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Blacks’ Prison Experiences in Hip Hop Culture Essay

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Updated: Jun 19th, 2020

The days when hip hop music was considered “dangerous” and “radical” are officially over (Masciotra 71). Hip hop has become the next closest representation of the mainstream culture that the 21st century has to offer (Alim “Critical Hip-Hop Language Pedagogies” 162). However, it seems that, by borrowing the attributes of the traditional hip-hop style, people may have forgotten about the messages and innuendoes underlying the hip hop tradition. In his book Know What I Mean?: Reflections on Hip-Hop, Mickey Dyson addresses the theme of prison (Kitwana 83) and imprisonment (Jailhouse Roc: The FACTS About Hip Hop and Prison for Profit para. 2) that the hip hop culture is shot through (Cundiff 72).

By incorporating the concept of spiritual captivity (Byerman 135) and the social ostracism into his definition of prison as applied to the African American people defining themselves as the adepts of the hip hop culture (Dobrin 5), Dyson makes his argument compelling and all-embracive, therefore, mailing down the essence of the aforementioned cultural movement.

First and foremost, the analysis of the effects of prison as a facility for convicts on African American people, primarily, male African Americans, is provided. Dyson makes it very obvious that, being neglected to the point where they become completely ostracized from the rest of the society, African Americans consider prison, with its unique universe and a specific set of principles, an alternative to the process of integrating into the society: “because the society throws you few other options, means that you’re already in a kind of psychological and spiritual prison” (Dyson 14). By addressing one of the most controversial issues regarding the African American culture, i.e., the fact that Black people have an extremely limited set of options for becoming a member of the society (Hess 374; Collins 26), Dyson makes his argument very strong.

Though considering the controversy that has been the “elephant in the room” for quite a time, Dyson clearly takes his argument to an admittedly high level of convincingness, it is not only the consideration of the effects of prison onto the lives of African Americans (Baxter and Marina 108), but also the analysis of the spiritual evolution of the Black culture (Liu 147) in relation to hip hop that makes Dyson’s point so impressive. Indeed, there are more of African American people and the people belonging to the Black culture among convicts than those that are traditionally associated with the white culture (Forman para. 5).

The fact that a number of African American people appear behind the bars more frequently than the white population is only partially explained by the fact that crime rates among the African American residents of the United States are higher. As a result, “part of the fascination with prison is a reflection of the sad existential truths of young black male life” (Dyson 14). Therefore, Dyson makes his argument all the stronger by stressing that the problem of prison and imprisonment is a recurrent theme in the art of most African American hip hop performers.

To understand where the problem stems from, a more detailed scrutiny of the African American culture within the context of the American – and, most importantly, predominantly whit e – population must be carried out. Dyson, therefore, provides a couple of very deep observations regarding the root of the problem. Which is even more intriguing, the author borrows most of the evidence used to support his claims from the hip hop culture as the representation of the effects of the major culture clash. While Dyson does not pose the black population as social pariahs, he raises quite a few controversies that the contemporary U.S. society is built on.

Another argument that Dyson makes, the position of the present-day hip hop artists in the realm of modern music culture (Arthur 2) is also worth considering as a very strong one. Indeed, the alterations that hip hop as a subculture has undergone are truly fascinating (Durham 122). Used to be the representation of a life in a ghetto and the crude yet honest descriptions of the American society’s underbelly, hip hop has been affected by the music industry in general and pop industry in particular to a considerable degree.

Dyson points at the obvious fact that modern hip hop artists have “sold out” and, therefore, cannot properly represent the African American culture to the demographics that they target at. More to the point, the artists themselves can be no longer considered the element of the Black culture that their songs used to define (Alim “Does Hip Hop Hate Women?” 3). Dyson, however, specifies that whether the artist has grew up in the ghetto or not is “almost irrelevant” (Dyson 11); instead, it is whether the artist can “scrutinize the possibilities” (Dyson 11) that matters.

