Hip Hopping and Rapping with 50 Cent, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Eminem, and Immortal
Technique: Cultural Renaissance for Whom and at Whose Expense?
From having silenced voices in the period of slavery in colonial history, Black singers of
the African Diaspora in the U.S., the Caribbean islands, and Latin America have created or are
prominent in different genres of music that have captured the minds of people around the world.
However, this study reminds readers to avoid “[r]acial stereotype,” (Sardar & Van Loon, 2002,
p. 82), such as wrongly assuming and generalizing that all “Blacks” are “entertainer” and “high
achievers” as “actors, singers” and “dancers” (p. 83). Today, mainstream and independent
African American musicians have created a cultural renaissance in music enjoyed in most places
around the world. Specifically, their voices in hip-hop and rap are not only heard but are also
copied by Asians, Latinos, and Europeans (Perkins, 1993). However, a problem arises, as there is
a multiplicity of divergent voices and the messages apparently are neither positive nor liberating.
This research answers the following questions: What are the key features of hip-hop and
rap music? How are they a reproduction of the dominant culture and grand narratives as well as a
cooptation by the hegemonic power structures that further deepen stereotypes about Blacks in
America? How are they a construction of new counter-hegemonic power structures?
Importance of the Research to the Practice of Adult and Community Education
People studying literature and culture tend to investigate them ahistorically and
apolitically. Literary and cultural criticism tends to be works of art formalistically divorced from
their settings. Enjoying music because the music sounds good is not enough. The message is
equally, if not more, important. Hence, this study problematizes the separation between the
cultural foreground and the historical and political background. Educators need not only to
consider using culture and music as instructional and learning tools, but must also situate them
within their historical and social contexts. The reason is because the effect of music on human
beings in general and learners in particular is direct. Lévi-Strauss (1969), who is known for his
work on structural anthropology, argues that music performs intellectual and emotive function.
To admirers, they get instant gratification. To detractors, they are annoying to say the least and
repugnant at worst. On another level, music provides content, which either supports or rejects the
status quo with which listeners are bombarded.
The study of popular culture, to which hip-hop and rap belong, falls under popular culture
studies, for which post-modernism provides useful tools. This paper uses various strands of
post-modernism to answer the research questions. Conservative postmodernism guides the
analysis of the second research question; and, critical progressive postmodernism, the third. .
Foucault (1972) investigated the structure of power and knowledge, claiming that the criteria of
knowledge are defined by who and what are included or excluded. In short, there are multiple,
overlapping series of excluded and legitimated histories. This study investigates which power
structures and voices are legitimated and which are excluded in hip-hop and rap music, the latter
express their resistance to power.
The research method consists in the critical analysis of selected songs. Literacy criticism
refers to the “art or science… devoted to the comparison and analysis, to the interpretation and
evaluation of works,” (Cuddon, 1991, p. 207) in this case, of hip-hop and rap music. This paper
does not pretend to be a comprehensive overview of hip-hop and rap. Rather, it identifies themes
across a continuum.
Hip-Hop and Rap
Content. Hip-hop historians state that, as a response to systematic structural violence,
such as destroying communities, hip-hop culture and rap songs express the angst of the real lives
of disenfranchised poor Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Jamaicans living in “ghettos” in the Bronx,
New York (KRS-One, 2009; Perkins, 1993; Powell, 2003). The music expresses the
contradictions and sufferings in the real world, talking about drugs, drive-by shooting, and a
feeling of no way out. In the movie Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2005), 50 Cent playing himself said:
“Crack meant money, money meant power; and power meant war.” As a consequence, many
hip-hoppers and rappers reveal a vestige of toughness. Fat Joe (in Hurt, 2007) said “to be hard…
is one of the flaws of being in the ‘hood.” Dr. Jelani Cobb (2007) of Spelman College said that
hip-hop deals with the history of Black men in the U.S. who deny frailty as a psychic armor. For
this reason, anti-sexist activist Jackson Katz (in Hurt, 2007) said that many hip-hoppers and
rappers portray the image of physical power, toughness and invincibility to show worthiness of
respect, unlike people with enormous economic wealth who can assert their power in other ways.
