Why We Need Hip-Hop (Pt. 3)

I am proud to present the long-awaited third installment in the Why We Need Hip-Hop series. This time we welcome guest columnist, Lester R. Collins Jr. Lester is originally from St. Paul, MN. As a child, he spent his summers in the projects of N. Philly. He attended Morehouse College and graduated from Oakwood University with a BS in Counseling Psychology. He holds masters degrees in both Divinity and Social Work. A published author, he wrote a devotional for teens titled, Going Green for God. He and his family live in the DFW area where he pursues a PhD in Social Work.

Everyone has struggled at times to find the right words to express themselves. People often say, “I know what I want to say, but I can’t find the right words.” Ever since 1973, Hip-Hop artists have been masters of the art of finding the right words. Hip-Hop showcases an array of artists who possess the aim and unique ability to uplift people and express themselves with authenticity and excellence.
            Despite frequent use of the expressions “keepin’ it real” and “real talk”, the world is craving authenticity. The first example that comes to mind is Milli Vanilli. The infamous duo fell from the heights of Grammy-winning success when it was revealed that all of their songs were lip-synced. Ironically, their first album was entitled Girl You Know It’s True. It wasn’t. Authenticity means being true, sincere, genuine, transparent, honest.
Authenticity could pose a challenge for artists with humble beginnings of poverty, crime, violence, and struggle. Who would want to readily and openly share the despicable details of a deprived life? Not most people. Then there must be some level of tension within those artists who continue to sing about those things after achieving super net worth and living in gated communities. I wonder how an artist who is no longer struggling to pay bills can sing about struggling to pay bills? I often wonder what makes a gangster who is now a multi-millionaire rap about gang-banging as if it were his present reality. Wouldn’t it be easy to just walk away from that life; forget it all, and never look back on all that pain and suffering? But then, that would be considered “sellin’ out.” Nobody wants to be a “sell-out.” Everybody wants to stay true to where they came from and “keep it real.”
Rapper Rick Ross (William Roberts) has been heckled
by the Hip-Hop community for posing as a gangster.
Conversely, there are artists who haven’t had challenging beginnings; who vie for credibility when they express their reflections on topics that have never been associated with their backgrounds. The list is long of various artists who presented a hardcore persona on stage but were later found to be as soft as cotton swabs. One glaring example of this is when Miami-based rapper Rick Ross invoked the name of infamous drug kingpin Manuel Noriega, when he said, “I know Pablo, Noriega. The real Noriega, he owe me a hundred favors.” A crafty rap line, but an obviously dishonest one nonetheless. The entire Hip-Hop world had already been put on notice about his past life as a correctional officer, but these remarks and other related gangster name-dropping lines began to pile up fast. Soon thereafter, word got around that he was receiving actual threats from real gangs, which resulted in cancelled concerts and tour dates. Who knows whether or not that's true, but what we do know is that he still gets clowned for name-dropping people he's never met, and stealing the personas of legendary gangsters.
The truth is, there is a long list of these sort of rap music posers; posturing and profiling like thugs in an effort to garner mainstream success. Just google fake rappers. However, the story of Rick Ross is also a case study in the internal checks and balances of the Hip-Hop community. Hip-Hop culture (in general) and rap music (specifically) demands authenticity.  One of the longstanding rules of rap is to be yourself. Back in the early years of rap, artists who tried to sound like other artists were maligned, lambasted, and even blackballed from the industry. These days, whatever gimmick one can use to raise YouTube views and record sales is often celebrated. However, the old guard of Hip-Hop remains steadfast in its demand for authenticity. Phrases like, “Come correct” and, “Keep it 100” are perpetual pronouncements of an artist’s responsibility to be authentic. And despite the blind fandom of the masses, the keepers of the culture may have already quietly revoked your hood hall pass for swagga-jackin. A true Hip-Hopper would never want that to happen.
Closely related to this issue is a budding trend in which it seems some artists were actually making good on threats and getting into real legal trouble in order to bolster their “street cred.” Now with that said, it’s obvious that there are some rappers that actually do have criminal records and numerous street war stories to tell. However, it’s also true that there are many who are simply trying to make a name for themselves. This is not the type of keepin’ it real that society needs. None of us wants or needs to see more violence, crime, or negativity to help us believe you are a credible artist. Creativity does not require crime. And negativity does not have a monopoly on reality. Now that’s real talk!
