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Lecture by Akilah Folami Traces Hip Hop’s Trajectory from Protest to Commercial Excess

February 17, 2012

Rising from the ashes of a burnt-out South Bronx, hip hop music helped disaffected youth cope with the anguish of living in a dying city in the late 1970s, Akilah Folami said during a lecture on Feb. 16.

As businesses and jobs fled and as schools and recreation facilities crumbled, young people found sustenance in graffiti, b-boying (or break dancing) and rap music’s subversive discourse and infectious beat, said Folami, a professor at Hofstra University School of Law.

“It was about playing and having fun,” Folami said in a lecture that was part of a new course created by Professor Donald Tibbs on Hip Hop and the American Constitution. “It was the opposite of commercialization.”

Offering pointed commentary on urban life, hip hop lyrics arguably provide the kind of reasoned discourse that German sociologist Jurgen Habermas discussed in his exploration of political speech and public opinion, Folami said.

But before long, rap music gained enough cache to appear in Hollywood movies and commercials for products like Adidas sneakers, Folami said in the lecture, entitled “From Habermas to ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin:’ Hip Hop, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the Black Public Sphere.”

Commercial forces actively push hip hop artists to emphasize bad-boy braggadocio, Folami said.

The more hip hop artists portrayed themselves as dangerous characters, “the bigger the white audience became,” Folami added. “The rapper who didn’t fit the gangsta model did not get play.”

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 facilitated this process, Folami said, since it enabled large media conglomerates to buy small radio stations and effectively shut down independent record labels.

While hip hop’s commercial success weakens its authenticity as a medium of protest, Folami said the genre has retained subversive qualities, using hidden and coded speech that offer “indirect challenges to the status quo.”

If commercialism and a focus on violence and materialism undercut hip hop’s legitimacy as constitutionally protected political discourse, Folami said, it retains the potential to serve as “a tool for the voiceless.”