Black Voices at UBC: The death of hip-hop
Hip-hop is slowly dying and we watch it unfold before our eyes.
I noticed the death of the genre when I saw the music video for Nicki Minaj and Fivio Foreign’s new song, We’re climbing. I watched Nicki sit in fancy cars, loll around Louis Vuitton bags, and change from outfit to outfit.
Nicki looked like a cartoon character who had been sucked into the real world. Everyone around her wore normal clothes, normal hair, and lived ordinary lives. The juxtaposition between Nicki and South Jamaican Queens was shocking and made me think of the fallacy that comes with hip-hop.
Since its inception, hip-hop has always been an outlet for black exploration. Rap groups like the Wu-Tang Clan took clips from kung fu movies and put them in their songs, and had names that sounded like superheroes. Method Man, RZA, GZA, Old Dirty Bastard, Ghost Face Killa, U-God, Cappadonna, Inspectah Deck, and Raekwon (we like a regular name too). They showed us what it was like to be black in Staten Island. They were honest, raw and played with the imagination. Their work had substance.
I wonder where that stuff is now.
Other than Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, there are no mainstream rappers with the same effect. The genre I’ve come to love for all its meaning and emotion has shrunk to cars, fancy clothes and colorful wigs. While these things are nice and sometimes necessary, they have replaced the heart of hip-hop – introspective black thought. The lack of thoughtful black thinking is killing modern hip-hop and is therefore the root cause of the genre filled with empty, repetitive capitalist rhetoric.
The death of hip-hop began with the “gangster” fallacy. NWA, the infamous 80s rap group with hip-hop greats like Easy E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, pioneered gangsta rap. NWA rapped about gang life, drugs, sex, and fighting authority — police authority. Again, all of this was necessary to some degree because NWA would be the catalyst for what rap would become. They were the spokesperson for the hood – the hood ambassadors if you will.
The only problem was that none of them were part of gang life. Easy E was a drug dealer, but Ice Cube, the group’s most famous writer, studied architectural design at the Phoenix Institute of Technology. Architectural drawing is as “gangster” as a painting session with Bob Ross. If you’re not part of street life, then how could you be a street speaker?
Hip-hop has always been presented to the masses as a real, not fictional representation of black life – if it’s imaginary, it can’t be introspective. Instead, gangster rap becomes entertainment, but entertainment for whom? Dr Dre once said“America is obsessed with murder. I think murder sells a lot more than sex. They say sex sells. I think murder sells… You hardly hear anyone screaming about Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese or Clint Eastwood and all the violence in their work… for me, the records and videos we make are pure entertainment.
The genre was originally for the streets of black America and spread to white suburbs. Hip-hop was pushed into the mainstream. Now sharing culture is fine, but the portrayal of blackness is concerning, especially as our black industry leaders sell murder as mere entertainment. Now, instead of gangster rap being a form of black activism, it has been reduced to a product of consumerism.
The next thing that killed hip-hop was fantasy baller. We saw it on the East Coast with bad boy records. Bad Boy played the baller character throughout the music video. Each music video had models swaying their hips, mansions dripping with extravagance, and movie-worthy cutscenes. A-list Bad Boys rappers Notorious BIG, Diddy, Mase and Lil’ Kim were constantly awash in luxury. There are pros and cons to the big ball aesthetic.
The advantage is that it gives black people the chance to imagine beyond their situation. Black viewers who have been marginalized can teleport to the mansion in which Diddy dances for three minutes. It gives black people hope that one day they too can have this amazing life. The downside is that it’s not real, and even rappers can’t sustain the extravagant lifestyles they portray. They too have been sucked into empty capitalist rhetoric. Other than sex and money, there isn’t much intellectual substance to baller rap.
Rap experienced a renaissance in the early 2000s with the emergence of Neo Soul and Kanye West. Kanye pushed the mundane out of hip-hop and gave us classics like Crack Music and I heard him say. Kanye changed the face of hip-hop. Here we go from gangster and baller to insightful college dropout who told the world that George Bush hates black people. The pink polo rapper ushered in a new wave of hip-hop: abstract rap – which exists outside of the stereotypical mold of the genre. From Kanye we got rappers like Lupe Fiasco, Kid Cudi and Drake. Unfortunately, Kanye also fell deep into capitalism and started drifting into baller rap. But, his predecessors would continue his legacy with individual songs and full-length projects.
In Everything fallsKanye West said: “We shine ’cause they hate us, we spin ’cause they degrade us / We’re trying to redeem our 40 acres / And for that paper, look how low we’ll stoop / Even if you’re in a Benz, you always an*gga in a coupe.” Kanye articulates the struggle of black Americans against capitalism and therefore the relationship of rap with capitalism. From gangster to baller to abstract artist, hip-hop tries to capture the American dream.
The problem is that the American dream was not made for black people but rather at our expense; Black people can never find freedom through capitalism. Instead, we will either become the new oppressor or lose our way.
Stephanie Okoli is a third-year creative writing student, author and CEO of Daalu Media, a safe virtual space for Black Canadians to laugh and learn.
Black Voices at UBC is an open-format chronicling work by black writers from the UBC student community. If you would like to get involved, contact [email protected]