Hip Hop's Blurred Lines: Social Consciousness vs. Controversy

Some artists would like to see the music return to its activist roots.

Posted: 09/20/2013 05:56 PM EDT

Rev. Lennox Yearwood, president of the Hip Hop Caucus. (Photo: John Ricard/BET/Getty Images for BET)

Hip hop often gets a bad rap. That's in part because so many artists have earned millions from lyrics and videos that demean women and promote a thug lifestyle. They get the most airplay, and as one audience member at a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation forum on "Hip Hop Politics" lamented, lead people like George Zimmerman to wrongly preconceive good boys like Trayvon Martin to be a threat.

The panel, hosted by Indiana Rep. André Carson, featured old- and new-school industry icons, including Run-DMC's Darryl McDaniels, MC Lyte and Hank Shocklee, founder of Public Enemy. Rev. Lennox Yearwood, president of the Hip Hop Caucus, also participated in the frequently feisty conversation.

Much like rock 'n' roll did in the '60s, rap and hip hop have had an enormous influence over a generation of listeners. But somewhere along the way, they began to be viewed as leaders, which they didn't sign up for or are trained to serve as.

Still, the panelists observed, used the right way, the medium could also empower younger generations and encourage them to engage more in social justice causes and politics.

"It can be a cultural expression used to help young people form their political experience," Yearwood told BET.com. "You can use the music, the poetry, the art in a way that explains the process, so they can understand how a bill becomes law or how to vote."

Using it to educate people, he added, would make the job of people like him much easier.

"So when I talk to communities to talk about the environment or stop and frisk, they're not looking at me with blank stares because they've already heard it through the music," Yearwood said.

Once upon a time, panelists said, hip hop served as an inspiration and gave people living in Black communities a bigger voice. It didn't promote negative images as some of the music and programming like Basketball Wives do today.

"One of the elements of hip hop beyond the music, dance and culture is aspiration. It has always been about aspiration, people wanting to come up from the bottom to the top," said Londell McMillan, publisher and owner of The Source magazine.

But artists cannot bear total responsibility for the industry's more misogynist and violent reputation, he added. The listeners have co-signed the change.

Record labels and radio stations also have played a role. Broadcasters pay homage to old-school rappers at noon when kids are in school, so they never hear the motivational rap groups like Run-DMC created when they were young, McDaniels lamented.

The music he and other artists created "out of the death and despair and the crime and the poverty" of their communities, he told BET.com, "changed the world."

"We told the kids, 'Yeah, I'm a gangster, but you don't have to be one,' not 'I sold drugs or disrespect women, so celebrate me,'" he said. "Right now you've got a lot of rappers, it's cool, but they're just rappin'. They aren't changing conditions in our society."

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