“So, Ms. Rucker, those companies profit off of culture they appropriated? And we purchase the music that we grew up with, but it’s not truly our music, but it comes from our culture?”
Natasha raised these questions during our study of the commercialization of the hip-hop industry. She and other students were dismayed to learn that four major record labels, the Big Four — Universal Music Group, Sony BMG, EMI Group, and Warner Music Group — produce and distribute more than 80 percent of the music that is sold and purchased. (Since I originally wrote this lesson, the industry has further consolidated and the Big Four has become the Big Three.)
Hip-hop music was conceived by impoverished Black and Brown youth, a score of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants in the South Bronx, New York, in the 1970s following the Black Freedom Struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. But the hip-hop industry is neither owned nor controlled by the people who create the music; this is reflected in much of the content of commercial hip-hop music. The relationship between most emcees with record deals from major industry labels can be likened to the relationship between Pinocchio and Geppetto: The industry pulls strings, dictates what gets promoted, and what gets sold, and many emcees with record deals lip-sync to the tune of whatever sells, even at the expense of their personhood and/or community.
I teach primarily Black and Brown students — a number of whom are growing up cash-poor and under similar circumstances as me when I was in high school. Several years prior to becoming a high school electives teacher at a charter school in my home city of Washington, D.C., I started to learn about the hip-hop industry, particularly from M. K. Asante Jr.’s book It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generationand from Tricia Rose’s book The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop — and Why It Matters.
In my prior use of hip-hop music in my classroom, I used rap lyrics as texts to strengthen skills in critical reading and writing, and to assist students’ comprehension and application of concepts, ideologies, and frameworks. That was a great first approach to using hip-hop music as a learning resource.
However, many students expressed dissatisfaction when I selected artists or songs that included content that was explicitly political, not expressly intended for entertainment, or from artists that were older than 30. Specifically, students seemed disgruntled when we listened to and analyzed songs or music videos by Jay-Z, and they dismissed him as being too old. However, as they listened and began closely studying the songs I introduced, students came to appreciate some of the content he explored. With some exceptions, students often seemed to identify with lyrics that promoted notions of capitalism, patriarchy, domination, and violence. Students did not often interrogate the contradictions in some of the lyrics they consumed, like me at one time, even when those lyrics were clearly in contrast to their own realities and values. I wondered how students’ consumption of commercialized hip-hop music would shift if they knew what I came to learn: that old wealthy white men own and control the hip-hop industry and dictate much of what gets produced, played, distributed, and purchased. In fall 2018, I decided to have students in my Introduction to African American History and Culture course study hip-hop music, the hip-hop industry, and the impact the commercialization of hip-hop music has on Black and Brown hip-hop artists and our respective communities.
I wanted students to be able to think about how and why most commercial hip-hop music promoted notions of intracommunity violence, the objectification of women and the trivialization of femmeness, capitalist and individual pursuits at the expense of entire communities, and other unhealthy practices. And I wanted students to understand why such songs, and the artists who produced them, became such commercial successes. The goal was to get students to understand that the hip-hop artists they often hear on the radio or see featured in commercials, or whose music is often celebrated through music award shows, are usually commercially successful artists whose content disproportionately exploits Black and Brown culture and perpetuates some of the most damaging stereotypes about our cultures.
I started the first lesson with a duplicitous question: “Who owns and controls hip-hop?” I was greeted with an avalanche of responses.
“Hip-hop artists own and control their music!”
“Cash Money and Quality Control are the owners of hip-hop.”
“No one owns and controls hip-hop. Every artist played a part in creating hip-hop.”
“The creators of hip-hop own and control it.”
According to Asante, the “old white men” who own and control the hip-hop industry have studied hip-hop music, hip-hop culture, youth, and Black identity — not in the name of appreciating the people or the culture, but as a strategy to amass power and profit. “They may not have understood the ghetto or the Black experience, or the current struggle, or even Black music,” Asante explained, “but they had a rich — rich! — understanding of the tastes and values of white consumers. That is to say, by default, they understood white racism on an intrinsic level, which meant that they understood how to sell products to young white males.”
I want students to understand that hip-hop songs and hip-hop artists sometimes use racist and sexist images, caricatures, and stereotypes of Black and Brown poverty and city life because they have been taught and have learned that it sells. Record companies push a racist narrative because it is profitable. At the same time, I want students to understand that there are some artists, commercially successful even, who write and produce hip-hop music that is uplifting and rooted in values of self-expression, social justice, and community equity. However, these artists don’t usually get the same level of promotion and support from record labels and consumers.
During our unit we read chapters 6, 9, and 14 of Asante’s book, which offers rich content related to hip-hop music, hip-hop culture, the hip-hop industry, and various other topics connected to the legacies of racism, white supremacy, and the Black Freedom Struggle. “So essentially, the ghetto — with poverty, poor schools, drugs, police terrorism, et cetera — provides the raw materials needed to produce rap,” Asante writes. “Then, just as the gold and diamonds that are taken from Africa are primarily sold in the mother countries (Europe and the United States), rap is mainly purchased by a white audience, the parent companies’ citizens, if you will.”
