July 29, 2021

MUSIC AND POLITICS. Hip hop as a counterculture and its birth from the hand of the black movement

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the world was going through a moment of tension as a result of the cold war and the US invasion of Vietnam, and later the crisis of 1973. It is in this context that a new wave appears world of popular rebellions and worker promotions product of the uprising of the French May, where the youth, together with the working class, enters the scene as a new political actor on a global scale. Great cultural innovations were daughters of this process. New avant-gardes in cinema, art, literature, music. Within all of them, Hip-Hop emerged as a countercultural movement in the early 70s in the Bronx, New York City.

What was happening in the US at that time?

Between the late 1960s and early 1970s there were large street interventions whose protagonists were young people and workers: the anti-war movement led by those who rejected the Vietnam War, the second wave of feminism with the women’s strike of 1970, the Stonewall uprising in which LGBT youth faced police harassment, and the black movement going through one of its busiest moments.

As for the black movement, it was experiencing one of its moments of ascent. Throughout the 60s a series of revolts unfolded and great personalities such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King or the Black Panther Party emerged who led the fight of the civil rights movement.
Among all the artistic and cultural correlates of this time, the black movement was to be one of the main pillars of the foundation of rap, graffiti, DJing, Bboying, and everything we know today as Hip-Hop.

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The Bronx, the birthplace of Hip-Hop

The “Southern Bronx” was one of the poorest working-class neighborhoods with a majority black and Puerto Rican population. In addition to the structural problem that racial segregation implied, it was going through a housing crisis as a result of infrastructure works, where the fall in the price of properties caused many owners to send the city’s buildings to fire in order to later be able to collect the insurance money. The white working population began to move to the suburbs. It was migrants and blacks – those who were in the worst conditions for mortgage loans – who inhabited the Bronx, rebuilding a part of the city that was literally in ruins, thus consolidating its ghetto character.

During one of the heyday of the Black Panther Party, there were organizations and gangs in different parts of the country that took on its ideals, as well as those of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. They originally formed self-defense groups in the ghettos against the police, drug trafficking and racial violence, made up mostly of men and women from the Black and Latino communities. One of these groups, the most important in the Bronx, called Black Spades, was one of the founders of hip-hop: Afrika Bambaataa, one of the leaders of this organization and ideologues of the movement.

In the cultural life of New York, there was a huge gap between the boom of disco music as a mainstream phenomenon of nightlife in the center of the city, and the cultural life of blacks in the Bronx who were segregated from these spaces. By then, at the beginning of the 70s, the New York gangs were fighting for control of different territories of the city, and in addition to the confrontations between them, they had engendered a series of cultural practices that began to give identity to each of these different groups, such as their clothing or the use of Graffiti, one of the elements of hip-hop culture.

It is then when DJ Kool Herc, begins to organize clandestine parties in the buildings of the Bronx, where different members of these bands attend, parties in which a totally different air was breathed from those of the mainstream discos. Herc would surprise everyone with a new technique to puncture the vinyl where he would take up what he considered black music from past decades (such as Funk and Soul) giving it a new touch that would be characterized by being a live performance, looping different instrumental parts of classic songs adding scratching (“scratching” or moving the vinyl) and breakbeat (cutting and synchronizing the moments of “pause” of the original songs) In addition, an M’C (master of ceremonies) would be in charge of announcing the DJ and encouraging the the party with different phrases, rhymes and sound effects, giving rise to the first improvised or freestyle rap performances.

(Flyer of the parties organized by kool herc)

At this time is that Afrika Bambaataa, leader of the Black Spades whose name came from Bhambatha, anti-colonial leader of the Zulu people, dabbled in DJing, and later the mythical Grandmaster Flash. Along with pioneer Kool Herc, they are considered the “holy trinity” who perfected and popularized this art.

Zulu Nation: The Officialization of Hip Hop as a Countercultural Movement

Until then the four core elements of hip-hop – freestyle rap, DJ’ing, Breakdance, and Graffiti – weren’t seen as more than hobbies. There is even very little record of this time as they are entirely improvised works.

The gang war begins to escalate in its level of violence. Some say that it was the product of State interference in these organizations, introducing drug trafficking by the police. Let us bear in mind that during the years of Nixon’s presidency in the US (1969-1974), the so-called “war on drugs” began, where the repressive arm of the state persecuted and stigmatized consumers, especially blacks and Latinos: crack appeared as a drug in the most vulnerable places, with absolute police complicity.

In 1976, the DJ and gang leader Afrika Bambaataa, after a confrontation between two gangs and the police that caused the murder of his friend Soulski, created the “Universal Zulu Nation” movement, in honor of the struggle of the African people. He called for an end to the war between gangs and for the youth to take in their hands the street art that they had created as their own way of expression. The creation of this organization fought for the end of the murders among the black community due to the degeneration of the gangs. It was the first time that the term Hip-Hop was used to designate this counterculture composed of its four central elements and emerged in popular New York neighborhoods as an emblem of black identity.

Here the countercultural character of hip-hop deepens. Once the political activity of the black movement diminished, they would find in this way, a channel of expression and vindication of the black roots. In the heyday of disco music, many blacks were kicked out of clubs for breakdancing, wearing their gang outfits, or improvising on musical grounds. The character of protest against mainstream art is then consolidated; that according to its protagonists, proposed to deny the African roots of the black community, with the idea of ​​”Americanizing” them

The 1977 Blackout: The Fact That Hip Hop Made A Mass Phenomenon

Although hip-hop parties were very popular, hardly anyone had access to modern consoles, vinyl and sound equipment to recreate the art of the three creators of the genre. It’s July 14, 1977, during a 24-hour blackout in New York, when this takes a leap.

According to the documentary “Hip-Hop Evolution” by Darby Wheeler and Rodrigo Bascunan, during that summer night, due to poverty and a brutal heat wave, riots and looting broke out throughout the city. Interestingly, many men and women went straight into the music and electronics businesses. The following days the city was filled with dozens of new public parties and enabled the emergence of new groups and rivalries that would take hip-hop to another level and definitely cross the border from the Bronx.

In 1979, plagued by controversies for its commercial success and for abandoning the improvised format, the first song recorded by a hip hop group is produced.

The beginning of hip-hop with social and political content

With the arrival of President Ronald Reagan’s neoliberal offensive, the deepening of misery and social decomposition at the hands of drug trafficking and the crack boom in the neighborhoods, the pioneering band Grandmaster Flash & the furious five in 1981 created what is recognized as the first letter of social denunciation in the history of hip-hop. Until then the lyrics of rap were associated with party themes faithful to their roots.

With this hit that shows how people live in popular neighborhoods where blacks are “second-class citizens”, hip-hop begins to establish itself as one of the most popular genres and opens a new range of possibilities for future creations and issues related to what the vast majority of the black working class lived through on a daily basis. After this, there would be dozens of new and famous artists who would become known during the so-called “golden age” of the late 80s and early 90s, such as KRS-One, Wu-Tang Clan, Notorious BIG, NAS, Run DMC , Public Enemy, and on the NWA west coast, 2pac, among others.

Hip-Hop was born from the hand of the black movement of the 60s and 70s as a phenomenon against mainstream culture, to later consolidate in the 80s and 90s as one of the main channels of expression of social discontent. With the triumph of neoliberalism, which crushed many of the conquests of the working class, the black people preserved this cultural expression that would become an emblem of resistance seeking to strengthen solidarity within their class, and becoming part of the mass culture from the next decades to the present.

In future installments, we will cover the “golden age” of rap during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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