The young activists that stayed in impoverished communities during the 1950’s through the 1970’s formed families within these same communities who gave birth to a new generation of thinking. The new generation was not only aware but upset by the travesties that their grandparents and parents had to endure during the civil rights and black power movements. The civil rights movement which originally gave the black community hope and a sense of belonging was short lived. While Blacks were no longer segregated, they were still left searching for social equality. In the 1960’s- 70’s, the feeling of disappointment turned into rage; they were tired of the inequality and thus formed the Black Power Movement. The youth was unionizing to form equality in their community and make political statements against the system. From these two previous generations instilling awareness of social inequalities and the system not caring about you it is here where I’m truly convinced Hip-Hop was born. In 1989 Public Enemy did notrandomly just started rapping about the inequalities of the 911operating service. This was years of frustration in the making, and as absurd as it may have seen to the public that lived in above poverty levels. The youth of this time exactly understood what Public Enemy meant when they sang “911 is a joke in yo town”/. The Hip-Hop movement now gave the youth a voice to come together and form a community and for once feel part of a nurturing family. Using music as a coping mechanism is not a new concept, the civil rights had soul music, the black power movement had James Brown but Hip- Hop was different. Although it also centered on music, unlike the political movements of the past, hip-hop was more than one artist or genre of music representing and associating with your struggles. Hip-Hop was bigger, it became the way you dressed, spoke, danced a subculture the kids of the 1980s created to cope with their harsh reality. As Dj Herc eloquently sates, “Hip-Hop sayscome as you are it is not about me being better than you. It’s about you and me, connecting one on one” (Yang Intro). This “universal appeal” (Yang Intro) became the inner voice and the philosophy in which the youth of this time founded Hip- Hop.And offered Public Enemy and all the rappers of their time a platform to connect with the youth on a one on one basis on the inequalities they were both facing.
Public enemy’s “911 is a joke” comes rushing in to the listeners ears as the harsh reality that has been a culmination of the last 40 years in New York city history. Public Enemy’s hype man and charismatic sidekick, Flava Flav, uses a comedic delivery to relate a prominent issue many black communitiesfaced around the country; the lack of response to the needs of African Americans in placed 911 calls. This is evident in the first verse of the song:
“They only come and they come when they wanna, /theydon’t care cause they stay paid anyway”
The NYPD, FDNY, EMT are the first line of defense we have in society. New York City’s emergency respondent departments are supposed to encourage feelings of protection, equality and community. However, when your first and basic line of defense does not care about you, it opens your eyes to the reality that society does not care about you either. If your city, town and state do not care about you, no one else would. Feelings of exclusion and rejection were emotions the Black community was all too familiar with.
There were numerous socioeconomic conditions thatinjected doubt, exclusion and rejection in black communities.These contributed greatly to the formation of Hip-Hop and political rap groups like Public Enemy during the 80’s. “White flight” in the 1950’s and 1960’s played a huge role in entrapping minorities in urban neighborhoods in the South Bronx. Approximately “750,000 people have left in the past twenty years for middle class success in the suburbs” (Chang 17). In the 1960’s-1970’s the deindustrialization of the North East region of The United States wiped huge chunks of the labor force in the South Bronx “600,000 manufacturing jobs; 40 percent of the sector disappeared” (Chang 13). These historical events inspiredPublic Enemy and groups alike to pick up a microphone and break the silence on the injustices many Black communities faced. These conditions were the most felt in the South Bronx which was one of the worst hit areas in New York City.
