It's a Hard Knock Life: A Conversation About Hip-Hop & Race in 2015

I never want to be that guy who says, “Well, back in the day,” but it's becoming harder to deflect the thought.

I was 12 years old in 1999, with no business securing tickets to the Hard Knock Life Tour, but somehow the stars aligned and I got to witness one of the most memorable tours in hip-hop history. I wasn’t fully cognizant of every detail in the music—picking apart lines, acknowledging different delivery styles, etc.—I just knew DMX was the best rapper alive at that moment in time. But it was Hard Knock Life Vol. 2 that made me realize hip-hop was more than just beats and rhymes. I never once thought about race or culture on my way to the concert, I just assumed there would be people who looked like me filling the arena. 

I was wrong. 

The audience at that show was overwhelmingly white, and in those few hours, aside from trying to rap along to every verse, I realized hip-hop was bigger than myself, my group of friends and my community.

I always had friends from different races and cultures—I just gravitate towards good people regardless of what a person looks like—but looking back, I was completely unaware of hip-hop's mass appeal. The artists on that stage were speaking to me and people who looked like me, but that music and that passion found its way to others who also found their place in their rhymes. That concert wasn’t the most conscious place for hip-hop by any means, but the idea remained the same; people from all walks of life coming together, collectively bobbing heads and zoning out to the music.

As I got older, I realized hip-hop was much deeper than any hit single. Sure, there would be some semi-conscious stuff on the radio, but for the masses, hip-hop became a clever hook, some punchlines, and over-bearing production. It’s nice to hear the uptempo songs for the bars and club, but the songs that push me forward on a shitty Tuesday afternoon, the descriptive “come up” songs, resonate more than leanin’ and rockin’ ever will. As a fan of hip-hop, it can be tough making people understand the difference between mainstream and all the gems that really make hip-hop important, but it's necessary at times.

A few weeks ago, I was at a friends house playing beer pong with some cliche hip-hop station on Pandora playing in the background. Most of the music is relatively new, probably not the best for pre-gaming, but it wasn’t my house so I let it ride. There’s a steady mix of Drake, Nicki, Chris Brown, Drake, Ty Dolla $ign, Drake again, but then a 2 Chainz song comes on and someone says, “All this rap music sounds the same! Money, cars, clothes and drugs.”

Almost immediately, the Chris Rock “I love Hip-Hop” bit played in my head and I wanted to defend the culture, but after also listening to that radio station for the past 20 minutes I could understand the thought; I understand, but I vehemently disagree. The house was filled with mostly white folks who have danced and partied to hip-hop songs their whole lives, but when that’s all they see or have seen; it can get redundant. A lack of awareness spawns comments like those, the same comments I used to make about other genres until I realized millions of fans must have found a niche somewhere.

It's great that hip-hop pushes us to party together, to dance together, but the culture is bigger than a night out, the same way it was and still is bigger than being a beacon of light just for me. We can have a good time with hip-hop music—there is a time and place for everything—but at what point does America look at hip-hop as a genre that makes us think? A genre not just for the Hip-Hop heads, but for everyone.

I never want to be that guy who says, “Well, back in the day,” but it's becoming harder to deflect the thought. With all the social activism over the past year, hip-hop has played a vital role, but it can’t survive as merely a few retweets and Instagram posts. It's bigger than the artists. It's up to us as fans to stop allowing the powers that be to serve us trash, to focus on the music as opposed to the controversy, and to explain to those unaware that hip-hop is bigger than mere words coming through a set of speakers.

Hip-Hop has done unimaginable things for people all across the globe. It's incredible how one concert, one house party, has a way of reaffirming the things it's taught us, while also reinforcing the need for the genre and its followers to do more. I learned that years ago at the Hard Knock Life Tour, and I'm learning it today.



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