Growing up in the conservative Christian stronghold of Texas, I encountered many strong opinions against my love for rap music. While friends in my church's youth group were listening to Relient K, I was nodding along to the sermons of Kanye and Lupe. Many well-intentioned adults tried to steer me back to what they saw as the enlightened path, but along the way they perpetuated a number of negative stereotypes about rap: that it is vulgar, it demeans women, and it promotes criminal activity, among other racially coded comments.
From an early age, I learned that some people will only ever see hip-hop culture one way. To say that hip-hop is demeaning to women has merit when we consider that, as Cardi B tells it, there are still instances of hip-hop culture—like “video vixens” who have #MeToo stories but aren’t being heard—that continue to treat women as less-than. But to say that all of hip-hop is demeaning to women denies the fact that artists like Cardi B and Rapsody are making strides for women in hip-hop, or that allies like 9th Wonder and Kendrick Lamar are supporting their work. Furthermore, it lays the sole blame on hip-hop culture for a much larger societal practice of ignoring or erasing stories by women of color.
It was easy for me to dismiss the opinions of conservative Christians in my life who did not take the time to understand the vast array of experiences voiced in rap music. It has been much harder for me to wrestle with the fact that there are many within the hip-hop community—myself included—who practice the same type of essentializing in our own ways.
When I used to defend rap to Christians, I fell into using the problematic tropes that Matt Wilhite warns about when uplifting “conscious rap” over other forms of rap, as if the former is inherently morally superior to the latter (or as if they are so easily distinguishable in the first place). Dylan Green’s recent reflection on his own former hip-hop elitism resonated with me and reflects one of many forms of hip-hop essentialism that causes us to miss the perspectives of others.
Debates are healthy for hip-hop. They allow us to think deeply about the different messages and movements within the art form, and each of us is free to ultimately choose where we land on a particular issue. Whenever a debate ensues over a particular artist’s qualities, however, claims about “realness” often creep up, with the ultimate dismissal of an artist housed in vocabulary that negates the many diverse perspectives of rap. Such language shows up in larger claims that “hip-hop is dead” or that “rap is in a very trash state,” but as always, it depends on where we look and what we choose to see. And while we should critique artists and hold the art form accountable for the messages put forth—as hip-hop should honor difference but not perpetuate social ills (at least, we should be able to agree on that)—we should be wary about the idea of a “pure” form of hip-hop, or an essential form that was perfect until [fill-in-the-blank] came along. We can honor our version of the story without writing over someone else’s.
When Bruno Mars recently became the subject of yet another debate about cultural appropriation, producer 9th Wonder rightly took critics to task for overlooking the contribution of Latinx artists to hip-hop’s development and for relying on mainstream radio to tell audiences what to listen to. He encouraged people who wanted success for Black artists to do their own homework and support newer artists like BJ the Chicago Kid, SiR, Anderson .Paak, and Daniel Caesar, instead of waiting for them to become popular and thus acceptable.
What 9th highlights is that we can’t dismiss artists because they are popular or, conversely, rely on what is popular to tell us all that is good. Bruno Mars might not make you groove, but your taste doesn’t render his sound any less valid.
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says it well: “The danger of a single story is that it makes one story seem like the only story.” Our individual experiences of hip-hop culture are valid, but when we make our experience the only experience, we run the danger of making hip-hop a monolith, a single story that neglects its rich history of diverse voices. Yoh Phillips, who is my age, recently argued for hip-hop to remain inclusive, while Dart Adams, who is older than us, countered that it has always been inclusive, but rather the gradual conflation of mainstream rap with hip-hop culture has caused corporate outsiders to profit from it without respecting its craft, history, or purpose.
The beauty of hip-hop is that both arguments hold weight, and both can share space in the same house. '90s babies like Yoh and myself can't help when we were born, but we can do the work to educate ourselves on the history of hip-hop as a culture so that we are not benefiting from it without paying our dues. That being said, hip-hop culture is always shifting and always pluralistic, so to suggest that we are not a part of it as it exists now because we are young or because we grew up differently should not be up for debate. We can be held accountable while honing our abilities to push hip-hop forward.
America is currently in the throes of a necessary but tumultuous debate about what makes it great—if it ever was—and how to make it great for everyone, not just the powerful. And although hip-hop has often represented for the powerless or those with less power, it shouldn’t fall prey to the same toxic myth of singularity. So long as we try to make America a single story about freedom and opportunity, we will miss the ways it has not been that place for everyone. In Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again,” he laments that America has never been for him what it portends to be, but he holds in tension the hope that it could:
“America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath—America will be!”
Those who care about hip-hop culture should be leading the way on how to build a community that honors difference without erasing marginalized voices or dismissing individual experiences because they are not our own. When my church failed to listen, hip-hop housed me. At its best, hip-hop makes space for complexity, pushing us to understand and challenge our identities while we live amongst people whose experiences differ from our own, learning to honor each of those in turn.
For hip-hop to be great, it must remain complex. Everything else is up for debate.