Now, most U.S. listeners are European Americans: working-class and spoiled suburban
White folks who put on an image and are mouthing off undirected rage detached from their own
social realities. White folks who listen to hip-hop and rap are outsiders looking into the mythical
and stereotypical lives of the others: predatory Black men who move from poverty to the bling of
nice cars and huge necklaces (Kitwana, 2006). Corporate America penetrates the youth market
through the hip-hop culture, selling everything from compact discs (CDs), pop soda, loose pants
that fall down, and sneakers. It decides what songs can be marketed, promoting a particular kind
of hip-hop and rap. One the one hand, mainstream hip-hop and rap music legitimizes the
hegemonic powers and culture when it speaks with one voice with the grand narrative or when it
serves as an escape from the hard realities of daily life. It is a market that projects a fantasy
world of what the good life is like, portraying the abundance of women, the blings, and the
parties. On the other hand, alternative or underground hip-hop and rap music questions and
destabilizes the status quo when it promotes counter-hegemonic power structures and discourses.
Style. According to the Harvard Dictionary of Music (Randel, 2010), hip-hop, to which
rap belongs, was born in the 1970s in the Bronx, New York, among African Americans who
were influenced by Caribbean and Latino immigrants. Rapper Africa Bambaataa coined the term
hip-hop in the mid-1970s. But its roots are found in sub-Sahara West Africa where griots, who
are traveling singers and poets, have vocal styles to which rappers’ styles are similar. Recent
antecedents are Jamaican toasting and dub recording of the 1960s and 1970s (Randel, 2010).
Many other types of music are precursors and are in the DNA of hip-hop and rap music: disco,
funk, R&B, jazz, and rock. In addition, hip-hop and rap fuse with other genres of music, such as
metal. Today, popular culture moves toward hip-hop and rap music, which is now a mainstream
multi-million dollar industry. Hip-hop is the umbrella genre of music which has singers, while
and rap is its sub-genre which has emcees (MCs) who speak in verses that frequently rhyme and
disc jockeys (DJs) who remix music. Hip-hop and rap music is truly trailblazing, as it rejects the
convention-governed structures, patterns, and procedures of music making, including those of
the standard popular songs (Rose, 1994). Most types of music have musical instruments or voice
or both. But hip-hop and rap have more. Aside from a singer or rapper and music, hip-hop and
rap music is a collage of the following elements: vinyl-record scratching, sampling, remix,
collaboration, improvisation, echo effects, and speaking in verses. Many of these practices derive
from the DJ culture. There are many sub-genres, fusion genres, and regional scenes in the U.S.,
not to mention in the world. Hip-hop and rap music has morphed to become reggaeton and
merenrap in parts of the Spanish-speaking Latin America. When hip-hop and rap music started to
be very profitable, lawyers came into the picture. A major issue in hip-hop and rap music is
intellectual property rights. Tunes that artists played and recorded previously are used, sampled,
and remixed into the recordings of other artists. Clyde Stubblefield’s drum beats are the most
sought after samples. The original creators, from whom the sampled bits and pieces of recording
were extracted, are not acknowledged in compositional credits and they do not profit from any
royalties arising from sales. As copyrights laws are infringed, lawyers step in. Now, hip-hoppers
and rappers are more cautious in copying beats, as beats are copyrighted and they are liable to
copyright infringements and criminal prosecution.
