Crucial matters of history, language and politics are key components of hip-hop culture, and hip-hop is not just a form of entertainment but a “powerful art form to teach us” about today’s society, according to Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist Rapsody.
With lyrics reflecting issues of racial injustices and discrimination, Rapsody told a packed auditorium at the Power Center for the Performing Arts that “hip-hop can continue to grow and educate and expand more powerful people.”
She was part of a panel at U-M’s annual DEI Summit community assembly, which saw members of the University of Michigan community gather Oct. 9 to consider this year’s theme, “Truth Telling: The Kinship of Critical Race Theory & Hip-Hop.”
Also on the panel, sharing insights into hip-hop’s position within music and the entertainment industry and how its culture intersects with prominent racial injustice issues, were:
- David Banner, Grammy-award winning hip-hop artist and social justice activist.
- andré douglas pond cumming, associate dean for faculty development and Charles Baum Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Tabbye M. Chavous, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, announced the launch of DEI 2.0, U-M’s second five-year strategic plan to implement activities and programs to further the university’s mission to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on campus.
The plan is available for download at the DEI website. The Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion will host a DEI 2.0 information session on Oct. 18 at the Michigan League Ballroom to examine the plan’s aspirations, objectives and plans to create a welcoming and accepting campus community.
President Santa J. Ono told the assembly audience he is committed to furthering the university’s mission to foster a community of support and understanding on campus.
“We are dedicated to DEI to where it fosters the exchange and development of ideas. It promotes understanding across different identities, dispels racial stereotypes and prepares our students to be leaders in the global marketplace of ideas in an increasingly multicultural society,” Ono said.
Antonio Cuyler, professor of music in entrepreneurship and leaders in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, moderated the panel discussion.
The power of the narrative, Cuyler said, can be harnessed to “change perspectives, promote social progress and particularly amplify the voices of marginalized individuals and communities.”
This use of narrative storytelling, cumming said, is where CRT converges with hip-hop.
“Critical race theory is rooted in narrative storytelling as a rhetorical tool, as a way of describing the content and life in the United States of America. In many ways, critical race theory is a true historical realism from the perspective of those at the bottom,” cumming said.
His early education about racial discrimination and injustices did not come from his school, cumming said, but rather from his exposure to hip-hop. Growing up near Compton, Carson and Long Beach, California, cumming saw the disparities in law enforcement’s response to different races, a dark reality reflected in the lyrics of popular hip-hop songs.
“Hip-hop, like critical race theory, seeks to tear down structural racism that crushes Black and brown Americans, particularly through forms of law enforcement abuse, mass incarceration, corporate exploitation and childhood trauma,” cumming said.
Encouraging people to truly understand the messages conveyed through hip-hop songs, cumming said people should find ways to engage with these themes in their own lives.
“If you take the messages of hip-hop and let those imbue what you do in a way that can lead in your communities, in your classrooms, in your workplaces, then you can truly be hip-hop,” cumming said.
Rapsody said certain groups act as if they are threatened by hip-hop because the music genre reveals the truth about societal issues and puts them in the forefront. She said music as a form of communication has been an integral element of Black culture for generations, and hip-hop communicates in an entertaining and far-reaching way.
“(Hip-hop) allowed us to tell our stories and be, you know, the reporters of what we lived in, what we were going through and what we saw,” Rapsody said.
Aspiring to be a voice for the voiceless, Rapsody writes her own experiences into her songs. As a child, rapper MC Lyte’s songs about her experiences as a Black woman were particularly impactful for Rapsody, and she hopes her own stories can resonate with young kids today.
She also acknowledged the prevalent issue of ownership regarding hip-hop music and culture. With hip-hop’s power to influence politics, culture and contemporary issues in society, Rapsody said, more outside people are vying for control.
“It’s so influential that you’ve got people that want to infiltrate it and use it to whatever they want to uphold these systems that are created to hold us down. And you know, that’s the impact of the culture, and why we’re so powerful and why there are a lot of people that shouldn’t have control of it dying to have control of it,” she said.
Banner also emphasized that ownership is a key issue in hip-hop, and efforts by other groups and races to monopolize the industry and culture for their own gain need to be more widely understood.
“We have a tendency to be romantic when it comes to hip-hop. … When you look at hip-hop as a structure, it is not owned by our people. Like, what systemic value do we get from hip-hop? Yes, we do influence fashion and other aspects of international culture, but does it come back to our community?” Banner said.
Noting the commercialization of many aspects of hip-hop, Banner explained there must be a balance of entertaining songs with lyrics that expose racial injustices.
“I just want hip-hop to come back home and for hip-hop to get some balance, and for us to just create from a space of creating, and not creating from the space of trying to make money,” Banner said.
Speaking to students in the auditorium, Banner said the power to shape the future falls to them. He said they must advocate for change and step up as leaders within their communities.
“Racism will never go anywhere, and if you truly want better you have to create your own. So those of you who are at this university and who are Black: What are you going to do with this education? What is your plan? Is your plan for self? Or is your plan for community?” he said.
Other speakers at the event included:
- Laurie M. McCauley, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.
- Katrina Wade-Golden, associate vice provost, deputy chief diversity officer and director of implementation for the diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan.
- LSA undergraduate student Josephine Conti, co-chair of the Native American Student Association.