Journal: Hip Hop culture as a form of media activism

To start off today, I’m going to toss y’all another one of the papers I’ve published for school relating to urban culture. Since I’ve been in communications and have gained more freedom to write about what I want, my marks have increased vastly. I urge y’all, if you have a passion, and you have a platform, use it. You never know when a hobby turns into a career. And even just school wise, if you have some freedom towards things you turn in to school, USE IT. Besides helping your grades, it will make assignments that much easier to get through. Take this from someone who has switched around faculties in university for 3 years, once you find your stride, it gets easier. And remember, #dreamscometrue (more on that later though).

This wasn’t the best paper I published, would’ve helped me out to have a couple more pages to expand further, but check it out. On some real stuff relating to new media, and new activism. Enjoy y’all.

Two words: one love



Kanye West, Iggy Azalea, and Hip Hop culture as a form of media activism

(December 2014)

Hip Hop music, specifically over the last 10 years, is an incomparable example of how activism through media can be used to challenge destructive tendencies in society such as certain issues regarding race, class, and gender. By referring to selections from in-class text, as well as additional research from various experts, I will analyze modern hip-hop culture (2004-present) and its role as a form of activism. Specifically, I will analyze Kanye West, and his work, including songs, performances, speeches, and other efforts for to promote a constructive, and progressive culture. First, I will be using the society of hip hop itself, as a representation of society in general, in respect to how equal opportunity is being created and fought for. I will then analyze how this diverse culture has contributed to the ever-changing surface of general society, in regards to creating a more equally opportune environment for all.

Hip hop, not to be put plainly, by definition is a broad term for a specific popular urban subculture, consisting of various art forms, originally including rapping (oral), break-dancing (physical), disc-jockeying (aural), and graffiti (visual).1 In more recent times, specifically over the last 10 years, the term hip hop has become most closely associated with the musical style of rapping, and sometimes clumped with R&B, as well as a genre called hip-pop (rap music made for the radio).2 In addition, hip hop fashion, amongst other things has become more notable parts of hip hop, whilst most original aspects besides rapping have grown into their own subcultures, and are very loosely associated with hip hop in present times.

Originating in the Bronx in the late 70s as a form of expression for African-Americans, hip hop culture quickly spread. DJ Kool Herc is noted as being the “father of hip hop”, with hip hop growing from the parties he used to DJ in the 70’s, in the Bronx. Jeff Chang chronicles the early hip-hop scene, with an intro from DJ Kool Herc himself, in his book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, which I will reference many times in this paper. Herc details in his intro

“It’s (hip hop) about you and me, connecting one to one. That’s why it has universal appeal. It has given young people a way to understand their world, whether they are from the suburbs or the city or wherever.”3

From the beginning it was clear that hip hop was something special and uplifting and a great way for the youth to express their feelings and opinions. Hip hop was a voice for the people, but somewhere along the line, with the emergence of popular culture, hip hop began to lose its meaning and essence. There were a few artists and rappers strived to keep this voice alive though, including Jam Master Jay, Tupac, and Nas. These artists understood the power in their influence, and how people reacted to their words and actions. Thus, hip-hop activism was born, and has evolved.

Journalist Harry Allen is credited with coining the term “hip hop activism”, and he has been a large part of the spreading of this topic. Allen originally gained notoriety as the so-called “media-assassin” for the revolutionary hip hop group Public Enemy. Known for politically fueled lyrics that aimed to question authority, and combat the struggles the average African-American faced, such as poverty and trouble with law authority, the group quickly caught fire. Public Enemy were there original “bad-boys” of hip hop, and were on of the first mainstream groups to have such success while maintaining their crude image. Creating controversy early, One of Public Enemy’s first big hits “Don’t Believe The Hype” pinpointed rap music as the “CNN for black people”, insinuating the differences between life portrayed by the white controlled media, and the struggles the people around them knew so well.4 This was the first big example of Hip Hop being used as a form of activism.

Photo of Flavor FLAV and Chuck D and PUBLIC ENEMY

After finishing with photography, Harry Allen changed his focus to journalism. After accusations of anti-semitism were targeted towards Public Enemy, Allen took the chance to combat these accusations, and began identifying as a hip hop activist. Now as the groups publicist, Allen noted that black people usually had the stance to “accept what’s given”, and that this needed to be combatted via any necessary means.5 He was also at the forefront in introducing hip hop to the forging internet industry by creating an online magazine, rap dot com, back in 1991. He used this platform to help press the issues as well.