It would be wrong to claim that Dyson’s argument is entirely flawless, though. First and most obvious, the idea of viewing the roots of the conflict between the African American culture and the American one based solely on the phenomenon of hip hop. While the effects that the given phenomenon has had on introducing the African American culture into the American media are doubtlessly impressive (Kelly 55), there are other contexts to view the Black culture and the Black people in (Dominello 44). Nevertheless, Dyson uses the evidence at his disposal in a very smart way, providing a train of convincing arguments.

By incorporating the concept of prison as a legal institution and the idea of imprisonment as a means of rendering the loneliness and isolation of the African American population in the American society into his evaluation of the hip hop culture, Dyson makes his argument especially valid. By drawing a parallel between prison as a social facility and the prison of the social alienation, Dyson provides a very graphic and credible justification for the existence of the hip hop culture.

Therefore, a powerful metaphor created by the writer allows for a deeper understanding of not only the phenomenon of hip hop, but also the African American culture. Addressing the phenomenon of the African American hip hop culture, Dyson also touches upon a range of essential social issues, which are viewed as rather controversial in today’s society, including the persistent racial profiling on a number of levels.

It is quite remarkable that the author does not shy away from pointing at the obvious flaws of the modern U.S. society. As a result, the overview of the African American culture and its place in the present-day world appears to be very convincing and honest, though quite upsetting. By relating the intercultural experience of African American people attempting to merge with the American society of the 21 century, Dyson proves in a very efficient manner that the Black culture, though growing increasingly popular on the surface, is gradually becoming more isolated from the culture of the rest of the U.S. residents.

Works Cited

Alim, H. Samy. “Critical Hip-Hop Language Pedagogies: Combat, Consciousness, and the Cultural Politics of Communication.” Journal of Language, Identity, and Education 6.2 (2007): 161-176. Print.

Does Hip Hop Hate Women? A Community Dialogue about Hip Hop and Gender Politics. n. d. Web.

Arthur, Damien. Hip Hop Consumption and Masculinity. n. d. Web.

Baxter, Vern Kenneth and Peter Marina. “Cultural Meaning and Hip-Hop Fashion in the African-American Male Youth Subculture of New Orleans.” Journal of Youth Studies 11.2 (2008): 93-113. Print.

Byerman, Keith. “Hip-Hop Spirituality: African-American Cultural Criticism.” College Literature 22.2 (1995), 134 – 142. Web.

Collins, Catherine Fisher. The Imprisonment of African American Women: Causes, Experiences and Effects. 2nd ed. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. Print

Cundiff, Gretchen. “The Influence of Rap/Hip-Hop Music: A Mixed-Method Analysis on Audience Perceptions of Misogynistic Lyrics and the Issue of Domestic Violence.” The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications 4.1 (2013): 71-93. Print.

Dobrin, Sidney I. . n. d. Web.

Dominello, Zachariah. “Keepin’ It Real, Mate: A Study of Identity in Australian Hip Hop.” Griffith Working Papers in Pragmatics and Intellectual Communication 1.1 (2008): 40-47. Print.

Durham, Aisha. “Hip Hop Feminist Media Studies.” International Journal of African Studies 16.1 (2010): 117-135. Print.

Dyson, Michael Eric. Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip-Hop. New York, NY: Westview Press, 2007. Print.

Forman, James. “Prison Legal News. 2012. Web.

Hess, Mickey. “Hip-Hop Realness and the White Performer.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 22.5 (2005): 372-389. Print.

. 2013. Web.

Kelly, Lauren Leigh. “Hip-Hop Literature: The Politics, Poetics, and Power of Hip-Hop in the English Classroom.” English Journal 102.5 (2013): 51-56. Print.

Kitwana, Bakari. The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture. New York, NY: Basic Civitas Books, 2008. Print.

Liu, Xuexin. “Across the Borders: Hip Hop’s Influence on Chinese Youth Culture.” Southeast Review of Asian Studies 32.1 (2010): 146-153. Print.

Masciotra, David. Working on a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2010. Print.

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