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Hip-hop music: the soundtrack to the fight for black liberation

There are elements of hip-hop that can be used to advance civic engagement and validate black lives. Tiisetso Tlelima attended the seventh edition of Black Portraitures, a trans-Atlantic indaba, and discovered more about the place held by hip-hop in the civil rights struggle of black people.

“Understanding who we are as black people is integral to attaining freedom, Dr Bettina Love told a room full of artists and activists at the Black Portraitures conference held at Turbine Hall in Johannesburg on 17 to 19 November 2016.

The seventh edition of Black Portraitures was the first time that the conference was hosted in Africa. This year’s theme wasReinventions: Strains of Histories and Cultures” and it included a series of conversations about the imaging of the black body. The aim of the conference is to offer a forum that gives artists, activists and academics from around the world an opportunity to share perspectives on blackness and resistance using art, dance, music, film and photography. The conference comes at a time when there is a complex political climate both in South Africa and the United States. In South Africa, black students have been protesting to demand free education and in the United States black people have been protesting against police brutality.

“You have to know who you are, where you come from, to fight for freedom.”

“You have to know who you are, where you come from, to fight for freedom,” said Dr Love during her presentation, which was titled “From South Africa to South Carolina: Post War Music and Black Spaces”. “Too often when we fight for freedom the power structure remains intact. We can’t dismantle that power structure if we are not a collective and if we don’t know our own history.”

Black Portraitures: Reinventions: Strains of Histories and Cultures conference. Photo: Facebook
Black Portraitures: Reinventions: Strains of Histories and Cultures conference. Photo: Facebook

The power of the drum

This means that it is imperative for displaced and dispossessed blacks, both in South Africa and in the diaspora, to spend time getting to know their history and reconnecting with one another. Central to this quest was the need to reconnect with the drum, a repository of the cultural memory of black people that is found in all Black music, including hip-hop, and can be a useful tool in the process of decolonising.

“The drum is what connects us, from South Africa to the US,” said Dr Love. “There is power in the drum – it will help us with the connectivity we need to fight social injustice.”

Dr Love spoke about using hip-hop and the drum to fight for freedom, given that the genre does not only provide pleasure but also holds the politics and power that is deeply embedded in the Negro experience. She emphasised the need to view African creativity not as creating for the sake of consumption, pleasure and entertainment but as a huge part of resistance and the fight for civil rights.

US rapper Nas (Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones ) performs on stage during the Coke Live Music Festival 2009 in Krakow, Poland, 22 August 2009. Photo: ANP/EPA Jacek Bednarczyk
US rapper Nas (Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones ) performs on stage during the Coke Live Music Festival 2009 in Krakow, Poland, 22 August 2009. Photo: ANP/EPA Jacek Bednarczyk

Dr Love, an award-winning author and associate professor of educational theory and practice at the University of Georgia, has done extensive research on the ways in which urban youth negotiate hip-hop music and culture to form social, cultural and political identities and to create new ways of thinking about social justice. She has been a Nas Fellow, in honour of rapper Nasir Jones, a joint initiative between Harvard University and the Hiphop Archive that created the Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship.

Civic engagement through creativity

She explained that black people do civic engagement every day through creating and being creative. Black people can see the world in the way that white liberals cannot because they know they are not free – which white liberals do not understand. That is why Black people resist through song.

“Hip-hop is a space of cultural memory,” said Dr Love. “Trauma and memory is passed down from generation to generation in black spaces. Ways to fight that trauma are also passed down. How do we tap into what our children already have passed down to them? Hip-hop can do that.”

File picture. A photo of Alfred Olango, 38, hangs at a makeshift memorial at the site where he was shot by police earlier this week on September 29, 2016 in El Cajon, California. Photo: ANP David McNew
File picture. A photo of Alfred Olango, 38, hangs at a makeshift memorial at the site where he was shot by police earlier this week on September 29, 2016 in El Cajon, California. Photo: ANP David McNew

Dr Love has also done research that focuses on how teachers and schools can work with parents and communities to build communal, civically engaged, anti-racist, anti-homophobic and anti-sexist educational classrooms. She also talked about the need to use elements of hip-hop to conscientise children. Dr Love has created an educational programme, which she refers to as “a hip-hop civics curriculum”, titled “Get Free”. This programme introduces middle- to high-school students to a network of young community leaders and activists who advocate for  social change in the United States, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. The programme is inspired by the ingenuity, political energy, resistance, love and DIY model of underground hip-hop, and aims to push for freedom and civic engagement.

Get Free nurtures the ways in which students connect intellectually with the art form but also creates a space where diverse solutions to today’s social problems can be addressed.

The programme also uses hip-hop elements to teach children how to attain interpersonal skills such as emotional intelligence, leadership qualities, creativity and problem solving, effectively rejecting the European style of teaching. Dr Love shared how the soft skill of emotional intelligence is already present in hip-hop culture. For instance, during a rap battle, MCs know when it is their turn to go in because they have the emotional intelligence to do so.

Hip-hop music created a rich environment within which to discuss patriarchy, misogyny and conspicuous consumption - Dr Love. Photo: Charlotte Cooper/Flickr)
Hip-hop music created a rich environment within which to discuss patriarchy, misogyny and conspicuous consumption – Dr Love. Photo: Charlotte Cooper/Flickr)

When asked how one uses a genre as anti-women and patriarchal as hip-hop to teach children, Dr Love responded by saying that hip-hop music created a rich environment within which to discuss patriarchy, misogyny and conspicuous consumption.

“Hip-hop is created within capitalism and reproduces capitalist ideals as well, but that does not mean we should not engage with it.” Dr Bettina Love

“Hip-hop is created within capitalism and reproduces capitalist ideals as well, but that does not mean we should not engage with it,” countered, Dr Love, adding, “Everyone should be consuming and critiquing hip-hop at the same time.”

Being honest to our children

Dr Love went on to say that children are smart, but we lie to them about their blackness and the kind of world they live in. She highlighted that it was important to be honest with children and teach them what it means to be black and to tell them they are not free. In addition, Black children have to be told about their culture no matter how problematic it is and they must be encouraged to be critical of what they are consuming at all times.

“The idea of liberty and freedom for black people is incomplete,” said Dr Love. “It remains incomplete and is something to be done, rather than possessed.

In fighting for freedom, Dr Love said we have to understand and interrogate whiteness which makes white people automatically delusional. The lives of Black people live in white people’s illusions, in which their lives are not real. Whiteness functions with rage and it allows white people to be delusional and to ignore facts.

Sadic Ali Khalil wears a shirt bearing names of black people shot by police at the site where an unarmed black man, Alfred Olango, 38, had been shot by police earlier this week on September 29, 2016 in El Cajon, California. Photo: ANP/Getty Images/AFP  David McNew
Sadic Ali Khalil wears a shirt bearing names of black people shot by police at the site where an unarmed black man, Alfred Olango, 38, had been shot by police earlier this week on September 29, 2016 in El Cajon, California. Photo: ANP/Getty Images/AFP David McNew

“Blackness with aspiration, which is wanting and fighting for citizenship, is what leads to white rage,” explained Dr Love. She concluded that white people are intimidated by ambitious black people and because being creative means that one has ambition, it triggers white rage.

The Black Portraitures conference was held in collaboration with the U.S Department of State, Harvard University, New York University, Wits University, Tisch School of the Arts and the Goodman Gallery.

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