Why Hip-Hop Is Like No Other

From jazz to rock to salsa, there have been plenty of musical movements that have traveled around the world. But hip-hop's cultural and political resonance is making it the most powerful art form yet.

No youth trend is more visible around the world today than hip-hop. It is not, of course, the first popular musical art form to transcend geographical borders. Born in the late 1940s, rock-and-roll music spread across the Atlantic, spawned the British Invasion, and provided a soundtrack for youth rebellions worldwide in the 1960s. Likewise, in the late 1950s, Brazil’s bossa nova began to influence the musical sensibilities of American jazz artists, demonstrating that the global flow and influence of cultural creativity moves in many directions.

What then, if anything, distinguishes the globalization of hip-hop from the global passage of other art forms? In many respects, rap music is a continuation of the global journey that pop music made throughout the 20th century, replete with percussive beats and social messages. But part of the uniqueness of hip-hop's growing presence can be attributed to the rise of global media conglomerates. The size, scope, and reach of today's media companies simply didn't exist when rock-and-roll or bossa nova first made themselves heard. Record companies such as Universal Music and Sony have packaged and sold hip-hop with a ferocity that is as bold and intense as the movement itself. And because hip-hop isn't just music -- it's also attitude and culture -- these global media companies partner with fashion labels, beverage brands, and sports franchises to sell a total hip-hop lifestyle.

But the most interesting element driving hip-hop's global appeal is its cultural and political resonance. Yes, hip-hop has been an astonishing moneymaker, but it has been an equally astonishing source of youth expression and empowerment. Perhaps unlike any other form of popular culture in recent memory, hip-hop has become the voice of choice for young people who find themselves on the margins. Whereas record labels in the 1950s, for example, used personalities like Elvis Presley and Pat Boone to soften rock-and-roll's edges, rap music has remained, by and large, a defiantly "black" musical form. That does not mean that other ethnicities and nationalities have not embraced rap and fashioned it to speak to their own conditions. It does, however, mean that authenticity and participation in hip-hop are intimately connected to local social and political realities.

No youth trend is more visible around the world today than hip-hop. It is not, of course, the first popular musical art form to transcend geographical borders. Born in the late 1940s, rock-and-roll music spread across the Atlantic, spawned the British Invasion, and provided a soundtrack for youth rebellions worldwide in the 1960s. Likewise, in the late 1950s, Brazil’s bossa nova began to influence the musical sensibilities of American jazz artists, demonstrating that the global flow and influence of cultural creativity moves in many directions.

What then, if anything, distinguishes the globalization of hip-hop from the global passage of other art forms? In many respects, rap music is a continuation of the global journey that pop music made throughout the 20th century, replete with percussive beats and social messages. But part of the uniqueness of hip-hop’s growing presence can be attributed to the rise of global media conglomerates. The size, scope, and reach of today’s media companies simply didn’t exist when rock-and-roll or bossa nova first made themselves heard. Record companies such as Universal Music and Sony have packaged and sold hip-hop with a ferocity that is as bold and intense as the movement itself. And because hip-hop isn’t just music — it’s also attitude and culture — these global media companies partner with fashion labels, beverage brands, and sports franchises to sell a total hip-hop lifestyle.

But the most interesting element driving hip-hop’s global appeal is its cultural and political resonance. Yes, hip-hop has been an astonishing moneymaker, but it has been an equally astonishing source of youth expression and empowerment. Perhaps unlike any other form of popular culture in recent memory, hip-hop has become the voice of choice for young people who find themselves on the margins. Whereas record labels in the 1950s, for example, used personalities like Elvis Presley and Pat Boone to soften rock-and-roll’s edges, rap music has remained, by and large, a defiantly "black" musical form. That does not mean that other ethnicities and nationalities have not embraced rap and fashioned it to speak to their own conditions. It does, however, mean that authenticity and participation in hip-hop are intimately connected to local social and political realities.

Hip-hop matters, quite simply, because it is the voice of the streets. And that remains true today, regardless of whether it’s the poor youth in the suburbs of Paris or indigenous people fighting for their dignity in Colombia. Hip-hop has connected with the powerless in a way that no one could have predicted or, now, can control.

S. Craig Watkins is professor of sociology, African-American studies, and radio-television-film at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of Hip-Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005).

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