New York City’s affluent members wanted to transform Manhattan into the wealth capital of the world. The master plan put in place by Robert Moses was to construct a system of highways that directly connected the suburbs to Manhattan. Under “urban renewal” (11), the city was allowed to condemnentire neighborhoods that pushed out and displaced existing Black communities to settle in neighborhoods like the South Bronx and East New York Brooklyn; neighborhoods where public housing was economically available but employment was non-existent. Their white counterparts however, took place in what today is known as “white flight”, a term used for whiteswho were given the opportunity to purchase homes in thesuburbs of New York while many Blacks were left behind. In the New York area during the construction explosion initiated by Robert Moses in the 1950’s -60’s middle class whites received “sprawling, prefab, white picket-fence whites only Levittown suburbs” (12). Meanwhile working-class struggling families “got nine or more monotonous slabs of housing rising out of isolating, desolate, soon to be crime ridden “parks” (12). In the second verse we can see Flava Flav frustration with firstresponder’s reluctance to provide a competent service to the housing projects. Since the services are required by poor Blacks“every day they don’t never come correct/ You can ask my man right here with the broken neck/ He’s a witness to the job never being done”. The poor people that live in these communities were condemned for their economic standing. The listener is left to ponder if the response times and reluctance would be presentif white picket fences and a white only neighborhoods were requesting these same services.
The deindustrialization of the “snow belt” (freeman 303) played a massive role in shaping the economic landscape of the North East, which was the dominant region in the nation in manufacturing jobs and economic power. However in the 1970’s-80’s, the economic power of the North East started todeteriorate and was now shifting to the “sun belt”, the Southern and Midwestern states (freeman 306) . Southern states with their ample cheap land and lax union stance created a win- win situation for corporations. Corporations started to move their jobs and headquarters to the south. In the 1970s and 1980s NewYork lost more than “800,000 residents” (freeman 304) and was hit “particularly hard, with the local unemployment rate hitting 12 percent in 1975 as many services disappeared and crimeincreased” (freeman 304). Public Enemy addresses the increasing crime rate and lack of governmental regulation or support in their song. Specifically, they ask their listeners to open their eyes to the diminishing resources available in their communities.
“Thinkin’ you are first when you really are tenth/you better wake up and smell the real flavor/
Cause 911 is a fake life saver”
Moreover, the song asks listeners to realize that in fact the government is not concerned with their well-being. In reality, agencies like 911 are all a farce. In the above lines, we can see the groups increasing concern and frustration with the limited resources offered to Black communities. While many other racial groups were able to relocate in order to seek financial and social stability, the minority population was not afforded the same opportunities. Unfortunately, due to the downturn in the economy, minorities took the brunt of the socio-economic issues facing the North East at the time and in return received subpar services.
New York City’s affluent members wanted to transform Manhattan into the wealth capital of the world. The master plan put in place by Robert Moses was to construct a system of highways that directly connected the suburbs to Manhattan. Under “urban renewal” (11), the city legally condemned entire neighborhoods that pushed out and displaced existing Black communities to settle in neighborhoods like the South Bronx, Queens Bridge and East New York Brooklyn; neighborhoods where public housing was economically available but employment was non-existent. Their white counterparts however, took place in what is commonly known as “white flight”, a term used for whites who were given the opportunity to purchase homes in the suburbs of New York while many Blacks were left behind. In the New York area during the construction explosion initiated by Robert Moses in the 1950’s -60’s middle class whites received “sprawling, prefab, white picket-fence whites only Levittown suburbs” (12). Meanwhile working-class struggling families “got nine or more monotonous slabs of housing rising out of isolating, desolate, soon to be crime ridden “parks” (12). The poor people that live in these communities were condemned for their economic standing. The listener is left to ponder if the response times and reluctance would be present if white picket fences and a white only neighborhoods were requesting these same services.
