Today, my students and I will discuss James McBride’s essay “Hip Hop Planet”, and I am honestly more excited about this class than I am about most (and I’m usually pretty excited about class). McBride’s essay explore the history of hip hop and studies how it speaks for the disadvantaged. He talks about how the music came out of Black and Latino communities in the Bronx and how it now permeates the underculture of places like Senegal.
I, like McBride, am not a fan, particularly, of the musical side of hip hop. Rap is really lost on me (except for the more political stuff like Public Enemy or Black Star.) I’m not really driven by a hard beat, and I don’t know enough about popular music to find the sampling of rap to be even that intellectually stimulating (although I’d love to study it if I had time)> I do love the dance of hip hop, what most people call breaking, although the thought of me going to a club to see it makes me almost laugh out loud. I, like most Americans, know b-boys from shows like So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Best Dance Crew. And the art, well, I really love good graffiti, not just the tags of kids looking for something to do in their boredom, but the art that litters train tunnels and overpasses.
But I, like many educated, white Americans, really know hip hop through the way it has influenced other areas of life. I love the painting of Jean-Michele Basquiat, and I greatly appreciate the way that rap has influenced spoken word poetry. On a more trivial side, I’m a big fan of hoodies, and I think hip hop may have something to do with that.
Yet, I also know I do not understand with any personal depth the social, political conditions that brought about hip hop. I have never wanted for food or clothing. I have never feared for my life on a regular basis just walking to my apartment. I have never been followed in a store because it was assumed I would steal, and I do not know what it is to feel disenfranchised, at least not on any grand scale. I am a member of the privileged elite, and so in some ways, my appreciation of hip hop is parasitic, taking life from the suffering of others.
Maybe this is why I appreciate McBride’s essay so much: it gives me access to hip hop through my education, a place where I feel genuine and empowered. And today, I hope his essay will make my students feel the same way: empowered, wise, and informed. A little like hip hop itself.