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Andrew Knox

HUM 125 – Hip-Hop Theory and Culture


October 5, 2010

Reflection Paper #2: The Socio-Political Foundations of Hip-Hop

While Hip-Hop and Rap music now dominates the mainstream popular culture, Hip-Hop
began as an expression of frustration. This frustration had been slowly building since the initial
injustices of American Slavery, through Reconstruction, through the World Wars until the Civil
Rights Movement in the 1950’s and 60’s. Civil Rights and voting legislation in the 1960’s
clarified the meaning of equality in the law, but by the end of the 1970’s, this equality was still
theoretical and not practical.1 Statistics indicating quality of life for African-Americans
(poverty, unemployment and annual income rates) were slow to rise. In fact, some statistics, like
poverty, violent crime and drug use, got worse as the years wore on, and vibrant neighborhoods
crumbled and decayed into urban ghettos.
The root of these troubles (in spite of great progress in modifying racial statutes and
public opinion) is the fact that in the 1970’s (up to the present day) the United States Economy
began moving away from a manufacturing-based model towards a more service-based model.
The vast improvements in transportation and communication during the 20th century enabled
corporations to export middle-class manufacturing jobs to third-world countries on the other side
of the world. Some specific corporations noted for their outsourcing are “Ford Motor Company,
Chrysler, General Motors, and major steel companies.2” This “outsourcing” was conceived as a
way to save money (and thus protect the bottom line), since you could pay foreign workers much
less, offer no benefits and prohibit unionization.
The downside to all of this was the closing of factories across the country and the
termination of millions of unionized manual labor jobs. These jobs were essentially the
backbone of the American middle class; the strength of America’s manufacturing industry had
transformed it from a regional muscle into a globally-reaching superpower. An untrained body
fresh out of high school could earn a living wage in a factory, could afford to buy a house and a
new automobile, plant an atomic family and save enough money to put their children through
college without student loans. This living wage and many benefits like health insurance and
pension funds were hard fought victories of the Labor Union movement from the 1880’s to the
1930’s. In mid-western cities like Chicago and Detroit, the entire local economy was based on
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Andrew Knox
HUM 125 – Hip-Hop Theory and Culture
October 5, 2010

the factory’s prosperity; restaurants and service businesses opened in the vicinity of the local
factory and thrived on income from factory workers.3
This prosperity abruptly came to a halt when the role of the local factory was outsourced.
All of the sudden, most available jobs for high school graduates paid little more than minimum
wage and were not unionized. College became a requirement for anyone desiring a career, not
just a job that you work at for your entire life. The new labor pool in the third world had no
expectation of benefits or employee rights, and were more than happy to be paid a third of the
American minimum wage to stand in one place and pull a lever every fifteen seconds. The
aftermath of this dramatic economic reorganization eventually resulted in the inner-city ghettos
that eventually created Hip-Hop, as explained by Dr. Black of the University of Washington:
Soon the commercial establishments close or relocate. Next the middle class and stable working
class relocate. Vertical class integration declines as a result. New residents move in to replace
those who have relocated, but the new residents are more likely to be poor and to have limited
resources. The housing stock deteriorates and in some cases is actually abandoned by former
owners, as is the case in Detroit, Michigan and Gary, Indiana.4
So while the legality and social acceptability of racism, discrimination and segregation
had completely changed in a relatively small amount of time, outsourcing prevented African-
Americans from fully taking advantage of the economic opportunities that had been available to
Whites for generations. If outsourcing had never occurred, African-Americans could have
proportionately integrated into the factory workforce and could have, as an ethnic group, joined
the middle class en masse. Instead, poor Blacks moved (or were herded/redlined) into these
devastated neighborhoods in search of cheap housing, only to find little to no employment
opportunities. “High rates of joblessness trigger neighborhood problems that undermine social
organization, ranging from crime, delinquency, gang violence, and drug trafficking to family
breakups and problems in the organization of family life.5”
Thrust into this daily hell, Black men developed a coping mechanism called “Cool Pose.”
If one could remain calm, unfazed and emotionally distant from daily threats and stressors, they
would be “cool,” apparently charismatic and “bad-ass.”6 The problem with Cool Pose is that it
can lead to some of the situations it was originally designed to ignore. Arguments can quickly
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Andrew Knox
HUM 125 – Hip-Hop Theory and Culture
October 5, 2010

escalate to violence and even death because backing down would show weakness. Use of drugs
and alcohol and joining a street gang are some negative outcomes of peer pressure and striving to
be cool.7
Both of the readings (Cool Pose and The Sociology and History of African Americans)
and the video (The Fire This Time) pointed to the same factors for why the African-American
community hasn’t prospered in the years following the Civil Rights Era. Chuck D (of Public
Enemy) whittled these factors down to three alliterative categories: Economics, Education and
(Law) Enforcement.8 In addition to the economic factors detailed above, a cycle of distrust
between poor urban Blacks and the White establishment has undermined progress at every turn.
Promises of urban redevelopment and maintenance have gone unfulfilled, replaced instead by
unilateral imminent domain takeovers. Most venture capital money invested into South Central
Los Angeles has been designated for construction of liquor stores.9
While the quality of education for African-Americans has vastly improved since Brown
v. Board of Education, there is still a great deal of improvement needed. Social programs like
Arts in the Schools, Music programs, and Community Centers should be generously rewritten
into government budgets. The Black community as a whole needs to set college education as a
priority in order to foster future development of a professional Black Middle Class.
Law Enforcement is the single most difficult to resolve factor of the three. The vicious
cycle of distrust between the Black community and the predominately-White police force has led
to a pandemic of discrimination, profiling, brutality and hatred. This culminated in the Rodney
King Riots of 1992.10 The Police-Prison complex has gotten bigger and bigger as “law and
order” politicians attempt to quick fix social problems like gang violence and narcotics with
harsher prison terms. As the prisons get bigger, they demand more funding, which in turn leads
to funding cuts for rehabilitation and community release programs which would actually help.
Holistic therapy and rehabilitation can readjust criminals to society, whereas prison tends to
make hard criminals harder, and even introduce them to a wide network of colleagues.11

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Andrew Knox
HUM 125 – Hip-Hop Theory and Culture
October 5, 2010

While all of these deficient factors led to widespread poverty and separation within the
Black community, they were also inspirations for the global art-form of Hip-Hop. The changes
in public opinion on race are extremely noticeable, if you had told anyone in the 1970’s that, in
the future, Black musicians would be much more successful than White musicians, that many
African-Americans would earn college degrees and enter professional industries, that interracial
couples would be able to walk down the street holding hands without stares or threats, that many
African-Americans would be elected to political offices, from state legislator all the way up to
President of the United States, they would probably still be laughing today. There still is much
work to be done in the fields of Economics, Education and (Law) Enforcement, but things have
gotten so much better.
Andrew Knox
HUM 125 – Hip-Hop Theory and Culture
October 5, 2010

Works Cited:

• Black, Albert W., Jr. The Sociology and History of African Americans. Seattle, WA:
University of Washington, 2000.
• Chuck D. Fight the Power: Rap, Race, and Reality. New York: Random House, 1998.
• Holland, Randy, and Brooke Adams. The Fire This Time: Why Los Angeles Burned. Dir.
Randy Holland. Videocassette. Single Spark Productions, 1994.
• Majors, Richard, and Janet M. Billson. Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in
America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.