In its 50th year, hip-hop badly needs to learn to apologise
After a long and heart-wrenching break-up last year, my final task in the moving-out process involved lugging box-after-box of back-breakingly heavy, hernia-inducing vinyl records. Woeful, sure, but what really made all those heaves and humps solemn was that I actually find a huge chunk of those records – mainly the hip-hop ones I bought as a young man and never sold – to be absolute trash today. Vile, bigoted, offensive trash. Welcome to the life of grown-up music fans everywhere: concerned about cultural sensitivity and back pain in equal measure.
It wasn’t always like this. I cut my teeth as a DJ playing hip-hop. The first time I ever played a club was bottom-of-the-bill supporting turntable pioneer Grandmaster Flash. In a maverick move, during a misunderstanding about DJ equipment, he went out of his way to tell me I was a disgrace to hip-hop. Maybe he was right, ultimately. The stuff I played back then harked back to the “golden age” of politically charged and socially minded rap – much of which forms the backbone of a new documentary out this week called Fight the Power: How Hip-Hop Changed the World. Executive produced by Public Enemy’s Chuck D (and made by the BBC and PBS), it’s a four-part history of the genre set against the wider societal pressures of the era.
It comes at the start of a big year for hip-hop, which will be celebrating 50 years since the first block parties in the Bronx, a date that will act as a peg for celebratory events, documentaries and more. Looking back at the good old days has been a quirky constant in hip-hop. Even back in 1986, one of the pivotal songs in rap’s development – MC Shan’s “The Bridge” – iconically began: “You love to hear the story/ Again and again/ Of how it all got started/ Way back when.” Fight The Power follows the old-school narrative pretty tightly. There’s no Cardi B. There’s no Lil Nas X. There’s also precious little actual hip-hop music, forsaken for the “serious telly strings” of most documentaries. Think Hans Zimmer not Ghostface Killah.
As you’d expect from a show produced by the leader of Public Enemy, Fight The Power has a really grounded sense of the politics that surrounded the genre’s rise. These are truths that should never be forgotten. It’s a story of police brutality, neighbourhoods deliberately deprived of funding in a manner so cold it could be confused with ethnic cleansing, racism on every conceivable level and, perhaps most interesting, the lost generation of Black Americans stealthily imprisoned under a Clinton government trying to be tough on law and order. Black America has truly been on a truly transformative journey via hip-hop. As rap pioneer MC Lyte says brilliantly at one point: “If you think world is bad now, imagine it without hip-hop.”
But if 2023 is a moment to take stock, then I think hip-hop itself is also due a reappraisal. For the sake of its legacy, if nothing else. Because it’s not just me and my stupid old records feeling awkward here. I worry after watching his documentary that an inveterate, dyed-in-the-wool hip-hop grandee like Chuck D can’t seem to see that to most people living in the mainstream moralities of 2023, hip-hop resembles a dumpster fire.
An alternative way to look at hip-hop right now is that it’s a genre tragically riddled with all sorts of problematic messes. Many having only revealed themselves in recent years, in an eerie vacuum of discussion or analysis. Take one of the genre’s founding fathers, Afrika Bambaataa. He used to be a genuine hero of mine. Nobody could be said to have forged hip-hop with his own hands more than him. Through his group, the Zulu Nation, the DJ and community leader channelled toxic gang culture into a positive, nascent, working-class art form called hip-hop. But in 2016, after several allegations of having sexually abused and trafficked minors as young as 12 dating back to 1980, he was disowned by the Zulu Nation. The group issued an open apology to those who had allegedly been abused by Bambaataa. Hip-hop as a wider culture has absolutely not processed or commented on this, and there’s certainly no mention of it in the documentary – which flashes his name and image in episode one like it ain’t no thing.
The image of Bambaataa (with zero reference to his current ignominy) is one of several strangely thoughtless choices in Fight the Power that indicate a rather crass disregard for the values we live under today. Now you could say I’m overly sensitive about this stuff, as a huffy mixed-race, pansexual Londoner with an ex and a hernia. But hate speech? There’s the 1986 clip of brilliant Queens-born rapper Roxanne Shante using the word “retarded” (like it isn’t a roundly acknowledged ableist slur today), or the clip of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message”, which chooses to feature the line about a “crazy lady, living in a bag” who used to be a “fag hag” – again a really odd choice on the part of the filmmakers, the insinuation in the rhyme being that her life turned to ruin once she started hanging out with those wretched gays (as if hip-hop doesn’t have a prolifically bad reputation for homophobia, but more on that in a minute).
The documentary also features luminaries whose reputations most find weirdly toxic to the genre. People such as the influential hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who resigned from a host of companies in 2017 after being accused by more than 10 women of committing rape or sexual assault (a charge Simmons denies) in the documentary film On the Record. Or Dr Dre, discussed solely in Fight the Power as a genius svengali but not – as many younger people know him – the man who violently beat reporter Dee Barnes in 1991 while his bodyguard held back crowds with a gun. Lupe Fiasco offers comment as a talking head. It seems neither BBC nor PBS – co-producers on the documentary – are bothered by the fact he rapped about “dirty Jewish execs” who rob artists of their money in a 2016 freestyle. Then there’s Run the Jewels rapper Killer Mike, who has a baffling affinity for Republican governor Brian Kemp who defeated prominent Black activist Stacey Abrams. Kemp has legislated to limit discussions around race in the classrooms of Georgia (the state he represents) and is widely believed to have suppressed Black voter rights. To be fair to the documentary, they did manage not to invite Kanye and his “White Lives Matter” T-shirt.
