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Hip-hop culture becomes a world-wide language for youth resistance, according to UC Berkeley course
21 Mar 2000

By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--Many middle-class parents thought it was just a fad when their teenagers started wearing jeans that sagged below their hips in imitation of hip-hop culture. But the fad did not pass.

Now, almost 30 years after hip-hop got its start in the black urban scene of the 1970s, this complex, riveting mixture of sound, rhythm, dress, attitude and poetics has become a universal, underground culture for youth resistance around the globe, according to a new course on the sociology of hip-hop being taught at the University of California, Berkeley.

Last year, rap - one of four components of hip-hop culture - became the top-selling music genre in America.

"Hip-hop has become a global culture," said Halifu Osumare, a lecturer in African American Studies at UC Berkeley, who teaches "Power Moves: Hip-hop Culture and Sociology."

"It began in black and Latino American communities, but you can't go to any youth culture in any capital city on the globe today where you won't find rappers talking about their marginalization using similar lyrics, similar music and similar dress," said Osumare.

Osumare has found, in research on hip-hop cultures in Japan, England, France and Germany, that youths in each region adapt American patterns to their own demographics.

-In London, marginalized East Indian youth blend Indian melodies and Hindi with English rap as a street form of protest.

-In Paris, poor Jewish, Middle Eastern and West African youth coming out of the projects use hip-hop styles and rap to talk about their poverty and police brutality, as exemplified in a current French video called "La Haine" (hate) shown in Osumare's class.

- In Japan, female hip-hoppers use the genre to defy gender restrictions for women.

"Hip-hop has become a universal tool for talking back to the mainstream of any society," said Osumare, adding that hip-hoppers communicate regional news through their lyrics on CDs, not only between communities in the United States, but with youth in Tokyo, London and Paris.

But the very success of this genre has created something of a schism in hip-hop culture, according to Osumare and one of her teaching assistants, Michael Barnes, a UC Berkeley graduate student in sociology who is also a disc jockey.

Community-based underground rappers are drowned out by the mass appeal and commercialization of the big-time, best-selling artists, some of whom are marketing a gangster persona with songs that focus on wealth, possessions and crime, often with a misogynistic attitude toward women, said Barnes.

Although the "gangsta" style arose in New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles in the early 1990s as an authentic expression of the grinding poverty, mass unemployment and prison experience of ghetto youth, Barnes believes it has been appropriated in recent years by "studio playas" (players), who don't come from that background and are in it only for the money.

"These guys are ultra capitalists who glorify materialism," said Barnes. "Whether these playas are as rich as they say they are is up for debate, but they definitely appeal to the outlaw, anti-establishment tendencies of American culture, and the music industry capitalizes on that.

"You can't tell in the beginning if a studio player comes from poverty, as he claims, but if he becomes famous, he can't hide it, and authenticity matters. It certainly does."

"Now you hear songs not just criticizing the establishment, but calling people (other rappers) out, saying, 'This isn't right for hip-hop culture,'" said Barnes. "'Fine. You're making money, but what are you going to do for the community?'"

"Hip-hop is incredibly diverse," said Barnes. "More underground artists are doing substantive, in-depth social criticism, and you're starting to see more youth-based movements based on hip-hop."

Barnes said the activism of hip-hop culture shows itself when a large number of artists, as many as 20, come together to put out an entire album on specific issues such as the up-coming "Hip-Hop for Respect" album, done in reaction to the Amadou Diallo shooting in New York; "Mumia 911," dedicated to Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is on death row in Philadelphia; or "America is Dying Slowly," an album on the ravages of AIDS in the black community.

Only by listening to their music do outsiders know what is going on with urban black youth or, recently, with Asian youth, Latino youth or the youth of any other ethnicity, he said.

This kind of activism was very apparent one recent afternoon among the 145 students in UC Berkeley's hip-hop and sociology class.

Dotted with breakdancers, graffiti artists, rappers and DJs (the four groups within hip-hop culture), the class vibrates with the personal experience of the students and their politics, particularly regarding criminal justice reform. Statistics about U.S. prisons flew around the room.

"California has the second largest prison population in the world," announced one student. "America is first."

"Twenty-one prisons and only one university have been built in California since 1984," said another.

"There are 2 million Americans in prison," said a third. "That is twenty-five percent of the world's prison population."

"These students are active on the issues," said Osumare. "They already know more than I do about some of these topics, and they are out there trying to do something about it. I tell them they should be proud of their work here and their activist consciousness."


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