August 11, 1973.
This date is emblazoned into our collective consciousness as the moment the musical and cultural phenomenon that would come to be known as hip-hop took form. On this seemingly ordinary night in the Bronx, dozens of kids crammed into a house party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue to bid farewell to summer and usher in yet another school year. Whether or not they knew then that they were making history is anyone’s guess. But under a young DJ Kool Herc’s masterful dexterity on the turntables, the most influential musical genre drew its first breath–its heart thundering in time with the break beats, its blood mingling with the sweat on the dance floor, its voice booming over MC Coke La Rock’s innovative wordplay.
To truly understand the significance of that fateful night 47 years ago, it’s important to unearth hip-hop’s roots and connect the dots between this now-global cultural movement to the Black musical and cultural traditions that came before it. As the youngest genre to emerge from African American creative expression, hip-hop traces its lineage to West African griots. In her paper, The Historical Development of Rap/Hip Hop Music, UCLA’s Cheryl L. Keyes situates hip-hop as “a distinct blend of African American and Caribbean vernacular traditions.” As with its predecessors, hip-hop’s genealogy is the cumulative result of Black musical styles that evolved thanks in large part to the Great Migration, as well as socio/political movements and technological advances. Funk’s increasing momentum and disco’s fall from grace laid the foundation for an artform that, at least in the beginning, belonged almost exclusively to Black and Latinx youth and served as an outlet not only for their creative musings but also for these communities’ ongoing cries for social justice.
This is where the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s comes into play.
Taking shape on the heels of Malcolm X’s assassination, the Black Arts Movement (BAM) was the brainchild of poet, playwright, activist, and eventual New Jersey Poet Laureate, Amiri Baraka. Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem, setting the stage for a cavalcade of Black artists whose works emphasized the tenets of the Black Power Movement and the aesthetics of unapologetic Blackness. One could argue that James Brown’s seminal “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” represents a delicious intersection of the diverse approaches to the fight for equity and equality that were prevalent at the time. Some of our most celebrated artists–Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, Nikki Giovanni, Gil-Scott Heron, and many others–found a creative home in the Black Arts Movement, which also lauded established figures in Black music such as John Coltrane and Archie Shepp. The movement was particularly fond of jazz and cited it as perhaps the purest of Black musical artforms, and its influence, along with African polyrhythms, be-bop, and spoken word poetry, formed the basis for rap. Scott-Heron and groups like The Last Poets are frequently cited as hip-hop’s nearest forefathers, as they each incorporated rhythmic recitation, jazz, and soul into their compositions.
In his book Hip Hop’s Inheritance, Dr. Reiland Rabaka of the University of Colorado, Boulder defines the hip-hop movement as the “social, political, and cultural movement that developed in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement.” It’s impossible to talk about hip-hop’s present and future while ignoring its direct correlation to the socio/economic and political urgencies of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. To an uninformed observer, the civil disobedience, protests, and upheavals that characterize the struggle for Black liberation from the 1950s through the early ‘70s are diametrically opposite the braggadocious wordplay, exaggerated visual art, and subversive sartorial exhibitions we now associate with hip-hop’s early years. But those in the know, in the culture, understand how we got from The Last Poets’ “Ni**ers are Scared of Revolution,” to Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” to Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message;” they have no doubt that Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping” and Ntozake Shange’s ‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf’ birthed Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First.” NMAAM’s The Message gallery is dedicated to telling the complete story of hip-hop’s birth and evolution, reminding visitors to the museum that, even as hip-hop continues to dominate every other genre across the globe, it is historically and eternally a part of the African American cultural continuum.
NMAAM is celebrating hip-hop throughout the entire month of August, with exclusive content across our social and digital channels curated by an elite group of experts, scholars, and influencers. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for daily content highlighting some of the most important artists, songs, and moments in hip-hop history, and click here to become a NMAAM member and receive updates about our opening in Fall 2020.