The contrast between “If I Ruled the World” and “ A New York State of Mind” is the way in which wealth and happiness is attained. In one song, one must use violence in order to obtain wealth, In the other, Nas creates a perfect utopia. His ability to play with words to spark change and ignite imagination in his listeners is unmatched. Another song from his Illmatic album that continues to display his poetic delivery of a very intense subject matter (death) as a result of dealing drugs is“Represent”. In “Represent”, we are made aware that being a street criminal comes with a limited time on this planet. What is most intriguing to listener is the acceptance of death as a result.Nas accepts death and almost welcomes it. He accepts the fact that his lifestyle comes with death as a result. In all three songs,not being part of the system and being powerless are feelings the black community does not understand and cannot cope with, but is very ironic that death is a destination that drug dealers are ok with and welcome. “Straight up shit is real and any day could be your last in the jungle” this is a recurring theme we find in the“New York State of Mind” and “If I Ruled the World”. Taking a step back and analyzing “Represent” the only possible reason why someone would jeopardize their life to gain “stacks” while selling drugs has to be that death cannot be as bad when you are already living in hell. It is in our human condition to desire wealth and people from the projects are no different. If acquiring great clothing “When I dress, it’s never nothing less than Guess”and money “No doubt, see my stacks are fat, this is what it’s about” your life is worth the risk. Like many other rappers have said: “Get rich or die trying”.
Nas makes us aware of how violence strives in an environment that does not provide opportunity for advancement. In “If I Ruled the World”, the message is entirely different. Nas still questions social inequalitybut with a positive approach to introduce the idea of what it would be like, if Blacks and people of color lived in a utopiansociety in which they were all equal. “The way to be, paradise like relaxing black, Latino and Anglo-Saxon”. This track starts to ignite the imagination of the listener of the possibility of “what if”. Nas empowers his listeners to believe that life can bethe same for people of color. For starters, there will be justiceequality for people of color imprisoned for petty crimes. “Imagine smoking weed in the streets without cops harassin/Imagine going to court with no trial”. Per capita, TheUnited States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world. Majority of the prison population is composed of Hispanics and blacks. This legal equality would lead to more black men and women being a productive part of society, andfuture generations of minority families can be raised in complete households “So many years of depression make me vision/The better living, type of place to raise kids in”. The years of depression Nas refers to is the harsh reality that single parent households raise a vast majority of minority families. With the family structure complete and legal equality part of Black society, In “If I Ruled the World” a race can now focus to start accomplishing the American dream. With “Your people holding dough, no parole”, Blacks can now pursue opportunities in which housing and education are part of everyday life. With wealth, people can now start vacationing . “ Feel the wind breeze in West Indies” and explore the world outside of the ghetto and expand their horizons. The Black community has spending power and is able to travel north in economic classes and is able to afford the better things life has to offer ‘’Imagine everybody flashing, fashion Designer clothes/Brand new whips ”. A perfect society in which the color of your skin does not determine your economic status would be a society every person will love to be a part of. However, Nas brings the listener back to reality “ I thought I’d never see but reality struck/ Still nobody want a nigga having shit/ Better find out before your time’s out, what the fuck”. The cruel reality is utopia does not exist and the odds remain stacked against people of color.
One cannot reference Illmatic without paying close attention to the track, “New York State of Mind”. The track with the same title by Billy Joel is a romantic ballad where he expresses his love for New York City, despite visiting other beautiful cities in America. Joel fanaticizes with the beauty ofCentral Park, going to the opera on Broadway, and scenicbeautiful boat rides up the Hudson River. This life of luxury and opportunity does not exist in Nas’ “New York State of Mind”.Nas’ “New York City State of Mind” refers to his hometown,Queensbridge, a housing project where blacks are trapped like rats in an environment plagued with drugs and violence “Full of black rats trapped”. Unlike Joel, there is no chance to get awayand visit paradise, In Queensbridge housing projects you do not dream of Central Park or boat rides up the Hudson, life was close to hell as Nas eloquently states. It was either survive, orthe housing project was going to consume you. “Life is parallel to Hell but I must maintain”. In Queensbridge the only thing you were escaping were stray bullets destined to kill you “Niggas be running through the block shootin”. The living conditions were mediocre for blacks’ only project buildings where the hallways had graffiti and the elevator smelled like urine. Queensbridgewas an environment where everyone had to be thick-skinned. This housing project was not Frank Sinatra’s beautiful song“New York, New York” which states if you work hard you can make it in New York and you can make it anywhere.
