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Hip-Hop: When Blacks Control Their Culture

March 16, 1997|Dipannita Basu | Dipannita Basu, a sociology professor at Pitzer College, has done social research for the British government and the Center for Afro-American Studies at UCLA

CLAREMONT — The violent death of rap artist Notorious B.I.G. last weekend has been viewed as yet another example of violence within the rap industry--and the violence endemic among urban black youth. In the rush to explain the underside of the hip-hop nation--its homophobia, misogyny and materialism--the culture of rap gets a bad rap. But to consider rap music only in its cultural context ignores the powerful impact it possesses on an economic level. In using the cultural resources of black urban styles, aesthetics and narratives, many African Americans rap artists have essentially become "cultural entrepreneurs."

Rappers are converting the salience of rap's ever-evolving aesthetics and argot into an economic assault on mainstream cultural industries. Black culture has always sold, but who's selling and performing rap marks its distinctiveness.

Black music has proved potent in American culture throughout U.S. history. The cultural imperatives of black diasporic music--from reggae to rap to blues and spirituals--illustrate the historical contingencies upon which black music articulates race-, gender- and class-related experiences. The blues, for example, talks about black Southern life, the effects of industrialization and migration to Northern cities in the 1930s. Jazz can be linked to segregation; rhythm-and-blues to the inequalities that led to the civil-rights movement. Rap music and its hip-hop culture are part of this continuum--the voice of today's black urban America, born out of the violence, destitution and attrition that make up decaying inner cities.

But, in economic terms, rap is unique. All earlier black musical genres were controlled and marketed by white companies and performed--in cases where they "crossed over" to the mainstream--largely by white artists. They were cultural products made by one race yet manipulated by another.

Rap differs in fundamental ways that have profound implications on ownership and control. Artistically, rap music has spilled into the mainstream--but in a manner that precludes its being watered down. Earlier, for example, both blues and jazz lured audiences toward Africa at the grass roots, yet mainstream interpretations quickly pulled listeners back to Europe--the custodian of "high" culture.

First, rap precludes any performance of black music by white artists--you can count on your fingers the number of white rappers. Second, rap music has provided an opportunity for black ownership and control of this cultural commodity. Black hip-hop capitalism now pervades the music industry--from such successful black-owned record companies as Def Jam, Flavor Unit management and Death Row Records, to smaller businesses, including independent record labels, video stylists and set designers, hip-hop photographers and small management and production companies, grossing from $30,000 to $300,000 annually.

African Americans are able to secure these related business niches because of their closeness to the culture of hip-hop. They know, and can sell, what they are intimate with--and the music, clothing and rap magazines are all tied to the culture of black urban America. Black hip-hop capitalists are climbing the economic ladder because they can convert cultural knowledge into cultural commodities that sell not in spite of, but because of their potent black street aesthetics.

But how can people from some of the poorest communities in America become successful entrepreneurs in the cultural industries? It is possible because rap draws from the whole repertoire of black cultural forms. It is a grass-roots music, that, despite its profitability in world markets, is still deeply entrenched in the urban black vernacular. Like ethnic food, rap music is most true when made by those whose culture it is extracted from. African Americans know the value of their culture as a packaged commodity and are creating not only music but a whole network of secondary businesses and occupations infused with hip-hop culture.

In my study of black entrepreneurship and the hip-hop industry, the locus of rap-music production in the context of black urban aesthetics equips many young men--and some women--with the resources for securing business opportunities in many ways. First, there is an unabashed ethos that rap music cannot be victim to total corporate control and dilution. Second, the aesthetics of rap enable young African Americans to become "culture" entrepreneurs--converting their "blackness" into a valuable commodity. Rap music offers a route of economic mobility that does not require abandoning "blackness"--in cultural and linguistic terms--for success. You don't have to "sell out" to be successful.

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