Most people experience hip-hop culture primarily through music, but there is so much more to this rich, deep, and inclusive culture than just rhythm and rhyme.
Invented as a response to oppressive forces and obstacles of post-industrialization facing the Black and Latino communities of the South Bronx in 1973, hip-hop culture has since inspired and motivated millions of people around the world to harness the power of self-determination and communal agency. According to Dr. Austin Jackson, an assistant professor at the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, hip-hop culture — and its ethos of perseverance — can trace its roots back to the traditional Black church.
"If you go to a traditional Black church, and this is true from the earliest days of slavery — before there even was a church — up until the present, people engage in this African-American rhetorical tradition of testifying," he explains. The term "testifying" refers not just to "God's grace," but to the "material truth" of African-Americans' secular existence in the United States. Through participation in the traditional Black church, African-Americans created "the art of standing up and using language, of speaking truth, power … the nature of the world." Just a decade before the invention of hip-hop, the "freedom songs" of the civil rights movement in the 1960s came out of the traditional Black church.
One of the most famous ones, Jackson explains, is "We Shall Overcome," which promoted the "idea of preservation" in both an individual and collective sense. "Hip-hop has always been about this idea of self-determination," Dr. Bettina Love, an associate professor of Educational Theory & Practice at the University of Georgia, adds. "Hip-hop has always been about integrity and providing social and political commentary for the day — and has always been deeply communal."
Dr. Love believes the idea of "agency," rooted in the traditional Black church and expressed in modern hip-hop culture, is one of the ways people of color can harness their community's shared strength to succeed in the face of adversity.
"Agency is the ways in which you have self-determination, the ways in which you negotiate oppressive spaces and situations for your survival," she explains. "Agency is the ways you maneuver through oppressive conditions to survive and — maybe — flourish." To teach perseverance through hip-hop culture, she believes we need to start asking the bigger questions, like, "How do people survive? How do people survive and oftentimes maybe sometimes flourish? How do people build communities out of nothing? How do people still love and find joy out of nothing?" They're questions hip-hop artists have been answering through their work for decades.
From Lauryn Hill's "Everything is Everything," to Tupac's "Keep Ya Head Up," to one of Jackson's favorite group's, Soul II Soul's "Keep On Movin'," the resilience and agency that began in the Black church still beats at the heart of modern hip-hop culture. "'Everything is everything' basically encapsulates this idea that everything is all good," Jackson explains. "No matter how bad things get, things get better." According to him, this reflects the traditional African worldview that whatever positive or negative circumstances come your way, "as long as you stay in the game of life, things will get better."
"That ethic translates into what we're seeing right now," he says. "You'll hear a lot of the very same things that started in a traditional Black church being preached right now to give people inspiration in the face of overwhelming odds ..."
The phrase “can’t stop, won’t stop” first began as a party chant in the '70s and '80s, but soon grew to reflect and represent the central ethos of hip-hop culture that, with perseverance and passion, anything is possible.
"It speaks to the hip-hop philosophy that no matter what, you can't stop. Not just the party, not just the dancing, but life itself," Jackson explains. "Throughout difficulties, throughout the struggle, no matter what you're facing — whether it be personal circumstances within one's own life, one's own community, or especially structural, institutionalized discrimination — no matter what, as a people collectively beyond the individual, you have to keep on."
While hip-hop's stories of self-determination and resiliency come out of the African-American cultural experience, anyone — no matter their race, gender, or socio-economic background — can relate to them. "Even though hip-hop was created by African-Americans and Latinos, it has always been a welcoming community. Hip-hop has always been about you respecting the community and bringing your skills to that community," Love explains. "The essence of hip-hop has always been about respect. It has always been about respecting the culture and respecting your skill level, regardless of where you come from and embracing those people."
"If we had a hip-hop identity or a hip-hop essence going into our schools," Dr. Love says, "It would be an [inclusive] community, embracing everybody's skills, meeting people's skill levels where they are, and then embracing the fifth element of hip-hop, which is knowledge of self." According to Love, knowledge of self occurs when a person understands both their individual gifts and their community, and then works hard to contribute and improve their community through those gifts.