On the other hand, sincerity does not equal truth. A person can actually be sincerely wrong. However, sincerity does equal truthfulness as far as the conveyer is concerned. If a person is being sincere what can be said to argue or gainsay against their expressions? However, it is not enough to be sincere and transparent. The challenges facing society are too great to be merely articulated. These challenges need to be addressed in constructive ways. And Hip-Hop has had a long tradition of constructively addressing difficult issues.
In 1989, KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions assembled an all-star cast to record the Hip-Hop classic “Self Destruction.” The song was part of attempts to stem the tide of violence in the urban African-American community. The following year, the west coast followed suit when Dr. Dre and a cast of about 20 rap stars formed the West Coast All-Stars and produced the track entitled “We’re All in the Same Gang.” Similar efforts were repeated in 2008 and 2009. And just this week, a group of legendary rap personalities came together to constructively discuss positive ways and means of moving forward after the controversial George Zimmerman verdict. One rapper even gave a live performance of the song he wrote in honor of Trayvon Martin. Others were also referenced and played during the show to show the solidarity and the heart of the Hip-Hop community. The song (Self Destruction) and its fruit are examples of the positive affects that Hip-Hop can have. Speaking of positive affects, this brings us to the issue of excellence.
            Excellence means aiming for and maintaining a high standard. Excellent speech--word selection, mental rigor, excellent aims--bring glory to God and bring people to God’s glory, so they can have God’s glory restored in them (Colossians 1:7). When speaking of excellence in Hip-Hop, the first thing that comes to mind is the fairly-recent album by unstoppable rap duo Kanye West and Jay-Z entitled “Watch The Throne.” The title itself speaks to the level of excellence they command and aspire to. Yet there are several tracks on the album that bespeak a rare type of musical genius and creative production.  Although there are some challenging theological issues interlaced in the songs, one can’t help but have thoughts of greatness when listening to tracks like “Otis” and “No Church in the Wild.” The former pays homage to an R&B - Soul luminary, Otis Redding, while meshing it with some of the best of what Hip-Hop production and engineering has to offer.
Rappers are exceptional artists. They combine literary
genius with charismatic flair in stage performances.
Then there are some Hip-Hop artists who often combine authenticity and creativity and score “perfect 10s” with their feats of lyrical gymnastics while using the art form to teach. Take for instance “Hey Young World” by rap great Slick Rick, or “Mathematics” by Mos Def or even Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop.”  The list is too long to include here, but rappers have long sought to communicate life lessons with lyrical genius to spur their listeners on to personal development and growth. This takes the most careful and painstaking skill and ability.
Some innovative classrooms have built on this tradition and even utilized rap and Hip-Hop to help students learn. Take for instance the work of Dr. Christopher Emdin; Associate Professor at Columbia University Teacher’s College. His extensive research asserts that Hip-Hop is the perfect vehicle to utilize for science instruction. His work has led to city-wide rap battles where New York high schoolers can showcase their science knowledge and rhyme skills at the same time.

But it is the very art of rap that embodies excellence. People often forget that rapping is poetry, one must be a skilled writer to compose good rhymes. Rapping demands lyrical skill and a strong command of language. It is imperative that one know how to use words, how to construct rhymes, the various rhyme schemes, styles and types of composition and so much more. And all of that is just for the sake of writing raps. The art of performance demands a whole new set of skills. One must be adept in delivery: diction, breath control, timing, observation, and on and on. Then, on top of all of that, a rapper must mesh all of the technical work of writing and performing into their own personal style and voice. The number one fear of most people is speaking in public. Rappers have mastered the art of addressing a crowd, and those who do it best are excellence personified.
It’s one thing to be able to put together words with deep meaning, another to be able to assemble rhyming words; but it is ingenious to put together in-depth words that rhyme. Hip-Hop is full of potential to uplift a people and spur many towards excellence. It is my hope that when artists use vocabulary, or make allusions to political, historical, geographical, sociological, or scientific themes that are unfamiliar to their hearers – that the hearers make it a point to research those concepts and thus increase their knowledge, power, and progress. And this is why we need Hip-Hop. It spurs us toward those great divine virtues...authenticity and excellence.