Does Hip-Hop Enhance Society or Degrade it? Hip-Hop on Trial – Review

The Barbican was packed for one of London’s biggest events of the month last night. The event, called Hip Hop on Trial, had everything: big names (Jesse Jackson, KRS-One, Estelle et al), a heated debate and was broadcasted throughout the whole world via Google+ and Youtube.

Twelve panellists filled the stage to discuss whether hip-hop enhances society or degrades it. Does it give a voice for – and to – the oppressed or does it promote misogyny, materialism and violence? The debate seemed more like a concert at times: saluting the crowd, hip-hop legend KRS-One was welcomed by screaming girls, while yells were also heard for musicians ?uestlove and Q-Tip who both joined the debate over the social networking site Google+.

Much of the discussion centred around whether music conglomerates have distorted the image of hip-hop in the pursuit of money making. It is the “commercialisation” of hip-hop which worries NBA basketball legend Isiah Thomas, and the “hegemonic forces pushing an agenda”. “We have turned hip-hop into the predatory arm of capitalism in the US,” said Tricia Rose, American academic, and one of only two female panellists at The Barbican. Jason Whitlock, Foxsports columnist, added: “Hip hop is the marketing arm for Americas war on drugs.”

50 cent’s 2003 album title Get Rich or Die Trying was cited as indicative of the type of dangerous language hip-hop artists use to promote their lifestyle. However, are these mainstream hip-hop artists suppose to be taken at face value? Perhaps they are just entertainers and words like “nigga” and “bitch” aren’t suppose to be taken to heart. “With all our linguistic creativity, we can’t think of anything else to call each other?” Rose said. KRS-One believes Kanye West’s references to “owning bitches” is about “cars”, although other panellists concluded this was farfetched.

Indeed, these two words, “nigga” and “bitch”, were the subject of much controversy with varying opinions on why they are used in hip-hop. Veteran civil right activist Jesse Jackson refused to denounce the word “nigga”, while Benjamin Zephania said: “It breaks my heart to see such terms come back into use when Bob Marley and I fought hard to stop them.” After angrily being asked: “Who gave you the right to call our women bitches?” – rapper Joe Budden struggled to articulate a clear reason why he uses the word. However, he clarified that there is a difference between “women” and “bitches” – adding one must understand the language of hip-hop to deduce the difference.

Asking whether hip-hop enhances or degrades society is akin to asking whether a knife is good or bad: it can be a force for both. Hip-hop isn’t a monolithic musical expression and artistic subculture, it is “many things” said Toure, TV presenter and cultural critic. He added that hip-hop has room for a multitude of acts, from “Nas, Jay Z, Public Enemy and Lauren Hill.”

But why is hip-hop on “trial”? Why not other forms of music? Don’t the likes of Rihanna exacerbate our already overly-sexualised society? If hip-hop “glorifies” violence, doesn’t the film Scarface, too? According to Michael Dyson, author and professor: “Homophobia and sexism exists in the church, it’s not exclusive to hip-hop.”

While the majority of the talk focused on the mainstream and largely ignored the “underground”, which is also a big area of hip-hop, Egyptian rapper Deeb spoke of how hip-hop has helped document the fall of tyrannical regimes during the Arab Spring.

Hip-hop, in its essence, is about “knowledge and education”, however, it was also argued that a segment of society will always be negatively affected by artists who propagate the wrong values.

The in-house audience reached a resounding conclusion: 70% voted for the motion that hip-hop enhances society, 24% disagreed, while 6% voted they “don’t know”.

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