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Hip-Hop and Privilege

Lifestyle & Opinion

By Weston Clayton

A common question has been raised throughout America in recent years in terms of whether or not white privilege exists. There seems to be much controversy, but the evidence is right in front of society’s face. The Caucasian race unknowingly benefits and thrives in the same environment that minorities of America struggle to succeed in. An example of this privilege can be found within the hip-hop community. People turn on the radio and absentmindedly hum along to the beats and rhymes of today’s popular hip-hop tracks. What they fail to realize is the rich history behind the music they are listening to- especially the darker side of its past. Hip-hop, though once rooted in the black community, has been stolen and morphed into an industry of privilege and capitalism dominated by white America.

Hip-hop was founded in the west Bronx, New York City, during the early 1970s. DJ Kool Herc, also known as Clive Campbell, was a Jamaican DJ who immigrated to New York at an early age. Herc would have block parties in the west Bronx where he would create energy on his father’s sound system through different variations of Jazz and Funk drum loops. Herc’s crew would speak rhythmically over the loops in a style of Jamaican dancehall toasting. This was the first stepping stone into modern hip-hop. Herc’s newly found energy brought together a community of youth, heavily-rooted through their African American experiences. For the next 10 years, hip-hop was slowly built through the black community, with the first hit song coming from The Sugar Hill Gang in 1979. This was the first time hip-hop had made it to the mainstream of America, peaking at number 36 on the Billboard Hot 100. Less than 2 years later, in 1981, a white American pop-rock band known as Blondie released their hit single, “Rapture” which featured a section of rapping and became the first song with hip-hop influence to hit number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. This benefited the art of hip-hop by further pushing the style into the mainstream, but this damaged the roots and culture from which it originally came.

For years, African Americans had been creating their own art form to express themselves and counteract their everyday struggles; however, it was not their community that had the initial success. Because of the fact Blondie was a white band backed by a white label they were easily marketed to America and success seemingly fell into their laps. This was also the case for Elvis Presley. Presley is the poster child for rock music, another industry pioneered by the black community. Sam Phillips, the American record producer who discovered Presley once stated, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars”. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, white corporations such as Universal Music Group began to buy many hip-hop labels such as Def Jam to help them easily capitalize on the growing popularity of the genre. This is not to take away from the success of artists such as Elvis Presley and Blondie, but instead to show the hidden privilege that white artists carry with them. Blondie never intentionally stole from the art of hip-hop but because they were white, in two years they accomplished more than what black artists could in close to ten.

In 1990 white Miami rapper Vanilla Ice released his hit single “Ice Ice Baby,” which made it to number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. This was the first genuine hip-hop single to achieve these sorts of numbers and the man behind it was white. Vanilla Ice had created a false come-up story that closely resembled that which a person of color would have been experiencing at the time. Ice had tried to steal the experiences of the black youth in an attempt to portray himself as the relatable underdog that overcame the suppressive system, when in fact, his success only came because of this system.

Big corporations have marketed on what was once a form of expression for minorities of America into something that is now run by white corporations and sold back to the white youth. Hip-Hop has become something it was never intended to be. In its early days, hip-hop is found in its purest form, through the expression of individuals, and something that the black community can call their own. Years later the world is left with modern hip hop, a lost art which has strayed far from its creators.

Header photo from BBC.

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