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The Evolution of Rap Music: Protest Poetry, Living Large, and Being True to the Art


By Leon Miller

Saturday, January 4, 2020.

Rap music has evolved since its origins,  to top the charts in most countries. In this context, I want to explain how it started from the protest-type of poetry of artists who used rap to voice their feelings about the experience of oppression in their societies, to how it immediately evolved into a form of entertainment that rapidly increased in popularity. And  how rap musicians went from being defiant sub cultural artists to potentially being able to enjoy the best that life has to offer. However, in addition I want to highlight what it means to be true to the art form and to oneself, to be successful as an artist, and the paradox of living large.   

The roots of rap can be traced back to two sources:  the consciousness raising, social movement, protest-style of The Last Poets in the late 1960s and DJ Kool Herc’s popular form of rap in the early 1970s, which were based on an approach to hip hop that the public found highly entertaining. Thus, rap music evolved from two clear veins that persisted as it developed and became popularized. On the one hand, there were musicians who continued to use rap as a form of protest -  as a consciousness raising tool and as a way of expressing their feelings about living in conditions that could be considered tragic, oppressive, desperate or even seemingly hopeless. Many of the earliest rappers made it clear that the unfortunate thing about living in such a state is that a person might be willing to do almost anything to escape it. However, on the other hand, there were artists who used the earliest forms of hip hop as a way of entertaining audiences in various types of musical settings. The entertainment aspect of rap involved techniques for heightening the enjoyment of various types of musical events.

Many people from different parts of the world immediately recognized within rap music an expression of their own sentiments about the nature of the “system” - that is, the nature of their social-economic and political reality. They recognized that rappers seemed to courageously express the nature of reality in a way that could have a liberating impact - in that it provided a powerful and influential voice, it was a way of expressing the sentiments and venting the feelings of a large segment of the population who felt trapped in oppressive conditions, and it offered a path to fortune. In other words, rap music offered a way out of living desperately, living in conditions that are tragic, and even seemingly hopeless. However, very many, if not most rap musicians  make it clear that the path to wealth and fame starts out being tough in ways that are life threatening. For example, in terms of life on the streets, the likelihood of having to commit dangerous acts out of desperate necessity, and survival almost inevitably demanding siding with and defending a click which has to take its stand against various types of rivals – some of whom are even within the rap industry itself, and the path to success continues to be so along the way. Many artists describe the path as being filled with tragedy of a type, in fact, that can even be fatal.  As we all know was the case for some of our most admired rappers.

Many young artists quickly recognized that in spite of the tragedy that can accompany a rapper’s lifestyle it can potentially provide a path to enjoying “the best that life has to offer”. In other words, successful rappers can achieve a life of glamorous luxury.  But achieving fortune is most likely connected with the vein of rap that is a form of entertainment and seemingly an expression of the dominant values of the very system that the protest rappers spoke against.  Thus, for the most part at this point in the evolution of rap, the pursuit of living large or the entertainment aspect seems to over-shadow that aspect of rap that is an expression of protest and a voice for the struggle of the masses. Thus, rap as a form of entertainment and the commercial value of the art overshadows the impact of rap as a form of protest and the impact of the artists who used poetic lyrics as an expression of their intention to remain true to the poetic art form and true to the struggle. However, it can’t be denied that many of the most popular entertainers still profess that they remain “true to the game”. Thus, it could be said that only those artists who are exceptionally talented are able to remain true to the art, continue to spread a message of empowerment, and, at the same time, become extremely popular. 

Consequential to rap trending toward becoming an increasingly commercialized form of pop music, many of its best entertainment-style artists are able to “top the charts”. Somewhat surprisingly, the nature of the lyrics seems to become less important as rap becomes increasingly more popular.  What seems to be more important is the power of the passion of the artist, the intensity of the drama reflected in the entertainment style of the artist, and the beats.  Much of what we see regarding the current lifestyle of rappers is the ability to afford the most expensive cars, living large, being able to afford to throw lavish parties on a regular basis, and having a large female following. That is to say that many of the videos portraying their lifestyle glamorize the same type of values that are portrayed by other forms of pop media - sex, drama, and sensationalism – with a noticeable amount of glamorizing “thug life” blended into the mix.  However, this also means that rap music has evolved to the point where some of its most successful artists are able to live lavishly and enjoy a life of seeming luxury. That is to say,  many of rap’s top entertainers are able to reach a level of success that is difficult for others to reach even if they chose the path of other  profession careers.

