Opinion | Hip-Hop — and America — Are Changing, and Not for the Better

Where hip-hop was supposed to be a vehicle that challenged oppression, discrimination, hatred and enthusiastic ignorance, we’ve become a gas pump filling the tank of oppression, discrimination, hatred and enthusiastic ignorance. God bless Snoop Dogg for re-inventing himself, again and again. But why is the same Snoop Dogg who attended MTV’s Video Music Awards in the 1990s with young women of color on leashes as if they were dogs, now in his 50s, onstage at Yankee Stadium in 2023, with one barely-dressed young woman of color after another sliding up and down a stripper pole? Apparently, his reinvention went only so far.

This is the crossroads hip-hop is at as we celebrate hip-hop at 50. To paraphrase a Tupac Shakur line, we were given this world, we did not make it. True, indeed, true enough. But this anniversary should not just be a moment for glossy celebrations. The question, right now, we should all be asking ourselves about hip-hop is pretty basic: What other people, anywhere on this earth, are allowed, encouraged, under the guise of being legit, real, to call themselves the rough equivalent of the n-word or the b-word, watch it be recorded, mixed, mastered and spread everywhere, like Covid, for the entire world to digest? What has happened, politically, socially, within hip-hop, has, in some ways, set us back as much as far-right politics.

This is also why we can point to any popular hip-hop podcast with this rapper or that hip-hop adjacent figure, and behold conversational mayhem, old and new beefs and threats of violence reminiscent of the worst of Jerry Springer’s talk show. There is hip-hop culture, which was erected to be about life and light and possibilities. And then there is the hip-hop industry, which traffics in death and destruction. Is it any wonder that since the murders of Tupac and Biggie in 1996 and 1997, respectively, there have literally been murders of one rapper or another pretty much every year since 2001? Most were shot, the majority of the cases unsolved, yet the music — thanks to those who distribute and highlight it — still pushes violence and chaos, like it’s no big deal.

We in America love to celebrate anniversaries, sometimes too soon, too prematurely. America is also at a crossroads, politically, socially: Do we believe in peace, love, democracy and respect for each other? Or do we believe in violence, hate, division and fear? I, too, am at a crossroads, of my hip-hop life past and my hip-hop life present, wondering how I — we — got here. I am both so incredibly happy and likewise so incredibly sad that hip-hop has made it to 50 years old. Happy because it is my culture. I have been a hip-hop head for life, and like hip-hop I, too, have made it to my 50s, even when naysayers said I would not, that we would not. Sad because I feel my mortality. I feel my bones quaking every single time I hear of the death of local folks, or of famous hip-hop folks like DMX, like Shock G, like Coolio. We ducked and dodged the madness of our youth, only to be felled in middle age.

I think of how surreal it is that we now have hip-hop millionaires and billionaires. But I also ponder how that is any different than the mostly white and wealthy social class in America — the 1 percent — who are good while multitudes around them struggle? I think of the very cities where hip-hop was first incubated, how they have been ridiculously gentrified, and there is a pandemic of homelessness coast to coast, unlike anything we’ve seen since The Great Depression — and how a growing number of the homeless are younger Black males. Who is speaking to and for them? How is the flaunting of riches by certain people in hip-hop any different from the Elon Musks of the world, out for self, not for we, the people?

Equally, hip-hop needs more of a Chance The Rapper speaking passionately about mental health issues, more of a Tobe Nwigwe sitting shoulder to shoulder with his wife and children and community members in his music videos, more of the balanced and righteous spirit of Curtis Mayfield and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and The Staple Singers. Have a career, yes, make your bag, yes, but care about something other than social media likes and poppin’ bottles at parties.

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