Nothing in this life has consistently given me more joy and support than hip-hop, so it was a proud moment when I read that Forbes recently confirmed hip-hop/R&B is now the dominant musical genre in the U.S.
Having been a fan of (and now a contributor to) hip-hop culture for most of my life, seeing rap reign supreme, at least on a national level, is cause for celebration.
Yet, that celebration wasn't without pause for concern.
We’ve always been told that history repeats itself, which is really just a simple way of explaining the cyclical social circumstances brought on by human nature if left unchanged. If we look at the history of modern music, there’s a glaring reflection into the future of hip-hop that can’t be overlooked. What I mean by that is, over the course of at least the last 50 years, numerous musical movements have taken hold of the country, only to be exploited and diluted to oblivion once their popularity reached critical mass.
For instance, take the all-encompassing genre of rock, which hip-hop just replaced as the most prominent genre in the country. A complex family of music influences that elaborately evolved from its roots in blues and country music, rock in its many forms has been the foremost musical genre for decades. It’s also currently faltering, the result of decades of exploitation having left it clamoring for new ground in an environment of copycat artists and label-engineered pop offerings which co-opt the genre’s bloodline.
Hip-hop has also endured its fair share of exploitation at the hands of corporate interests and profit-obsessed major labels. As the genre has tightened its grip on the country, it’s become increasingly profitable, especially among a new generation of consumers that is growing up with on-demand streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music.
Since the early '80s, we’ve seen brands co-opt its cultural offerings in an attempt to expand their demographics and appeal to youthful consumers, but leeching off the appeal of hip-hop has only become more subversive and accepted in the years since.
From more mutually beneficial corporate relationships like the one hip-hop has shared with Sprite to the outright co-opting of cultural characteristics by cereal companies, car commercials, movies and even government officials, a culture largely driven by Black youth has been given very little back for its contributions to corporate success. Songs, slang, memes, dances, fashion, jokes—young Black users of social media have provided businesses across the globe with a content gold mine with which to peddle their wares with little or no consideration or compensation given to its creators. It's nothing new—this has been going on for decades—but with every gain in popularity, it will continue to happen more often.
Hip-hop’s influence on the world is welcome, but when its cultural contributions are being used to the benefit of those that have no intrinsic ties to the culture and without sharing the wealth generated or even giving credit, who’s really eating off of hip-hop’s ubiquity?
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using hip-hop’s dominance for commercial gain. At the same time, it’s extremely important to the longevity of the genre, and the culture at large, that there is an effort made by the art form's biggest names to keep that process, first and foremost, beneficial to the genre and its contributors.
Corporations co-opting the latest sounds, trends and fashions of hip-hop’s youth can be a lucrative situation for all parties, but what does it mean if the majority of that money isn't going back into the culture? Why is it creative, kind-hearted artists are always being tasked with replenishing the infrastructure of hip-hop from a financial standpoint? Where are the investments from the non-creators who are reaping the benefits and contributing nothing but a fraction of their profits to the artists willing to play the game?
As hip-hop continues to expand and redefine itself, it will become increasingly important that we ask these questions, remaining mindful that the answers might frequently change.
While hip-hop isn’t some council that needs to be governed by a body of cautious protectors, it would be irresponsible to simply view the genre as an art form subject to the whims of any external force that wishes to engage with it. Hip-hop has saved countless lives and provided a blueprint to many for financial independence. Artists have used the platform hip-hop has provided them to accomplish great things and affect real change, made possible because of the genre's undeniable popularity.
If Chance The Rapper couldn’t assemble a flash mob of thousands with the ease of a tweet, it’s highly unlikely he would be able to come up with a one million dollar donation to Chicago Public Schools and create open mics around his hometown. A countless number of artists wouldn’t be able to break the cycle of poverty in their families and reinvest into their communities without sold-out tours and charting records. It’s the very potency of its appeal that has and will continue to allow hip-hop to affect the world that also threatens to undermine its influence, and that’s where discernment and intent are paramount to its thriving existence.
The more popular something becomes, the more its cultural offerings are co-opted by corporate interests, the less "cool" it becomes. As control over hip-hop culture drifts further away from those that truly care about it, those who remain indifferent and who seek only to gain an upper hand in marketing will twist hip-hop into whatever they want it to be and leave a hollow, less influential shell of the culture in their wake.
To be clear, this is not me screaming that the sky is falling—I know hip-hop is in good hands—I’m just offering a humble reminder that hip-hop is far more valuable than we often treat it. There’s a great opportunity to use America’s love for hip-hop over any other genre as a springboard for greatness, rather than an invite to exploitation.