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music african hop hip

Although black popular culture involves all people of African descent internationally, U.S. black popular culture is often highlighted because it is within U.S. culture and U.S. culture is increasingly exported to the entire world. Black popular culture is the part of all black cultures that is concerned with pleasure, enjoyment, and amusement; that represents the identity and politics of black cultures according to each culture’s beliefs, values, experiences, and social institutions; and that is expressed through aesthetic codes and genres. British cultural studies pioneer Stuart Hall in Black Popular Culture (1992) describes the “black repertoire” of which black popular culture originates as involving style, music, and the use of the body as a canvas of representation. He further qualifies “good” and authentic black popular culture as the kind that refers to black experiences, black expressivity, and black counternarratives. Eight distinguishing features characteristic of popular culture are also applicable to black popular culture:

  1. Its components of people, objects, activities, events, and the arts.
  2. Theological aspects, including ultimate concern, faith, religious symbols, and revelation and ecstasy.
  3. Cultural struggle, resistance, contestation, and opposition.
  4. Production, circulation, consumption, reproduction, and distribution.
  5. Its socially constructed nature.
  6. System of signs and symbols.
  7. Mode of communication.
  8. Commodification, commercialization, and stereotyping.

In general, black cultural expression has always been a way of resisting racial oppression, articulating experiences of resistance and struggle, and articulating oppositional identities. Historian Kevern Verney in African Americans and U.S. Popular Culture (2003) notes several key issues that exist between black popular culture and the concepts of race and racism. These include:

  1. The persistent negative stereotyping of African Americans in popular culture, and the impact this had on the racial perceptions of both black and white Americans.
  2. The role of popular culture in holding back or facilitating change in U.S. race relations, particularly between blacks and whites (but with far-reaching impact on race relations of all groups in the United States).
  3. The recurring historical paradox that whereas white Americans have frequently recognized black cultural achievement, African Americans themselves continued to be perceived as socially and racially inferior.
  4. The enormous, and continuing, contribution made by African Americans to U.S. popular culture.
  5. How Hollywood and the entertainment industry in particular have encouraged racism through misrepresentations and caricatured images of African Americans.


The intellectual genealogy of the study of black popular culture begins with the first collection of Negro spirituals (or black spirituals), Slave Songs of the United States (1867), edited by William Allen, Charles Ware, and Lucy Garrison, and the work of several African American intellectuals, professors, and composers. Ethnomusicologist Portia Maultsby explains in her essay “Music in African American Culture” (1996) that the introduction to Slave Songs of the United States and research by scholars such as Maud Cuney-Hare (1874–1936), R. Nathaniel Dett (1882–1943), W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), Alain Locke (1886–1954), Eva Jessye (1895–1992), James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), James M. Trotter (1842–1892), and John Work (1901–1967) were the first scholarly studies on African American music, focusing particularly on black spirituals. They represent early attempts to provide a sociocultural context for understanding the complexities of this black American religious musical tradition.

In all, these studies not only initiated the scholarly study of black music but also initiated the study of black popular culture. The connection between the study of black music and the study of black popular culture is important to note because music has been often characterized as the central element of all black cultures. In his book Black Talk (1981), sociologist Ben Sidran states that black music is both conspicuous and “crucial” to black culture. In addition, he contended that music was “not only a reflection of the values of black culture but, to some extent, the basis upon which it is built” (p. xxi). Stuart Hall concurred when he described black music as the “deep form, the deep structure” of black popular culture (1992, p. 27). Sociologist Ellis Cashmore, in The Black Culture Industry (1997), describes black music as being “virtually synonymous with black culture” (p. 3). Furthermore, when describing an African American aesthetic in her book Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin’, and Slam Dunking (1999), Gena Degal Caponi asserts that music is the “key” to the aesthetic she is discussing and the “fulcrum of African culture and the expression that sustained African aesthetic principles in the Americas” (p. 10). Scholarship on black music provides cues for locating and discovering other forms of black popular culture.


