There is no debate that history happens in time periods. For instance, you have the Ming Dynasty or The Great Depression; and as humans we tend to categorize life events, innovations or war by the decade it happened, rather than by the event itself. For music, we may classify psychedelic music as the 1960s when really started in the late 1950s through the early 1970s – a decade is relative time in the music industry, but still allows non-industry individuals to easily look back and remember 90’s hip hop or 2000s R&B.
The book 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This To Sing About by Joshua Clover, covers exactly this idea. However, Clover takes his theory a step further to say that the Baby Boomer generation (our parents) are involved in two separate histories – pre-1989 and post-1989. I’m going to summarize his thoughts quickly, but I heavily recommend checking this book out because it’s pretty insightful. Okay here goes;
History ended in 1989 because nothing after that year was “life-changing” to middle class America.
Clover explains his idea in detail through each chapter, but hypothetically he isn’t wrong. What he is saying, is that events that took place pre-1989, like both World Wars, Civil Rights, Women in the Workforce, MLK Jr and JFK’s assassinations, all greatly altered the course of our country and influenced what democracy means around the world. How the United States progressed gave immigrants hope for a secure future if they could only come to this great nation.
Now, post-1989 is the true debate because so many things have happened during the few decades Millennials have been alive. Events such as the first African American President (shout-out to BO and the Mrs. I miss y’all so much), the September 11th Terror Attacks, the scandal of Monica Lewinsky, and ahh yes – the Age of Internet. Unfortunately, some of you reading this were not old enough and/or even alive to remember the shooting at Columbine or the election of the second Mr. Bush. Think about this for a second, how much history have you actually been witness too?
Now, think about your favorite hip hop album right now. Whether that’s 4:44 or AABA (All AmeriKKKan Bada$$) or anything that isn’t trap-crap. You are hearing modern history through your speakers every single time you press play. Usually, we tend to study the progression of music through instrumental experimentation but in this instance, spend time studying the language presented in the songs you listen to. For example, several songs were recorded in response to the assassination of our Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., like Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Gonna Come’; “It’s been a long, a long time coming / But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will” (discussing the progression of equality of America). This song in particular is dedicated to the impact MLK Jr. had on the country and the optimism individuals began to feel from marches and speeches like I Have A Dream.
Fast forward to 1988, when on the west coast a rap group by the name of N.W.A. released an album titled Straight Outta Compton with their now-infamous song, ‘Fuck Tha Police’. The track spearheaded the discussion of black-on-white police brutality, which was a precursor to the LA Riots of 1992. N.W.A. while labeled gangsters, were recording historical events as the group witnessed them – whether Dr. Dre, Eazy-E or Ice Cube even knew the power of their record, that’s another story (check out the novel by Ben Westhoff, Original Gangstas for more).
Recently, Joey Bada$$ was on a panel interview with VFiles, and stated that “music is the only thing more powerful than love”, which is why he releases the music he does instead of “inconveniencing others stuck on the street because protesters are in the way”. During the conversation with Wes Moore (CEO of Robin Hood), Joey went on to describe how powerless he felt sitting with protesters in the streets of New York City, so he decided to take to the studio to give individuals who feel similar, a voice.
Similarly to N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, All AmeriKKKan BadA$$ (AABA) speaks directly to the problems of American culture; the inequalities groups experience and the top-down approach certain political parties have decided is “appropriate” for the American people (did I already say how much I miss BO and MO?). In AABA, Bada$$ speaks directly to Americans of color in every track, but particularly ‘Land of the Free’, Joey spits to the optimism he feels is still achievable for black Americans,
“The first step in the change is to take notice / Realize the real games that they tried to show us / 300 plus years of them cold shoulders / Yet 300 million of us still got no focus / Sorry America, but I will not be your soldier / Obama just wasn’t enough, I just need some more closure / And Donald Trump is not equipped to take this country over / Let’s face facts ’cause we know what’s the real motives”
Today, Joey BadA$$, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and a handful of underground artists like Killa Kyleon (Houston), have become the faces of modern day soldiers against social equality. Their music has not only continued the tradition of storytelling through rap, but have become focus points for historians to analyze the past 30 years to present day and into the future. While political changes are important to document, it is even more important to understand how society progresses through every day changes, such as music or technological advances like social media. As a generation of consumers we are intaking every post, tweet, emotion thrust in our general direction and even if we don’t realize the impact, in ten years – our siblings or children will ask about the Ferguson Protests because it’s not only in their history books, but each of us lived through the months of riots.
This is not to say that other subgenres of hip hop are not as important as “conscious” records, but I do think previously mentioned artists will be most important to public history and popular culture studies in the future. America is an interesting place and just as we are a melting pot culturally; we are also a melting pot philosophically. There are rappers who do not believe there is such a positive outcome from where we stand today, just as N.W.A loosely stated 31 years ago. Rappers such as Killa Kyleon heavily believe that the “Black Dream” died at Lorraine Motel alongside Martin Luther King, or is continually disappearing as teens are shot and killed like Travon Martin or men like Philando Castile. This is an artist’s creative process to record their feelings and beliefs, just as immigrants have written their experiences in journals during their journeys from one country to another. These actions allow historians to paint a more real picture of a time period, to tell the most accurate story possible without omitting any one individual because their opinion was not accounted for.
Long story short, we are living through history and hip hop is simply just archiving it for our descendants to better understand who we were at a culture during the 21st century. Music is the easiest way to express your emotions, beliefs and actions throughout your youth (unless you sustain a multi-decade career like the Rolling Stones), but do not take it for granted. Tell your story appropriately and fully, so your message cannot be misconstrued for anything less than it was meant to when an audience gets ahold of the album one night, you never know – it could completely change them as a person and inspire change.
Sara is a pop culture historian and hip hop enthusiast who spends time dissecting albums from the past to present, to better understand the world in which we have come to live in, and it’s influences on the average American listener. You can find her on social media @Sara_Loretta.
Photo courtesy of NPR: Ferguson Protests