When students draw on hip-hop culture's ideology of perseverance and passion to motivate themselves and educators recognize the unique gifts that culture can bring into their classroom, anything is possible.
"We have to get back to the idea that students come with culture … they come from rich, robust, beautiful communities that have things to offer in our schools," Love says. "If we really want to understand and have a window into the lives of the students we have in front of us, then we have to understand how they express themselves," Jackson concurs. "Through positive or negative, for better or worse, through their language, music, culture."
"Kids, through their hip-hop identity, are learning to persevere," she adds. "They're learning to make mistakes. They're learning to grow. Hip-hop allows self-evaluation and peer evaluation. Still, she continues, "I get upset when it's up to a 16-year-old kid to overcome everything." Educators at all levels, from preschool to post-secondary education, too, need to engage not only with their students, but the history and culture that informs their students' experiences of and perspectives on subject material.
To help each other succeed, both students and teacher need to keep their heads up and keep on moving — because that's hip-hop.
Teachers and students can collaborate on incorporating hip-hop culture into their curriculum to teach everyone how to feel self-determined and harness their agency. "I think it's important for teachers themselves to ... keep yourself open, explore, ask questions, become a student of the culture — if you will — as a teacher," Jackson says. "There's an entire universe of scholarship on rap and hip-hop, but you also have to be a consumer of hip-hop. You can't bring it into the classroom unless you listen to it."
Overall, she says, "The teacher needs to recognize what he or she has in the classroom with these kids, and understand the greatness and the intelligence they have through their culture." A culture so resilient, it has stood the test of time. A culture so dynamic, it changes with every location and iteration. And a culture so inclusive, it's already waiting to embrace anyone willing to try it.
"The beautiful thing is that hip-hop culture — unlike some of the cultural practices of the Western canon, whether it be Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or going to the symphony — is not a closed culture," Jackson says. "Hip-hop culture is open to anyone willing to engage and participate in it."
To step into hip-hop's open and inclusive culture, a person must understand its history, norms, and, perhaps most importantly, "what it means to engage and participate democratically within the hip-hop culture." Participants in hip-hop culture can't just consume it. They need to understand and acknowledge its link to the societal and political culture in which it occurred. Hip-hop has never existed in a vacuum. "You gotta be able to understand the issues of the day and how African-American folks or folks of color — the most marginalized — are living," Dr. Love explains. Once a person does that, they can use hip-hop culture's inherent spirit of "agency" to not only discover their passion, but the perseverance to make it possible.
The reason people of all walks of life love hip-hop culture, Dr. Love explains, is because it's all about "uplifting individuals, telling your stories." Emerging "as a way for young people to express themselves, to reclaim public space," hip-hop has become an integral part of "global youth popular culture," Jackson adds. "So whether you'd be in Poland or South Africa or Japan ... you're gonna find some iteration of hip-hop," he says. "It really is the voice of those people who feel as though they have no voices. It is the expression of those people who are on the margins ... It takes it shape depending on the cultural, political, and geographic context."
Hip-hop's widespread appeal comes from every artist's ability to make the specific universal. According to Love, hip-hop achieves a "hyper-local feel," because "those young kids" — its creators and consumers — "understand their community." Through observing and taking notes of their community, she explains, the youth have gained a thorough understanding of the sound, language, slang, swag, style, and aesthetics that intersect and make their community theirs. With this understanding, "they're finding ways to speak to their community," and their schools — and the rest of the world.
"Those kids are very bright for doing [this] ... They're studying all of those things, and then putting them in words and art and graffiti and dance moves and DJs and beats," Dr. Love explains. "All the elements of hip-hop for the mass media and mainstream America to understand."
These creators of hip-hop culture are postmodern anthropologists, studying and immortalizing a time and place that may not always exist in its current form. In immersing themselves in their culture and creating art out of it, these young people are teaching themselves an extensive, and invaluable, liberal arts education, in addition to what they receive in a traditional classroom. They know anything is possible — because they're already doing it.
Ready to try hip-hop culture for yourself? Listen to the lessons of perseverance and passion pulsing through Kendrick Lamar's "Alright". What you learn — and how much — might just surprise you.
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