Is Hip Hop A Culture?

While attending a symposium entitled, The Business of Show, which explored cultural images of Blacks in media, a simple but profound question was asked. Tim Reid and his wife Daphne Maxwell Reid, hosts of the symposium, owners of News Millennium Studios and stars of such shows Sister, Sister and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air […]

While attending a symposium entitled, The Business

of Show, which explored cultural images of Blacks in media, a simple but profound

question was asked. Tim Reid and his wife Daphne Maxwell Reid, hosts of the

symposium, owners of News Millennium Studios and stars of such shows Sister,

Sister and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air respectively, asked the audience: What

is hip-hop and is it a culture?

Since we were located at a Florida A&M (a

Historically Black College and University) and the audience was a mixture of

young Black college students as well as a diverse population from the surrounding

community, it seemed the answer would be easily addressed. Yet, the question

remained unanswered. Mr. Reid posed the question repeatedly, yet no one in the

crowd seemed up to the task.

There were responses that skirted the issue and

stated what hip-hop was not, but no direct meaningful answers. One young man

stated, "I know what hip-hop is, but can’t put it into words." Reid

in turn responded, "Well, if you can’t define it, then how can hip-hop

be a culture." He stated he has posed this question to young Black audiences

many times, but no one has ever provided a definition.

To see a huge body of predominately young people

who enjoy and grew up on hip-hop unable to define it and explain its cultural

aspects was a shock to me.

Many people may ask what right does Tim Reid

have to pose these questions or to be critical of some aspects of hip hop. Yet,

regardless of one’s feelings, the question deserves an answer. It makes perfect

sense to ask an audience to define what it often identifies with and has been

often identified by.

If you can’t state what you are or the code that

you live by (which many people who are into hip hop express) then others who

have no interest in you, except as a dollar sign, can tell you what hip-hop

is and directly or indirectly affect your behavior. Then you are trapped into

an illusion that is not of your making or design. Therefore, it behooves all

of us who grew up in this era, whether young or older, to come to grips with

what hip-hop means, what direction we want it to take us in and what we will

use it as a tool for.

As a writer who often focuses on issues related

to hip-hop and what it means to Black communities, it quickly dawned on me that

I should provide my interpretation of hip hop and how it relates to culture.

However, since I was not recognized and therefore unable to answer Mr. Reid’s

probe during the questioning period, my definition derived from years of listening

to and participating in hip-hop from the 70s as a child until today, has to

take written form.

Hip-hop in its most rudimentary form consists

of four major activities. KRS One defined it best when he listed those activities

as "MCing", "Djing", break dancing and artistic expression

through graffiti. These four activities are the major identifiers of someone

being involved in hip hop culture. Now, is it its own separate culture? In my

opinion, hip-hop is an extension of Black culture and has created its own subculture

that is shared by many.

The Four Elements

As stated in my article, The Cultural Jacking

of Hip Hop (,

being an MC can be compared to the tradition of the traveling griot that in

African cultures provided historical information, like Nas and his track "I

Can" or can provide news on the state of our communities, like Dead Prez

and their hit "It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop". They provide us with information

that we might not be able to receive in mainstream arenas.

DJs provide the basic beat over which the messages

are passed, but in a deeper sense can be related to the drummers of old who

communicated thoughts and ideas through a complicated system of beats and pauses

of the drum. When the drums sounded in traditional African cultures of old,

people stopped what they were doing and listened in the same way people in current

civilizations stop whatever they are doing when a car with heavy bass drives

through their neighborhood. People want to find out what is or the cause of

all the commotion. Although the beat no longer provides the message, it does

provide the emotional backdrop for the information about to be passed. It sets

the tone and lets you know what is about to occur.

Break dancing is often theorized to have its

origins from Capoeira which is an African Brazilian martial art that disguises

its lethality in dancing movements such as the ginga which is eerily similar

to the beginning movements in break dancing. Its catlike ground techniques,

unique aerial moves and other gymnastic feats performed while standing on one’s

hands would definitely remind someone familiar with break dancing of the similarity

of the two forms of expression.

Capoeira, is believed to have originated in Angola,

where most enslaved Brazilians were kidnapped and sold into slavery. Whether

break dancing is a direct importation from Brazil that has been "Americanized"

or a cultural carryover of a defense system adapted to dance from Africans brought

to the US we may never know. What we do know is that it is an African &

Latin tradition of dance that has been practiced and has been evolving long

before it was officially termed break-dancing and is part of Black culture.

Finally, we come to graffiti, which consists

of "tagging" or painting your name, group’s name or just plain artwork

on public property. What has this to do with African culture? Plenty! Although

it is universal to leave one’s mark behind whether as an individual or as a

nation, no one is more known for their pictorial representations, better known

as hieroglyphics, than the Egyptians. The Egyptians wanted to leave no doubt

as to whom they were and to let future societies know they existed. The graffiti

artist of today is no different. It is clearly their chance to inform the world

that they lived. Leaving your "mark" or pictorial representation is

a part of African/Black culture and so is graffiti.

In the final analysis, hip-hop does have its

own distinctive elements that identify it as unique, but it cannot be separated

from culture. It is a continuation of culture that is continually creating different

manifestations of expression and evolving. Whether it will be for better or

worse will be left to those who love it and live it.

Bakari Akil is an editor for Global Black News

and can be reached at