The leading black intellectual who bridged the gap between the study of black music and black popular culture was sociologist William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. Du Bois, a preeminent scholar-intellectual, wrote extensively on the sociology and history of African Americans and pioneered the editing of numerous journals of opinion devoted to racial issues. Not only did Du Bois analyze black slave songs in his Souls of Black Folk (1903) and The Gift of Black Folk (1924), he also wrote about the sociological implications of popular culture and blacks in a little-known article in 1897 titled “The Problem of Amusement.” Du Bois did not label the phenomenon he was describing and pondering as “black popular culture” but rather “the question of the amusements of Negroes” (2000 1897). However, it was an inquiry into black popular culture because he referred to dancing, playing cards, drinking, smoking, and playing football, all of which are activities considered to be popular culture.

In “The Problem of Amusement,” Du Bois described late-nineteenth-century black urban attitudes toward popular culture, what institutions among them conducted popular culture, and what the “tendency of indulgence” was toward particular types of popular culture. Whereas Du Bois maintained that the pursuit of popular culture in the city by young black men and women from rural communities was “disastrous,” he believed amusement was a necessary and legitimate pursuit. Du Bois reveals an interesting problematic that had to do with conditions that were peculiar to urban black Americans and their pursuit of popular culture at that time. The first condition was that African Americans were excluded from mainstream public amusements in the cities to which they migrated and, second, that the chief purveyor of popular culture to black people was the black church, which in theory was opposed to modern popular culture. Du Bois concludes that the activities of the black church should become differentiated and that it must surrender its default function of providing “amusement” for its members to the school, home, and other social organizations. This was because he surmised that it was difficult for the black church to deny the need for popular culture while at the same time dissipating its spiritual purpose by furnishing popular culture activities for its members.

Largely a sociological analysis of the role of popular culture in the lives of late-nineteenth-century urban black Americans, Du Bois’s essay revealed the need to study black popular culture in American culture, connected the production and experience of black popular culture to American culture and society, articulated the importance and relationship of the black church to popular culture and its members, and formulated questions about the issues of pleasure, race, racism, and the African presence in America.


The popular and academic interest in hip-hop culture and its expressive domains, rapping, graffiti writing, break dancing, emceeing, and deejaying (through mass media coverage in newspapers and magazines and in the presentation of conferences, publication of books, and college course offerings) has grown exponentially since the early 1990s. Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal’s edited volume, That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (2004), attests to the depth and breadth of hip-hop cultural productions. This increase in popular and academic attention to hip-hop culture is the result in part of the fact that hip-hop culture and rap music, through globalization and the transnationalization of U.S. popular culture, is circulated internationally, giving birth to other hip-hop forms and genres in such disparate regions as Colombia, France, Poland, Bosnia and Croatia, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, Jamaica, Cuba, and Native Hawaii.

Hip-hop culture is decidedly global, urban, and connected to youth culture, according to Halifu Osumare in Black Cultural Traffic (Elam and Jackson 2005). Hip-hop culture, particularly rap music, brings together some of the most complex social, cultural, and political issues in contemporary American society. According to cultural studies scholar Tricia Rose in her seminal work on rap music, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994), rap music is a black cultural expression that prioritizes black voices from the margins of urban America. These voices articulate the pleasures and problems of black urban life in contemporary America and the shifting terms of black marginality in contemporary American culture. Rap music’s multidimensional nature builds from its primary context of development in hip-hop culture, the Afrodiasporic traditions it extends and revises, and the New York urban terrain in the 1970s.

As publications by Michael Eric Dyson ( Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur , 2001) and Jon Michael Spencer ( The Emergencyof Black andthe Emergence of Rap , 1991) demonstrate, race, racism, religion, and spirituality are connected to hip-hop culture, just as they are connected to black popular culture in general. For example, negative stereotyping persists in the entertainment industry especially through rap videos that disseminate misrepresentations and caricatured images of African Americans and that portray black females as sexual objects. Stereotyping is also seen in such television programs as MTV’s Pimp My Ride and VH-1’s Flavor of Love that subtly exalt the “gangsta” lifestyle. While hip-hop culture, particularly through the lyrics and videos of rap music, illustrate the culture’s valuing of sexism, consumerism, and violence, it also reflects ultimate concerns about life and death, hopes and fears, self-affirmation, social and political liberation, and the ethic of truth telling. Hip-hop culture is a microcosm of and is the epitome of contemporary U.S. black popular culture because it encompasses the meanings, values, complexities, pleasures, and experiences of being black in the United States.


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