Music and race have been intertwined throughout U.S. history. Two recent books offer perspectives on hip hop and its connection to race and culture.
Starting with a look at how Spike Lee’s 1989 movie Do the Right Thing “used rap music to underscore his exploration of racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood,” Sounding Race in Rap Songs, by Loren Kajikawa (University of California Press, 2015; 978-0-5202-8399-2) examines “how descriptive language about sound can trade in racialized imagery.”
Sounding Race approaches “race [as] not a biological essence (something one is born with) but rather a changeable, context-dependent social construct.” While noting that “it is impossible to neatly separate hip hop culture from the rap music industry,” Kajikawa says that “this distinction has a practical purpose when it comes to understanding race as a category of analysis.”
This perspective of hip hop as “color blind” suggests that music could be one avenue toward better relations between ethnic or racial groups: “Recent research on localized underground hip hop scenes even suggests that the culture is transforming the way race is lived by encouraging its practitioners to abandon fixed, essentialist notions of identity and embrace a more fluid, ‘situational’ model.”
For an upbeat perspective on music and on issues of race and community, The Healing Power of Hip Hop by Raphael Travis, Jr. (Praeger, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC; Intersections of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture series; ISBN 978-1-4408-3130-0, print; 978-1-4408-3131-7, ebook), credits the musical genre with 40 years of “giving voice to the voiceless, allowing people a renewed freedom of cultural expression, and giving people tools to liberate themselves from a belief that their external conditions define them.”
Noting that hip hop is a culture that “mirror[s] systemic and institutionalized oppression, exploitation, and profit [s] from the suffering of others,” Travis notes that “[t]hese risky elements have given hip hop culture the reputation of being a source of negative influence among youth and communities of color. Many hip hop artists are scapegoats for this negativity.”
Where The Healing Power of Hip Hop offers insight into current political and social issues is in its description of “the relative consistency of hip hop’s context-specific values such as persistence and, at times, resistance (also under the umbrella of self and community improvement) in the face of adverse social conditions distinguishes it from other forms of art and culture.”
Rather than exploring these issues from a purely theoretical or abstract perspective, Travis provides practical suggestions for improving the way people interact and communicate with each other.