"Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research": black history's relevance to the Hip Hop generation.

Author:Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo

Each generation, depending on its problems and needs, must select and arrange the specific facts which form the best system for its own inspiration and guidance. It is because the past is a guide with roads pointing in many directions that each generation and epoch must make its own studies of history. Earl E. Thorpe, 1957 (1) Every generation has the opportunity to write its own history, and indeed it is obliged to do so. Only in that way can it provide its contemporaries with the materials vital to understanding the present and to planning strategies for coping with the future. Only in that way can it fulfill its obligation to pass on to posterity the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the past, which, after all, give substance and direction for the continuity of civilization. John Hope Franklin, 1986 (2) History inspires. History teaches. History also guides.... We, as a Hip Hop people, must come out of the past and into our present. We, as a Hip Hop people, must re-create ourselves. True freedom for us Hiphoppas is to create and live a lifestyle that uniquely empowers us.... True freedom is self-creation.... We Hiphoppas will be busy at work creating a history that simply works better for our children. KRS-One, 2003 (3) The meaning, purpose, and function of black history as a field of academic inquiry, a philosophy, and "as a weapon in the fight for racial equality" has undergone a host of significant transformations and stages since the antebellum era and the professionalization of the black historical enterprise during the early 20th century. (4) Building upon the institutions and paradigms created by Carter G. Woodson and other contributors to the early black history movement, black and white historians and scores of black activists during the Black Power era significantly transformed the systematic study and day-to-day application of black history. Black Power era historian William Van Deburg has pointed out the manner in which the masses of young blacks from about 1965 to 1975 collectively drew upon black history as "a wellspring of group strength and staying power." (5) Likewise, in their exhaustive study on the black historical enterprise, August Meier and Elliott Rudwick argued that by the late 1960s "Afro-American history had become fashionable, a 'hot' subject finally legitimated as a scholarly specialty." (6)

Challenging the widely accepted thesis of black history's unprecedented growth, centrality, and legitimization during the Black Power era, in his 1967 classic The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, recently deceased cultural critic Harold Cruse indicted young black intellectuals for being tragically "uninterested in history." On the last page of his mammoth study, Cruse concluded, "The farther the Negro gets from his historical antecedents in time, the more tenuous become his conceptual ties, the emptier his social conceptions, the more superficial his visions. His one great and present hope is to know and understand his Afro-American history in the United States more profoundly. Failing that, and failing to create a new synthesis and social theory of action, he will suffer the historical fate described by the philosopher who warned that 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (7) In the "Foreword" to a 1984 edition of Cruse's opus, Bazel E. Allen and Ernest J. Wilson pronounced that "the message of this book remains painfully apt today." (8) Cruse's observations are still relevant and especially applicable to the Hip Hop generation.

This essay concerns the relationship between the Hip Hop generation and black history and is written by a Hip Hop generation historian who shares Thorpe and Franklin's sentiments that each generation of African American historians must leave their distinct marks on the profession, the production of scholarship, and the debates surrounding the functions of black history. My discussion is guided by the premise that Hip Hop culture is the single most widespread preoccupation among today's African American and African diasporan youth and has the potential to play an important role in rejuvenating the modern black history movement and raising the Hip Hop generation's cultural and historical consciousness. African American historians, especially those of the Hip Hop generation, could help advance approaches to teaching and popularizing black history by using elements of Hip Hop culture while helping the Hip Hop generation better understand its peculiar position within the broader scope of black history. Articulating the ideas of more than a few Hip Hop scholars, in an important 2004 issue of Black Issues in Higher Education, Scott Heath astutely remarked that Hip Hop is "an area where we might see theory and practice coming together inside African American intellectualism, where we might see an attempt to develop innovative approaches to using Hip Hop as a method for organizing African American youth around issues that are important to their survival." (9)

Many broad, interconnected questions help frame my analysis. How do we best conceptualize, sub-divide, and historicize the Hip Hop generation? How has black history been interpreted in popular, "commercial" Hip Hop culture within the last several years? Generally speaking, how do some of today's most popular mainstream Hip Hop magazines, emcees, and current Black History Month celebrations present black history to today's black youth? How do these popular representations of black history compare to those of the Black Power era, a period which is often romanticized by, and compared to, the Hip Hop generation? How can Hip Hop generation black historians historicize their generation's experiences and worldviews while explaining and reintroducing black history to black youth culture? Theoretically, in the tradition of Carter G. Woodson, I maintain that black history can still help foster healthy black youth identity and contribute to American social and educational reform. Black history can help the Hip Hop generation develop a better appreciation of the once more common values of sacrifice, service, unity, and historical consciousness. Woodson's mission of popularizing and ritualizing black history could be especially useful for the Hip Hop generation who actively samples from past musicians, fashions, cultural icons, and other phenomena from "back in the day" and the "old school." Historical dialogues of some sort are common in even today's most "commercial" rap music. A central component of Hip Hop culture and rap music involves Hip Hop artists who routinely recount their own personal histories of resilience, which mirror the overall theme of perseverance against the oppression that dominates the African American experience. Many commercially successful emcees also make passing references to black history in their rhymes, videos, and self-presentation. Nonetheless, African American historians have not played a leading role in analyzing Hip Hop or critically tapping into Hip Hop culture as a viable discursive space for the black historical experience. (10) Given the tradition of "historical revivalism" in rap's heyday, African American historians' under-representation in Hip Hop scholarship is surprising.


This Special Issue of The Journal of African American History on the "History of Hip Hop" is timely. Within the last decade, scholarship on rap music and Hip Hop culture has skyrocketed. Several dozen books were published on facets of Hip Hop during the 1980s and 1990s. (11) As Kendra Hamilton has noted, 1994 represented a landmark year in the legitimization process of Hip Hop scholarship with the publication of Tricia Rose's Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America and Robin D. G. Kelley's Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Working-Class. (12) Adhering to rigorous scholarly standards, these works historicized and theorized dimensions of Hip Hop culture in a discourse that would probably seem foreign to most of the MCs whose art Rose and Kelley analyzed. In 2000 the Brooklyn Museum of Art presented a first of its kind multimedia exhibition on Hip Hop. "Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes, and Rage," in one reviewer's words, portrayed Hip Hop "as a cultural wealth of America to be appreciated by a larger crowd than the hip-hop fans." (13) Other critics believed that the museum's liberalism crept in too much at the expense of watering down Hip Hop's political message and radicalism. In 2002 one scholar published a dictionary on Hip Hop terminology and at the dawning of the 21st century many scholarly studies on Hip Hop had been published by mainstream presses. (14) Hip Hop studies, perhaps soon to be called "Hiphopology," is one of the newest fad-fields in American, African American, and cultural history, and in critical studies and ethnomusicology. Major universities have been offering courses on Hip Hop for several years. The courses are popular and have been legitimized in the mainstream academy by established black scholars such as Todd Boyd, Michael Eric Dyson, Mark Anthony Neal, and Tricia Rose, who was recently dubbed the "Ph.D. Diva" of Hip Hop by the New York Times. (15) Nonetheless, as one scholar noted in 2002, while a significant "rap and Hip Hop canon" exists, there is room for expanding this discourse. (16) Inquiries into Hip Hop as representing a generation deserves to be elaborated upon.

In The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture (2002), journalist and cultural critic Bakari Kitwana provides a provocative definition of the Hip Hop generation that expands upon what scholars have called, in Robin Kelley's words, "a lot of things: the post-soul generation, the post-civil rights generation, the postindustrial generation," and even "soul babies." (17) Kitwana uses the Hip Hop generation "interchangeably with black youth culture." He designates the Hip Hop generation...

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