After 50 Years, What’s Left for Hip Hop to Teach?

After 50 Years, What’s Left for Hip Hop to Teach?

After 50 Years, What’s Left for Hip Hop to Teach?

Chuck D and Rosa Clemente discuss the past and future of music and politics.


This year is the 50th anniversary of a back-to-school party in the Bronx, where Clive Campbell, a Jamaican American better known as DJ Kool Herc, used two turntables to create a “break beat.” It’s the moment that’s said to have birthed hip hop. Today, some say hip hop is dead, or at least lost some of its collective fighting spirit. Others look at the uprisings against police killings, and the multibillion-dollar global music market as indications of its continuing success. Chuck D is the leader and cofounder of the legendary group Public Enemy, and the author and executive producer of a BBC series airing on PBS, Fight The Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World. Rosa Clemente is an award-winning organizer, journalist, and historian specializing in Afro-Latinx identity and Black and Latinx liberation movements. In 2008, Clemente became the first Afro-Latina to run for vice president of these United States, alongside Cynthia McKinney on the Green Party ticket. After 50 years fighting the power, how is it going, and what does hip hop have to teach?

—Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders: You start off this TV series by saying, Chuck, that hip hop has a lot of stories to tell, and a lot of lessons to teach. Give us a lesson, give us a story.

Chuck D: The title says it all, Laura, Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World. The most important word in that narrative is “world.” It’s been around the world for at least 40 years. Nineteen seventy-three is the date, but it goes around the world when it becomes a recorded art form for vocals and music, and the perception of making one DJ sound like a band in 1979. How it’s changed the world, that’s the tunnels and the roads that came out of the art form. How it got filled with the content to be able to make somebody think differently is the story of the execution and the elocution of rappers, DJs, break dancers, graffiti artists, and activists.

LF: Rosa, your life was and is still a life of activism. When you think of the music, what music do you think of, and what role did it play in that activism of yours?

Rosa Clemente: When I was going to college as an undergrad at SUNY Albany, hip hop was obviously always there, but I didn’t think that 10 years or 15 years later there would be something called hip-hop activism. I went to college a few years after people, particularly college students, were rising up against apartheid. I do remember that crystallizing moment when I watched Do The Right Thing, and Public Enemy and Chuck.

LF: In the ’70s you had a lot of people talking about power. By the time you get to the ’80s, power is obscured for a lot of folks.

CD: It’s scattered, it’s decimated. We call it the R&B movement, which is Reagan and Bush. Black and brown people were just like ashes at the bottom of that totem pole. You had things that were infiltrated, that pointed back to the government and the CIA, the infiltration of hard drugs and guns. The hypocrisy and the dichotomy of an actor who’s a president saying, ‘This is the war on drugs.’ Like what the F are you talking about? You had something to do with planting the seed that this fruit of poison is falling on us, and you’re talking about stopping it, when you guys are the root cause. And we have no particular level of media clapback to make people understand how foul you are. Hence rap music, hence hip hop.

RC: We were beginning to understand police violence and containment in our communities. My generation just came out of seeing the Central Park Five incarcerated. Donald Trump came and put up these billboards to bring execution back to New York State because of the Central Park Five. Then we go into the ’90s and the diversity of the music. We also begin to see SWAT teams being created in South Central LA, and I think that’s what led, particularly people on the West Coast, to say, “We’re going to rhyme about it, rap about it. We’re going to have our parties.” After Bush and Clinton were elected, we already knew what they were about to do. They got the Juvenile Justice Act passed, then we began to see our communities really locked down and contained. But at the same time, continuing to create things that were political. One important moment is the song “Self-Destruction,” where you see all the rappers—KRS, Chuck D, Monie Love, Queen Latifah. “You’re heading for self-destruction, you’re heading for…”—that started people’s mindset around, “That’s political music.”

LF: Rosa, you’re a scholar, and I should point out that you teach and speak all over the country. Could things have been different? And do you think the critique that you and others brought to the movement is getting adequately reflected in this 50th anniversary?

RC: No, not in this year. I mean, the continuing erasure of hundreds of women. In fact, I’m not doing a lot of interviews for that reason. I can’t—everything for almost 15 years of our lives in this moment in hip hop was also watching our backs. What rapper, who’s a man, going to come and say we don’t belong? Or somebody wrote a critique about your album, so then you have men literally running up on you. What I did begin to see is the rap industrial complex, as I call it, and money. Because one thing the pioneers all taught us is that none of them would have ever thought you could make millions of dollars. And most of them still don’t, as pioneers. We don’t have a health care union, there’s no pension or retirement for hip hop. But these are things that we did fight for.

LF: What is the story you think the future will tell now? What is the story you think the future, 20, 35 years hence will tell of this moment?

RC: I for sure know that there would be no Black Lives Matter movement. Puerto Ricans fighting for independence—all of that comes to hip-hop culture. With all that is good and that’s bad, that’s the story that needs to be told. But if women continue to be erased, if LGBTQ people continue to be erased—I think there’s an unfair amount where hip hop is critiqued solely as the place where these things happen. No, they’re happening from the White House, all over the world. We didn’t create white supremacy. We’ll have people tell us you’re dealing too much with identity politics. Trump is literally running on a white supremacist politics. How don’t people see that? And how are people not understanding what can happen again? Young people will decide, but the culture will never be dead, absolutely no.

LF: Chuck, the story the future will tell of now, it’ll probably be a song.

CD: Future is not an accident. And the future ticks. It’s not a thing where we could say 10 years later, 20 years later, five years later, even maybe not even three years later, the future is at every tick. So work on it.

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