I explained to students, “Our pain and our struggles are like ‘raw materials.’ We put our heart and soul into those lyrics, describing the hard stuff in our lives and it gets sold to not just us, but people who don’t look like us or even live in our communities.” Students get this. They just hadn’t had the space to talk about it before.
To complement our reading, we watched and analyzed music and informational videos. For example, we engaged Amandla Stenberg’s “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows” and a Rap Genius video on Latin trap. Around the same time, we read Asante’s chapter 6, “Old White Men (or, Who Owns Hip Hop).” In that chapter, Asante quotes lyrics from Yasiin Bey’s “The Rape Over.” I played the entire song while students read the printed lyrics. Bey spits, “Old white men is running this rap shit/ corporate force’s running this rap shit . . . we poke out our asses for a chance to cash in . . .” From there, we critically listened to other hip-hop songs, analyzed lyrics, and engaged in lively whole-class debates and small group discussions.
One salient class discussion came after watching and analyzing the lyrics of Jay-Z’s freestyle at the Tidal B-Sides concert. Jay-Z intoned, “I feel like YouTube is the biggest culprit/ [They] pay you a tenth of what you supposed to get/ You know [Black people] die for equal pay right?/ You know when I work I ain’t your slave right?/ You know I ain’t shucking and jiving and high fiving/ You know this ain’t back in the days right? . . .” We also talked about corporate salaries and financial reports, as well as demographic data of the Bronx at the time of hip-hop’s inception.
Across the four weeks, students responded through quick writes and one longer critical response essay in which I asked them to analyze the Tidal B-Sides freestyle and identify lyrics that best demonstrate examples of how the hip-hop industry uses strategies of exploitation in the name of power and profit for “old white men.”
Then we put the hip-hop industry on trial during “The People v. the Hip-Hop Industry” trial, which uses Bill Bigelow’s “The People vs. Columbus, et al.” trial as a model. One group of students played the jury. The rest were in groups representing “the Big Four” (record companies), “the People” (people across race and age who listen to and purchase hip-hop music), and “the Artists” (emcees and/or producers who supply lyrics and sounds for hip-hop music).
On the first day of the trial, I issued the indictment: “You are charged with the mistreatment, exploitation, and appropriation of Black and Brown culture and artists in the name of power and profit.” Students had about a week and a half of class time to conduct research, collaborate on the composition of arguments, gather props and evidence from the various sources we engaged the four weeks prior, and rehearse their presentation and speaking points.
During the trial, the People admitted that some of the people who purchase hip-hop music listen to songs that perpetuate misogyny, internalized white supremacy, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression. But they pointed out correctly that both people of color and non-people of color purchase hip-hop music, and that hip-hop music is disproportionately purchased by white people. They also noted that “the Big Four are guilty because they control the music and censor or remove songs, and they often remove songs that talk about the System and this music never makes it to the stores.”
The Artists were not buying in to the idea that all of the music they produced was about “the mistreatment, exploitation, and appropriation of Black and Brown culture.” They argued: “Hip-hop artists are innocent of all claims and charges because hip-hop was founded on spreading positive messages about how we fight oppression and create liberation. Hip-hop’s initial creation wasn’t about making music for the sake of making music. It was unification.”
Of course, the Big Four had a harder time defending themselves, as they are the ones promoting and institutionalizing the problematic values of mistreatment, exploitation, and appropriation at the center of the trial. However, they argued: “The Big Four helped artists get their music out, but we don’t tell them what music to make. We help hip-hop artists and the people who purchase hip-hop spread the culture. Without the people, we wouldn’t have money to run our record label. Without the people, many artists would speak on the reality of what [systems of oppression] do to them, but they don’t because the people won’t buy music that reminds them of their [oppressive ways].”
The jury spent about 15 minutes deliberating without me. Using a thought-catcher I developed for taking notes during the trial, the student jurors discussed the claims and counterclaims that were introduced, analyzed the evidence presented, and collaboratively rendered a verdict. When they returned to the classroom, one member of the jury announced: “On the charge of mistreatment, exploitation, and appropriation of Black and Brown culture and artists in the name of power and profit, the jury finds. . . .”
The “The People v. the Hip-Hop Industry” unit and trial offered rich opportunities for us to interrogate the hip-hop industry and its impact on Black, Brown, and white communities in the United States. As Rose concludes in The Hip Hop Wars, “Not all critics of Hip Hop are the proverbial ‘haters,’ and to label them this way stymies the powers of transformational love. The struggle, in this climate of ‘blame Hip Hop versus explain Hip Hop,’ is to be able to give transforming love and have it be received in that spirit. Defending the indefensible, even in the spirit of love, doesn’t create well-being for the beloved.”
Hip-hop music and culture are powerful, even more so because of the way they connect to students’ lives. Students need opportunities to question and think critically about the world we live in. Critically teaching about hip-hop, like Black lives, matters.