It’s a phrase that music curators for public spaces hear on a daily basis: “No hip-hop.”
“Anything but hip-hop.”
At a time when the genre is arguably at the height of its popularity, listeners, scholars, and artists continue, unfairly, to defend the merits of an art form more commercially successful than any before it. In a landmark 2019 Supreme Court case in which 19-year-old rapper Jamal Knox sought to repeal a two-year prison sentence for threatening Pittsburgh police in his 2014 song ‘F—k the Police,’ a slew of major hip-hop artists wrote a letter addressed to Supreme Court justices in Knox’s defense. “Outlaw country music is given much more poetic license than gangster rap, and I listen to both,” said Killer Mike of Run the Jewels. “And I can tell you that the lyrics are dark and brutal when Johnny Cash describes shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die…It’s no different from stop and frisk.”
One need not look too far into the musical past to find similarly Black genres cast aside, derided for their social, economic, and political connotations. As in the early days of jazz and the short life of disco, Black artists and their art continue throughout the decades to thrive despite persistent pushback from white middle-and-upper-class audiences and worse yet, the appropriation of that very art form by white artists.
From its inception in New Orleans and its quick spread to the ballrooms of New York and Chicago, jazz, and more specifically jazz dancing, faced backlash from white critics hardly concerned with masking their resentment. Critics targeted the music’s characteristics, namely syncopation as the antithesis of rhythm and tempo. “True, it does not contain any distinct immoral teaching, because music is not a didactic art,” argued Dr. Henry Van Dyke, a Princeton University professor and Protestant minister in a 1921 critique in The New York Herald. “But jazz does contain a real immoral influence, because it confuses, bewilders, numbs and befuddles the mind through the ears…it is, in effect, the dope or knockout drop in the art of sound.”
Others turned to jazz’s societal detriment and potential to lead refined young people astray. “Do you call the shimmy dancing?” implored a puzzled Harold K. Phillips in an August 23, 1919 article in The Chattanooga News. “It was first discovered four years ago in a negro dance hall in Chicago,” he says, making no bones of the source of his disdain. “Several instructors saw the negroes going through movements and, seeing an opportunity to make money, introduced it in society.”
The policing of ballrooms for what he called “public vulgarity poorly disguised as dancing,” or more simply the “jazz evil,” was one suggestion put forth by the American National Association of Masters of Dancing. Their compromise? “More graceful and more moral trots to the tune of a tempo – ‘a happy medium between the colonial minuet and the shimmy.” While jazz did stoke dance conservatism among white dance Masters, it is important to note that the racial undercurrent of these criticisms echoes still throughout the realms of Black art.
With an ear to the walls of bygone supper clubs, one may hear that faint, echoing request: “Anything but jazz.”
Writing in 1960, Amiri Baraka stated that, “jazz, for the black middle class, has only…recently lost some of its stigma (though by no means is it yet as popular among them as any vapid musical product that comes sanctioned by the taste of the white majority).” The same may be said of hip-hop in all its forms; despite its undeniable popularity and commercial success, the call for “no rap” to be played in family restaurants and hotels, for example, smacks of the same dogma that plagued jazz artists relegated to decrepit nightclubs for low wages in the early-mid twentieth century.
The legacy of white critics’ blind evaluations of Black music rears its head still; Baraka’s argument, now 51 years old, rings true among deniers of hip-hop’s legitimacy: the music itself matters, sure, but it is the sociopolitical underpinnings of the music that lend the music its power.
But the point here is not that politics inform music or that white critics have had the luxury of imposing their tried and true musical values on Black art forms, but rather that each great movement in popular music owes a debt to Black innovators. According to Eric Lott, who penned the seminal 1993 study of blackface minstrelsy Love and Theft, “from ‘Oh! Susanna’ to Elvis Presley, from circus clowns to Saturday morning cartoons, blackface acts and words have figured significantly in the white Imaginary of the United States.” Black culture is pop culture and always has been – intentionally or not.
Let us not forget the most threatening movement in white youth culture, that ever-receding echo of teenage rebellion and pompadours and twisting hips that was rock n’ roll. Pioneered by the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Chubby Checker and emerging from the blues tradition, it took little time for the industry to replace those names with white artists like Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley. It is a form of whitewashing made palatable for modern times, and a version of popular music history that has proven resilient. As producer and founder of Sun Records, Sam Philips, proclaimed, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Those names still flicker and flash on the marquees of time.