Fast forward to today, and the face of hip hop is completely changed. Simply put, rappers like Public Enemy find fame but through much different messages. Artists such as Chief Keef and his Glory Boyz Ent (GBE) label have gained notoriety through a style of hip hop they call “drill music”. Drill music consists of hard, simple beats and coarse lyrics portraying and glorifying the violence that inner city American youth face. Mainstream rappers make it big by creating simple radio hits, and many critics claim hip hop is beginning to lose the very same substance that drew people from all over to indulge. Combatting this are a few key names who aim to keep the message alive, and promote the positive views for African–Americans and many other minorities alike. Leading this charge over the last 10 years include the likes of names such as David Banner, J.Cole (Jermaine Cole), Chance the Rapper (Chancellor Bennett), and of course Kanye West. For many of them, like the industry surrounding them, the messages they press has evolved. For Banner it’s still a press for racial equality, domestic issues often trouble Cole, Chicago’s crime rates are highlighted by Bennett, and issues of education and classism plague Kanye.

Kanye West is well known throughout the entertainment industry for a plethora of things, many not always the most pleasant things though. Although the media chooses to magnify certain things again Kanye’s life, this is only the surface level. Context is also involved with these judgments, but is often ignored. Kanye’s outspoken style of both verbal and written rhetoric makes him an easy target for the media. The media is the first thing that Kanye uses his power to try to combat. In his famous interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Kanye explained “I feel that media does everything they can to break creatives, to break artists, to break people’s spirits, and I do everything I can to break media”.6


Kanye obviously has a voice through his music (which I will discuss later), but he also creates much of his impact outside of his craft. West uses various form of new media to accomplish this, including social media. Kanye West, as many other modern activists do, has a very active voice on Twitter. After parts of his 2013 interview with Zane Lowe was spoofed by Jimmy Kimmel, Kanye took to Twitter to explain his feelings about his serious thoughts being turned into the butt of the joke. This escalated into a personal attack from both sides, but once cooler heads had prevailed Kanye was invited to speak on Kimmel’s show. He took this opportunity to further explain his defensive stance against classism. On the topic Kanye stated

“It’s snobbery. And I’m not into all that snobbery. Because, you know what? We have the loudest voice, we have the loudest communication, and all we want to do is make awesome stuff. All we want is a real shot.”7

Classism is one of the main ideologies that Kanye West combats in and out of his music. Classism as described by the Class Act Organizations website is defined as

“Differential treatment based on social class or perceived social class. Classism is the systematic oppression of subordinated class groups to advantage and strengthen the dominant class groups. It’s the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class.”8

Not only does this encompass modern day racism, this may also involve but is not limited to gender discrimination, ageism, and homophobia. Classism has a very similar description and meaning to that of the “new” racism described by Patricia Hill-Collins in her article, Booty Call. She states that under new racism “these representations speak to the importance that ideologies of class and culture now have in justifying the persistence of racial inequality”.9 This theory basically means that the way minorities are represented in society is having a negative impact on how members of these social groups are able to advance within the same society. African American’s are considered to lack “values of hard work, marriage, school performance, religiosity, and clean living”10 which, even though Kanye West clearly depicts the exact opposite of, is still not the image that these successful corporations want on their side. Hill-Collins’ article could be quoted hundreds of times over, but the main idea is that of class-specificity for members of different social groupings. For a modern hip hop artist, the position of hip hop artists had been set. “As ‘culture workers’ –a Marxist construct that meant to validate art-marking as a form of labour- their job was merely to support the revolution, not theorize, strategize, or steer it”. This damaging belief system meant that hip hop artists were to be seen, but not heard. They were to be a mere accessory to the revolution, but not the catalysts.

In Kanye’s music these harmful ideologies are also criticized. Rather than sticking to conventional topics, he chooses to bring these topics to the forefront. Instead of taking a passive stance (as rappers are supposed to do, right?) and rapping about… well, exactly what everyone else is rapping about, Kanye takes the chance to devalue disparaging thinking. Along with classism, Kanye believes that self-hate is being taught to the youth, and this helps drive classism. If the youth don’t believe they can succeed higher than their birth social positioning, then change will continue to be minuscule. “Perhaps the most vexing question of the post-civil rights generation-… ‘who will be our leaders?’”. It has been made pretty clear that Kanye West is not going to sit back and wait for the changes to happen naturally, he is willing to be that leader.

The difficult thing about Kanye’s messages is trying to decode them while the media continues to try to hinder their meaning. There tends to be no uniform agreement on how society will accept Kanye, and what legacy he will leave. Some consider his messages to be asinine and arrogant; others consider them to be necessary and brilliant. Stuart Hall discusses the importance of distinction between the meanings of a message. He describes this process in his Encoding/Decoding journal. “In a ‘determinate’ moment the structure employs a code and yields a ‘message’: at another determinate moment the ‘message’, via its decodings, issues into the structure of social practices.”11 A general knowledge of Kanye West, classism, and of the context is crucial in understanding Kanye’s arguments. Each and every stream of consciousness that is labeled as a rant has some meaning behind it, and something strong fueling it. Kanye represents the changing attitudes in America by blacks, away from the “we’ll take what we get” attitude. Kanye states in his song Gorgeous, “I treat the cash the way the government treats AIDS, I won’t be satisfied til all my niggas get it, get it?”