With employment lacking in poor neighborhoods, leading a life of crime had to be largely accredited to the deindustrialization of the “snow belt” (Freeman 303) this played a massive role in shaping the economic landscape of the North East, which was the dominant region in the nation in manufacturing jobs and economic power. However in the 1970’s-80’s, the economic power of the North East started to deteriorate and was now shifting to the “sun belt”, the Southern and Midwestern states (Freeman 306) . Southern states with their ample cheap land and lax union stance created a win- win situation for corporations. Corporations started to move their jobs and headquarters to the south. In the 1970s and 1980s New York lost more than “800,000 residents” (Freeman 304) and was hit “particularly hard, with the local unemployment rate hitting 12 percent in 1975 as many services disappeared and crimeincreased” (Freeman 304). Nas addresses the increasing crime rate and lack of governmental regulation or support in his song. Specifically, he asks his listeners to open their eyes to the diminishing resources available in their communities.
“I keep some E&J, sitting bent up in the stairway/Or either on the corner betting Grants with the cee-lo champs/Laughing at baseheads trying to sell some broken amps”
These rap bars illustrate how the typical day was spent; with no real source of employment, present Queens Bridgeresidents led unproductive lifestyles. In the above lines, we can see Nas’ increasing concern and frustration with the limited resources offered to Black communities. He writes, “Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined”. While whites were rewarded financial and social stability, meanwhile the blackpopulation, overlooked for the same opportunities. Unfortunately, due to the downturn in the economy, minorities took the brunt of the socio-economic issues facing the North East at the time and in return received subpar services. Without employment and descent living conditions present in everyday living, there was no viable option to make it out of Queens Bridge.”I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind”.The opportunities for advancement were very limited and young males had to resource to a life of crime to make it. “Be having dreams that I’m a gangsta”, this shows a sad reality that a community filled with intelligent and talented individuals whereyoung men only aspire to become gangsters to accomplishsuccess. This gangster persona led many to fall in love with the idea of making it to the top like Scarface’s Tony Montana. Tony Montana was an outlaw who defied the system and achieved the ultimate rags to riches story. This mentality was present in many living in Queensbridge, Nas also acknowledged this being part of who he was in his song. “I’m like Scarface sniffin cocaine,Holding an M-16”. Scarface was a fictional story but many followed this model and picked up a gun to sell drugs and fulfill their dream. For the black youth of Queenbridge there were no aspirations of attending universities or accomplishing degrees, for the young black youth the streets where the university, crimewas the degree, guns were the books and death/wealth/ prison determined the success of your career.
Nas: The Prophet
As a junior high school kid growing up in New York City during the 90’s, rap and hip hop determnined almost all aspects of my life. Hip hop influenced the music I listened to, the way Idressed, the way I spoke and acted to even the magazines I readand the tv shows I watched. But most importamtly the artist of the time I followed. In the 90’s I remember very vividly there were no bigger rap artists on the planet than Tupac and Biggie Smalls. Their music played from every teenager’s cd player orboom box, in every car with a potent stereo system, and their music was a must at every block party. Biggie and Tupac’s names became synonomous with hip hop, it was almost impossible to mention hip hop and not mention them. They appealed to the masses through their music where they portrayed themseleves as outcasts in a society that did not offer them a fair deal. This unequal treatment enabled them to do everything in their power to get even. In order to portary their message, they incorporated the street culture prevelant at the time: that of dealing drugs, violence and guns. They used this as a means of empowerement for the many men and women who did not have any power in their society. Although Biggie and Tupac were the most commercialized and best selling artist of this time, they soon had competiontion from a skilled young rapper from Queensbridge. At the height of their success, Nas captivates hip hop. Nas was rapping about the same issues as Tupac andBiggie, although at this point if his career he was not as popular and his albums did not have as much commercial success . Nas kept true to his craft and soon became a beloved figure of this time. Nas’ proliphic devlivery in his rap songs contributed to his overall appeal. While Biggie and Tupac’s lyrics were in your face and harsh, people loved it. Nas’s approach however wasdifferent; he made his listeners take a step back. He wasn’t just going to inform you his challenges, through his rap he unvailed them like a masterfully created story. As a listener, each song was an exeprience. It became a journey in which you sympathized with the challenges he was facing growing up in Queensbridge. This led to his listeners to analyze and appreciate the poetic style in which he delivered his knowledge and embrace it. Nas’ words were artisitc but simotenously raw and thruthful and at times they were very hard concepts to deal with. Nas’ first album Illmatic was an istant classic that cemented Nas as a force in Hip Hop. Nas had arrived artistically with Illmatichis prophethic style of rap ignited the imagination of many that remain part of a cult follwing that remanins loyal to this day.
