We all know the lyrics to the songs. We nod our heads, tap our feet, even shake our tail feathers to the beats. Hip Hop is everywhere. It’s hard to imagine a world in which artists like Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Jay Z are not revered for their lyrical genius.
However, Tricia Rose, an expert on Hip Hop culture who spoke recently at Saint Mary’s, suggested that music lovers take a deeper look at Hip Hop and, instead of assuming that it reflects reality, examine it through the lens of social justice and an understanding of cultural literacy.
Rose, who is a writer and professor of African Studies at Brown University, didn’t blast the rhymes of artists like Tupac or Mos Def; instead, she offered a powerful way of thinking about cultural consumption. She asked her audience to “connect with what you consume.” The American way of life has been constructed through music, she noted, since music has the power to create dialects, aesthetics – such as clothes and graffiti – and most importantly narratives that people relate to and accept.
Within the past decade, Rose argued, Hip Hop music has experienced a transition from a narrative genre to a form of "hyper-consumption." The financial success and marketing of Hip Hop have undermined the true voices behind the music, she said.
Rose also criticized what she called the “Hip Hop Trinity” – the stereotypes of “gangsters,” “pimps” and “hos.” Songs that reaffirm these stereotypes sell, while songs with more complexity and depth plummet. The tragedy of the Hip Hop Trinity, she said, is that Hip Hop music has become the primary source of identification for the African-American community.
Listening to Rose present her life work is like entering another realm of truth. She admits that she could “shake her tail feather all day” to the music that has come to define our culture but laments the fact that even if Hip Hop were to disappear, the stereotypes and injustice it has come to reaffirm would remain.
Although she acknowledged that Hip Hop tells a story, she cautioned her audience to remember that the “stories we embrace about each other determine how we connect.” She encouraged audience members to challenge themselves and examine what they consume, and ultimately to look beyond stereotypes and treat people as more than objects.
"Our thoughts become our actions," she said. "We choose to create justice." She left the audience with this powerful message: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”