When communications theory philosopher Marshall Mcluhan wrote “the medium is the message,” he could very well have been referring to hip-hop. MCing/rapping, DJing/scratching, break dancing and graffiti writing are more than just an art or a performance style.
Dr. Daudi Abe, professor of Humanities at Seattle Central College and author of 6’N the Morning: West Coat Hip-Hop Music 1987 -1992 & the Transformation of Mainstream Culture (Over the Edge Books, 2013) calls hip-hop “a living cultural movement.”
“American rapper, singer, and actor Ice-T said rap is something you do – hip-hop is something you live,” he notes. “In the 80s, if you listened to underlying messages, hip-hop was a portent, a warning, for what was going to happen next. Similar to a news broadcast, it was a lot more political than the general public realized.”
During the 70s and 80s, Seattle was known for its rock ‘n’ roll. Natives like Jimi Hendrix and Nancy and Ann Wilson (Heart) were giving global attention to the “Emerald City.” But alongside rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop was emerging here, sparked by New York City’s hip-hop culture.
“From the beginning, hip-hop was very much about challenging the status quo – this was especially true of graffiti art,” says Dr. Abe. “During the late 60s and early 70s, hip-hop was a response to repression. Young people felt disconnected and marginalized from mainstream culture. It was the first medium to give fearless, explicit voice to young, black males. It was used as a way to push back, tell who you were, where you were from and to make your mark.”
Over the past 40 years, Hip Hop culture has seen dramatic changes since its early start on independent record labels. Edgy experimentation has given way to conglomerate blueprints. Within mainstream acceptance, it has evolved. Critics worry the “essence of hip-hop” and its “news broadcast” may have been compromised in the process.
But amidst this change, Macklemore’s multiple Grammy wins suggest hip-hop is becoming part of a larger narrative and a platform on which anyone can make a culturally relevant political stand. And as in its beginnings, it’s still a potent lens through which the artist views the world.
“Jazz, Reggae, Blues, Hip-Hop – these are all necessary to a vital society because they spring from creative energy within oppressed populations,” Dr. Abe observes. “Life experience informs ones’ views. We have a long way to go. But getting together and talking about these divergent views is the kind of dialogue which will help get us past our differences. I’m honored to be a resource for Northwest Folklife and to assist in making this year’s cultural focus successful. ”