It takes Fight the Power two hours and 41 minutes to mention misogyny. And swiftly it pivots away again – but not before unfairly portraying veteran politician, activist and Selma marcher C Delores Tucker (who campaigned against misogynist hip-hop in the Nineties) as an aloof and meddling old lady. It’s the only time hip-hop comes in for any criticism over the whole four hours, giving Fight the Power the feel of a corporate sizzle reel rather than an objective piece of television. #MeToo is never mentioned. It’s a shame, given that the movement’s founder – Tarana Burke – grew up in the Bronx as a hip-hop fan. You could surely imagine any quality hip-hop analysis wanting her viewpoint, right? “Hip hop in many ways is built on rape culture,” Burke said in 2019, whilst talking about how hip-hop’s close-knit community has not recognised sexual violence as one of the multiple oppressions otherwise acknowledged.
The absences are the real disappointment here. Both in the documentary and across the hip-hop establishment as a whole right now. No major contemporary female rappers are included, for example. No Nicki Minaj. No Doja Cat. No Megan Thee Stallion either, which is a shame because if anyone has a contemporary hip-hop story to tell, it’s her. Megan’s former partner, Canadian rapper Tory Lanez, was recently found guilty of shooting her in the foot after an argument in 2020. He reportedly shouted “dance b****” while firing at her feet. Thankfully, the three bullet fragments missed tendon and bone. In the months before the trial, many rich, powerful members of the hip-hop boys’ club went out of their way to shame her, in support of Lanez. Fellow Canadian Drake alluded to Megan being a liar on his 2022 track “Circo Loco” (“This b**** lie about getting shots, but she still a stallion”), while 50 Cent shared a meme comparing her to the actor Jussie Smollett who was found guilty of lying to police about a fake hate crime last year. This was an example of what writer Andre Gee identified recently as a new frontier in rap misogyny, which has increasingly fed into a toxic online “manosphere”.
It may seem like things are getting worse, not better – especially when you take into account how many young rappers such as Da Baby, XXXtentacion, Kodak Black and 6ix9ine have been linked to sexual violence in recent years. But I think it’s overdue for someone to point to some problematic moments from its most conscious, “golden age” stars too. Just look at KRS-One’s bafflingly paedophilic “13 and Good” or Tribe Called Quest’s “Georgie Porgie”, which is perhaps the most jaw-droppingly homophobic piece of music ever recorded. And let’s not forget Cam’ron popularising the dreaded phrase “no homo” in his 2009 song “Silky”. This, of course, relates to a much bigger problem. It suggests that the hip-hop orthodoxy (as represented by this documentary) still sees gay and queer people through the prism of homophobia. Infuriatingly, it ignores the recent explosion of LGBT+ artists such as Lil Nas X, Mykki Blanco, Big Freedia, Cakes da Killa, Angel Haze, Kaytranada, Princess Nokia and hip-hop adjacent star Frank Ocean. None of these are mentioned. The only allusion to gay people I could see across four hours was the aforementioned “fag hag”.
You might think I’m pointing out all of hip-hop’s problematic zones because I’ve got a grudge against hip-hop (not just because Grandmaster Flash dissed me a while back). You might think I’ve got a personal prejudice against people who make hip-hop. You might be saying to yourself, I bet he’d never write about problematic people in other genres, such as rock music. Like the allegations that David Bowie had sex with a 13-year-old. Or that Iggy Pop allegedly slept with a 13-year-old. Or that The Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman married a woman he met when she was – you guessed it – 13 years old. Or that the late Radio 1 DJ John Peel got a 15-year-old pregnant, or that Eric Clapton expressed vile racist views, or that Van Morrison was a Covid sceptic (oh, wait, I did actually do that one).
The honest truth is that I’ve never cared about any of these artists and their music as much as I cared about hip-hop. Specifically Public Enemy. I struggle sometimes to remember my mum’s phone number but can instantly recite every line from their 1988 masterpiece It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. It was the second album I ever owned (the first was In the Jungle Groove by James Brown – another deeply problematic founding father of hip-hop I struggle with on an hourly basis). Public Enemy gave me a passion and zeal for social justice, for music that had meaning and for words that had purpose. It’s thus an irony that I’ve ended up here – fuming at a documentary produced by Chuck D, which blithely celebrates an art form that feels indifferent to marginalised people today. Even in an interview last week to promote the programme, Chuck told The Guardian: “Thirty-three per cent of the worldwide hip-hop output is from women, and that’s great.” Not 50 per cent? That would feel significantly more “great”.
If this show was supposed to be about hip-hop and politics, then where’s the gender politics? Where’s the queer politics? Where’s the moment denouncing ableism or a mention of hip-hop’s own problem of racism towards east Asian and southeast Asian people? In its 50th year, hip-hop needs to cultivate a sense of apology more than it needs a hagiography. It needs to be in a constant state of revolution, swinging punches at oppressors new as well as old and extending hands in solidarity, not batting them away. Shows like this feel like the equivalent of George Bush standing on a gunship in front of a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished”.
This is the problem with giving high-profile documentaries over to the dramatis personae of any cultural or artistic strand, something BBC and PBS should reflect more on (I recommend two more recent fringe BBC docs as more timely alternatives: Tim Westwood: Abuse of Power or Cakes da Killa’s radio documentary, The Future of Hip-Hop). This isn’t about airbrushing history or the people involved in that history. It’s about being brave, proud and strong enough to point out mistakes. If hip-hop isn’t secure enough to do this, then maybe it’s not the mighty art form we think it is.