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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 [email protected]
on how to get involved.
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