Disco proved similarly threatening and irresistible with origins in gay and black nightclubs. Born out of opposition to the late-1960s rock culture and rock attitudes toward dance music, and the rise of identity politics, disco began as a sort of safe space for racialized and gay Americans to revel in communal dance euphoria. Sister Sledge, Gloria Gaynor, Earth Wind & Fire, Chic, Barry White, and the Trammps, along with a slew of other hugely popular Black performers, led the charge in packed nightclubs and on radio, spreading like wildfire from New York to Philadelphia, Miami, and anyplace conducive to feverish dancing. By 1976 disco was decidedly mainstream, its status cemented for the time being among white audiences drawn into the party by the Bee Gees and an undeniably swinging John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.
Coinciding with disco in the late-1970s, however, the hypermasculinity of hard rock and punk clashed with the glitter and euphoria of disco. CBGB and Studio 54, beacons of punk and disco in New York respectively, now read like the home bases of warring armies. Punk magazine, a driving force in the genre’s origins, debuted with an editorial boldly titled ‘DEATH TO DISCO SHIT!’, calling disco “the epitome of all that’s wrong with western civilization.” The sentiment proved common among rock and punk’s mostly white male audience, culminating in the infamous Disco Demolition Night on July 12, 1979 following a Chicago White Sox-Detroit Tigers game.
The event now seems shocking in retrospect, a thinly veiled book burning of disco records by predominantly black artists at the hands of an angry white mob. In a short period of just years, disco’s trajectory had gone from an outsider’s genre wildly popular in black and gay nightclubs to being subsumed by white artists and audiences to its ultimate eradication by a white counter-counter-culture threatened by disco’s popularity. And while the tenets of disco have survived and garnered interest from younger generations of artists, the genre’s reputation was all but decimated by 1980, unwanted and disavowed radio and industry.
The parallels between the “no hip-hop” attitude still held by some today and the initial reactions to jazz, rock n’ roll, and disco are undeniable. Despite its rich history and dominance of music streaming and sales – nearly a third of all music sales and streams in the U.S. today – many arbiters of music in public spaces continue to regard much modern hip-hop as too threatening, too foul, and too dangerous for consumption in their institutions. Outside of those institutions, however, hip-hop accounted for 52% of 2020’s 100 most streamed tracks and six of the year’s top ten. It’s the kind of Billboard dominance The Beatles enjoyed in 1964 and Michael Jackson in 1982.
And if the idea of the hyper-popular and the snobbish ‘good’ as one and the same doesn’t sway you, consider that both Rubber Soul and Revolver held at the top of Billboard’s Top 200 for six weeks and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for fifteen.
Just think – when did you last hear equally successful hits by Travis Scott or Kendrick Lamar at your local supermarket? With a philosophy rooted in social awareness and positive reform, hip-hop threatens the status quo – socially, politically, economically, and musically – in a way that many white audiences continue to mistakenly interpret as simple aggression, undermining its predominantly Black artists and the genre’s necessity as an outlet for the disenfranchised.
The unfortunate reality that originally Black music, with the exception of Motown, is often vilified by segments of the white middle class, rings as strongly today as it did in early warnings of the “jazz evil” and jazz as “public vulgarity poorly disguised as dancing.” As it was then, Black culture today is popular culture. This is not to say that the genre hasn’t garnered its fair share of critical acclaim too, though it has come decidedly late in the game. Danielle Ransom, writing for BET, aptly describes hip-hop artists’ continued battle for recognition:
Motown music was at the precipice of what the modern music landscape looks like now, except the shout-and-call of gospel has been replaced with the lyrical wordplay of rap and the throbbing beats of trap music. Look no further than Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer-Grammy winning cultural masterpiece DAMN. Lamar’s masterful prose and slick productions hit the zeitgeist of what Motown set out to achieve: the acknowledgment of Black excellence and creativity that has been downplayed, dismissed, and ignored throughout the years.
Now a critical darling, there is work still to be done out in the public sphere. Calls for “no hip-hop” must be exposed and eradicated in their own Disco Demolition Night-style reckoning. We might take up this call to action with education, or the casual nudge for nay-sayers to listen before we judge, no matter what the reigning pre-conceived notion may be. But maybe, in the truly rebellious spirit of jazz, rock n’ roll, and disco, we should just play it anyway – and loud.