Jeff Chang is the author of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. His 2005 book chronicled the post-civil rights era showing how hip hop “crystallized a multiracial, polycultural generation’s worldview, and transformed American politics and culture.” He is the executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts + Committee on Black Performing Arts at Stanford University. Named by Utne Reader as “one of the 50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World,” Chang has been a USA Ford fellow in literature and a winner of the North Star News Prize.
We talked with Chang earlier this week about the history of hip hop music and culture in the United States, and the way in which it has become a force for protest — and revolution — on the worldwide stage.
[Parental Advisory: Some embedded music videos contain profanity.]
Riley: You have proclaimed that hip hop is the most socially important music of our time.
Jeff Chang: I think hip hop tells the hidden story of the latter part of the twentieth century and the beginning of this century in terms of the underside of the American dream and, by extension, what has happened in and amongst youth all around the world. Although not all hip hop is exclusively political, a good amount of it speaks to the kinds of pressures that young people have been facing because of globalization, changes in policing and the incarceration of youth and oftentimes, the breakdown of institutions and structures in the communities that hip hop comes from. I’ve always listened to hip hop with that kind of an ear, listening for the seams and where the seams start coming apart, in terms of what it seems to be as popular music, as a critique of society and the economy, and the larger context of the right now.
Riley: In the late ‘80s, Chuck D called rap music “CNN for black people.”
Chang: Yeah, Chuck D famously said that hip hop was CNN for blacks, and I think since then he would say that it’s become CNN for marginalized young people all around the world. His music was a perfect example of that. At that particular moment if you were a fan of rap music, you could listen to artists from different cities and find out what was happening in those cities, whether it was how young people were feeling about the police situation, how young people partied or danced; all of the stories that were not getting reported in the media bubbled up through these songs.
A really good example is the Los Angeles riots. I was going back to graduate school at the time and a lot of progressive professors were stunned by the ferocity and the depth of the rioting. But I wasn’t. Because in hip hop, people had been talking for three years before that about the intensity of Daryl Gates’ Operation Hammer and they were really specific about it. They’d talk about this huge tank that Daryl Gates used to call a batterram that he used to destroy houses that he thought were crack houses. They’d talk about Daryl Gates’ rage and the heavy policing in black and brown neighborhoods that was going on. They were talking about all kinds of the abuses that came to light with the Rodney King video, long before the Rodney King video even aired on the actual CNN. And so nobody was surprised when that kind of stuff jumped off.
I don’t think anybody would have been surprised either by the amount of urgency with which young people began tweeting and Facebooking the details of the Trayvon Martin case, because it’s remained — the question of being profiled for what you wear, being profiled for your dress code, as one rapper put it all the way back in 1991. This has been part of the script of what some people call the hidden transcript, or the counter transcript that hip hop offers.
Riley: Would you say that there was a golden era of socially conscious rap?
Chang: I’m not a big fan of golden era tags. There’s always this strand of protest that’s flowing through the music. What’s changed is the amount of stuff that you actually hear in the media. And this goes to a lot of what Bill has talked about with respect to the consolidation of media. You just don’t have the outlets that you used to have for a lot of this music to be played in mass places. During the era when hip hop was still emerging in the late ’80s and the early ’90s — this was before the 1996 Telecommunications Act — hip hop was like all these other marginal genres that were largely on independent labels. There was community radio via college radio, and it would bubble up and make its way into the local commercial radio stations. It was less unusual to hear an act that was so explicitly political, like Public Enemy, than it would be for one to hear that kind of music now on that kind of a radio station. It was much, much less unusual for a breakthrough like that to be possible. It was still kind of stunning when it happened, but you could see it happening. And now protest music is a kind of thing that you might trot out in an hour-long Sunday morning talk show or something like that. It remains the province of community radio or the internet.
Now, having said that, I think hip hop’s breakthrough during the late ’80s and early ’90s coincided with the rise of a new generation and what we have called the war on youth, which is the increasing use of the state to establish punitive measures to contain and incarcerate large numbers of young people of color. As a result you have songs like NWA’s “F— tha Police,” you have songs like Boogie Down Productions, “Who Protects Us From You?,” you have songs like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” that come out and galvanize people into protest, and express this new rage at these new conditions that were generational as well as racial. And I think that was something new.
The big shift that occurred politically during the ’80s is this turn from treating young people as people who we wanted to take care of, lift, educate, to this strong turn in which we separated youth into those who needed to be brought into this intensely meritocratic system and those that needed to be contained and removed. I think that hip hop expressed a lot of the feelings, the fears, the worries, as well as the hopes and the ambitions of the latter half of youth.
Riley: So if that was what was going on in the ’80s and ‘90s, what’s happening today?
Chang: I think it’s still happening. You still hear it in the music of, say people like Rebel Diaz, or you hear it coming from places that you’d never expect. You hear rappers like DAM from Palestine talking about life under occupation. You hear it expressed in artistically fascinating and hilarious ways with groups like Das Racist. And then you have rappers like Kendrick Lamar, who are really capturing the confusion as well as the dislocation of being young in these urban spaces that were once abandoned and now are being refilled by a new wave of gentrification.
I’m really interested too in what’s happening globally, say with an artist like M.I.A. — who’s achieved some sort of notoriety, if not the sales that accompany that notoriety. She’s consciously trying to bridge the voice and stories of these forgotten young people in places as far flung as Trinidad and West Africa, and Sri Lanka and India, with this really cutting-edge pop music that takes advantage of the influences of all of the local scenes and the weird dances that you do in each of these different places. She’s putting that all together and offering it up as this new kind of global pop. I find that really exciting.
The other part of the story here is technology has changed. When young people in the mid-’80s started to sample acts like James Brown, Jimmy Castor, George Clinton and those types of folks, they were able to do so because the price of the technology had come down dramatically in the five or six years from the dawn of commercial sampling machines to then. And now of course, anybody can carry an entire studio on a cheap little laptop anywhere around the world. So the amount of production and the amount of storytelling and the kind of music making and art producing that now can occur, has just increased dramatically. There’s so much stuff that’s out there.
One story that’s well known in certain hip hop circles, but it’s not as well known in the general public, is the story of this artist named Hamada Ben Amor. Just after the shopkeeper in Tunisia set himself on fire, Amor began making a bunch of underground mix tapes and songs, and one of them was called “Head of State.” The lyric literally went, “President, your people are dying,” and it was a huge protest against the regime. This song passed hand to hand all through the cities around Tunisia and became one of the fires that lit the Arab Spring. It was literally a protest song, in the vein of say Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” that mobilized young people. It helped give them a sense of an uprising in ideas that translated into this physical commitment that overturned the regime — then led a domino effect across the Arab world. It was a hip hop song. It may sound stunning, but this is, again, the power of culture, and another lesson in the virality of music, that something can catch fire so quickly and lead to this dramatic turn of events that’s earth shattering.
I think that that’s the thing that we don’t necessarily see happening in this heavily mediated, heavily monopolized sort of space that we have in the First World anymore. But that is happening all the time in places around the world.