Deejaying, emceeing, graffiti writing, and breakdancing. Together, these artistic expressions combined to form the foundation of one of the most significant cultural phenomena of the late 20th century — Hip-Hop. Rooted in African American culture and experience, the music, fashion, art, and attitude that is Hip-Hop crossed both racial boundaries and international borders.
The Foundations of Hip-Hop Encyclopedia is a general reference work for anyone interested in Hip-Hop’s formative years. In thirty-six entries, it covers the key developments, practices, personalities, and products that mark the history of Hip-Hop from the 1970s through the early ‘90s.
All entries are written by students at Virginia Tech who enthusiastically enrolled in a course on Hip-Hop taught by Dr. Anthony Kwame Harrison, author of Hip Hop Underground, and co-taught by Craig E. Arthur. Because they are students writing about issues and events that took place well before most of them were born, their entries capture the distinct character of young people reflecting back on how a music and culture that has profoundly shaped their lives came to be. Future editions are planned as more students take the class, making this a living, evolving work.
Afrocentric Political Rap
In its most basic understanding, Afrocentric political rap is a subgenre of Hip-Hop music known as socially conscious rap (awareness of social and political issues surrounding black communities). The purpose of socially conscious rap is to challenge the dominant narratives relating to society, culture, politics, and economics. Through these means, it allows a platform for the voices, stories, and experiences of the black community to be heard. Specifically, black youth used political rap in order to raise consciousness about the historic oppression and injustices experienced by their community. While Afrocentric political rap is most certainly an important subgenre of Hip-Hop, knowing its development is equally as important.
The early development of Afrocentric political rap begins with the emergence of the golden age of Hip-Hop, which many would agree dates back to the 1980s and early 1990s. It is important to note that before the eighties and nineties, the Black Power movement, led by the Black Panther Party, played a pivotal role in inspiring the emergence of Afrocentric political rap. All throughout the eighties and early nineties, artists like Public Enemy, Sister Souljah, the Jungle Brothers, and X-Clan all possessed aspects of socially and politically conscious Afrocentricity. These artists, through their politically and socially aware music, helped to solidify the popularity of Afrocentric political rap as both a memorable and influential subgenre of Hip-Hop. Additionally, connecting the social and political context to Hip-Hop music helped to unify the voices and experiences of black youth within their communities through personal narratives and storytelling. The specific topics socially conscious rap addresses include but are not limited to institutional racism, incarceration, poverty, violence, police brutality, the criminalization of black people, and drugs.
While socially conscious rap brought about social awareness of the realities of black communities, it also allowed rappers and their crews to advocate for black liberation and solidarity. In relation to social and political contexts, it helped not only to bring awareness but also to assimilate these experiences into a society that slowly, but surely, began to shift its culture towards a more multicultural perspective. The main accomplishment of Afrocentric political rap was to raise social and political consciousness about black experiences, which contributed towards a general understanding of the social, political, and economic context of black communities altogether. Because of the profound influence of Afrocentric political rap in the dominant mainstream, the sociocultural landscape of the communities it hailed from shaped the development of Hip-Hop.
As Afrocentric political rap quickly grew into a highly popular and influential subgenre of Hip-Hop, it became implicated in the shift from socially conscious rap to gangsta rap (a subgenre of Hip-Hop characterized by aggressive tones of violence experienced by black people). Some notable artists within gangsta rap include N.W.A, Ice-T, Tupac, 50 Cent, and Ice Cube. In terms of stylistic elements, gangsta rap is arguably the counterpart to socially conscious rap. Gangsta rap, as compared to Afrocentric political rap, favors more of an aggressive tone and style that exposes the violence, substance abuse, and harsh realities of black communities. The shift from Afrocentric political rap to gangsta rap reflects the complexities of the effects the sociocultural landscape had on the development of Hip-Hop at the time. This narrative and cultural shift from socially conscious rap to gangsta rap represents the constant dynamic of the ever-changing subgenres of Hip-Hop throughout its history.
Understanding the historical development of Afrocentric political rap is necessary to comprehend its current significance. Noteworthy and talented artists like Azealia Banks, Brockhampton, Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar, Noname, and Vince Staples are all credited with being socially conscious. For instance, Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” is filled with numerous symbols representing the racism and violence experienced by black people. With his racially and politically charged lyrics, Childish Gambino made it clear that racism, oppression, and violence against black communities are far from over. As long as Afrocentric political rap continues to effectively influence Hip-Hop, socially conscious rap will continue to remain prevalent in the politics and culture of our society.