Culture  /  First Person

It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop

We cannot understand the last fifty years of U.S. history—certainly not the first thing about Black history—without studying the emergence and evolution of rap.

Looking back now, as a historian who teaches courses on Black politics, culture, and social movements, I see how the Rodney King moment—and the response to it—shaped my outlook in the early 1990s. At that time, I wasn’t hearing a political message about organizing or reform. The words that reached me were from hip-hop culture, angry and defiant, along with worried advice from my family. The King video initiated a decades-long conversation about race with my parents, especially my mother, that lasted until her passing in 2017. “You are part of an endangered species as a Black boy growing to be a man,” my mom often told me. My parents argued that I needed to “act right,” or conduct myself in the most respectable manner—hold my tongue and be polite to authority figures, steer clear of “problem kids,” work hard, and focus on my education. Respectability represented the best path toward social mobility. My mother did not have a choice but to individualize the solution. No Black leaders or “new” Civil Rights Movement were coming to save us.

Meanwhile, my education failed me. I learned the standard United States history lessons, if not myths, repeatedly until my senior year of high school. We barely discussed enslavement. We always talked about the “founding fathers.” We would be lucky if our history class reached World War II by the end of the school year. I loved reading about World Wars I and II in hand-me-down encyclopedias when I was younger. As a teenager, I was bored. I also developed a superficial understanding of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “had a dream . . . blah, blah, blah . . . content of our character not the color of our skin, blah, blah, blah.” I only knew who Malcolm X was because of the hats and T-shirts emblazoned with an “X.” I was vaguely aware of the NAACP, which had a local chapter in Mansfield, but I couldn’t see how it connected with the world I was coming to know through Ice Cube and company.