Off The Shelf: Hip-Hop Revolution

“Hip-hop has been the sonic backdrop to my life,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Ogbar from his Connecticut home. “Since I was 8 or 9 years old I can relate songs and albums to specific moments of my life. From middle school to playing baseball to college and even today, hip-hop is there. It’s the music of my life.”

img_9376In 2007, UPK published Hip-Hop Revolution; The Culture and Politics of Rap. In the groundbreaking book, Dr. Ogbar celebrates hip-hop and confronts the cult of authenticity that defines its essential character – that dictates how performers walk, talk, and express themselves artistically and also influences the consumer market. Hip-Hop Revolution is a balanced cultural history that looks past negative stereotypes of hip-hop as a monolith of hedonistic, unthinking noise to reveal its evolving positive role within American society.

Dr. Ogbar has established himself as one of the preeminent academic experts on the political and cultural evolution and influence of hip-hop music. He has been teaching a course on the topic for nearly 20 years at the University of Connecticut. In fact, the course is the 2nd longest continually taught course examining the cultural history of hip-hop and rap in American higher education.

“I was working on my dissertation about black power and I gave a talk at St. Lawrence University about the culture of hip-hop,” Dr. Ogbar explains. “An academic in the audience approached me and asked if I would be able to expand and elaborate on the talk for an article to be submitted to The Journal of Black Studies. That article kind of became a one-hit wonder for The Journal. That’s when Nancy Jackson (former acquisitions editor) at the University Press approached me about writing a prospectus for the book.”

Dr. Ogbar’s book examines the contextual concepts of black identify, misogyny, conflicts with authority and equality as address by MCs and rap culture from the late 1970’s to the early 2000s. He identifies changes in perception and production

“When hip-hop and rap emerged, politics and social commentary were not a big part of the content,” he explains. “In the late 70s and early 80s, Eric B, Big Daddy Kane and Run DMC – they didn’t address societal issues or the realities of being a young black man. Then there was a shift. Public Enemy and KRS-One and N.W.A. made entire records based on social problems and railing against violence and mass incarceration.”

Dr. Ogbar is clearly a passionate fan of hip-hop. Between making scholarly arguments comparing the ebb and flows of a growing democracy to the changes in popular rap, he quotes Snoop Dogg and Chuck D. He takes the study seriously, but is also a fan. The combination makes Hip-Hop Revolution a fascinating read.

220px-publicenemyittakesanationofmillionstoholdusback“Around 1988 two records came out that really captured the public,” Ogbar says. “Public Enemy’s ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ and N.W.A.’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’ both exemplified the progressive black messages that emerged in hip-hop. Those records were engaged and tackled the problems of police brutality, violence, mass incarceration and the war on drugs.”

With the rise of ‘gangsta rap’ in the early and mid-1990s, Ogbar noticed a significant change.

“Those records with Dr. Dre and the Dogg Pound signified a 180-degree shift,” he says. “The idea of violence against other blacks and celebrating selling crack became the norm. Not to mention misogyny and perpetrating sexual assaults. That set the tone for popular hip-hop that persists today. The pressure is to be accepted or to be validated as a real rapper is often related lyrical content that emphasizes taking another brother out.”

In his book, Ogbar also explores problematic black images, including minstrelsy, hip-hop’s social milieu, and the artists’ own historical and political awareness. Ranging across the rap spectrum from the conscious hip-hop of Mos Def to the gangsta rap of 50 Cent to the “underground” sounds of Jurassic 5 and the Roots, he tracks the ongoing quest for a unique and credible voice to show how complex, contested, and malleable these codes of authenticity are. Most important, Ogbar persuasively challenges widely held notions that hip-hop is socially dangerous—to black youths in particular—by addressing the ways in which rappers critically view the popularity of crime-focused lyrics, the antisocial messages of their peers, and the volatile politics of the word “nigga.”

Ten years after it published, Dr. Ogbar is impressed, but not surprised, by the state of hip-hop. Since he wrote Hip-Hop Revolution, rappers have performed for and been promoted by the President of the United States and the most popular Broadway show in a generation boasts a hip-hop soundtrack.

“What’s most interesting to me is the great rise in activism even before the election,” Dr. Ogbar says. “Never before have protesters shut down major thoroughfares in major cities on this scale. These crowds are multi-racial. They are black and white and Hispanic and Native Americans. And the thing is, these crowds are listening to hip-hop. This music has become common ground. It has become a connecting force. That’s interesting.”

Hip-Hop Revolution: A Spotify Mixtape by Dr. Jeffrey Ogbar

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Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar is associate professor of history and director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut. He is author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity and edited the volume The Civil Rights Movement: Problems in American Civilization.