In Harlan County we encounter a group of frustrated miners that decide to strike to make a stand against the poor working conditions and low wages offered by their employer Duke Coal Mining Company. As a minority acknowledging and recognizing that social and economic inequalities have been an ugly part of American history and an unfortunate truth of daily life is not new to me. However, while watching Harlan County documentary I had the realization when a group of powerful people decide that they will protect their best interests or profits at any cost the color of the person on the other side is irrelevant. Not to sound naïve but subconsciously poverty and the struggle to make ends meet I always assumed were exclusively reserved for Hispanics, Blacks and Native Americans.
But poor whites have been suffering for hundreds of years in this country as well. Some of the poorest folks right now and most affected and stricken by poverty are white. I’m not quite sure if the argument can be made that Harlan County is a direct example and is related to the corporate takeover that commenced in our government around the same time this was filmed. But our government is now solely focused on the needs and wants of the elite rich and corporations, it is no longer about the color of your skin, this social class takeover affects everyone even whites all alike. And this documentary is perfect example of the class warfare takeover people were facing in the 70’s and continue to face.
“Imagine” (1971), written and performed by John Lennon is probably one of the most recognized songs of the 1970’s. 1971 had to be a turbulent time to live in. not only did you have to live in constant fear if you’re a youth of being drafted in to Vietnam. But the war itself was disastrous with thousands of human lives lost on both sides. This had to be a heavy burden on society as many thought American involvement was pointless in this war. The beginning of the 70’s also had just finished witnessing the assignation of four prominent leaders and America was under heavy criticism for the manner in which they treated African Americans in society. All these factors took place and some were still unraveling and during a dark time in American history here comes John Lennon a man who artistically had the world enamored with his music and could’ve possibly composed a song about anything and anything is not an exaggeration and had massive cult following and world success but he however decides to use his superstardom to make a political stance. Mr. Lennon wanted “Imagine” to make us question our reality of the present and as well of the future in order to create change
“Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing for the world “
The above verse is one of my favorite in the song Mr. Lennon is not introducing new ideas to the world, but he’s asking the world to close their eyes and picture a planet that does not need to divide its citizen by the differences between them whether being religious, material or the part of the world we are from. In fact Mr. Lennon points out and makes his listeners know that without these differences we are all equal and all beautiful alike. As an idealist John Lennon’s Imagine create warm fuzzy feelings of what the world should be. The world in its immensity is such a beautiful planet and all its beautiful creations have the given right to enjoy such a place that we were so fortunate to be alive for. The sad reality is that it is just an idea to want happiness and equality for everyone around the world. The truth is, it is a dark greedy world we live in. We systematically whether through religion or country classify ourselves and we lose the concept of humanity for the chance to make a dollar. Instead of those who were fortunate to have the intelligence to be innovative create wealth and take care of those that were less fortunate and talented we have created systems in which we exploit those people. Mr. Lennon pointed out everything that was wrong with society back then and had he been alive today he will be disgusted to know the world is so much worse now. But like Mr. Lennon I still imagine such world to exist. And hopefully I am not a dreamer or want to be the only one. But I know at one point in my life I am going to see the world live as one.