What Will Be Hip-Hop's Legacy?

A Harvard hip-hop scholar compares the golden age to today's era of violence and greed.

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Common wrote One Day It'll All Make Sense. Jay-Z wrote Decoded. Ice-T wrote Ice. Queen Latifah wrote Put on Your Crown. Styles P wrote Invincible. Mobb Deep's Prodigy wrote My Infamous Life

Surely hip-hop is enthralled with telling its story. No surprise there; the transition from writing lyrics to writing books was destined to happen in hip-hop, as it has for rock, jazz and blues, because at some juncture each of these musical genres became preoccupied with historicizing its contributions to popular culture.

Which leads me to a question posed recently by a colleague: In years to come, who will be referenced as the primary players in the overall hip-hop canon? Or, in other words, what will be hip-hop's legacy?

An obvious contribution to culture and society as a whole, hip-hop accurately diagnosed an era of lopsided leadership and shortsighted public policies. See the Furious Five's "The Message" in 1982, Tupac Shakur's "Changes" in 1992 and Nas' "Black Zombie" in 2002. Similar to the memoirs, each one of these songs schooled its audience on issues of a community paralyzed by joblessness, underfunded public schools, lack of health care, lack of community vision, gang violence and drug infestations. From this perspective, the legacy of hip-hop rests on enlightening listeners and teaching the values of life through complex storytelling. 

Unfortunately, hip-hop's educational legacy is at odds with what I call the "hip-hop paradox of gluttony," an ethical dilemma steeped in the widespread public perception that hip-hop is nothing more than a celebration of violence, misogyny and excessive materialism for the über-individualist. Unfortunately, these destructive elements are the residue from hip-hop culture's transition to hip-hop commerce.

The Hip-Hop Paradox of Gluttony

At the root of this moral dichotomy is the heavily policed ideal of "keeping it real." To keep it real, in principle, means to provide an authentic accuracy that is just in analysis and balanced in presentation. In other words, to tell the truth. In practice, its significance rests on its ability to mitigate a social paranoia brought on by institutionalized poverty, racism and sexism. This is where the water gets murky because this is where a lot of money has been made.

In his new book, The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy, Steve Stoute tells of what he calls an "atomic reaction," a "catalytic force majeure that went beyond musical boundaries and into the psyche of young America." Stoute gives a firsthand account of the bridge-building that has taken place between hip-hop, major corporations and consumers. 

Surely the cultural expressions in a hip-hop lifestyle created a way for many people across a variety of backgrounds to grow wealth, extend the boundaries of their artistic talents and establish a foothold in areas of political and civic engagement. Stoute, music-industry guru turned advertising guru, dubs this process "tanning." Tanning, he explains, "laid the foundation for a transformation" that levels "the playing field like no other movement of pop culture, allowing for a cultural exchange between all comers, groups of kids who were black, white, Hispanic, Asian ... across racial and socioeconomic lines." Tanning provided "a cultural connection based on common experiences and values," he writes, "and in turn it revealed a generationally shared mental complexion."

Stoute's assessment is spot-on. In more ways than one, this post-civil rights generation has carried out visions held by leaders like Dr. King, Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer. There is a wealth of educational value in this very fact, which Stoute highlights.