Looking at Hip-Hop through the glasses of Malcolm X

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By Timothy D. Jones, Chief Visionary Officer #HipHopEd  

If Malcolm X was alive and able to speak the practitioners, fans, educators, and those influenced by Hip-Hop I believe that it would be a very interesting conversation. In preparing to write this piece I took some time to look at the transitions within the life of Malcolm X and began to see the possibility and need for Hip-Hop to make similar transitions. I was asked to write a piece about Malcolm X from a Hip-Hop perspective. I didn’t want to write a traditional piece in the sense of mentioning the references to Malcolm X that have been embedded in Hip-Hop especially during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The correlations outlined in this piece will be relevant to where Hip-Hop is today and provide thoughts to consider when deciding where Hip-Hop will be tomorrow.

  1. Joining the Nation of Islam and getting a Major Record Deal: Malcolm X was at a low point in his life. He was serving time in prison and was introduced to the teachings of the Nation of Islam. The philosophy of the Nation substantiated many of Malcolm X’s views that he was taught as a child through his father’s work with the “Universal Negro Improvement Association.” While in prison, Malcolm X began to communicate with Elijah Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad advised him on how to come to peace with his past transgressions and how to move forward. While in prison Malcolm changed his sir name from “Little” to “X.” The “X” represented the unknown sir name from being separated from his true African heritage and to dismiss that sir name of the slave master. In prison, Malcolm X became a self educated man with an increased ability to articulate his views with a mastery of words. Upon Malcolm X’s release he was able to participate in the activities of the Nation of Islam. These activities provided the opportunities for Malcolm X to speak to and teach individuals from the inner cities of America to people across the world. The relationship between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam was partially one of loyalty based on a debt of gratitude for saving his life.

If you take a walk through any inner city neighborhood in the country and throughout different regions in the world you will see youth engaging in Hip-Hop music and culture. For many of these youth, the acquisition of a record deal provides the opportunities that society instructs youth to acquire through education and career experience. The self esteem and self worth that comes with feeling like you are successful at what you do based on the acclaim that your name musters within your community and beyond is something that these youth are sometimes willing to do anything for. A successful record deal can take a young person from being a voice within the crowd to the voice that leads the crowd. A record deal on a popular label can provide financial stability and opens doors to various business opportunities that for most youth in the inner city would remain closed. The relationship at times between the recording artist and the record company is one of loyalty based on a debt of gratitude for saving the artist’s life. 

  1. Being silenced by the Nation of Islam and being silenced by a Record Company: Malcolm X was prohibited from public speaking for 90 days after he made comments about President Kennedy being assassinated in 1963. The comments that Malcolm X made represented his voice and his views. Prior to this point as a Minister in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X spoke the views and was the voice of Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X’s quote “chickens coming home to roost” placed the assassination of President Kennedy as America reaping the violence that it had sown throughout its own land and throughout the world. Malcolm X would never speak on behalf of the Nation of Islam as one its own again. Malcolm X announced his departure from the Nation of Islam on March 8, 1964. Amidst Malcolm X beginning to have issues within the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad, his departure was triggered by the consequences levied on him for speaking his mind grounded on what he believed to be the truth.

A Record company is a business first and the presentation of a family with values between the company and the Artists are a fleeting facade that expires as soon as it is decided that the Artist’s value to the company is no longer worth the investment. Imagine as an Artist you have a successful run within a record company by putting out a particular style of music and presenting a particular image. Over time the real relationship is with the image and the message created through the art form rather than you as an Artistic individual. Art in its truest form represents the progression and creativity of the Artist and should never remain stagnant to fit into the confinement of popular culture. This means that many Hip-Hop artists must choose to fit into the prescribed paradigm dictated by the record company if they want to remain relevant and have their music presented to the public. If an Artist begins to operate outside of the prescribed paradigms the label will eventually drop the Artist from the label or lessen the amount of backing that they once placed behind the Artist’s projects. This is a form of silencing being enacted by the Record Company because the Artist’s message is no longer a representative of the direction of the company. Amidst an Artist beginning to have issues within a record company for a myriad of reasons, their departure can be triggered by changes in what is deemed “popular” and or you deciding that your musical truth is outside of the prescribed formula. 

