Hip hop is not what it is. Hip hop is what it was for the essence of rapping is an evolution of soul music that traces its roots in the very essence of defiance. Hip hop is a rebellion; a refusal to submit to the whims of the powerful and instead hold tight to an interrupted culture. Hip hop is the continuation of a melody that has coursed its tunes through the ages—a song that refuses to bend an instead reinvents itself with each successive generation.
Hip hop is the offspring of beats and cadences from the continent of Ethiopia. No that was not a mistake (evidence), what I wrote about the continent of inception was intentional for “Africa” was once called Ethiopia before it was rebranded by outsiders. True hip hop to me is a music that teaches as much as it makes our head nod and sway our hips. The true essence of the dopest emcee is the one who can grab a mic and wash away ignorance with spoken words yet has the talent to make the body move while stirring the conscience. Hip hop is spoken word and profound knowledge; hip hop is not about hoes and bitches—that is genocide music. Hip hop is a combination of message and good times, the ability to fuse a lesson with beats that grabs your neck and makes you nod along without realizing you are even doing it.
Hip hop is the continuation of rebellion music, the heir of drums that reverberated from Timbuktu to Axum, the evolution of masinkos and marimbas. Hip hop is the byproduct of capoeira where once Brazilian political prisoners (I refuse to call people slaves as long as they were fighting bondage) used to practice for an insurrection using a mix of subterfuge, music, dance and martial arts to prepare for freedom’s struggle. Hip hop is the next iteration of blues, jazz, and rock and roll—all of them once maligned by pop culture until pop culture got infected by the soul of rebellion music.
Hip hop is power! This is why I occasionally get so dejected when I hear today’s rap stars maligning the legacy of hip hop and the ancestors hip hop was birthed from by taking to the mic to insult women, glorify killing and to celebrate hubris and ignorance. I know I might sound like a curmudgeon writing that previous sentence, but I will take the risk of being that old man that tells kids to get off the lawn in order to speak up against the absurdity we have come to accept. After all, there is a difference between conveying the struggle and glorifying the strife. I’m not arguing that we should lead monastic lives or advocating that we need to mind our manners. But damn there has to be a point of rejection and I humbly submit that line is met when hip hop gets hijacked by fame hungry rappers who gladly feed poison to their people so they can eat filet mignon and wear borrowed chains for themselves.
But let me clarify one thing, when I speak up against the fatuity that is pushed by the major record labels as music when it’s really poison pills, I do not mean to imply that the state of hip hop can be understood only through the prism of the major labels. In reality, hip hop thrives in the same spaces where it was once given birth to. The same way that hip hop giants like Kool Herc, Keith Wiggins, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and the Sugar Hill Gang conceived hip hop in city parks, basement parties and basketball courts, the truest and most profound forms of hip hop is found at makeshift basement studios, city corners, and spoken word venues at this present moment. We measure success based on money and accumulations but most often the most talented artists and thinkers are the ones who toil without accolades who struggle just like us.
Hip hop is perspective to be honest. Although I could have dedicated this entire article to bashing rappers who bash our culture with genocide music, I choose to pivot and actually celebrate the ones who are true hip hop as they refuse to be peddlers of mindlessness and instead choose to be rhythmic oracles. From the unknown rappers to the super novas who rap with a mix of message and levity, there are countless emcees who continue the legacy of hip hop as rebellion music. As I’m writing this article I’ve been listening to a mix of Talib Kweli, Common, Mos Def, Nas, Statik to name a few who are spitting so much knowledge and profound messages all the while making me nod along with the bass and the beats.
Hip hop then is what we, the listeners, make it. Maybe I myself have been wrong all along, life is what we choose to see even in the midst of nothingness. For too long I’ve been raging against the ways hip hop has been co-opted by the record labels and is now being used to feed toxins to our youth. But focusing on the malfeasance of malcontents with microphones has prevented me from realizing that there are endless emcees out there who are continuing the legacy of hip hop as a rebellion song. Instead of being focused on the cacophony that is marketed as music, let us instead focus on lyrical geniuses who manipulate words like Madoff manipulated the gentry of the Upper East Side and the Village.
So then hip hop returns full circle. Hip hop is us as much as it is the spoken word artist. We have a choice as consumers of music. We can ingest empty calories or we can nourish our souls with rebellion music that stays knocking at the wall of oppression and ignorance with a combination of message and head nodding beats. Hip hop is POWERFUL; the same way that rap has become ubiquitous throughout business, church, and our homes, hip hop can also spread awareness and speak truth to power. Hip hop can be the rebellion music that delivers the change we all have been waiting for. Profound words combined with dope beats can overcome inertia and injustice.
This is a shout out to hip hop; the past greats like KRS-1, Tribe, RUN-D.M,C, Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, Eric B and Rakim, Monie Love, Salt N’ Peppa to the ones we lost too soon Tupac and Biggie. This is also a shout out to the ones who are still shinning, the ones mentioned above and a few more like Kenrick Lemar, Weeknd, and J. Cole. Most important, this is a dedication to the ones we have not even heard of but who keep grinding out hits that blesses a few hundred the same way once former political prisoners in Brazil blessed a small circle with music, movement and defiance by way of spoken words and drums from the continent of Ethiopia. Shout out to my boy Flex Mathews who is an independent rapper in DC who drops the craziest freestyles ever. And one last spotlight on Curtesy (see video at the bottom), an up and coming rapper who is all about message and rebellion in a way that values intellect over arrogance. Hip hop lives and continues to evolve but it stays true as rebellion music. #HipHopDefiance
“Hip-hop is a voice for voiceless poor people.” ~ Russell Simmons
Remember how I mentioned Monie Love, where she at?
You asked how long you will be mourned
The answer is for an eternity
A soul conflicted yet confident
You spoke of hip hop’s possibility
Can’t deny your brilliance
Through your pen you observed
And penned our collective confusion
Yet inside you there was a lion
You refused to compromise your pride
Your pride as in your people
You did not sell out for prominence
Your words reflected society
I understood your contradiction
At once shinning a light
You concurrently articulated darkness
Our name is our destiny
And in yours there was always defiance
Resilient though they shot you
Defiant though they murdered your character
Time after time
You let your pen speak of rebellion
You refused to adhere or conform
Shakur became the quintessence of uprising
Through the curse words and harsh lyrics
Your music touched on the essence of poetry
True to your roots
You rebelled against the system
That is what led to your assassination
A mind dangerous that questions the system
Blamed on black on black violence
The truth is that you spit at the oppressors
Killuminati was your death sentence
But in your wake you left an eternal presence
Hip hop died with your last breath
From men to boys
All we are left are tokens
From message to rubbish
Hip hop has turned to genocide music
Dispatch to Pac you are not forgotten
You will be mourned forever
Let Jay have his fortunes
A sambo will be rewarded for tap dancing
But you retained your character
Z might have the fame
Let his lot destroy their people
But Pac’s message will be immortal
Excerpt from “Serendipity’s Trace” (link)
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.