Rap and the American City

At its genesis, Hip-Hop was a perverse art form breaking away from cultural norms and mainstream sounds. It’s vibrancy attracted people, it encompassed rapping, DJing, breakdancing and graffiti. The Godfather of Hip-Hop, Afrika Bambaataa, started this community through block parties in the Bronx as a way to unite young people through the medium of music. Furthermore, Lisa Alexander described hip-hop as a way for the early hip-hop pioneers to “redefine their neighborhoods as places of pride, rather than mere spaces of material deprivation and social dysfunction”. Hip-Hop is much more than just its music, it is the story of an oppressed population, confined to the boundaries of the inner city that was systemically disinvested in.


Rappers from Kendrick Lamar to Nas to TuPac to Drake eloquently paint a vivid picture of their lifestyles. They convey their lived experiences to define their music and these lived experiences are influenced by our city life. Illmatic and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City are two highly rated, influential albums that are focused on the lifestyle of a young man and his instances with his friends, family and sometimes the law. These are lived experiences of some young people in the American inner city. While not every rapper is socially conscious, those that are use that to influence their work of art.

Kendrick Lamar, who was born and raised in Compton, California, frequently raps about his upbringing in the city. Photo Credit: Merlijn Hoek-wikiportret.nl

Rap can express frustrations with social and political order. Below is an excerpt from “m.A.A.d city” by Kendrick Lamar, which criticizes California Governor Jerry Brown:

They say the governor collect, all of our taxes except
When we in traffic and tragic happens, that shit ain’t no threat

You moving backwards if you suggest that you sleep with a TEC
Go buy a chopper and have a doctor on speed dial, I guess,
m.A.A.d city

Rap, real rap, is a gateway into the lives of some members of our society that is often glamorized by the industry as a one-dimensional space which is crime ridden, drug filled land of immorality. However, it is much more than that; it is a very three-dimensional space where people do not necessarily fit into stereotypes and battle with issues such as feminism, colorism and domestic colonization.


Urban Blight in the Bronx.
Urban blight in the birthplace of Hip-Hop South, Bronx, New York City in 1987. Photo Credit: “Flats to Let 1987” Urban Photos

This short piece is only the tip of a much bigger topic on a range issues that show the inextricable link between the city and hip-hop. For people of color, the city became a dilapidated space that was left to their responsibility. Hip-Hop, specifically rap, is a medium by which people are able to express their emotions. We as an audience can begin to understand the experiences in the ghetto through musical expression. These messages could be used as a starting point to develop solutions to the dire situations of some inner cities. There is an intimate connection between the rapper and the city that urban ethnographers struggle to achieve.

Adeyemi Olatunde is a London, UK native and lover of good music, good cities and good vibes. Olatunde is Majoring in geography with a minor in urban planning. He is a Morehead-Cain Scholar, serves as a Programming VP for the Carolina Union Activities Board, a varsity fencer and the Assistant Modeling Director for Coulture magazine.


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