Music as the Consolation of the Opiated
Rap and Rage. When major companies—the hegemonic economic powers—bought up
hip-hop and rap record labels, the lyric contents started to change. Cultural critic Dr. Mark
Anthony Neal (1998) said that only a certain level of Blackness flows through the air waves:
hardcore thugs performing hip-hop with booty shaking in the background. As rappers want to
land a record deal, they mouth want corporate America buys and sells. Themes that emerge
reinforce stereotypes which are commodified. Rappers in this category internalize, glorify, &
perpetuate dominant structure & culture: Black men feminizing other Black men, confrontation,
domination, drugs, gay bashing, gun play, hard-core thugs, homophobia, hyper-masculine
posturing, intra-Black animosity, instilling fear in other men, machismo, misogyny, money,
objectification of women, power, sex, sexism, shaking booties, stereotypical masculine
standards, and violence. Cultural critic Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, rapper Tim’m West, and former
Vibe Magazine Emil Wilbekin (in Hurt) said that ironically while hip-hop culture is
homophobic, yet it’s homoerotic, portraying images of very masculine, muscular, shirtless,
greased up men who are very “thug.” White men in suits make business decisions on what music
will make money and therefore what music to sell. However, Black record executives need to
step up to the plate with respect to the stereotypes conveyed in songs.
Gangsta rappers internalize the messages that the dominant powers and culture
perpetuate: sexism and violence (Cole & Guy-Sheftall, 2003). The dominant culture in the U.S.
is hyper-masculinity: Hollywood perennially produces films that objectify women as well as
promote violence. Black male rappers are self-conscious of their victimization; hence, they talk
about racism, police brutality, and Black male incarceration, for which reason they advance
Black male supremacy to reveal a desensitized and tough persona, possibly due to insecurity.
Black gangsta rappers denigrate Black women, homosexuals, and each other (Black men). Black
women are objectified and commodified and, therefore, become prey to both White male and
Black male supremacy. Gangsta rappers use words that are demeaning to people of color and to
women. They use such words as “nigger, bitch, ho (whore),” and “icing cops” (Appignanesi &
Garratt, 2000, p. 140). Gangsta rappers “celebrate violence towards women, the police and
sadism, chauvinism, gang feuds, drug deals, sexual and black-on-black violence” (p. 140). The
songs of many gangsta rappers reflect their lifestyle. Snoop Doggy “has been indicted for
murder” (p. 140). Tupac Shakur “was arrested for shooting two off-duty policemen in Atlanta”
(p. 140). Flavor Flav of Public Enemy “was arrested for allegedly trying to shoot a neighbor in
New York” (p. 140). Public Enemy’s Chuck D (in Hurt, 2007) said: “BET is the cancer of black
manhood…, because they one-dimensionalized us and commodified us as a one-trick image.”
True, gangsta rappers sing of the life of “dispossessed ghetto dwellers” (Appignanesi &
Garratt, 2000, p. 141). However, their listeners are mostly “white suburban adolescents,” known
as “wiggers” or “wannabe white niggers” (p. 141) who identify with manhood and courage. The
problem with gangsta rap is that it reinforces racist ideology and racial stereotypes, such as: due
to their “cultural identity,” “black people” are “trouble maker[s]” (Sardar & Van Loon, 2002, p.
79). Gangsta rappers legitimize hegemonic myths and reinforce stereotypes by chanting them to
social groups in society who then internalize them, such as drive-by shootings, poverty, rise to
fame, and oversize jewelry. Many rappers have been imprisoned or killed (Toop, 1991).
Escapism. Many of the popular crossover and fusion hip-hop hits are escapist. People
who suffer from oppression, poverty, and hopelessness sigh for release from their conditions and
flee into escapist hip-hop and rap songs. Music is a painkiller to help them forget their misery,
thereby diverting their energies from changing their present circumstances. In Jay Sean’s hit
songs, Down (2009) and Do You Remember (2004), performed in collaboration with Lil Wayne
in both and Sean Paul in the latter, they openly chant verses about having fun and bring back
good memories, despite being down and in the midst of an economic depression, singing that
you “don’t need to worry” and “everything will be ok,” respectively. For the same reason, Black
Eyed Peas’ number one hit song in the Top 40 Charts, I Gotta Feelin’ (2009), likewise is an
escapist song, promising that “today’s gonna be a good day.” The ideological distortion and false
consciousness hide and contribute to the reproduction of social contradictions that serve the
ruling-class interests. Inverted consciousness and inverted reality appear as real.
