The question of the birth of hip-hop is a contentious one—as are all questions concerning the geneses of art forms—and full of rich debate on cultural touchstones, waves of influences, geography, visual art and dance, and stories of intrepid pioneers. Most of these debates locate the distinct emergence of the form in the mid-to-late-’70s. But a closer look reveals that the seeds of the art were sown by and during the civil-rights movement. The two aren’t as opposed as they might seem.
Specifically, something of hip-hop’s genesis can be detected amid the chaos following April 4, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Riots swept the nation, both the largest of the wave of annual multi-city uprisings in the ’60s, and the last such outbreak for decades.
Across the country, young black people erupted with the violent anger that King himself had seen boiling over in the slums and consciously sought to diffuse. Although King’s body of work had been centered in the South—often in its smaller cities and rural areas—the rage was the fiercest in major cities in the North and Midwest, as what James Baldwin called the “powder keg” of generations of frustration from the Great Migrants was ignited. Black youths in those centers railed against both the white and black power structure. For a week or more, much of black America was consumed in a hellscape. And there, in the primordial soup of chaos, the heat of rage, and the electric energy of frustration, the molecular components of what we know to be hip-hop were formed.
The tide of riots that struck much of Washington, D.C., illustrates many of these embryonic components. Back from a sojourn abroad as a global public intellectual, the Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael reappeared in the American public eye the night of King’s assassination; his attempt at hastily organizing a march failed, and D.C. became one of the first of over 100 cities to experience riots. The following day, Carmichael held a press conference warning of widespread racial violence and panic in response to “white America’s biggest mistake.”
D.C. was ignited, and the black neighborhoods around U Street, H Street, and parts of the southeast quadrant of the city went up in flames, even as the National Guard descended upon the city and machine guns were mounted on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. But even there, amid what would become a decisive political and social battle for the racial future of the nation’s capital, hip-hop was being born.