Opinion: America underestimates hip-hop’s power and value

The genre’s greatest contribution to humanity isn’t the music.

Credit: Richard Watkins

Credit: Richard Watkins

This year is widely celebrated as the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, reflecting a symbolic starting point – an Aug. 11, 1973 Bronx dance party organized by Cindy Campbell and DJ’d by her brother, Clive Campbell, a.k.a. Kool Herc.

While no artistic, cultural, or social movement can be whittled down to a single origin point, this date has been widely accepted as as good a birthday as any. Festivities abounded throughout the year, including a massive concert event at New York’s Yankee Stadium. Hundreds of other jamborees popped up nationwide, with many still planned through year’s end.

Media enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon. I was at the recent premiere of the AJC’s new hip-hop documentary, “The South Got Something To Say.” News programs and platforms highlighted the anniversary, while streaming networks and podcast companies also premiered documentaries or short-run shows highlighting historical figures and events from the past five decades.

Michael "Manny Faces" Conforti

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

Legacy institutions hosted conferences and launched exhibits. Even the United States government got in on the action, including a big bash at Vice President Kamala Harris’s residence and U.S. House Resolution HR602, which declares hip-hop’s genesis an important moment on America’s historical timeline.

Some of these events recognized hip-hop’s cultural expansiveness beyond the rap music genre it is ubiquitously known for, and included other elements that fall under hip-hop’s artistic umbrella, most notably turntablism (DJ’ing), breaking (“breakdancing”) and graffiti (visual art).

However, most did not.

These aspects of hip-hop art are well documented, studied in academia, highlighted by prestigious cultural organizations and are practiced at high levels throughout the world. Yet across the entertainment landscape, and even hip-hop’s own circles, they receive far less attention than rap, hip-hop’s most front-facing and lucrative export.

Celebrations focused on the genre are certainly important. Still, the overall omission of other culturally important artistic elements could certainly lead casual observers to believe that, in 50 years, all hip-hop really produced was rap music.

It doesn’t take much sleuthing to find evidence of excellence in these disciplines, such as the annual DMC World DJ Championship, any number of graffiti exhibitions in art spaces, libraries or museums, or the fact that in 2024, breaking will debut as an Olympic sport.

Still, to fully appreciate this golden anniversary, we must consider that hip-hop’s greatest contribution to humanity isn’t any of its singular or collective elements. Instead, it lies in hip-hop’s intersection with other aspects of the human experience, and how its unique artistic, cultural and social characteristics create powerful new tools to help uplift lives, livelihoods and communities.

For instance, hip-hop-inspired pedagogical programs like Science Genius demonstrate notable increases in student interest and engagement, knowledge retention and grades. School counselors and psychologists extolling therapeutic uses of hip-hop report reductions in stress, anxiety and depression, better emotional expression and improved communication with students and patients. Technology workshops such as breakbeatcode use the allure of music-making to teach teenagers computer programming. Organizations like Hip Hop Caucus are tackling criminal justice reform and climate change issues. News Beat, an award-winning media project I co-produce, melds high-level social justice journalism with music and original rap, presenting information in an entertaining and compelling package. Atlanta-based Soul Food Cypher, recently featured on CNN, creates safe spaces for artistic, and human, expression.

This isn’t our OG’s hip-hop.

Similar to primarily Black American artforms before it, rap has been prejudicially characterized, even demonized by some of the same media outlets and government agencies heralding it today. Die-hard rap fans of a certain age often can’t get past subjective and narrowly-focused critiques of “today’s music,” but these viewpoints do little more than reinforce negative stereotypes, ironically helping undermine hip-hop’s ability to reach its holistically brilliant potential.

As veteran rap artist KRS-One once observed, “if hip-hop has the ability to corrupt young minds, it also has the ability to uplift them.”

Therein lies the key.

Elected officials, education administrators, medical decision makers, business executives, any authority figures who are concerned with improving diversity, inclusivity and equity in their respective fields must recognize these innovative hip-hop-inspired convergences as viable methods that can address, alleviate, and in some cases eliminate, social ills plaguing not only the communities that created this culture but humanity as a whole.

Similarly, fans and participants must realize there is more to hip-hop than meets the ear. Concerns about the genre’s content are important, but can no longer be where hip-hop conversations start and stop.

As this hip-hop milestone comes to a close, let us turn from celebrating its musical past and endlessly criticizing the subjective quality of its musical present, to championing its unparalleled ability to improve our collective future.

Michael “Manny Faces” Conforti is an award-winning multimedia journalist, educator, consultant and content creator based in the Atlanta area. He is the founding director of The Center for Hip-Hop Advocacy, a nonprofit that advocates for the culture’s ability to help uplift humanity in areas such as education, media, social justice and more.