Some hard-rock rap groups, though, offer some social commentaries, such as Linkin
Park. Its songs, for example, are full of social critique, though not hard-hitting. In broad sweep,
they talk about the truth, lies, regret, mercy and divide—mostly abstract concepts. Their music
videos, such as What I’ve Done, however, show images of Ku Klux Klan, meth, oil price hike,
traffic, pollution, wildlife, famine in Africa, super-thin White women, obesity, nuclear explosion,
drought, civil rights protests, police brutality, war, and chemical weapons. However, their
messages are too general and too subliminal to be considered serious political militancy.
Music as a Tool for Liberation
Corporate America does not give record deals to rappers who talk about critical issues
The majority of hip-hop and rap music are either escapist or conforms with the stereotypes that
the hegemonic powers legitimate. But some hip-hop and rap music raise consciousness and rebel
against established powers as well as deconstruct issues related to class, gender, and color
(Cross, 1993; Walser, 1995). Artists in local communities who create hip-hop and rap music can
be rich resource for educational purposes. Singer Chuck D. said that rap is the “CNN for black
people,” that promotes black history, pride, and self-help (Randel, 2003, p. 705). Immortal
Technique is a rapper who seriously studies the history and material conditions of poor people,
especially Blacks and Latinos. He challenges class domination, asserting that color analysis,
though necessary, is not sufficient. There is a need to revisit and reinforce class analysis as
Table 1: Grounded Classification of the Social Imagination in Hip-Hop and Rap Music
Rage & Hegemonic Power
social & political
Black men, racism,
Hip-hop and rap music began as an underground urban folk movement but is now
mainstreamed. It was the voice of poor people but now hegemonic economic powers appropriate
it. It is path-breaking in style, but has hidden and overt social messages, reflecting the society
which produces it. It started as consciousness-raising but later became a fantasy to which people
can get out of poverty. As the hegemonic economic power holders—big business interests—
came in, they make decisions on what music will be mass produced and seen on music videos.
The ideas that dominate in society are the ideas of the ruling class. The problem is structural and
systemic. Some musicians are adjusted to greed, bigotry, and fear: they defend the values of the
ruling class. But others challenge and question those beliefs. This study shows that polysemy and
polyphony characterize hip-hop and rap songs, as they can be classified in a continuum, with
porous boundaries. While rappers focus on predominantly one set of themes in the continuum,
they also deal with issues on other sets of the continuum, namely: one, there are songs that echo
the hegemonic culture that promote violence, patriarchy, power, and misogyny. Two, there are
songs that are escapist and act as opium to lighten the misery with which people face in their
daily existence. Three, there are songs that are critical and promote a counter-hegemonic
structure and culture. Clearly, hip-hop and rap music ranges from the “critical, prophetic mode,
to the violence-ridden, misogynist mode” (West, 2004, p. 181).
Music that was once in the margins is now not only standard but also institutionalized.
Big business plays a role in selecting songs which become mass produced and commercialized.
Economic power legitimizes music that will not rock the boat. Hence, songs that are mass
marketed are those that either opiate the people or reproduce the hegemonic culture that
promotes the stereotype that Black men are power hungry, violent, misogynous, and criminal.
Songs that have great difficulties penetrating the mainstream radio waves or television are those
that promote counter-hegemonic structures and cultures. Composers and lyricists who do not
want to be sold out to big-business interests would rather not go the commercial route but
produce their recordings in alternative ways. They do this by producing their own compact discs
(CDs) or making their songs directly available to listeners online, either for free or for a fee.
Implications of Applying the Findings to Practice and Theory
This paper concludes with recommendations for adult educators. Music is a powerful tool
to convey a message. Educators can use music, including hip-hop and rap music, to link back to
and talk about social realities. Young learners are listening to hip-hop and rap anyway. Music
can be used to struggle against violence, classism, racism, sexism and homophobia. Educators
can use hip-hop and rap as instructional and learning tools, engaging learners in dialogues about
class, gender, color, culture, stereotypes, fatalism, and actions that promote justice and lasting
change. The way to real happiness is to free ourselves from the life that made us desire rage-
filled or escapist music.
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