Why We Need to Take Hip-Hop Seriously

Earlier this year, ‘Same Love’ by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis feat. Mary Lambert won the award for Best Video with a Social Message at the MTV VMA Awards. The video and the song sparked discussions and debates in the music industry as well as in wider popular media. A genre that has a notorious history of hypermasculinity and homophobia now has a mainstream representative advocating LGBT rights. It was one of those moments of realisation where I paused and thought, how did this happen!?

I’m not in any way downplaying the importance of the above event, but it is merely a single articulation of a trend in the music industry and hip-hop itself – namely that the definition of the genre has reached a stage of ‘post-mainstream’ where identities and cultural norms are being challenged in ways previously unimaginable.

I’m casually throwing around the term ‘post-mainstream’ which obviously warrants an explanation. Hip-hop as a genre emerged as a voice for those who weren’t given much space to speak in society. This subculture gradually became increasingly visible and influential on the commercial market and is now as mainstream as Britney and Gaga.

Furthermore, and I hope most people in my generation will agree, the music produced now is very different compared to that from 10 years ago. Gone are the days of writing meaningless commercially fuelled songs about ‘pimping bitches’ and being a ‘gangsta’ (thank god!).

If you were anything like my teenage self you were probably rolling your eyes at 50 Cent and Eminem muttering ‘Bitch please’ whenever someone praised them. I definitely wasn’t cool enough to mutter ‘Bitch please’ but this is how I choose to remember high school – rose tinted lenses and that.

As an ironic twist of fate, the big rappers from that time who are still making music today are so ingrained in mainstream popular culture that the two seem to be feeding off each other. I remember the moment Madonna appeared with her gold grills, which can only be described as some sort of mind blowing, but scientifically valid, osmosis. What the hell is going on?

On Jay-Z’s latest album Magna Carta… Holy Grail we can hear lyrics such as ‘Fuck hashtags and retweets’ and ‘somewhere in America Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’. Not to mention my personal ‘favourite’, the brief reference to Sweet Brown’s viral YouTube video Ain’t nobody got time for that. I’m getting increasingly convinced that popular culture and hip-hop are dry humping each other into oblivion.

So where does that leave the new rappers? The sound, artistry and rhetoric of performers such as Iggy Azalea, Mykki Blanco, Angel Haze and Kendrick Lamar is miles away from the hip-hop heard in the early noughties and it’s also nowhere near the gentrified state of the remaining big names in the genre still producing music.

This is why I’d like to use the term ‘Post-mainstream’ when referring to contemporary hip-hop that speaks from a more intelligent, mature and subversive point of view. The tone is more poetic and profound compared to the hip-hop we were used to hearing throughout the past decade.

An interesting development is the appropriation of hip-hop culture amongst hipsters – to the extent that the cringeworthy term ‘Hipster Hop’ is creeping its way into our repertoire.  A very obvious representation of this merger is fashion; many rappers are now wearing skinny jeans with oversized t-shirts, loud accessories and New Balance trainers – sounds familiar? They are pretty inseparable from the hordes of trendoids in East London and stumbling into bars in Shoreditch which play ASAP Rocky and Azealia Banks as a common occurrence – I’m more confused than ever.

So how does this relate to broader social change? The recent examples of hip-hop artists speaking up against homophobia are fortunately increasing dramatically. Without going into too much reiteration (we’re all pretty bored hearing about the details by now), influential voices such as Jay-Z, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar, to mention a few, have openly addressed hip-hop and homophobia to varying degrees.

Any discussion about hip-hop and homophobia can’t exclude acknowledging the painfully beautiful open letter Frank Ocean posted on his Tumblr, which exposed him having been in love with another man. If you haven’t read it, I would strongly advise that you do – like, right now. Hearing such rhetoric from an influential singer like him must mean the landscape of hip-hop has changed for the better.

You’re probably thinking what is the point with this rambling about hip-hop, hipsters, gays and everyone in between? To be honest, I’m not actually sure. The more I think about it, the more puzzled I get, and that is probably a good thing.

Iggy Azalea manages to be a successful white female rapper topping the charts as well as being represented as a professional model by the prestigious agency Wilhelmina. Culture, music and people are changing, or perhaps a more appropriate term would be… evolving.

I’m not denying the fact that there’s a lot of shallow and commercial rap tunes on the mainstream charts, this is unfortunately unavoidable. But outside this realm subcultures are merging – hipsters, hip-hoppers and gays are merely 3 examples, but there are countless. Lines are blurred and identities are merged to the point where they no longer connote the meaning originally assigned to them. Is the genre changing? Are identities changing? Does it even matter, as long as whatever it is keeps changing?

What we can establish from all this is that the ‘post-mainstream’ evolution of hip-hop could have the potential of creating an influential and powerful political and cultural agenda to benefit us all. If a steadfast cynic such as myself is thinking along these lines, there must be some truth in it.