One of the terms often used to characterize rap artists and the nature of their lifestyle is “player”. But what does it mean to be a player and why does the term player so accurately describe the nature of the art and the rapper’s lifestyle? A player, of course, is synonymous with someone who “plays the game” – like, for example, Michael Jordan as a player in the game of basketball.  The point is that a player stands out because of his or her personal talents. In this respect rappers consider themselves players because they have learned to play the game of life by relying on their own personal skills and talents. While most people deal with the reality of “the system” by relying on some type of 9-5, “players” rely on their own self-determination. Players believe that what they need for success comes from inside of themselves. While a player of sports can earn millions because of their athletic ability, a player in the rap industry can earn millions by just rapping about his or her life experience and/or impressions of reality.

Those who are somewhat familiar with rap and its lyrics realize that as the industry matured, between the mid 1980s and 1990s, the idea of “player” took on additional meaning. On the one hand, it continued to refer to individuals who effectively manage the challenges of a very aggressive and sometimes violently competitive reality by relying on their personal skills. In this sense, a player means being able to rise above it all, live a lavish and gregarious life, and win the admiration and respect of others. That is to say that a player continued to be measured by the extent to which he or she has "game". But game also means the skill of “doing what you want, as opposed to “busters who can only do what they have to”. The more “game” players have, the more respect they can command in the world of rap, from the opposite sex, and from fans. However, on the other hand, the term “player” eventually was used to distinguish a group of hard-core rappers from the social protest poets and the entertaining-type rap DJ’s. The hard-core rappers would typically boast of their skills at being a player in the hard-core side of life.  This means that their self-expressions were much stronger than protest, it was rage against the system. This style of rap was a statement of defiance, a declaration of the rappers will power, and a claim of the strength of the rapper’s ego – to the extent of boasting. Much of that defiance and rage was aimed at “player haters” but, in addition, the defiance was aimed at anyone who dared to test them. Thus, the term “player” became associated with the strength of the rapper’s ego -  boasting about who is the best in the game and has the skills to prove it against anyone else who would dare to come and test them – either player haters or other artists trying to top their game. So there is a “do, or die” mentality that can be a part of the competitive nature of the rap industry and the boasting can result in creating a “beef” with other individuals. This hard-core style of rap is referred to as gangster rap – which is tantamount to an expression of the power of street movement.

Power is defined as having the ability to get what you want regardless of the opposition. However, power can also involve using any means possible or force to get what you want, it can involve power struggles which are aggressively competitive by nature, and those who believe in using force to obtain what they want usually believe that the rule of the game is “winner takes all”. If you are not able to play the game this way you can be regarded as soft as a “cream tart” doughnut and subject to being taken advantage of. However, when there are large amounts of money involved then power is also a factor. Thus, there are aspects of the rap industry that not only involve money but also power struggles.  

Young people who choose the route of a player in the rap game as the means to having the type of future they are hoping for must understand that the more successful you become, the more you will be confronted by the very nature of power – especially when success involves large amounts of money. This means that young aspirants must keep two things in mind that becomes more apparent the more successful you become. First, the music industry is a multimedia telecommunications network that represents one of the most powerful industries in the world today. Thus, to promote and protect its interests the industry invests in what is popular and will sell. This also means that rappers must comply with what sells by portraying a certain type of image that even carries over into their real life. Therefore, rap artists must also portray themselves as ready and able to hold their ground in the various aspects of the competitive challenges of life, both inside the industry and in their personal lives. 

It seems that as rap continues to evolve as an art form, its artists are being challenged to express themselves in a way that combines the various veins and elements of rap. They have to be able to produce lyrics that raise the consciousness of the listeners, remain true to rap as an art form, and release music that is highly entertaining and very popular.  In this respect, becoming a rapper is tantamount to becoming a lyrical entrepreneur. An entrepreneur is a talented person who relies on his or her own ingenuity to offer some type of creative breakthrough that earns the person some distinctions, respect, and wealth.  An entrepreneur is a person who wants to be successful in the highest terms but, at the same time, wants to be as independent as possible. Like other paths a young person could possibly choose in life, becoming a rapper is filled with challenges and obstacles.  And, as is true with many other possible paths in life that a young person could choose, many might find that they don’t have what it takes to be successful in the rap industry. But for those with exceptional creative, artistic, musical and poetic skills, and who have the passion and the ego, becoming a lyric entrepreneur could be the right path toward enjoying the best life has to offer.

The article is written by Dr Leon Miller (A.K.A. Jah A) with support from of MC Bass and Basquet, both award-winning MCs with experience both in the UK and Eastern Europe. 

Dr Miller (pictured below) is an instructor of Ethics, Comparative Religion, Intercultural Communications, and Intercultural Relations. He is an International Consultant for a "Value-Based Approach to Sustainable Social-Economic Planning". He has a large number of peer-reviewed publications in the areas of the Philosophy of Religion, Peace Research, International Relations, and Ethics in a Globalized World. He has recorded four musical singles and also published many poems.

The Evolution of Rap Music: Protest Poetry, Living Large, and Being True to the Art

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