- Billy W. Richardson, Jr.
Bring the Noise: Hip-Hop & Black History
By: Billy W. Richardson, Jr.
Black history is long, rich, and fraught with struggle and triumph. At the hands of our oppressors, we have been enslaved and exploited. Yet, at times, praised for our ability to benefit the oppressors economically. Throughout these various states of existence, we have not only survived but thrived. Not accidentally, The Civil Rights Movement’s theme song was We Shall Overcome.
The miracle of being Black in America is that we have overcome every curve, twist, and turn of destruction America has thrown at us. Therefore, one might wonder why all of our stories of love, life, death, and everything in-between aren’t the subject of feature films or best-selling books? Furthermore, who can Black people trust to be the authors and narrators of our stories of glory and pain–when and if they get told? Answering these questions will give great insight into the nuance and variety of how Black History Month has been taught since its inception on February 2, to February 28, 1970, at Kent State.
In most African cultures, the griot was the person who told the story of the people - its lineage, victories, defeats, etc. Griots were respected and revered within their respective communities. Hip Hop has played the role of the griot with respect to Black History. Through art, fashion, and the spoken word, Hip Hop has disseminated Black History to the world.
In fact, the formation of hip-hop itself is Black history. Musical artists formed the foundations of hip-hop as President Gerald Ford publicly recognized Black History Month in 1976. Black History is visible in every element of Hip Hop culture. From graffiti to MC-ing, Black History is ever-present. Carter G. Woodson, founder of Negro History week, which would later become Black History Month, has been celebrated in Hip Hop’s music, clothing, and art. The first time most Black youth of my generation heard the word ‘Nubian’ was in A Tribe Called Quest’s song Footprints. A term we would never hear in history class.
The growth of Black History Month and Hip Hop go hand-in-hand. While public schools and Black churches were introducing a nicely packaged, easy to swallow brand of Black history, hip-hop was brewing in the streets. Fun-loving initially, hip-hop soon turned to a more revolutionary strain. It quickly went from the Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight to Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message. The former is about partying and braggadocio, and the latter is a social commentary on serious issues affecting the community. It was a seminal moment in Hip Hop, also in Black History.
The Message was also the forerunner to such powerful pro-Black voices in Hip Hop, such as Public Enemy, KRS-One, Poor Righteous Teachers, X-Clan, and Dead Prez. These artists, credited with bringing Black consciousness and historical appreciation to rap, rapped about African American as well as African history. They infused politics, social justice, and current events into their songs from perspectives the listeners would not hear otherwise. Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey became household names among the youth alongside Martin Luther King. “X” hats and African medallions became a necessity in a Black teen’s wardrobe. The Golden Era of Hip Hop gave America a Black History Month that was unapologetically Black, radical, informative, and transformative with a beat to which everyone could dance.
Billy W. Richardson, Jr., is a loving son, brother, uncle, and friend. He has been a teacher, mentor, and active community member for more than twenty-five years. His hopes and goals are to make a positive impact on the world, which will not just be remembered but used as an example of service to humanity by others.