History has long been an inspiration for art, including rap music. Groups like Public Enemy not only broke into the mainstream and entertained crowds, but as a recent Rolling Stone article put it, “taught a generation Black History.” But according to historian Pero G. Dagbovie, some have claimed that the so-called Hip Hop generation—Black Americans born between roughly 1965 and 1984—“seems to be self-consumed, individualistic, and not willing to sacrifice for the advancement of ‘the tradition of protest.’” The pursuit of wealth appears to be the the greatest concern for its members.
Writing in the mid-2000s, Dagbovie argues that this is something of an over generalization. He explains that there exist two Hip Hop generations, with “a significant difference between the ideologies of those born between 1965 and the mid-1970s and those born in the late 1970s and the 1980s.”
Black Americans born between 1965 and the mid-1970s, at the height of the Black Power (BP) era, were shaped by social and cultural forces more conducive to Black cultural nationalism than were those born in the late 1970s and early 1980s, what he terms the post-Black Power (PBP) era. Teenagers in earlier group were surrounded by “nation-conscious” analytical rappers (Public Enemy, KRS-One, X-Clan, Queen Latifah, and others). Youth in the later group weren’t exposed so directly to “reality rap.” A noteworthy “gap in historical consciousness” exists between the two groups.
“Young African Americans could readily turn to non-underground [B]lack music for insightful discussions about the state of African people, past, present, and future,” Dagbovie writes of the BP Hip Hop generation. Analytical rap was more common in the late 1980s and the early 1990s than it was in the mid-2000s.
Black cinema, from the 1970s “blaxploitation” films to Spike Lee’s work “also played a major role in socializing young African Americans by addressing important and often controversial issues in their lives and in [B]lack history.”
Such movies paralleled the popularization of Malcolm X, the human rights activist and spokesperson for the Nation of Islam who was assassinated in 1965, Dagbovie observes. Simultaneously, the life and work of Malcolm X fostered “a black historical consciousness within the BP Hip Hop generation.”
For instance, Boogie Down Production’s album name By All Mean’s Necessary was a play on Malcolm X’s famous phrase “by any mean’s necessary.” In 1992, the film Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington and directed by Spike Lee, introduced more members of the BP Hip Hop Generation to Malcolm X’s activism. In turn, young Black students were inspired to take action against anti-Black racism at predominantly white institutions.
“Using Malcolm X as a spiritual advisor and building upon the black student movement of the Black Power era, in the late 1980s and early 1990s thousands of black students at various predominantly white colleges and universities engaged in many meaningful, well-organized protests and sit-ins,” Dagbovie writes.
The confluence of movies and music meant that young Black people could easily access history through lyrics and dialogue that taught them about Civil Rights leaders and the racism Black people faced—and continued to face—in the United States. Dagbovie contrasts this with the experience of the PBP Hip Hop Generation.
“There have been a few black films that the PBP Hip Hop generation could have gravitated towards,” he notes, but that didn’t happen. Instead,
…Spike Lee’s Four Little Girls (1997) and Bamboozled (2000) failed to attract a large young black viewership. Bamboozled…could have become a rites of passage cinematic experience for the PBP Hip Hop generation. Instead, in 2002 the PBP Hip Hop generation witnessed Halle Berry and Denzel Washington receive Oscars for Best Actress and Best Actor for their stereotypical roles in Monster’s Ball (2003) and Training Day (2003) respectively.
Dagbovie argues that though the younger generation didn’t respond collectively to Black oppression, it could be because both BP and BPB segments were living “at a time when it is far too easy to undervalue or fail to appreciate the value of African American history.” He observes that
[B]lack youths are distracted by a multitude of media-generated images and messages with which no previous younger [B]lack generation has had to deal. While earlier generations…have drawn great knowledge and inspiration from [B]lack history and cross generational dialogues, the Hip Hop generation has largely failed to recognize the potential value of employing [B]lack history.
An additional stumbling block for the embrace of Black history as a political tool has been the increasing commercialization of Black History Month, criticisms of which were raised in the 1990s by Black historians, including John Hope Franklin, Earl Ofari Hutchinson, and Robert L. Harris.
“Today Black History Month is an established tradition,” noted Hutchinson in 1999. “Politicians designate special days, issue proclamations, and sponsor tributes to African American notables. […] Then February ends, and it’s back to business as usual.”
Black History Month isn’t enough, concludes Dagbovie. “Black historians, especially those of the Hip Hop generation, need to consider creating effective, innovative, and appealing media with which to popularize and transmit black history throughout black communities, especially among the Hip Hop generation and the youth.”
Editor’s note: This article was amended to attribute the quote in the first paragraph to Pero G. Dagbovie and to include a link to his scholarship.