Broken World, Pop Culture — December 8, 2011 at 6:30 am

The Epistemology of Hip-Hop


In the early 70’s the South Bronx was a dilapidated landscape suffering from the crippling economic effects of White flight, governmental policies of abandonment and a ubiquitous and lethal gang culture. It was in the womb of this social suffering that hip-hop was birthed. Communities began to gather in the name of respect and inclusion to counter the hostile environment through music and dance. One of the pioneers of this movement, Afrika Bambaataa, dubbed, “peace, unity, love and having fun” as core values of hip-hop. These original tenants became the backbone of the culture’s development throughout the remainder of the 70’s.

From the beginning, hip-hop played a leading role redeeming disenfranchised urban communities around the US. Bambaataa’s song “unity,” led to healing NY’s gang stratification. The track “White Lines” by seminal artist Grandmaster Flash (pictured above left), led the charge in combating cocaine addiction. And when crack hit the streets – turning homes into shuttered buildings that sought to capture the soul of the inner-city communities – songs like “Night of the Living Baseheads” by Public Enemy, provided a prophetic voice of truth tragedy.

But now the game has changed. While one can look around and find artists who aspire to honor the culture of hope, the vast majority of the artists who dominate the landscape, the ones heard on top forty radio and who claim traffic on iTunes, are clearly of another system. Once corporate America began to see hip-hop as a revenue venue rather than a culture, rap music began to separate from the more fundamental values of hip-hop. It traded the hope for reclamation and redemption of community for individual advancement and monetary improvement – as represented in the opulent “bling” era of hip-hop that prevails in pop culture.

As rap became the dominating force in expressing hip-hop, the art formed was commercialized, packaged, and exported – in both its authenticity and inauthenticity – to a waiting world. Today there is not a culture uninfluenced by hip-hop. Remote African villages, reflect the globalization in the 50 cent, Eminem and Nelly T-shirts that villagers don and the random lines of top 40 rap songs that flow out of the mouths of babes. Go to Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, or a number of other Asian nations and you will see the heart of the resurging b-boy culture. The citizens of Brazilian favelas are showing the same heart and desire to change as American urbanites did in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Internationally, rap has become the music of the aspiring and the heart of hip-hop culture is trickling into region after region, positioning itself as one of the most important social forces on earth.

These trends beg the question: What would happen if today’s most influential hip-hop artists were to come together, embrace the scene’s original values, and decide to focus their art into fostering social change. The Knowledge, Power, Respect campaign is one way to address this question and channel the power of hip-hop. The campaign is asking seven prominent artists – Akon, Jay Z, Kanye West, Rihana, Lil’ Wayne, Eminem, and – to promote the ideas of knowledge to their listeners.

Knowledge is not just about formal education; it’s about understanding the world and ourselves within it. It’s about coming to grips with how it is we come to know things; it’s about our fundamental epistemology. Not every person will (or should) receive an advanced degree, but regardless of our formal educational status, all of us should embrace what it means to be knowledgeable citizens of the world and seek out deeper personal and social knowledge.

So where does power and respect come into play? It is well documented that knowledge and education are conduits for social change. We believe that the encouragement to knowledge will lead to an empowerment for the disenfranchised and eventually a social respect for those in hip-hop culture and blighted communities.


  • Good summation… and I’m glad to see you include BBoy culture in the discussion of Hip Hop culture. The common misunderstanding is that “Hip Hop=rap”, and that’s just not true. Traditionally, Hip Hop has included the 4 elements of: The DJ, The MC, the Graffiti Artist, and The BBoy/BGirl.
    Today, the Graf Artists are only loosely affiliated with Hip Hop culture… and MCs are all over the place… some like Common, Talib Kweli, and others are respected lyricists but don’t get the play in the mainstream.
    It seems only BBoys/BGirls and DJsreally represent the authenticity of true Hip Hop culture (maybe I’m biased, because I’m a BBoy though) . We definitely need more TRUE MCs who have skill… cause they add the voice. Hopefully we continue to press this great culture and the empowering values it espouses.
    Thanks for the thoughts Joshua.

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