Hip Hop – a way of life

Author: Phillip Kalantzis-Cope | Source: NEMBC | Date: 19-09-02

‘Rap’ has been around for a very long time. Before people had writing they communicated in an oral culture. They did not have the technology for artificial memory – eg books and what we now call recording. But they had ways of telling stories and passing them on.

For example, in Greece, the epic poems of the Iliad and the Odyssey were well known. And guess what - these were called "Rhapsodies." Poets of the ancient world "rapped odes," which literally meant they wove or stitched together songs. They were the MCs of the ancient world.

‘Rap’ today is different from this oral heritage. It’s been twenty years since Grandmaster Flash popularised scratching and Africa Bambaataa formulated hip hop as a cool sound.

People continue to debate the value of rap & hip hop music. Is it positive? Is it negative? Is hip hop neutral? Or is it all of the above? Whatever we think of hip hop, the music is just today’s version of rhapsody.

However, it’s a mistake to think hip hop is a revival (or the survival) of ancient poetic traditions. Hip-hop did not come from an oral or ancient culture. It has been the product of electronic culture. Hip hop is unique for showing that machines made for consuming music can be re- used for producing original music.

It’s about collage - a cut'n'paste method for making music. And, turntables and samplers have become musical instruments. They remove the difference between playing and listening to music. Anyone can make music now. You can mix in any style of music to do it - r&b, soul, funk and disco all serve as its foundation.

Hip Hop in Australia

In Australia, hip hop is essentially a new phenomena. Given that Australians are fixated with American culture, a high percentage of hip hop music comes from US music charts and is seen as, mostly, African American music.

Indigenous and Ethnic hip hop made in this country is not commercially picked up. Hip hop music brings ethnic youth together because it remakes the rest of the world as outsiders. Anglos’ don’t pick it up, so they are the ones left out. Hip hop provides young people with the musical and lyrical language to
 express the anger they feel,
 explain or excuse their behaviour,
 shock and scare those that make them feel bad and
 gives them a sense of belonging to a group

The metaphors hip hop uses to portray reality are subtle – you have to be inside the music to get it. Ethnic kids in Australia claim to be closest to US rap because of their treatment at the hands of the Australian mainstream. They think they are the ones in Australian who have an authentic experience of poverty, racism, crime, drug abuse, family neglect and being misunderstood by the world

Some youth just get drawn to the racist stereotypes and violence of hip hop and do not understand the irony that is also part of this music. They get carried away with the sensational, excessive ‘bad’ talk as if that was what was intended.

But hip hop is not about being ‘bad’ but about saying explicitly how bad it is for young black youth. Hip hop is more than a music, it’s a way of life, it’s a way of dressing, a way of seeing and being in the world for youth.

The intensity of the words expressing this way of life is available to any youth – they can take what they are looking for as it talks of their own feelings and emotions even if their lives are practically different.

It is possible for Australian youth to understand the genre and know where it is coming from (i.e. African American disadvantage, self destruction, racism etc) and still use it for their own life. Hip hop’s rhymes allows any youth to talk about their trails and tribulations – it’s a language for getting things off your chest – getting the truth out on the street.

There are many different styles of rap, even in Australia. Hip hop will become bigger and bigger in Australia and needs to be taken seriously by the music industry and those interested in the lives of young people in this country

Phillip Kalantzis-Cope

Phillip spoke at the 2001 Conference of the National Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters Council. The NEMBC is the peak body of ethnic broadcasters at community radio stations across Australia. There are 100 languages broadcast each week on over 100 community radio stations around Australia. For further details follow the link to the NEMBC website.

Link to the NEMBC Website