Hip-hop has exploded as a global phenomenon, heard everywhere from Broadway to Bangalore. Yet its commercial success is one of the paradoxes of a music form that started in the South Bronx in 1970s as a form of protest by Black artists and residents who were surrounded by urban decay. Alumna Danielle Garcia (M.A. ’20, Political Science) makes this case and explores hip-hop’s political origins and potential in her timely master’s thesis, “The Politics of Hip Hop: A Political Analysis of Hip Hop’s History and Its Complicated Relationship with Capitalism.”
She discussed her paper in a recent episode of the Hip Hop Learners Podcast, and she spoke to The Graduate Center about her research, what drew her to the topic, and her experience as a master’s student.
The Graduate Center: What does the Cross Bronx Expressway have to do with the emergence of hip-hop in the South Bronx?
Garcia: The Cross Bronx Expressway changed New York City in many ways. It was meant to bring wealth into NYC neighborhoods, mostly in Manhattan. But its construction required demolition, and it tore through the Bronx, destroyed neighborhoods in its path, and led to thousands of Bronx residents being displaced. With an exodus of a large portion of the population, who were largely white and Jewish, these areas started to see isolation as well. Newly abandoned apartment buildings were burned for insurance money. These conditions meant a lower cost of living. Lower-income communities that were mostly Black and brown started to move into the abandoned housing.
GC: Why is space so important to hip-hop’s development?
Garcia: The same space that was being destroyed was utilized to innovate and create a political and cultural movement. Space constricted hip-hop’s movement in some ways because it made the urban decay of the Bronx an element of hip-hop authenticity. For hip-hop to be recognized as authentic, it had to be created out of the same circumstances of urban decay, which just perpetuates an oppressive and restrictive situation. On the other hand, actors in the hip-hop movement reclaimed space; break dancers used fire hydrants in the street to cool themselves down, and DJs hooked their speakers and tables up to nearby street lamps to get block parties started. Hip-hop created space and moments for people to feel free and be united with one another in societies and communities where the state was forcing divisions and oppression.
GC: You make the case that hip-hop’s revolutionary power has been weakened by the capitalism and consumerism that it railed against. The same artists who protested the inequalities created by a largely white hegemony also profited from it. Do you think hip-hop today retains any of its former revolutionary power? Can it fight inequality?
Garcia: I do believe that hip-hop as a movement retains its revolutionary power, but not as a product. There is a lot about hip-hop that we can learn from and use to empower, and there are people around the country doing this work. There is a nonprofit in California called Hip Hop for Change, and they use hip-hop to educate and empower youth. But at the same time, I think a lot of mainstream hip-hop artists do lose touch with the music’s political roots. And, of course, the labels and music industry giants are looking to make a profit, not political noise or resistance. But I do have hope that hip-hop’s revolutionary potential will be re-realized. If we can get the conversation started and made mainstream, hip-hop can help fight inequality.
GC: Tell us more about your deep interest in hip-hop and why you decided to study it in the context of politics and political movements. Why not just study it as a cultural or music form?
Garcia: Hip-hop is more than just music or culture. I wanted to write about this and showcase how deeply political hip-hop is. Of course, it is grounded in culture and in music, but it goes beyond those categories and reflects a political and social reality.
I have loved hip-hop since I was a kid. It spoke to me in ways that I didn’t really understand. I remember listening to Kendrick Lamar, and every time I listened to the same song, I would learn something new. Kendrick Lamar opened my eyes to the political components of hip-hop. Then I got into Tupac and was absolutely blown away by his intelligence and political presence and influence in society. It started from there. Then I started to see the politics in songs that weren’t inherently political, songs by Future or Young Thug, who are not traditionally seen as politically conscious rappers, but politics is everywhere in their music.
GC: What are you doing now and what are your aspirations? How has your experience in The Graduate Center’s Political Science master’s program influenced you?
Garcia: Right now, I am working and looking for further opportunities that align with my interests and passion for social justice. I also have plans to write further, and, what I am most excited about, plans to teach as an adjunct professor of political science in the fall. I’ll be teaching Women in Politics at St. Francis College. The course hasn’t been offered in quite some time so I am looking forward to making it really relevant to the students, and maybe even focusing a lecture on women in hip-hop. This would not have been possible without The Graduate Center. The Political Science Master’s Program has already opened doors for me, and I am extremely proud to have been a part of it. My mother always told me that one thing that will never be taken from me is my education, and I know that my master’s degree from The Graduate Center will benefit me for life. I am extremely grateful for the program.
Read the original interview here.