What I Have Learned from Hip Hop

This post was last updated on January 29th, 2019

​I got into hip hop when I was about 13 years old. At that time, it was quite rare for someone living in a medium sized town in the north of Germany to listen to rap music. Germany did have a hip hop scene, but, naturally, it was concentrated in large cities.
Hip hop shows tend to be very interactive. (Pixabay)
​​I had only been learning English in high school for three years, so I didn’t really understand much of what I was listening to. I understood the general idea, but not every word. And that’s exactly how I have continued learning languages ever since. I was never concerned with understanding every single sentence in a book or article I read. I knew that I had to understand the context and, eventually, the rest would follow. As a result, I went through high school reading far more Shakespeare than anyone else in my school. Everyone else was put off by not understanding the language and having to look up words. I, on the other hand, simply enjoyed whatever I understood of it.

I developed my passion for language through hip hop. I started to understand how much you can do with words. Rappers use words to create paintings, photographs, movies. A four-minute rap song will use far more words than a song of any other genre. If you’re into hip hop you know about the study Matt Daniels condcucted on the largest vocabulary in hip hop (The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop, 2012). He found out that Aesop Rock uses over 2000 words more than Shakespeare. You cannot love hip hop without a love for language and words. I have learned more about metaphors and wordplay from hip hop than from anything we ever covered in school.

​I have learned how important it is to seek knowledge. Especially within so-called “conscious” rap, there is a huge emphasis on learning about history as well as current political developments. When you listen to lines like “At exactly which point do you start to realize that life without knowledge is death in disguise” (Black Star – “K.O.S. (Determination)”) you start to give more value to knowledge and education. My teachers were never able to instill this kind of appreciation for knowledge in me. Hip Hop made me seek knowledge on subjects that we never even touched in class. Whenever a rap song mentioned something I hadn’t yet heard about I became curious and wanted to learn as much as possible about the subject.

I have learned about all kinds of interesting social and religious communities that I would have never heard of had it not been for hip hop, such as the Nation of Gods and Earths, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam with a very intricate belief system. The sheer variety of movements that I was introduced to through hip hop again broadened my horizon. As a result, I have learned that there is more to Islam than what mainstream scholars would like us to believe. Through hip hop, I realized that there are other people out there who consider themselves to be believing Muslims without conforming to the mainstream interpretation of it. In German society and within Muslim communities in Germany you were either a traditionalist or an atheist without any room for a modern spiritual approach to Islam. Then I found out about rappers such as Mos Def whose approach was much more similar to mine and transcended the boundaries set by Muslim communities in Europe.

I have learned about the importance of social and political activism. Obviously, this is one of the main factors in hip hop. In German schools, while we learned about the Civil Rights Movement the information we received was reduced to Martin Luther King. There was no mention of groups such as the Black Panther Party whom I had to research on my own after being exposed to them through hip hop. Eventually, this also led to me finding out about the many vegan hip hop artists and their approach to veganism.

I have learned that art is not only for the rich and wealthy. Hip Hop is essentially the act of disenfranchised people creating their own aesthetics. In hip hop, you don’t become an artist by sitting in a studio painting and then having an exhibition for a select few. You put up your graffiti for everyone to see. Your whole learning process takes place outside on the street where you are vulnerable to criticism. In rap battles, you have to allow yourself to be humiliated and still keep your head high and wait for your next chance. This is how hip hop artists develop their art. It is very straight-forward and down to earth, and everyone who wants to participate will get their chance.

I have learned that you can make everything your own. People often look down on sampling as a form of theft. Interestingly, pop cover songs are seen, at worst, as butchering the original song. Accusations of “robbery” are, however, rarely made. The whole “classical” music scene relies on people replaying music which was created centuries ago. Virtually none of today’s great pianists, violinists, etc. have created great compositions of their own. Yet, they are revered as outstanding musicians. But when a young hip hop producer takes part of a song and turns it into something completely different it is considered theft. We can draw our conclusions about the obvious racial element to this argument.

I have learned to love hip hop as a way people can make themselves heard and turn shame into pride. While mainstream society can refuse giving people from certain neighborhoods jobs, within hip hop “where you come from” is actually a source of respect, and having made it out of there means you can make it anywhere.

I have learned to be critical towards what the media teaches us. With all the information I got from rap music that wasn’t accessible to me before the internet I realized that we are only taught things that are convenient for the system. Once I learned about different subjects through hip hop I was able to look at things from a different perspective, verify my sources, and come up with my own conclusions.

Sadly, I have also learned that whatever minorities create the system will take and turn against them. Not that it’s surprising that, in a capitalist system, someone will try to make money where it can be made, but the kind of rap music that can now be heard on the radio or tv has very little authenticity but is rather pushed by record labels that are making money off of the product they have created. This gives hip hop culture a bad reputation and contributes to the negative image of those who have created the art form. At the same time, those voices who actually have something to say are sidelined because their messages are uncomfortable and, thus, difficult to market to mainstream society.

Hip Hop has been the biggest influence in my life and has shaped my outlook on almost anything. It is what, as a Lost fan, I can only call my “constant.”

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