How (Some) of the Hip Hop Generation Learned Black HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, music, urban history, popular culture, hip hop
History has long been an inspiration for art, including rap music. Groups like Public Enemy not only broke into the mainstream and entertained crowds, but as a recent Rolling Stone article put it, “taught a generation Black History.” But according to historian Pero G. Dagbovie, some have claimed that the so-called Hip Hop generation—Black Americans born between roughly 1965 and 1984—“seems to be self-consumed, individualistic, and not willing to sacrifice for the advancement of ‘the tradition of protest.’” The pursuit of wealth appears to be the the greatest concern for its members.
Writing in the mid-2000s, Dagbovie argues that this is something of an over generalization. He explains that there exist two Hip Hop generations, with “a significant difference between the ideologies of those born between 1965 and the mid-1970s and those born in the late 1970s and the 1980s.”
Black Americans born between 1965 and the mid-1970s, at the height of the Black Power (BP) era, were shaped by social and cultural forces more conducive to Black cultural nationalism than were those born in the late 1970s and early 1980s, what he terms the post-Black Power (PBP) era. Teenagers in earlier group were surrounded by “nation-conscious” analytical rappers (Public Enemy, KRS-One, X-Clan, Queen Latifah, and others). Youth in the later group weren’t exposed so directly to “reality rap.” A noteworthy “gap in historical consciousness” exists between the two groups.
“Young African Americans could readily turn to non-underground [B]lack music for insightful discussions about the state of African people, past, present, and future,” Dagbovie writes of the BP Hip Hop generation. Analytical rap was more common in the late 1980s and the early 1990s than it was in the mid-2000s.
Black cinema, from the 1970s “blaxploitation” films to Spike Lee’s work “also played a major role in socializing young African Americans by addressing important and often controversial issues in their lives and in [B]lack history.”
Such movies paralleled the popularization of Malcolm X, the human rights activist and spokesperson for the Nation of Islam who was assassinated in 1965, Dagbovie observes. Simultaneously, the life and work of Malcolm X fostered “a black historical consciousness within the BP Hip Hop generation.”
For instance, Boogie Down Production’s album name By All Mean’s Necessary was a play on Malcolm X’s famous phrase “by any mean’s necessary.” In 1992, the film Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington and directed by Spike Lee, introduced more members of the BP Hip Hop Generation to Malcolm X’s activism. In turn, young Black students were inspired to take action against anti-Black racism at predominantly white institutions.
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