Hip-hop culture reflects Youth oppression under capitalism

Published Mar 7, 2006 10:22 PM



“…Or does it explode?” This ominous question ends Langston Hughes’ poem, “Harlem,” which begins with, “What happens to a dream deferred?”

In the mid-to-late 1970s, there was a musical explosion emanating from poor Black and Puerto Rican youth in the South Bronx. To understand hip-hop culture, which encompasses a style of dress, speech, graffiti art, and a certain political orientation towards the capitalist state, it is essential to know exactly what was happening in the United States, especially in the nationally oppressed communities leading up to its inception.

During the 1970s, the state of the capitalist economy and the effect it would have on workers was becoming evident. The Vietnamese had emerged victorious from a devastating war in 1975. Thousands of drafted and enlisted U.S. soldiers and marines, many of them people of color in disproportionate numbers, lost their lives. Many thousands more were physically and/or emotionally maimed for life.

The U.S. imperialist ruling class’s brutal war against the Vietnamese people had drawn billions of dollars away from the social needs of people in the United States. The soldiers who were forced to fight the war returned home with no safety net. Many had become addicted to drugs and alcohol and wound up homeless.

The country was in an economic recession. Major industrial manufacturers were already closing plants around the country especially in the Northeast, which later became known as the Rust Belt. Whites had already begun to move from urban to suburban areas, resulting ‘white flight’. Development in the inner cities virtually ceased, leaving what social services that existed and the public school systems in these areas woefully inadequate. Public hospitals were usurped by privately run facilities creating a sub-standard health care system for the poor and oppressed.

The prison system, which housed 200,000 inmates in 1970, had begun its steady climb towards its current level of over 2.1 million prisoners, the largest population worldwide. The racist death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Many Black people who fled the low-paying jobs in the South found higher paying, unionized jobs in the North following the Vietnam War.

But a decade later, with massive job losses rooted in the intensified global competition among capitalists for more profits, Black and women workers were among the first fired due to the loss of manufacturing jobs especially in the auto industry. These systemic layoffs began in the mid-1980s as the economy grew more high-tech and computer-driven.

Origins of hip-hop

Hip hop music, or rap music, first burst on the scene with the Last Poets—a group of men who had spent time in the U.S. prison system. Their first offering of rap music was as early as 1973. The Last Poets spoke to the frustration of Black people from the civil rights movement when confronted with the reality that racism was deeply ingrained in the United States and part of the capitalist system. From them, hip-hop evolved into mostly party music by dee-jays and emcees at block parties.

In 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released the song, The Message. The hook of the song is, “…don’t push me, cuz I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head/huh, huh,/it’s like a jungle sometimes/makes me wonder how I keep from going under.” The song was about the daily, deplorable conditions that Blacks live under, especially in urban areas with gross unemployment and underemployment, police brutality, drug epidemics and much more.

It had been two decades since the civil rights struggle for basic human rights for Black people had won some concessions. But as Malcolm X stated in 1965 shortly before he was assassinated, “Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.” He was referring to the national liberation movements at that time.

But what this quote means today is that women, people of color, immigrants, gays, lesbians, bi and trans communities and others who suffer special oppression are all part of the international working class that needs to free itself of the exploitation of the ruling class and capitalism.

As hip-hop culture developed, it highlighted conditions in the U.S. under capitalism and also anti-cop and anti-government sentiments before being co-opted by big business. Chuck D of Public Enemy called hip-hop “the CNN of the Black community.”

In the late 1980s, early 1990s, Public Enemy burst on the scene with the album, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.” This album was the most vociferous militant rap album of the day, arriving at a time when inner cities were being devastated by the booming prison-industrial complex, brutal cops and the crack epidemic. The use of crack had become an epidemic because of a lack of jobs and education for youth, scant social services and no services for drug addiction.

The album bristled with a militant flavor, with songs about prison like “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” or that express righteous anger as in “Prophets of Rage.”

Perhaps the most well-known rapper was Tupac Shakur—the son of Afeni Shakur, godson of Assata Shakur and stepson of Mutula Shakur, all Black liberation leaders. Tupac seemed to embody the Black struggle and could communicate the hope of the community in “Keep Ya Head up” or the daily struggles of a young single Black mother in “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” in which he ends with, “No money no babysitter, she couldn’t keep a job/She tried ta sell crack, but end up getting robbed/So now what’s next, there ain’t nothin left ta sell/So she sees sex as a way of leavin’ hell/It’s payin’ tha rent, so she really can’t complain/Prostitute, found slain, and Brenda’s her name, she’s got a baby.”

To this day, many hip-hop artists stay true to the conscious, positive roots of the music. When a group of hip-hop artists traveled to Cuba, organized by the Black August Collective, and met revolutionary political exile Assata Shakur, one result was Common’s “A Song for Assata,” released in 2000. The song brings a synopsis of her struggle to many who may not have heard her story.

Common opens the song saying, “We make this movement towards freedom for all those who have been oppressed, and all those in the struggle,” and closes with Assata’s own words on freedom. The Black August Collective has held hip hop benefit concerts honoring freedom fighters and political prisoners for the past eight years.

Most recently, hip hop artist Kanye West—winner of three Grammy awards—has spoken out against gay bashing in the industry and received scrutiny by the mainstream media when on network television he criticized Bush’s disregard of Black people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The writer is a leader of FIST, Fight Imperialism, Stand Together, youth group. Contact FIST@workers.org on how to get involved.


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