The commercial wing of the hip-hop genre, which tends to get all the airplay, wallows in materialism and topless-bar notions of eroticism. It’s easy to caricature and mock, and it gives Bill O’ Reilly (and his ilk) easy ammunition. At the same time, the conscious, adventurous wing of hip-hop, while easily overlooked, continues to become more vocal and socially active.
On a drizzly November afternoon in the Alamo City, a handful of local and national hip-hop enthusiasts gathered with community members at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center to explore the music’s dichotomies. They talked about the representations of masculinity, technology, feminism, and community within the culture’s four elements.
Ill Communication — a two-day conference presented by the Texas Media Empowerment Project and Urban Coalition, focused on interlinking the world of urban art, sound, dance, and film to expand socio-political understanding of diversity and urban culture — began with a screening of Byron Hurt’s exceptional documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. An engaged audience watched as Hurt’s self-described “loving critique” of rap music culture broke down the representations of manhood, sexism, and homophobia in hip-hop, bringing hip-hop activism back to San Antonio for the first time since the League of Young (formerly Pissed Off) Voters’ 2004 Slam Bush campaign.
Once the lights came up, San Anto activist Lupita Leos, Chicago emcee Quell, artist Lady Binx, the Prhymemates collective’s Steve Balser, 98.5 The Beat’s Valencia, and Jeff Kuglich of Galapagos 4 took the stage for a panel discussion that resulted in an enlightening exchange with audience members. “It’s really a two-way street and a lot of people overlook that,” Balser said, commenting on this city’s still burgeoning hip-hop scene. “It’s so oversaturated right now in any entertainment business; everybody wants to be a celebrity.
“At the same time, a lot of the people that are actually doing it want to do it but they don’t want to work the work that needs to be done to keep perpetuating that scene. You have a lot of rappers, you have a lot of DJs, even graffiti artists, but ultimately, I see a lot of people that want to be a part of something but aren’t willing to put forth the work to continue to perpetuate a movement and keep things going locally and across the whole region of the South.”
Back in 2004, the collective efforts of the historic National Hip-Hop Political Convention, Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Citizen Change Campaign, and the grassroots League of Young Voters, along with anti-war sentiments expressed by established hip-hop figures, helped bring four-million new young voters to the polls. Organizations including Brooklyn’s Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Oakland’s Youth Media Council, Chicago’s Southwest Youth Collaborative/University of Hip-Hop, and Cincinnati’s Elementz built upon these efforts in their communities by further utilizing hip-hop to spark social change. With another election year upon us, folks are looking to hip-hop to continue to evolve as a social force, even as the music industry regresses.
“Basically they want a polished product,” Valencia said, in reference to the major-label attitude toward new music. “They want you to peddle it and then when you’re a polished product they’ll want to sign you to a record deal. So the record labels are basically getting lazier. They want you to do all the work then they want to reap the benefits, which is taking money out of your pocket. You may as well stay independent. The distribution at that point comes in. Eventually you’re gonna be a slave to the record label. That’s the truth.”
“I had to seek out hip-hop in San Antonio, the positive, underground hip-hop,” Leos said, responding to the dearth of hip-hop consciousness on SA’s airwaves. “The Prhymemates definitely help the hip-hop scene here. They give a positive message. The Astex definitely have positive messages in what they rap about. Lotus Tribe is another good group, but you have to seek them out because they’re not played on the radio constantly. So if you really want that, you have to go look for it.”
In 2001, 90 million commercial rap albums were sold in the United States. Last year the number was down to 59 million, suggesting that burnout has set in, and listeners are ready to step away from the corporate-rap drivel that denigrates women at almost every turn, towards something that may even have the power to sway an
“The truth of the matter is if we as women stand up and we stop getting in these videos and we say that certain positive artists are cool, the guys will follow. The only reason hip-hop is the way it is, is because we as women allow the guys to do that,” said Valencia.
“Just like you’re in a relationship and a guy dogs you out, you kind of allow that but you can move past that. You have to separate entertainment from reality and that’s something we have to teach our kids. Hip-hop is changing but it’s gonna be a while though. It’s gonna take a minute to get where we want it to be.” •