conclusion for).
“I’m so sick of being blamed for this,” snarled Estelle in a moment of frustration. “Stop looking to hip-hop to raise your kids!”
This was an argument seemingly supported by many on the panel and in the audience, as evidenced by their whooping cheers.
“What about pop music?” argued another panelist. “What about Rihanna who promotes sex with every wine of her hips?”
What about country music with its questionable lyrics? What about opera, which is all about incest and murder? And in mentioning other artistic outlets, what about movies, argued some. With several raising Scarface as an example of a film that promotes violence as much, if not more, than any rap song.
“If we have the power to degrade an entire society, then we also have the power to uplift it,” argued legendary rapper KRS-One, who once received a Lifetime Achievement Award for founding the Stop the Violence Movement in response to the violence in hip-hop and African-American communities.
Deeb, an Egyptian “Arab spring” rapper, supported hip-hop’s positive impact on youth and on the revolution to no end, suggesting that it expresses the youth’s concerns and gives them knowledge they may otherwise not have obtained. To this end, he went on to argue that some even take into account their favourite rappers and their viewpoints more than they would the news — an argument that perhaps may not lie quite so neatly on either side of the divide.
But conscious rappers are in the minority, argued Shaun Bailey, special advisor to the Prime Minister’s office on youth, crime and welfare issues.
“What people are buying is not that,” he remarked.
This is an argument supported both by the presence of conscious rappers in the charts, as well as by Professor Tricia Rose, who argued that there has been a demise in the spirit of hip-hop. Being careful to specify that she was talking about commercial, mainstream American hip-hop, she went on to suggest that despite the fact that it was once upon a time used to inform, the genre has now turned into the “predatory arm of cultural capitalism.”
“No people in history have ever spoken about their children like hip-hop does,” Bailey went on to argue. “Black men are only portrayed as dangerous and sexy.”
This was a viewpoint shared by Courtenay, who suggested that hip-hop has been replaced by prison culture and is a tool that has destroyed the image of African-American men.
“But hip-hop is more than just one thing,” was argued time and time again.
“Hip Hop deals with the truth,” argued Deep. “Rap is genius poetry, dealing with a bad reality… we don’t make things up.”
Words like “n*gga” and *bitch” were the subject of much controversy on the night, with veteran civil rights activist Jesse Jackson perhaps shockingly refusing to denounce the use of the word, while rapper Joe Budden attempted to clarify that there is a difference between “women” and “bitches” — a difference that people must understand the language of hip-hop to deduce. KRS-One supported this notion, clumsily attributing the word “n*gga” to the word “negus” in the dictionary which means “King.”
He went on to counter-argue Courtenay’s disapproval of the language often used in hip-hop with the suggestion that, as in poetry, hip-hop utilizes artistic forms like metaphors, similes, and double and triple entendres. Professor James Peterson supported this notion, arguing, “would you tell Chaucer not to use the word ‘wench’?”
“No one is being forced to identify with these terms,” argued Estelle, suggesting that people should raise their own children, with an awareness of when their minds are developed enough to be subjected to different viewpoints and mature enough to select for themselves which ones to believe in.
To this point, Professor James Peterson argued that the ideal situation would be for listeners of hip-hop to be educated enough to be able to decipher it for themselves.
And despite several of the guest speakers getting increasingly frustrated with the fact that a two-hour debate evidently did not leave enough room for everyone to air their thoughts, the question that came up time and time again was which society was being spoken about.
“Is it the one that starts wars all over the world and degrades indigenous cultures?” argued KRS-One. “If so, maybe it’s not such a bad thing if it does degrade society.”
Interesting and important points were raised through the entirety of the debate, despite the fact that it tended to oversimplify the issue at hand and blame societal ills like sexism, misogyny and homophobia on hip-hop instead of accepting that, unfortunately, these ills appear to be more rooted in society as a whole than in any one area of it.
If, as English Literature professor John Sutherland argued, “All in all, 90% of everything is crap,” then, really, why should hip-hop be any different?
Watch a replay of the debate below, and leave your opinions in the comments section.