The attempt to have an external impact is extremely evident throughout hip hop, but there has also been a strong internal shift. 10 years ago, the baggy tee, lowriding, chain “swanging” era was well upon us. Popular topics across the genre often included acquiring money and jewelry, objectifying women, and driving the fanciest car. The biggest names in hip hop included G-Unit,  Terror Squad, Ludacris, and yes, still Kanye West. This is the specific era Kool Herc described in the intro, that he was disappointed in. If one was to analyze the top hip hop charts from 2003-2005 (roughly 10 years ago) out of the 34 chart-topping singles, only 9 (5 in 2003) were by female artists, and 3 by a non-African American artist. Analyzing the charts over the last 3 years, 2012-2014 we see that from the 27 total chart-topping singles 8 (5 in 2014) were by female artists, and 10 by non-African American artists.12 Statistically the percentage of women being represented at the top of the charts has risen 4%, and the representation on non-African American artists has risen a whopping 18%. In an industry that is dominated by males from minority groups, specifically African American males, any progress towards diversity is a step in the right direction.

Leading this charge in 2014 has been the white, Australian rapper Amethyst Kelly, better known by her stage name, Iggy Azalea. Though she is definitely not known for the substance that Kool Herc was hoping would return to hip hop, she has been a large part of the diversification in hip hop. Besides Beyoncé, no woman has made such a large impact in hip hop, and since Macklemore, no white rapper has made such a large splash in the hip hop community. 2014 was her coming out party, and she made headlines by having 2 different #1 hip hop songs in what is considered to be one of the toughest years release wise, with no albums having gone platinum up until the end of October 2014. Her made-for-radio, bouncy sound has made her very popular with a younger generation, and she has fought hard to gain the notoriety that she has gained thus far.


In November 2014 she won awards for favourite rap/hip-hop album and best rap artist at the 2014 American Music Awards, beating out the likes of Drake and Eminem. This was a huge moment for hip hop because it marked the internal shift in hip hop. 10 years prior OutKast and and Jay-Z had a clean sweep of the very same awards. This shows what has been accomplished and recovered in a relatively short period of time. Still, Azalea “puts on an American accent when she raps because that’s what the vast majority of Australian musicians do when they sing – kind of like little kids who put on an American accent when they play pretend – because the world of the imagination in her country is dominated by US products”.13 This is a common practice for artists in many genres across the world, and represents how far we still have to go to reach a truly diverse market. Iggy, like Kanye has successfully broken out of her intended class barrier, and is setting an example for many who look and follow her every move.

Rather than using her media to outright state the injustices in the industry, she leads by example. In a culture burdened by cultural appropriation, she represents one of the first times we have seen this notion challenged. We have obviously seen what the likes of artists such as Eminem and Macklemore have been able to accomplish in breaking through certain barriers, but not only being white, but also a woman makes her case even rarer and important in a genre like hip hop.

The era of outspoken artists is now well upon us, and this has helped facilitate the type of change that has made it possible for artists like Iggy Azalea and Kanye West to strive. By creating change outside of their respective fields, this has successfully elicited change within the genre and industry. More than ever we are seeing artists press a positive message, and demanding the necessary changes in society. Cultural appropriation is an umbrella term that easily encompasses the classism debate, as well as gender equality, and gender.

An interesting comparison I will leave you with is that when googling the phrase “why iggy azalea is…” the top 4 suggestions that come up are “trash”, “the worst”, “fake, and “overrated”. The first thing that comes up when you google the same phrase with Iggy’s name swapped out for Kanye’s is “Important”. Hopefully with a little more consciousness of the world around us, these two searches will be equivalent, sooner than later.

To continue moving forward, artists and fans alike must continue to work together to keep hip hop as the inclusive, meaningful movement that it began as. As a community we must keep the fight for equality alive, and not merely “accept what we are given”. With people like Kanye West speaking up for what is necessary and Iggy Azalea leading by example, hip hop continues to head in the right direction. Activism through media such as hip hop is important because it criticizes destructive tendencies in society. By creating smaller, equal-opportunity sub-cultures, it will be easier to make the transition to one larger positivist environment for all. Much has been accomplished, and more milestones will continue to be reached.

Works Cited

Available upon request (don’t want any plagiarism)

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