Born in the Bronx in the 1970’s, hip hop, much like books, is a language that tells stories. Similar to the ingenuity and resilience of the people it speaks to, it continues to grow, evolve and inform our culture and on its 50th anniversary, it’s crucial to understand its significance. Hip hop is not just a genre of music; it has risen above mere entertainment, and has shaped fashion, law and even politics. Hip hop transcends borders, languages, and social strata so much so that other cultures have adapted it to tell their own unique stories. Hip hop is a transformative force that has served as a platform for self-empowerment, enabling artists to authentically share their narratives. It also gives insight into worlds that people could not otherwise have access to. It has challenged societal norms and sparked controversy regarding censorship. Hip hop is one of America’s greatest exports and has left an indelible impact on the world.
A great hip hop song can give you insight into the human condition and the subject matter is varied and diverse. From a trap house in Atlanta to a trailer park in Eight Mile, a great hip hop song can tell a story and immerse you into a world that may feel alien to some but familiar to others. Hip hop songs have helped make people who may not have previously been represented feel seen and have their lives reflected in the music. The music genre can hold up a mirror to society and educate others about lifestyles they would not otherwise be privy to. Hip hop empowers artists to account for their lives in a way that is real and authentic and enables fans to identify and empathize with their struggles.
Since its inception, hip hop has been subversive and has served as an agent of change. Songs frequently address polarizing subjects such as poverty, racism, police brutality, and inequality, often challenging the status quo. While some argue explicit lyrics may negatively impact children or promote violence; artists counter that their lyrics reflect the experiences of their communities and serve as social commentary. N.W.A’s seminal album “Straight Outta Compton” tackled police brutality and systemic racism, inspiring necessary discussions about these issues that are still prevalent in society today. Hip hop’s unfiltered narratives, even when contentious, contribute to an open dialogue on societal challenges that need to be addressed.
An often-overlooked aspect on how hip hop has impacted society is in helping develop First Amendment law. Luther Campbell AKA “Uncle Luke” along with other members of 2 Live Crew went to the US Supreme Court to defend their and other artists’ rights to free speech, free expression and parody. In 1990, 2 Live Crew released their album “As Nasty as They Wanna Be” which created important precedents in favor of free speech that still stand today. The first case involved the content and performance of the album which was deemed obscene by authorities in Florida. The Broward County Sheriff attempted to stop the sale and performance of the album and even arrested all members of 2 Live Crew during a live performance. In Luke Records v. Navarro, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the songs and performance were not obscene and that music has serious artistic value and does not rise to the level of obscenity even if it includes profane and seemingly vulgar lyrics. Additionally, in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., (often referred to as the “Uncle Luke parody case”); 2 Live Crew parodied the Roy Orbison song “Oh, Pretty Woman” by remixing the song with explicit and sexually charged lyrics. The crux of the case centered on whether 2 Live Crew’s parody constituted copyright infringement or was a protected form of fair use under copyright law. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of 2 Live Crew, finding that their use of the original song was considered parody and was protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression. This case created an important legal precedent for musical parodies, and affirmed that they could be protected as a form of fair use and were not necessarily a copyright violation. It had a significant impact on the interpretation of copyright law, especially in the context of artistic expression and parody, and it remains an important case regarding the intersection of copyright and free speech.
While these legal battles may have been arduous, Uncle Luke and 2 Live Crew understood the importance of having creative freedom to express ideas in the way artists see fit. Unfortunately, while Uncle Luke and 2 Live Crew may not get the recognition they deserve; the role they played to help develop first amendment law is significant. They were an integral part of shaping our cultural landscape and enabling others to candidly tell their stories unencumbered by censorship.
Libraries have always understood their patrons and the significance that hip hop may have played in their lives so they have joined in on the celebration. In New York, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Albany public libraries are offering programming, literature and even special edition library cards to its patrons. The Oakland Public library offered a back to school jam featuring the legends DJ Cool Herc and Cindy Campbell as well as hip hop reading lists. The Philadelphia public library is also offering special edition library cards to their patrons to commemorate the occasion.
Growing up in South Africa, I learned so much about American culture listening to hip hop. Seeing Missy Elliot in the Supa Dupa Fly video or Outkast proclaiming that the “South got something to say” had me hooked to the genre forever. The cadence, the beats and the melodies informed my young adult life and are inextricably linked to my childhood. It is the soundtrack to my life and I am thankful for it. So on Hip Hop’s Golden anniversary, I would like to recognize and appreciate those who have shared their stories and with it changed our lives. Happiest of birthdays to Hip Hop, all you’ve ever needed was one mic, one beat and one stage to shape culture forever.
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not those of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.