  1. Going independent to gain control and save your soul: After leaving the Nation of Islam Malcolm X founded Muslim Mosque, Inc. a religious organization and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, a secular group that advocated Pan Africanism. Malcolm X maintained his Muslim faith and believed that a spiritual foundation was necessary. Malcolm X also had a desire to work with African Americans that weren’t Muslims so he founded the later organization to engage individuals of different religions and those who had no religious affiliation. These organizations allowed Malcolm X to begin to express his views for where he believed we should go as a people in America. Malcolm X also used his self-created platforms to recant several statements and philosophies that he expressed as a member of the Nation of Islam. The words and views expressed by Malcolm X during his season of independence are the words and views that resonated with the people yesterday, today, and will continue to resonate with people in the future.

At one time if an Artist was let go by their major label it was an artistic and career death sentence. Today the success of the Artist creating labels to put out their music has some opting for this business strategy instead of signing with a record deal with a larger established record company. The Artist that had a successful career on a major label may be in the position to branch off on their own and maintain a large percentage of their fan base developed in part through the promotions and marketing efforts of the major record company. There are various scenarios that lead to an Artist selecting to go the independent route to put out their music. Some of the scenarios of declaring independence from a major record company can still provide opportunities for collaboration with the label; others are situations where the separation creates animosity between the company and the artist. The music created by an Artist once they become independent hopefully is music that represents the true creativity and maturity of the Artists where they create music that can withstand the test of time.

  1. From Civil Rights to Human Rights from the Block to the World: In Malcolm X’s speech “The Ballot or The Bullet”, Malcolm X explains the limitations of a civil rights movement compared to a movement for human rights. The Civil Rights movement was designed to get rights and equalities for African Americans from the United States government. The Civil Rights struggle didn’t include the plight of people of African descent from across the globe. The Civil Rights struggle sought its victory from the same Government that created the laws that were being used to substantiate segregation and oppression that was being afflicted on African Americans. Malcolm described a departure in approach from Civil Rights to Human Rights would expand the reach of the movement because it would take the plight to the platform of the United Nations instead of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as it did in August 1963 for the March on Washington. The United States could be held accountable for its violations of Human Rights by the United Nations. The expansion of the perception of the movements would create a greater sense of connectivity amongst brothers and sisters from across the globe. This would make civil rights leaders, human rights leaders who will now speak on behalf of individuals on a world stage.

Contemporary Hip-Hop began in the South Bronx in 1973. Hip-Hop has continued to grow from spreading through the boroughs in New York City to various inner cities throughout the United States. The MC went from striving to be a star in their own neighborhood to becoming a nationwide artist through touring venues across the country. The social commentary that began to come out through Hip-Hop in the early 1980s represented the social ills that were plaguing minority youth in the inner city. Throughout the 1980s Artist from various parts of the country began to tell their stories as to what was going on and wrong in their neighborhoods. This expansion mirrored the Civil Rights movement in the fact that the struggle was defined within the borders of the United States and Hip-Hop was also challenging the Police and Government for their unfair practices that were keeping minorities in subpar living conditions.

Over the past 20 years through various advents in technology, Hip-Hop is now on the world’s stage. Youth from across the globe are tuned into the messages and images that are coming from Hip-Hop in America and these youth are making their own messages that portray their realities in their neighborhoods and societies. This provides the opportunity for Hip-Hop to advocate for Human Rights by the Artist creating messages that represent the plight of youth across the world instead of merely representing their block. There is also a greater responsibility that today’s Artists must assume because their voice is now being heard worldwide instead of just at the local park jam in the projects. Technology provides the opportunity for the Artist to become self-educated like Malcolm X did to free himself mentally and spiritually even while he was still physically confined in prison. The MC must free themselves from the prisons of industry and media companies that profit of presenting a narrow and shallow depiction of our existence as African Americans and Latino Americans. The freedom for the MC lies in becoming enlightened and then conveying this newly obtained knowledge and vision through their music. Hip-Hop has the power to influence the world for the betterment of Human Kind and it must take this opportunity and strive to fulfill it “By any Means Necessary!”

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