As far as I’m concerned, the verdict is still out on Seattle duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. They won a Video Music Award for best hip-hop video and are nominated for seven Grammys, including best rap album and best new artist. They challenge homophobia and rap about empowerment. I like that a lot. But I wonder how much of their ability to rap candidly is a function of white privilege. Let’s wait to see what happens here.
Last, we can’t talk about the music without including the state of the hip-hop generation. Bakari Kitwana describes us as a post-civil rights cohort consisting primarily of people of color born between 1965 and 1984, raised in America’s urban centers and struggling against America’s social ills.
In 1988 Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary, NWA’s Straight Outta Compton and MC Lyte’s Lyte As a Rock all spoke to America’s youth about the negative consequences of Reaganomics.
Times have changed.
The hip-hop generation is now between ages 29 and 49, give or take a few years. We helped get President Barack Obama elected, and many of us are society’s key influencers, doctors, educators and intellectuals. Yet the promise of a generation is unfulfilled: Mass incarceration is at an all-time high. Racial tension is arguably more polarizing than before the civil rights movement. Socioeconomic gaps are widening, and our public schools—the space from which hip-hop emerged—are under siege. Unlike the material of 1988, the culture struggles to address these issues with any level of action or consistency.
Joycelyn A. Wilson is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and a director of the Four-Four Beat Project. She is a Hiphop Archive alumnus fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter.